Opinion Poland

Insight: Polish elections reflect transatlantic ideological trends

When Poles cast their ballots last month, their votes reflected a trend of political polarization that is comparable to sentiments in other countries on both sides of the Atlantic. As these trends continue in different parts of the world, with similar ideologies gaining and losing in comparable fashion, residents of Poland, Central Europe, and the U.S. should take note.

An overall stalemate for the usual suspects

As the ruling party, Law and Justice (Polish: Prawo i Sprawiedliwość or PiS) attempted to cast the October election as a choice between liberals and pro-Europeans against Catholics and rural voters. The party hoped that its conservative policies, anti-LGBT stances, social welfare handouts, and attempts at deep structural changes to the Polish judicial system would allow it to maintain, if not significantly grow, its solid base of voters.

Meanwhile, the prominent center-left party Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska or PO) created the Civic Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska or KO) in March 2018 to better contest elections against PiS. In the October elections, PO joined three smaller left-leaning parties as KO. Though KO won nine seats in the senate, with PiS losing its majority in the upper house, it was not a knockout election for the coalition.

PiS still has the most votes in both houses and, while both KO and PiS lost seats in the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, far fewer were lost by PiS (only five lost compared to 32 for KO).

Poland Prepares For Parliamentary Elections
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party won last month’s parliamentary election. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Political extremes gained more than centrist staples in Sejm

The two extreme wings of Polish politics both gained seats in the Sejm. Though the names of prominent individuals on both sides are familiar to many Poles, the political groupings, and associated messages, are entirely new. As a political alliance founded specifically to contest this election, the Lewica, or “The Left,” technically gained the most in the elections by winning 49 new seats.

Despite being a new alliance, the grouping consists of leftist party classics. The most prominent of these is Robert Biedroń, leader of the Spring (Wiosna) party and a Member of the European Parliament. Amid his many political successes, Biedroń is well-known for being the first openly gay politician in Poland. The restyled progressive coalition was not the only successful newcomer in the October elections.

The October parliamentary elections were also the first in which conservatives gained seven seats for the Confederation Liberty and Independence party (Polish: Konfederacja Wolność i Niepodległość). Formed in 2018, the political party is a coalition of previous far-right parties and individuals, four of whom already held seats in the Sejm. In diametrical contrast to Biedroń, one of the most prominent leaders of the far right is Janusz Korwin-Mikke, well-known for opposing equal rights for women and being a self-described monarchist.

Results reflect transatlantic trend of political division

In the U.S., the first openly-gay politicians came out years ago and even the most conservative of conservatives don’t typically use the word “monarchy” in a positive light. But generally, the two opposing sides of U.S. and Polish domestic politics have a lot in common. Like their counterparts in Poland, conservative Republicans in the U.S. have similarly cheered dubious tax breaks and manipulation of the Supreme Court as wins for their voters while hoping that burning bridges among moderates and liberals in the country would not matter thanks to a fiercely loyal base.

Poland Elections
A woman votes by ballot in an election to the Polish parliament in Warsaw. Credit: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

On the other side of the political aisle, both Polish and American liberals are turning toward the ideological wings of their parties rather than the center. In Poland’s parliamentary democracy, this has taken the form of significant gains for more progressive political parties than the center-left-leaning KO. In the U.S., it has taken the form of Democratic presidential candidates taking far more progressive stances than in years past.

This divide is also apparent in the elections themselves, albeit inversed when comparing the two countries. Whereas the Republican party in the U.S. maintained control of the Senate but lost control of the House, the Law and Justice party in Poland maintained control of the Sejm but lost control in the Senate.

The same film written for an international audience

Every country has its own nuances when it comes to the political scene. But in many ways, the ideological trends taking place in Poland, the U.K., and the U.S. today bear enough similarities with each other to be worthy of comparison. Especially if one could imagine a multiparty parliamentary election taking place in the U.S. today, Republicans would seem to share more in common with Polish conservatives than U.S. Democrats. The same is true on the other side, with some noting how the Democratic party could be divided into multiple parties based on ideological lines.

As Americans prepare for their elections in 2020, they should be mindful of how political trends in their country can compare to elections in places like Poland. And, varying political systems aside, they might also expect the rise of political fringes to the detriment of political centrists.

By Piotr Narel

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