Why has the Belarussian border crisis failed to boost support for Poland’s ruling party?

By Aleks Szczerbiak

THE ESCALATION of the Belarussian border crisis should have increased support for Poland’s right-wing ruling party given the tendency of citizens to rally around governments when their country appears to face an external threat.

But its poll ratings actually fell last month as other issues, particularly concerns about rising prices, became more politically salient.

The crisis escalates

For several months there has been a growing crisis on Poland’s Eastern border with Belarus, following a significant increase in the number of attempts by migrants, primarily from the Middle East, to enter the country illegally with assistance from the Belarussian authorities.

The Polish government – led, since autumn 2015, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – accused Belarus of orchestrating the influx by deliberately organising transport for thousands of migrants on the false promise of legal entry to the EU, and then inducing them to cross its Western borders illegally.

This, Warsaw argued, was part of a Russian-backed ‘hybrid war’ aimed at violating the integrity of the Polish state, thereby creating a broader pan-European migration crisis. It was intended as retaliation against Poland and other post-communist states that had pushed for tough EU sanctions to be imposed on the Belarussian regime following President Alexander Lukashenka’s disputed 2020 re-election and subsequent brutal persecution of the country’s opposition.

Last month, the crisis escalated when, again encouraged by the Belarussian authorities, large numbers of migrants attempted to force their way across the border before being repelled by Polish security forces.

In response, the Polish government took an uncompromising stance and strengthened its Eastern frontier by deploying thousands of additional troops and police to assist border guards, and pledging to re-inforce barbed wire border fencing with a new, more solid wall. Warning of the potential for armed escalation with such a large concentration of Belarussian and Polish soldiers facing each other off, Warsaw also joined other EU leaders in calling for tougher sanctions against the Minsk regime.

An opportunity for Law and Justice

In terms of domestic politics, the crisis provided an opportunity for Law and Justice to present itself as a robust defender of Poland’s Eastern border and clearly on the side of the security forces protecting the country’s territorial integrity.

Ruling parties often benefit from what political scientists call the ‘rally effect’: an inevitable psychological tendency for worried citizens to unite around their political leaders and institutions when they feel that their country faces a dramatic external threat. Indeed, this was clearly an issue where Law and Justice was very much in tune with public opinion, as most Poles appeared to back its tough approach to forcefully securing the border.

For example, a November survey conducted by the Kantar polling agency for the liberal-left ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ newspaper found that 54 per cent of respondents supported the Polish government’s handling of the border crisis compared with 38 per cent who evaluated its actions negatively.

At the same time, Poland’s liberal-centrist opposition knew that if it failed to back the government’s efforts it risked accusations of treason and losing the support of voters concerned about the dangers of uncontrolled immigration.

This left the government’s opponents struggling to develop a credible and popular critique of, and alternative to, its approach to border security. As a consequence, the opposition generally kept a low profile on the issue, and when it did criticise the government it was on matters that had little political cut-through. For example, it attacked Law and Justice for allegedly reacting too slowly to the crisis, and failing to consult with the opposition and build a national political consensus around migration and border security issues.

It criticised the government for introducing a state of emergency in the two Polish regions bordering Belarus, thereby preventing access to these areas for the media and aid organisations (which the government justified by comparing the area to a combat zone). The government’s opponents also claimed that Law and Justice’s poor relations with Warsaw’s Western allies – and failure to involve international institutions, such as the EU’s ‘Frontex’ border control agency, in the crisis – made it more difficult to mobilise international support for Poland.

However, the opposition’s narrative was undermined by the fact that Poland received strong backing over the border crisis from the EU political establishment. This was in spite of the fact that Law and Justice had been in an ongoing political dispute with EU institutions over ‘rule of law’ issues throughout its six years in office.

While the EU political establishment expressed general concerns about migrant rights, aware of how the 2015 Mediterranean migration crisis shook up European politics and strengthened the hand of Eurosceptics across the continent it also argued that Warsaw had a duty to defend the Union’s external frontier from illegal migration.

Moreover, while the opposition leadership, for all its criticisms of Law and Justice, agreed with the government that the entry of potentially thousands of undocumented immigrants to Poland should be halted, other well-known, opposition-linked public figures appeared to call for the migrants to be freely admitted into Poland and granted asylum status. At the same time, support for their cause has fallen in Poland since the escalation of the crisis last month as Poles were confronted with TV images of large and increasingly violent groups of migrants trying to cross the border by force.

For a time, even some sections of the anti-Law and Justice liberal media started to frame the crisis as a national security rather than humanitarian issue. With the ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ Kantar poll showing that, by a 69 per cent to 26 per cent margin, Poles were opposed to admitting refugees (never mind economic migrants) located on the Polish-Belarussian border and allowing them settle in Poland, the government’s opponents risked finding themselves on the wrong side of public opinion if they came across as more concerned about the migrants’ plight than border security.

