IF POLAND’S upcoming election were held today, Law and Justice would almost certainly lose its parliamentary majority.
But with several factors working in its favour, the governing party only needs a relatively small uptick in support to be within striking distance of a record third consecutive term of office.
On the back foot
This year, Polish politics will be dominated by the forthcoming parliamentary election, scheduled for the autumn. The right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s governing party since 2015, has been on the back foot for most of the last three-and-a-half years. Its initial slump in support was due in large part to a backlash against the hugely controversial October 2020 ruling by Poland’s constitutional tribunal that further tightened Poland’s already restrictive abortion law by invalidating a provision that allowed termination of pregnancy in cases where the foetus was seriously malformed or suffered from an incurable disorder. Given that the vast majority of legal abortions carried out in Poland were in such cases, the ruling effectively meant a near-total ban.
Although Law and Justice said that the ruling was a sovereign decision by an independent body and clearly in line with the tribunal’s earlier judgements on the issue in the mid-1990s (when it was dominated by justices who later became harsh critics of the current administration), the government’s opponents argued that it was under the ruling party’s control. The judgement set off a nationwide wave of street protests, particularly involving younger Poles, and played into the opposition’s narrative that Law and Justice was increasingly dominated by ‘religious right’ ideological extremists. Although it is a socially conservative party that draws inspiration from Catholic moral teaching, Law and Justice’s electorate includes many Poles with more liberal views on moral-cultural issues who support the party largely as a result of its socio-economic policies.
The ruling came at the same time as Law and Justice proposed an animal protection law that many Polish farmers, who constituted a key element of its rural-agricultural core electorate, felt threatened their livelihoods. It also coincided with a sense that the government was not coping effectively with the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic; earlier in the year, ministers had re-assured Poles that the crisis was fully under control. Consequently, opinion poll support for Law and Justice fell sharply from around 40% in September to the low-to-mid 30s by November.
Law and Justice attempted to regain the political initiative last winter through its ‘Polish Deal’ (Polski Ład) programme designed to boost economic growth and living standards through a wide range of policies including tax reforms favouring the less well-off. However, the programme’s complexity and disastrous roll-out in January 2022 left even financial experts struggling to understand it. In February 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine gave Law and Justice an opportunity to draw a line under the ‘Polish Deal’ fiasco. But the ‘rally effect’ of the war – the 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 an external threat – did not transform the party’s poll ratings. Although the war moved national security to the top of the political agenda, it did not really emerge as an issue of contestation between the parties who competed largely on which of them was the most effective at countering Russia and providing support for Ukraine.
An accumulation of crises
However, together with the economic fall-out from the pandemic crisis, the war exerted considerable extra pressure on the government through its impact on much more politically salient socio-economic issues. Inflation increased steadily from the beginning of 2022, particularly the price of food and household goods, peaking at 17.9% last October, its highest level for more than 25 years. Cost of living increases also eroded the value of the huge welfare payments that were the key to Law and Justice’s appeal to those voters who were not part of its core electorate but supported it as the political grouping offering the most generous support to the less well-off. Sanctions against Russia and disruption of supply chains also led to substantial fuel price increases and concerns about energy security. At the same time, interest rate rises exacerbated the economic slowdown, while fiscal tightening and the increased cost of government borrowing limited Law and Justice’s scope for further social spending.
Moreover, Law and Justice remained in a bitter ‘rule-of-law’ dispute with the EU political establishment over its judicial reform programme and the European Commission blocked the disbursement of Poland’s 35 billion Euros share of the Union’s coronavirus recovery funds. At the same time, ongoing internal divisions and infighting, notably between the more technocratic and pragmatic prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki and justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, weakened the governing camp. Mr Ziobro is leader of the right-wing conservative ‘Solidaristic Poland’ (SP) party, Law and Justice’s junior governing partner which has enough deputies to deprive the government of its parliamentary majority. Mr Ziobro, who has introduced many of the government’s most controversial policies including the judicial reforms, staked out a series of hardline right-wing conservative policy positions and criticised Mr Morawiecki for being excessively compromising and ideologically timid, specifically for making too many concessions to the EU political establishment.
While no single crisis was a political game changer, their cumulative effect was to erode support for the ruling party which struggled to win back the 5-10% of the electorate that it lost at the end of 2020. Indeed, no opinion poll for months has given Law and Justice hope of winning enough seats to retain its outright parliamentary majority. For example, according to the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys while Law and Justice still has the highest vote share, averaging 36% support, this only translates into 203 (out of 460) seats in the Sejm, the more powerful lower chamber of parliament. Currently Law and Justice’s only plausible possible coalition partner is the radical right ‘Confederation’ (Konfederacja) grouping, ‘Pooling the Poles’ has it averaging 7% and winning 25 Sejm seats, which would still leave the ruling party short of a parliamentary majority. Moreover, the Confederation’s strategic objective is to replace Law and Justice as the main political force on the Polish right not to keep it in office.
