To see individual profiles of each of the main parties competing in the election, scroll halfway down the page or click here. But first, a briefing on some of the main issues that are at stake.
On 25 October Poles will go to the polls in what promises to be one of the most important and interesting elections since the return of democracy 25 years ago. In particular, it may help answer three questions, argues Daniel Tilles. First, whether the older generation of leaders, who have dominated politics since the fall of communism, are being pushed aside by a younger wave of politicians. Second, whether Poland will continue its evolution away from the multi-party turmoil that characterised much the post-1989 period, and towards a stable two-party system. And third, to what extent the Polish electorate has rejected the pro-European economic and social liberalism of the incumbent government, and instead turned to the more inward-looking national conservatism of the opposition. Given Poland’s growing economic and diplomatic clout, these are questions that all of Europe should take an interest in.
From one perspective, it can appear that Polish politics is in a period of stagnation, lacking new faces and ideas. The leaders of three of the country’s main parties are in their 60s or 70s, and have been on the political scene for decades: Jarosław Kaczyński (Law and Justice, PiS), Leszek Miller (Democratic Left Alliance, SLD) and Janusz Korwin-Mikke (KORWiN). Meanwhile, the incumbent Civic Platform party (PO) – headed by a newish leader in Ewa Kopacz, but one who has been a prominent figure in government since 2007 – has run out of steam after eight years in power. Its junior coalition partner during that period, the Polish People’s Party (PSL), struggles to be noticed. Even the main anti-establishment candidate, Paweł Kukiz, is proud of having few discernible policies, declaring political programmes to be a ‘waste of time’.
Yet, to look at things slightly more optimistically, this may merely mark the swan song of an outgoing generation, with a new set of leaders ready to spread their wings. Kaczyński, after seven years of leading his party to defeat in every national, local and European election it contested, has evidently realised that fresher faces are needed. His choice of presidential candidate, Andrzej Duda, proved to be inspired, with the young, energetic, media-friendly figure unexpectedly ousting the incumbent Bronisław Komorowski, a veteran 20 years his senior who mounted an insipid re-election effort. This encouraged Kaczyński to then appoint the architect of Duda’s success, Beata Szydło, as PiS’s candidate for prime minister in this month’s elections.
Miller appears to be attempting a similar trick – although with far less success. Earlier this year, Magdalena Ogórek, a 36-year-old who has never held elected office, was selected as the SLD’s presidential candidate. Yet it quickly became apparent that the former soap actress had been chosen more for her camera-friendliness than political ability, and she garnered an embarrassing 2.4% of the vote in May. Nevertheless, for the parliamentary election, the SLD, as part of the United Left (ZL) coalition, has picked a similarly young and inexperienced prime ministerial candidate – Barbara Nowacka – but one who appears rather more competent. (It also means that the three biggest political groupings, according to the polls, are each led by a woman.)
Meanwhile, a completely new party, Modern (Nowoczesna), formed only four months ago, has been polling relatively well under the leadership of former World Bank economist Ryszard Petru (another relatively young figure who has never held elected office). As its name suggests, the party claims to be offering a new type of politics, and has led an internet-savvy campaign aimed primarily at educated urban voters. By contrast, Korwin-Mikke, a perennial figure on the fringe of Polish politics, is struggling in the polls; at 72 years of age, it can’t be too much longer before he disappears from the scene, taking his series of one-man-band political vehicles with him.
One should not get carried away, however. Kaczyński clearly continues to pull the strings behind the scenes at PiS, as was highlighted by President Duda’s recent secret midnight visit to his residence. It’s worth remembering as well that, back in 2005, Kaczyński also appointed another figure, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, as his party’s prime ministerial candidate, only to take the position for himself just a few months after PiS won the election. He also promised that if his party lost the 2011 election, he would resign as leader to give an opportunity to younger figures; PiS went on to lose, but Kaczyński remained in his position.
Modern and ZL are unlikely each to receive much more than 10% of the vote, making them, at best, minor players in whatever political configuration emerges after the election. Meanwhile, despite its current travails, PO will still constitute the largest opposition party after the election, meaning that in effect the principal outcome will simply be that the two main parties swap places.
