How long will Polish politicians remain united over the war in Ukraine?

By Aleks Szczerbiak


THE OVERWHELMING imperative for national unity prompted by the war works in favour of Poland’s right-wing ruling party because it puts other problematic issues on the back-burner and the opposition lacks the instruments to exert any real influence at the international level.

However, political contestation is re-emerging over whether the government is providing the most effective solidarity with Ukraine.

The imperative for national unity

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has dominated political debate and overshadowed all other issues in Poland. It also prompted a remarkable degree of unity among the political class which had previously been extremely divided and polarised over attitudes towards the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s governing party since autumn 2015. Politicians are acutely aware that most Poles feel that traditional partisan divides and disputes pale into insignificance when the country faces a major security threat.

A March survey conducted by the Kantar agency found that, by a 78% to 13% margin, respondents felt that Poles needed to put aside their differences and support the government’s actions at this time.

Given this overwhelming imperative for national unity, for the moment at least previously salient domestic political divisions and issues have been put on the back-burner.

For example, given the urgency of strengthening Poland’s military security, politicians from across the political spectrum voted in favour of the government’s ‘homeland defence law’, in spite of the opposition’s misgivings, thus ensuring its parliamentary approval without a single opposing vote. The law’s provisions include accelerating the pace of increased defence spending to 2.2% of GDP in 2022 and at least 3% in 2023, and more than doubling the size of the Polish armed forces.

There has also been broad political and societal consensus around responding positively to the two-and-a-half million Ukrainian refugees who have fled to Poland since the Russian invasion. This resulted in the near-unanimous parliamentary approval of a ‘Ukrainian special law’ providing a new set of support measures including: allowing refugees to stay legally in Poland for up to 18 months (in the first instance); speeding up the registration process for national identity (PESEL) numbers which allow them to work and access health care and welfare benefits; and support for the inclusion of Ukrainian children in the education system.

There was some controversy over the government’s decision to include a clause granting officials legal immunity for violating public finance laws when making decisions relating to emergency situations. Law and Justice said this was a standard measure intended to protect those officials who needed to respond quickly in difficult circumstances.

The opposition argued that Law and Justice was trying to slip in an immunity clause that protected members of the ruling party who had broken the law during the coronavirus pandemic crisis. In the event, the broad immunity proposal was narrowly rejected after three Law and Justice deputies voted with the opposition.

Moreover, having previously been heavily criticised by the opposition for failing to carve out a role for himself as an independent political actor, Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda has attempted to transcend the government-opposition divide and act as a unifying force in Polish politics.

For example, Mr Duda vetoed a controversial education reform law which the government said was designed to prevent radical left-wing organisations from gaining access to schools. The opposition argued that it could have been used to ban any organisations which did not conform to Law and Justice’s socially conservative values.

Mr Duda justified his veto on the grounds that, although he personally supported many of the law’s provisions, Poland needed to avoid polarising political disputes at this time.

Opposition frustration

At the same time, the current situation is very frustrating for the opposition because it lacks the instruments to exert any real influence at the international level. Much of the media coverage of the war has focused on the efforts of Mr Duda and Law and Justice prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki to position Poland as a key international player in the crisis.

For example, Mr Morawiecki and Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński (who, although he is only a deputy prime minister, exercises a powerful influence in determining the government’s programmatic and strategic priorities), together with the Czech and Slovenian prime ministers, travelled to the besieged Ukrainian capital to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Even though some opposition leaders had private misgivings about the visit as a government public relations stunt, in public they felt obliged to defend it as a strong morale booster for Ukraine.

Interestingly, Donald Tusk, leader of the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party in 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping, does not really appear to have drawn upon his experience and contacts to give himself a higher international profile. Following a stint as Polish prime minister from 2007-14, and then European Council President in 2014-19, Mr Tusk is currently leader of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) transnational federation.

One exception here was when he spoke at a pre-election opposition rally in Hungary attacking Fidesz prime minister Viktor Orban, who has been Law and Justice’s closest EU ally, for his close ties with Russia. Civic Platform has frequently called upon Law and Justice to end its alliance with Mr Orban and other European right-wing leaders known for their links with Moscow.

Law and Justice has responded by drawing attention to Mr Tusk’s own attempts while prime minister to develop warmer relations with Russia, and arguing that his allies in the EU political establishment, especially Germany, have had the strongest economic ties with Moscow and are currently the main obstacle to tougher EU sanctions.

The opposition also feels that, in many ways, the imperative for political unity suits Law and Justice because it means that other problematic issues are no longer in the media spotlight. When the war broke out, Law and Justice faced an accumulation of problems including: the coronavirus pandemic crisis, ongoing ‘rule of law’ disputes with the EU political establishment, infighting within the governing camp, and rising costs of living.