Everything still to play for
However, Law and Justice’s support has not collapsed and it would only need a small uptick to get it back to the 40% average that the party needs to have a chance of securing another outright majority and record third term of office for the post-communist era. Indeed, even if Law and Justice falls slightly short, there is a reasonable chance that it could win over some individual defectors from other political groupings. In one sense, it is striking that, in spite of such huge problems, Law and Justice has been able to maintain relatively high levels of support and get through the winter with none of these crises reaching a critical stage. Inflation appears to have more-or-less peaked (for the moment at least) and, although energy costs remain high, there were no winter fuel shortages as initially feared. Unemployment remains low so many Poles feel they can at least partially offset inflation with pay increases, and although growth will slow down considerably this year the Polish economy is very unlikely go into actual recession.
Law and Justice knows that whether or not the government can unblock Poland’s share of the coronavirus recovery funds will be a critical litmus test of its broader effectiveness. But if the legislation implementing a deal which the government agreed with the Commission last December is approved by parliament and signed into law, and the recovery funds released, this would be a major political success for Law and Justice. For sure, even in a best-case scenario the first tranche of recovery fund monies are unlikely to come on tap until the third or even fourth quarter of the year. Nonetheless, not only would their unblocking under-cut one of the opposition’s most important talking points, it could also re-assure potential investors and the financial markets, thereby stabilising the Polish currency, and further reducing inflation and the cost of government borrowing. This would, in turn, provide Law and Justice with some fiscal headroom to boost social spending, and thereby shore up its support, in the election run-up.
Moreover, the Polish government’s active engagement as one of the main hubs for channeling military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and prime destination for refugees fleeing the conflict, have boosted the country’s international standing. Law and Justice is ramping up Polish defence spending, already one of the highest levels in NATO, to 4% of GDP and doubling the number of troops to 300,000, making Poland pivotal to the Alliance’s security relationship with Russia. So if, depending upon the course of the war, military security becomes more of an election issue, Law and Justice could benefit from a further ‘rally effect’, which could then spill over into other policy areas.
Law and Justice is also helped by the relative weakness of the opposition. Bitter divisions over how to respond to the legislation modifying Law and Justice’s judicial reforms that emerged from the government’s negotiations with the Commission, further divided an opposition already fragmented between four liberal, centrist, left-wing and agrarian parties. Former European Council President and Polish prime minister Donald Tusk – who leads the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping – is certainly a very articulate and effective critic of Law and Justice and his blistering critiques have rallied the core anti-government electorate. According to ‘Pooling the Poles’, Civic Platform is currently averaging around 30% support. But Mr Tusk is also one of Poland’s most distrusted politicians and a very polarising figure with loyal devotees but also fierce opponents, so may actually end up mobilising Law and Justice supporters. Crucially, the opposition has not yet convinced voters that it has a credible and attractive programmatic alternative, particularly on the socio-economic issues that are likely to be the main battleground on which the election will be fought. The very negative anti-Law and Justice messaging on which the opposition appears to have based its electoral strategy is unlikely, on its own, to have sufficient mobilising appeal.
Indeed, Polish public opinion is highly polarised and there is little evidence of any significant transfers between the government and opposition camps. Rather, it seems that the fall in support for Law and Justice was largely accounted for by the de-mobilisation of some of its erstwhile supporters, particularly those attracted to the party by its social and economic policies rather than for ideological reasons. Many of these voters are now planning to abstain rather than switch to the opposition, which obviously it easier for Law and Justice to win them back.
The election outcome remains uncertain
Law and Justice’s base of support has been eroded as it faced continued economic turbulence, a protracted war on its border, a resulting energy crisis, an ongoing dispute over EU funds, and infighting within the governing camp. Opinion polls suggest, that if an election were held today, it would almost certainly lose its parliamentary majority and the opposition parties could cobble together a government, albeit a rather shaky one. But the election will be held in ten months’ time, not today. The winter crises have not spiraled out of control, inflation is slowing down, unemployment remains low, and while the economy is weakening it is unlikely to go into recession. The possible unblocking of EU coronavirus funds would provide fiscal headroom for further social spending, the ongoing war in Ukraine could create a further ‘rally effect’ around the incumbent, and the opposition remains unable to win over disillusioned ex-Law and Justice voters. With all these factors potentially working in Law and Justice’s favour, the election outcome is likely to remain uncertain right up until polling day.
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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