This then leads us to the second big issue, of whether the election will therefore signify the continued transition towards a two-party system in Poland. This marks a stark change from the first two decades of the post-1989 period, during which elections were contested by an ever-changing array of participants. Until four years ago, each election had produced a new government. It was PO that broke this pattern, becoming the first governing party to be re-elected. And throughout PO’s time in power, PiS has formed the main opposition. Now, after eight years of sniping at the government, it has the opportunity to put words into action while PO takes its turn on the sidelines – exactly as things should function in a two-party system.
But whether development continues in this direction will depend greatly on two things: how PiS govern and how PO react. The answer to the first question hinges to some degree on the composition of the parliament that emerges from the election: we know PiS will win, but the size of their majority, and the outcome for potential coalition partners, is still far from certain. Given that PiS are unlikely to be able to form a majority government alone, some kind of coalition seem inevitable.
The two most natural allies are Kukiz (who has previously hinted at the possibility of working with PiS) and Korwin-Mikke. But polling suggests Kukiz’s movement is teetering precariously above the 5% threshold needed to enter parliament, while Korwin-Mikke’s party is currently just below it – meaning that either or both may not even be options as coalition partners.
Another possibility might be an arrangement with PSL, although the latter’s partnership with PO, PiS’s bitter rival, during the last eight years of government makes that harder – not to mention the fact that PSL are not guaranteed to reach the 5% threshold either. A partnership with Modern, and certainly with ZL, seems ideologically and politically unfeasible. (It may theoretically be possible for PO to create a coalition government itself, but this seems unlikely given the difficulty of finding enough partners to reach a parliamentary majority, the inherent instability of such a broad multi-party coalition, and the fact that a government which excluded the largest party would have a less legitimate mandate.)
Whatever the outcome, it will test PiS’s ability to govern responsibly and work in tandem with other parties. In particular, the party will have to learn the lessons of its ill-fated spell in power from 2005-7 as part of a coalition with two small populist parties. The period was characterised by ineffective policies at home and fractious relations with European partners abroad, and ended disastrously amid a corruption scandal, leading the government to prematurely collapse and call elections two years ahead of schedule.
Much may now depend on the extent to which Kaczyński, not a man known for his willingness to compromise, is still calling the shots. Duda’s brief time in the presidency has shown promising signs. On trips abroad, notably to Berlin and London, he has appeared statesmanlike and – while expressing a desire to strengthen Polish sovereignty – willing to work closely with European partners. Domestically, he has continued to represent his former party’s interests – for example, in his flagrantly partisan attempt to organise an election-day referendum on some of PiS’s main election pledges. But he has done so in a less combative, confrontational manner than PiS would have in the past.
Yet Kaczyński has continued to undermine this image – his paranoid, nativist speech in parliament last month on the European refugee crisis being a good example. These anti-Muslim ramblings stood in stark contrast to Duda’s pointed visit to a Polish Tatar mosque, during which he praised the ‘wonderful co-existence’ of Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox Christians in north-eastern Poland. After the election, it should quickly become clear to what extent the likes of Duda and Szydło are being used by Kaczyński as window dressing, or whether they exert genuine influence over the party’s policies and tactics.
The second question will be how PO takes to being ejected after so long in government. Will it maintain unity and discipline, allowing it to quickly regroup and form a robust opposition capable of holding the PiS-led government to account? Or will it, as so often happens when a long-term incumbent loses power, waste time and energy on recriminations and infighting, struggling to settle on a coherent path forward?
And, in either case, what lessons will – or should – the party take from its defeat? It has presided over a period of unprecedented stability and growth for Poland, earning international plaudits; yet many Poles feel that they haven’t benefited from this alleged progress. The two important and related questions here are: (a) whether such feelings are justified, or if, instead, people will, after experiencing life under a different government, come to appreciate PO’s achievements; and (b) whether Poles really have rejected what PO stands for – (relative) economic and social liberalism, deeper European integration – or if they are simply weary after such a long period of rule and keen to give the opposition a try. The answers to those two questions will dictate whether PO needs to use its time in opposition to substantially change its message, or if it merely has to refine it and present it more effectively.