No poll boost for the ruling party

Given Law and Justice’s clear, simple and popular message, and the opposition’s difficulties in trying to appear simultaneously tough on the border issue while developing a nuanced critique of the government’s approach, one might have expected the escalation of the crisis to have boosted support for the ruling party.

However, while it may have strengthened Law and Justice’s appeal with its core supporters, perhaps surprisingly the issue did not have a transformative effect on the party’s opinion poll ratings. Indeed, according to the ‘E-wybory’ website, which aggregates voting intention surveys, Law and Justice’s poll average actually fell from 35 per cent in October to 33 per cent in November – well short of the 40 per cent average that it enjoyed in summer 2020, and which would allow the party to secure an outright parliamentary majority.

The problem for Law and Justice is that the border emergency coincided with other equally, if not more, politically salient crises. For example, mounting pressure on the Polish health service arising from the ‘fourth wave’ of the coronavirus pandemic crisis received prominent news coverage and helped to create a much more pessimistic public mood.

Due in part to un-even vaccine take-up, Poland has a relatively low level of population immunity, and in recent weeks the media was saturated with reports of increasing numbers of Poles contracting the virus and being admitted to hospitals and intensive care units.

The government thus came under intense criticism from both the opposition and anti-Law and Justice media for its alleged passivity, as it resisted calls for the introduction of restrictions on the unvaccinated. Instead, it concentrated on trying to increase health service capacity and encouraging vaccination uptake without compulsion; although, at the start of December, the government did tighten some restrictions on capacity limits in hospitality and entertainment venues (excluding the fully vaccinated) citing concerns about the possible impact of the new Omicron variant.

This was partly because Law and Justice felt that tighter restrictions came at a very high social and economic cost and were not justified unless the Polish health service was on the brink of collapse. The government was also sceptical that – short of a full national ‘lockdown’, for which there was very little public support – further restrictions would have any significant effect on virus transmission, given the low levels of compliance with existing measures such as compulsory mask-wearing.

Moreover, Law and Justice faced both internal tensions within party over how best to handle the pandemic crisis issue and high levels of vaccine hesitancy in its electoral heartlands. Given the government’s slim and unstable parliamentary majority, the ruling party was forced to try and secure opposition support for more controversial measures such as plans to allow employers to check their workers’ vaccination status.

Growing concern about living standards

However, an even more important issue that, for many Poles, overshadowed the border crises was growing public concern about the rising costs of living; in Polish slang ‘drożyźna’. One of the main causes of this was a sharp increase in the rate of inflation – which, last month, went up to 7.7 per cent, its highest level for over 20 years – together with concerns that prices could rise even more over the next few months.

A November survey conducted by the IBRIS agency for the ‘Onet’ online news portal found that, when asked what the biggest problem was facing the government, the largest number of respondents, 42 per cent, cited price increases compared with only 11 per cent who mentioned the border crisis (although the survey was conducted immediately prior to the most recent escalation) and, interestingly, fewer than 1 per cent cited the coronavirus pandemic.

Some commentators criticised the government for fuelling inflation through its (allegedly too loose) fiscal policies and argued that the National Bank of Poland was too slow to raise interest rates. However, the uptick in inflation was, in part at least, caused by factors outside of the government’s direct control such as a tightening labour market and strong economic re-bound from the pandemic crisis, together with rising global energy prices and supply chain disruptions.

Nonetheless, Law and Justice responded by introducing a so-called ‘anti-inflation shield’ package involving temporary reductions of some taxes and VAT rates.

This increased strain on household budgets is extremely politically worrying for Law and Justice. One of the most important ways that the ruling party has been able to retain support – particularly among less ideologically committed, ‘centrist’ voters who may have had concerns about some of its other policies – has been through its record of raising living standards for ordinary Poles.

The Law and Justice government’s extremely popular flagship ‘500 plus’ child benefit subsidy – together with substantial minimum wage increases, pension bonuses and other welfare programmes – provided a significant, and clearly identifiable, financial boost to many low income families who felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in Poland’s post-communist economic transformation. However, rising levels of inflation are steadily eroding the boost to household incomes provided by this large expansion of social welfare spending.

Socio-economic issues more important than the border crisis

Up until now, Law and Justice retained public support because Poles felt that it had the most credible and attractive policies on the socio-economic issues that they cared most about.

Once the border crisis recedes it is precisely these kind of ‘bread-and-butter’ issues, such as falling living standards, that are likely to be the most significant in determining the ruling party’s political fate.

Worryingly for Law and Justice, another November ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ Kantar poll found that 67 per cent of respondents felt that the Polish economy was in a state of crisis (an increase of 5 per cent over the previous month) while only 24 per cent said it was still growing. 46 per cent feared a deterioration in their living standards in the coming years (an 8 per cent increase) and only 15 per cent said that they would improve.

Rather than boosting support for Law and Justice, the ‘rally effect’ caused by the Belarussian border crisis may have simply prevented the party’s opinion poll support from falling back even further.

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex.

This article was originally published on The Polish Politics Blog, and has been shared on Redaction Report at the permission of the author.

Featured Image: Pixabay

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