FOR the first time since the right-wing ruling party took office six years ago, many Poles are starting to feel an increasing sense of socio-economic insecurity.
But in spite of the government’s accumulation of difficulties, Poles still do not appear to trust the opposition on the ‘bread-and-butter’ issues that they care most about.
An accumulation of problems
Last year was an extremely difficult one for the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015. According to the ‘E-wybory’ website, which aggregates voting intention surveys, Law and Justice averaged 32% opinion poll support in January.
Although it remains Poland’s largest party, Law and Justice is well short of the 40% average that it enjoyed until autumn 2020, and which would allow it to secure an outright parliamentary majority. A January survey for the CBOS polling agency also found that only 30% of respondents evaluated the government positively, its lowest rating since it came to office.
As Law and Justice entered 2022, the year before the next parliamentary election (scheduled for autumn 2023), it faced an accumulation of political problems.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic crisis, and associated social and economic dislocation, has had a terrible impact on societal morale, leaving Poles with an over-arching sense of uncertainty and constantly forcing the government on to the backfoot. Law and Justice is dependent upon anti-establishment right-wing rock star Paweł Kukiz’s small parliamentary caucus and maverick independents for its slim and precarious majority in the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament.
The latter group of deputies includes the controversial Łukasz Mejza, who in December was forced to resign as deputy sports minister following allegations (which he strongly denies) that a medical company he once owned offered unproven treatments for people with incurable illnesses. There are also ongoing tensions within the governing camp – notably between the more technocratic and pragmatic prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Eurosceptic hardliners such as justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, whose right-wing conservative ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP) party has enough parliamentary deputies to deprive the government of its majority.
The European Commission has held up the first tranche of billions of Euros due to the Poland from the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund until Warsaw implements a July EU Court of Justice ruling that it should abolish a newly-created supreme court disciplinary chamber. The Commission is also gearing up to use a new ‘rule of law’ conditionality mechanism to withhold payments from the regular EU budget. (The Polish government has said several times it will abolish the disciplinary chamber but divisions within the ruling camp have prevented it from presenting detailed plans.)
In January, the opposition-controlled Senate, Poland’s less powerful second chamber, set up a special commission to investigate allegations that the security services used the Pegasus spyware programme to eavesdrop on opposition-linked public figures.
However, at the moment most Poles appear to believe that their government is not unique in struggling to respond to an uncertain and constantly evolving pandemic crisis.
Although the situation within the ruling camp has become increasingly complicated and fraught, Law and Justice does appear to have a working (albeit shaky) parliamentary majority. Government supporters tend to blame the EU political establishment for the ongoing ‘rule of law’ stalemate (although, in the longer-term, the issue could be more problematic, especially in the countryside where Law and Justice enjoys widespread support but access to EU funds is a very salient political issue).
For the moment, the Pegasus eavesdropping row also appears to be having little political cut-through. Law and Justice supporters accept the government’s argument that the spyware system was only used to monitor criminal activities and not for political purposes, while most Poles feel that the issue does not really concern them. Law and Justice is boycotting the work of the Senate investigative commission, which anyway lacks the powers that a Sejm commission would have, notably the ability to summon witnesses (although a Sejm commission could still be convened if Mr Kukiz, who has promised to support the idea if the opposition agrees to his conditions, and his three parliamentary allies vote in favour).
Price rises undermine social welfare programme gains
However, the biggest problem currently facing Law and Justice is growing public concern about increasing costs of living. In January, surging energy prices helped to drive Poland’s annual inflation rate to 8.6%, its highest level for over 20 years, and it is set to rise further in the coming months.
A December survey conducted by the ‘Kantar’ agency for the ‘Polityka’ journal found that when asked what issue Poles were most anxious about the most common answer was inflation and price increases (47%).
This cost-of-living squeeze is a major threat to Law and Justice, whose voters are drawn disproportionately from among the less well-off. Up until now, one of the most important ways that the ruling party has been able to retain its support – particularly among less ideologically committed, ‘centrist’ voters, who may have 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 ‘500 plus’ child benefit subsidy – together with substantial minimum wage increases, pension bonuses and other social welfare programmes – has provided a significant financial boost to low-income families. Many of these live beyond the large urban centres and felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in Poland’s post-communist economic transformation. They felt that, while politicians often promised to help the less well-off, Law and Justice was the first party to actually deliver on these pledges on such a scale.
However, rising prices are steadily eroding the boost to household incomes provided by this large expansion of social welfare. Indeed, inflation is particularly problematic for less well-off Poles who now find their household bills increasing and spending power going down. Not surprisingly, the opposition has seized on the issue, running a campaign with the strapline ‘PiS=drożyźna’ (Law and Justice=high prices).
