Insight Poland

Polish election melodrama: 3 takeaways for one key lesson

Warsaw, Poland – The political farce and melodrama surrounding the 2020 Polish presidential election has already gone, through the course of several acts, from bad to worse, leading to a succession of mind-boggling intrigues which eventually came down to the deplorable statement of the electoral commission on the evening of May 10.

Although marginalized by the authorities, the body in charge of supervising elections in Poland finally took note that the May ballot was void and not valid. For good reasons: although legally maintained, the election simply did not take place. Democracy for Jaroslaw Kaczyński, Commedia dell’Arte for many observers. In the meantime, Poles are mere spectators of a play stretching the limits of absurdity and senselessness.

From this political, institutional and legal chaos, 3 key takeaways which, in reality, only reflect and shed some light on pre-existing trends that have been here for a long time.

#1: The slow decay of Polish democracy

The return to power of the Law and Justice (PiS) party in 2015 has led to the very troubling deterioration of democracy in Poland. The ruling party and its leaders have favoured and promoted illiberal tendencies on a model similar to the one set up a bit further south in Viktor Orban’s Hungary.

Although the two situations are not comparable in the way things stand today, the underlying, long-term trend is undeniable and Poland has set a worrying course. According to the recent report by the American NGO Freedom House, Poland has gone from being ranked among the “consolidated democracies” to a “semi-consolidated democracy” (while Hungary isn’t considered as a democracy altogether). In Poland, democratic backsliding is slow and gradual, but appears inescapable.

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Freedom House “Nations in Transit” report 2020.

This is hardly surprising in view of the repeated violation of democratic values and principles by Poland’s leadership in recent years. The most worrying trend, both for Poland’s civil society and European institutions, is the repeated attempts to undermine the judiciary’s independence. The threat posed to Poland’s judicial independence initially led to the European Commission’s decision, in 2017, to sanction Poland by launching the first phase of the so-called Article 7, dubbed “the nuclear option”.

To no avail. At the same time, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) also tried to force officials in Warsaw to abandon their plans to introduce highly-controversial disciplinary sanctions against judges. But PiS and its allies – particularly Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro – seem determined to continue along this path, the long-term goal being to implement the so-called “counter-revolution” wanted by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, PiS chairman.

In order to achieve their goals, PiS and Kaczynski have won their first battle: the parliamentary elections held in autumn last year. But this gain would only be a true victory if their ally Andrzej Duda remains as president for a second term. Hence the importance of the May presidential elections for the ruling coalition: without Duda, their political agenda and reforms would become much more difficult to implement.

Holding these elections in May was meant to secure an easy victory for the incumbent – credited with a first-round victory in some polls. Postponing them, on the contrary, made the outcome much more uncertain, as Duda’s popularity could easily plummet if the health situation worsened or once the effects of the economic crisis started to kick in.

Faced with this equation, PiS did not hesitate to disregard democratic and constitutional principles in order to maintain the election at all costs. Not only did the ruling party ignore the necessity to hold a free and fair election campaign, but it also pushed through changes to the electoral law a few weeks before election day. polish presidential election

In the end, it was an agreement between the leaders of the two main coalition parties, Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Jaroslaw Gowin – both of whom hold no official position in government and are, from the constitutional point of view, simple MPs – that led to the non-organization of the elections on May 10. Duda’s probable presidential victory is bound to further weaken the rule of law and accentuate Poland’s democratic backsliding.

Jaroslaw Gowin and Jaroslaw Kaczynski in the Polish lower house of Parliament
Jaroslaw Kaczynski (left) and Jaroslaw Gowin (right) in the Sejm, Poland’s lower house of Parliament.

#2: A troubling political polarization

Political polarisation has been present in Poland for many years. It didn’t come out of the clear blue sky in 2015, but has indeed grown in a dangerous manner since PiS’ come-back to power. The country now appears more ideologically fractured than ever, while mutual hatred between both “sides” is growing stronger. polish presidential election

The assassination of the mayor of Gdansk Pawel Adamowicz in January 2019 is tragic proof of this development. However, we should not forget either that, in 2010 in Lodz, the murder of Marek Rosiak – a member of the local PiS branch – also foreshadowed the path Poland would find itself on. With this murderous violence now spilling over into the political arena, the “two factions” – PiS and its allies versus the so-called democratic opposition – seem to be moving inexorably apart.

This trend has obviously been reflected in recent weeks in the debates surrounding the May presidential elections. The search for “enemies of the nation” or “traitors” has become a widespread rhetoric in Poland. On one hand, PiS supporters have accused the opposition of undermining and violating Poland’s democratic and constitutional principles by pushing for the elections not to be held. On the other, the opposition has accused – and this appears legitimate in view of the context – of endangering the health of the Polish people by pushing for the election to be held.

The former presidential candidate of the Civic Platform Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska called for a boycott of the elections. Even at a time when the nation should, more than ever, come together to overcome the unfolding crisis, Poland’s political forces are unable to put their differences aside, even just for one split second. polish presidential election

In view of this indisputable fact, it is almost certain that the political polarization will continue, and even intensify in the coming months. What might change, however, is the ground where the battles will be waged.

Observers are increasingly worried that the EU might become an unwitting target and victim of Poland’s divisions – despite the fact that the Polish population is overwhelmingly pro-European Union and one of the most Europhile nations in Europe. A recent study by Piotr Buras and Pawel Zerka shows that the consensus around the EU seems to be receding among Duda supporters – and, more broadly, in the PiS electorate.