Mr Tusk, in particular, has made total negation of the government’s record the core of his political message since he returned to front-line Polish politics last summer. The war has completely overshadowed these issues, or given Law and Justice an opportunity to relativise them as second order compared to national security.

Contestation is starting to re-emerge

However, politics abhors a vacuum and there are already signs that more ‘normal’ patterns of political contestation are starting to re-assert themselves. Indeed, even as the conflict broke out Civic Platform called upon the government to end its dispute with the EU political establishment by abandoning its controversial judicial reforms.

The EU institutions agree with criticisms levelled by most opposition parties and Poland’s legal establishment that these reforms undermine judicial independence and threaten the constitutional separation of powers. Civic Platform argued that, as well as preventing Poland from accessing EU funds, Law and Justice’s conflict with the Union’s political establishment undermined national security by weakening the country’s anchoring in the West.

However, whatever ones’ views of the merits of the various arguments here (for its part, Law and Justice says that the Polish judiciary has been expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, and is thus incapable of reforming itself) to many Poles raising the ‘rule of law’ dispute at this time made Civic Platform’s appeals for national unity appear somewhat hollow.

A row between Law and Justice and the opposition also emerged over an unexpected government proposal to amend the Constitution to allow the possibility of confiscating assets belonging to entities and individuals involved in supporting Russia, and the exclusion of defence spending from public debt limits.

The government argued that Poland’s basic law only allowed for these assets to be frozen not seized, while constitutionally-enshrined debt rules could block its plans for rapid increases in defence spending. The opposition, whose support is required to secure the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to amend the Constitution, expressed scepticism as to whether such amendments were really necessary. Indeed, some anti-government commentators argued that they were a political trap for the opposition.

If they co-operated with Law and Justice this could alienate their hard core supporters, but if they opposed the amendments the ruling party would argue they were preventing the government from acting against Russian oligarchs and blocking increases in defence expenditure.

Probably the most controversial rupture in the unity of the Polish political class followed a recorded address to the Ukrainian parliament by Tomasz Grodzki, the Civic Platform-nominated speaker of the opposition-controlled Senate, Poland’s less powerful second chamber. Mr Grodzki directly attacked the Law and Justice government accusing it of ‘financing a criminal regime that uses the money to murder innocent people’, by continuing to import Russian coal and failing to freeze the assets of Russian oligarchs.

Law and Justice accused Mr Grodzki making scandalous and misleading accusations, and has filed for his dismissal. The party said that it was private companies, not the government, that were purchasing Russian coal and that his demands related to issues that were the competencies of international organisations, mainly the EU, whom Poland was pushing to take more decisive action.

Civic Platform leaders reacted uneasily, and somewhat inconsistently, to Mr Grodzki’s remarks: to some degree distancing themselves from their tone, but also downplaying their significance and defending the substance of what he said.

Interestingly, shortly afterwards the government announced measures to block the import of Russian coal by private companies, notwithstanding doubts about the legality of a unilateral embargo by an individual EU member state.

This suggests that the scope and enforcement of sanctions against Russia, and solidarity with Ukraine more generally, is emerging as a so-called ‘valence’ issue, where the parties agree on an overall objective but compete over which of them is the most competent to deliver on this shared goal.

Divisions remain, but over different issues

So the Russian invasion of Ukraine has ‘re-set’ Polish politics but only in the sense that all other issues are currently very much on the back-burner and the public appetite is for politicians to avoid conflicts and unite.

However, the next parliamentary election is not scheduled until autumn 2023 and the current overwhelming demand for political and societal unity is only likely to last until the war either ends or becomes ‘normalised’ as the media spotlight shifts to other matters. Ongoing concerns about issues such as rising costs of living are likely to re-assert themselves, although obviously exacerbated by the socio-economic effects of the war and the influx of Ukrainian refugees.

Moreover, even if most politicians are still calling for unity there are already signs that they are reverting to more ‘normal’ patterns of politics, except that contestation is focused mainly on the question of which party is best placed to provide the most effective solidarity with Ukraine.

Interestingly, for the moment at least, the war has not had a transformative effect on Law and Justice’s opinion poll ratings. According to the ‘E-wybory’ website, which aggregates voting intention surveys, Law and Justice averaged 34% poll support in March – an increase of 4% compared to January, but still well short of the 40% average that it enjoyed until autumn 2020, and which would allow the party to secure an outright parliamentary majority.

Law and Justice does not yet seem to be benefiting as much as might be expected from what political scientists call the ‘rally effect’: an inevitable psychological tendency for worried citizens to unite around their political leaders and institutions as the embodiment of national unity when they feel that their country faces a dramatic crisis or external threat.

Obviously changes in public attitudes will take some time to fully crystallise and feed through, but it may be that, although the war has been dominating media coverage, attitudes towards other issues are so deeply ingrained that they are still the most powerful drivers determining party support.

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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