Law and Justice has responded by introducing a so-called ‘anti-inflation shield’ (tarcza antyinflacyjna) package of measures to cushion the blow for the hardest-hit households, including temporary six-month reductions of some taxes and VAT rates on energy and food. Although the government’s measures will not solve the problem in the longer-term, they will buy the ruling party some time by cutting the peak off inflation for a few months. At the same time, Law and Justice can at least partially blame the inflation spike on external factors beyond its direct control such as: high global energy, and soaring EU carbon permit, prices, and a tightening labour market, supply chain disruption and strong re-bound in demand arising from the pandemic crisis; although some commentators also criticize the government and National Bank of Poland for their (allegedly too loose) fiscal and monetary policies.
Too complicated tax reforms?
However, Law and Justice must take full responsibility for the disastrous rollout of the January tax changes that comprised a key element of the government’s flagship ‘Polish Deal’ (Polski Ład) socio-economic reform programme. These tax reforms were supposed to be a political game-changer that would take Law and Justice through to victory at the next election.
The government estimated that out of 27 million Polish taxpayers around 18-19 million with modest or lower earnings would benefit from the changes, 1.3 million better-off taxpayers would lose out, and 6-7 million would remain unaffected. But the introduction of a complex new tax system created widespread confusion and turned into a public relations nightmare for the government, with some public sector workers and pensioners actually receiving lower payouts in January. Critics argued that the new rules were so complicated, and drafted and introduced so quickly, that even expert tax advisers had difficulty in understanding them.
Law and Justice feels that critics have been too quick to write off the ‘Polish Deal’. Reforming a complex tax system so swiftly and radically was bound to lead to some mistakes and the losers from changes are often more vocal than the beneficiaries. Moreover, the government eventually admitted its mistakes and promised that compensating payments would be made in the coming weeks.
Law and Justice is hoping that once the ‘Polish Deal’ fiscal reforms bed in, and assuming that no new major errors occur, the benefits for most Poles, especially the less well-off, will be both tangible and so substantial that they forget the initial chaos surrounding their introduction. Assuming that they are not eaten up too much by the increase in inflation, this significant improvement in Poles’ financial situation should, the ruling party hopes, help to stabilize the political situation and push up Law and Justice’s polling numbers.
Nonetheless, some commentators argue that, even if the government manages to correct the initial errors, the political damage has been done, particularly for Mr Morawiecki as the politician most closely associated with the ‘Polish Deal’. Moreover, the key issue that caused the problems with its poor implementation and lack of political cut-through with ordinary Poles, the sheer complexity of the reforms, is more difficult to rectify. The appeal of social welfare programmes such as ‘500 plus’ was their simplicity.
The previous 2005-7 Law and Justice-led administration also lowered income and payroll taxes, and pushed through a tax relief package for families, but did not derive sufficient political benefit because the impact of these policies was too diffuse. ‘500 plus’, on the other hand, was simple and easy for Poles to grasp, and many of them saw a direct and clearly identifiable financial impact on their family budgets. The complexity of the ‘Polish Deal’ tax reforms, on the other hand, has left even tax experts, never mind ordinary Poles, struggling to understand them.
Poles do not (yet) trust the opposition
For the first time since Law and Justice took office, many Poles are starting to feel an increasing sense of socio-economic insecurity. However, although the party’s popularity has declined, it has not suffered a devastating slump in support. Some commentators suggest that its disillusioned erstwhile supporters are currently planning to abstain rather than vote for the opposition parties, providing Law and Justice with sizeable reserves of support if it can get back on top of these ‘bread-and-butter’ issues.
Indeed, Law and Justice’s great hope lies in the continuing inability of the opposition to capitalize on the ruling party’s weaknesses. A December survey by the IBRiS agency for the ‘Rzeczposolita’ newspaper found that 64% of respondents did not believe that the opposition was ready to take office and only felt 25% that it was; indeed, even opposition voters, by a 51% to 43% margin, felt it was not ready.
This is partly because the opposition parties remain conflicted over how they should contest the next election (separately or on common lists), so it is difficult for Poles to envisage them co-operating effectively if they have to form a government. The opposition also lacks a convincing figurehead around whom it can all rally.
Civic Platform leader and former European Council President Donald Tusk, who led his party to two parliamentary election victories and was prime minister between 2007-14, enjoys strong support among the government’s hardcore opponents. But he is also a very polarising figure and for many Poles embodies the previous Civic Platform government which came to be viewed as lacking social sensitivity and out-of-touch with their needs. Interestingly, the Kantar survey for ‘Polityka’ found that, although many Poles were highly critical of Law and Justice, by a 42% to 40% margin they still preferred the current government to the previous administration.
Perhaps most importantly, the opposition has failed develop a convincing and attractive programmatic alternative on the key socio-economic issues that Poles care most about.
In spite of the accumulation of problems that Law and Justice currently faces, especially the squeeze in living standards and chaotic rollout of its tax reforms, it is too early to write the party off.
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.
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