With the impending economic crisis, this feeling is likely to grow stronger, and should make us consider that PiS might feel tempted to further politicize the issue and question the role, or necessity, of the EU for short-term political gains. In the past few weeks, Kaczynski’s party has shown it was ready to do almost anything to achieve its political goals – even if it posed a clear threat to the health and security of its own population. In this context, it’s hard to imagine the EU will not also fall prey to a desperate political situation. polish presidential election

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#3: An increasingly fragile governing coalition

Analyses – especially foreign ones – of Polish politics often tend to overestimate the strength and level of unity within the governing coalition. An often-overlooked but crucial fact is that PiS does not govern alone – and therefore does not have a parliamentary majority as such. Observers tend to easily forget that the government coalition called the United Right (Zjednoczona Prawica) is made up of the Law and Justice (PiS) party (198 seats), by far the strongest, but also of Porozumienie (18 seats, led by Jarosław Gowin) and Solidarna Polska (19 seats, led by Zbigniew Ziobro).

Moreover, it should be reminded that this ruling coalition is in a special situation, since both the president and the government have a more limited power and influence than one might think. The real, de-facto ruler of Poland is Jarosław Kaczyński, who technically is only chairman of the strongest party (PiS) and an MP in Poland’s lower house of Parliament. This inevitably leads to strong internal tensions; tensions that are evidently kept hidden from the public eye as much as possible, but which have been known for a long time now: the battle for the succession of Kaczynski is nothing new. polish presidential election

The implausible situation surrounding these elections epitomized the instability and weaknesses of the governing coalition. The differences between the three governing allies came to light when Jaroslaw Gowin – then deputy-Prime Minister in charge of science and higher education – publicly opposed holding the elections as planned. His suggestion – that the elections be postponed for two years – was ignored and he eventually resigned from his government post. It was also the opposition of several members of his party that prevented PiS from reaching the parliamentary majority of 231 votes and led to the May 10 surreal, 0% turn-out election.

Secondly, tensions also surfaced within PiS ranks. A moderate wing, that could be represented by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, reportedly clashed head-on with the hard-wing gathered around Kaczynski and supported by ally Ziobro. Rumours even circulated regarding an attempt to push the Prime Minister to resign, allegedly turned down by Kaczynski. All these speculations show that the war for succession has intensified in recent weeks.

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Jaroslaw Gowin announced his resignation over disagreements with the Law and Justice party regarding the May 10 presidential elections.

With this instability exposed in broad daylight, it’s safe to assume that nothing will ever be the same again for the ruling coalition, which is only at the very beginning of its mandate (2019-2023). The dissolution of the Sejm, briefly considered, in order to organize snap elections could very well become an increasingly credible option in the coming months.

Indeed, Gowin’s open rebellion showed that PiS was deeply dependent on the votes of its two minor coalition partners, and disagreements between Porozumienie and Solidarna Polska could exacerbate internal tensions and prevent PiS from legislating as freely as it wishes.

Political trickeries, personal egos and rivalries will also play a part in further weakening the unity of the governing coalition. The question at hand is no longer whether the peaceful and cordial entente between PiS and its allies can be maintained, but whether it will implode in the course of their current mandate. A break-up between the two opposing wings of PiS also appears inevitable in the longer term and will profoundly reshuffle the cards of Poland’s political landscape. polish presidential election

This would evidently have far-reaching repercussions, not only for PiS, but for Polish politics in general, including the opposition. Despite the melodrama of the past few weeks, Kaczynski’s party and its government allies still largely dominate the country’s political landscape and agenda. The main opposition party, the Civic Platform (PO), is in a state of ruins. polish presidential election

For them, the real issue is not whether Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska would have garnered 3% of the votes or if Rafal Trzaskowski – Warsaw mayor and new PO candidate – will be able to reach the second round of the presidential election. The Civic Platform’s lack of political vision reflects a deeper problem: the lack of understanding of the population’s social expectations.

It’s time for PO and its allies to finally come to terms with their repeated failures and take note of their chronic inability to rise to the challenge. It’s time to reinvent themselves and propose a coherent and credible alternative to the simple “anti-PiS” agenda. Calmly waiting for the implosion of Kaczynski’s party is not an option either. The dynamism and pro-active attitude of “small” parties and their candidates must serve as an example and a lesson. Regardless of partisan considerations, Poland is in dire need of a unifying political project.

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Current President and PiS ally Andrzej Duda still retains a comfortable lead in the polls.

One key lesson: the situation in Poland should leave no one indifferent

The electoral fiasco of recent weeks accelerated and amplified long-term trends in Poland’s political life. For the first time in years, the country is about the experience a period of significant social and economic uncertainty. This could have a massive impact on the Polish political landscape, and could lead to further democratic backsliding (at least in the short-term) and the growing polarization of society.

What is happening in Poland should leave no one indifferent, for at least two obvious reasons. First, Poland is an important country in the EU, from the demographic, economic and military standpoints. At present, less so at the political level. Nevertheless, the EU needs a strong Poland involved in European affairs. In this context, lasting political instability in Warsaw would be very bad news for everyone. polish presidential election

On the other hand, what’s happening in Poland isn’t a Polish or Central European phenomenon. Democratic backsliding and the dangerous polarization of political life and society are not only taking place in Warsaw or Budapest, but happening in other countries across the EU. The coming months and years will bring about a common test. For Poland, and for the rest of the EU.

Article written by Romain Le Quiniou and originally published by Euro Créative, an official Kafkadesk partner.

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