Leader: Jarosław Kaczyński (with Beata Szydło as candidate for prime minister)
Average support in last six polls*: 36.3%
Political position: Socially conservative, economically interventionist, moderately eurosceptic
Selected election promises: Lower retirement age, free medicine for pensioners, better financial insurance for farmers, reduced taxes for small firms
Core voters: Rural and small-town voters, especially in Poland’s east; certain powerful trade unions, including ‘Solidarity’
Following eight years of opposition, finally set to have the opportunity to form a government. Campaign has been a (so far largely successful) balancing act between appealing to centrist voters through the more moderate figure of Beata Szydło (and, unofficially, President Andrzej Duda) and throwing occasional red meat to more conservative core supporters, a function that has been willingly carried out by Jarosław Kaczyński and Antoni Macierewicz. Hard to say to what extent voters are genuinely attracted to the party, or whether it has simply benefited from popular fatigue and disillusionment with incumbent PO-led government.
If PiS comes to power, it will have some expensive election promises to fulfil, such as lowering the retirement age and giving families 500 złoty per month for their second (and every subsequent) child (an offer extended to the first children of the poorest families as well). It will also have to work hard to form (and maintain) a coalition government with one or two of the smaller parties – a task that probably won’t be made any easier by the fact that PiS is actually already competing in the election as part of an electoral coalition with a handful of smaller conservative parties, whose candidates are standing on the PiS ticket.
Leader: Ewa Kopacz
Average support in last six polls: 22.9%
Political position: Centrist, pro-EU
Selected election promises: Introduce minimum hourly wage of 12 złoty, increase NATO presence in Poland, church to be funded by the faithful not the state
Core voters: Urban middle class, especially in Poland’s west
Resigned to finishing behind PiS but attempting to limit the damage. Claims, with some justification, to have presided over a period of unprecedented stability and growth for Poland; many Poles feel, also with some justification, that the spoils of this growth have not been evenly shared. It is also fair to say that the party benefited from coming to power during the early stages of Poland’s EU membership, and did a good job exploiting EU funds. However, after plucking these low-hanging fruit, it ran out of steam in its second term and has dodged many more difficult reforms.
PO is relying in part on the old tactic of presenting itself as the stable, sensible option in comparison to the supposedly more volatile, fanatical religious conservatives of PiS. But, while this strategy may have been effective in the past, it has much less traction since PiS’s recent efforts to smarten itself up. PO has also shifted slightly leftwards – certainly on social issues – since Ewa Kopacz became its leader last year. This may be a response to PiS’s move towards the centre ground, as well as an attempt to exploit the recent weakness of Poland’s liberal-left wing. In any case, it has failed to have much of a positive effect, and, should PiS’s new more moderate approach last, if a reenergised left-wing coalition holds together after the election, and if the new Modern party establishes itself, PO risks having its political space squeezed.
Leader: Barbara Nowacka
Average support in last six polls: 8.1%
Political position: Social democratic, centre-left, liberal, secularist
Selected election promises: Raising minimum wage, higher taxes on wealthy, stronger church-state separation (including making priests pay tax)
Core voters: Young, urban types (Your Movement); ageing former members of the old communist power structures (SLD).
Poland’s left has long been in disarray. Following two periods in government in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) – a communist successor party – has collapsed. It continues to be led by the veteran former prime minister Leszek Miller, with few obvious candidates to replace him. Meanwhile, the socially liberal Your Movement (TR), dominated by the charismatic Janusz Palikot, has struggled to maintain popularity after its dramatic breakthrough in 2011.
With both parties in danger of dropping below the 5% threshold of votes needed to get into parliament, they have, along with three even smaller groups, formed the United Left (ZL) coalition. It is a risky strategy, given that the threshold rises to 8% for coalitions. But it appears to be paying off, with support in polls creeping up.
It is, however, hard to see ZL wielding much influence after the election, as they would find it impossible to ally with the likely winner, PiS, despite certain similarities in economic policy. Given how unstable the Polish left has been in recent years, it is unlikely that this particular grouping will stick together for long in the next parliament.
Leader: Ryszard Petru
Average support in last six polls: 6.4%
Political position: Technocratic economic liberalism
Selected election promises: Eliminating bureaucracy, liberalisation of markets (e.g. in energy, transport), reducing taxes, ending state subsidies for unprofitable sectors
Core voters: Urban, educated middle class
Like Kukiz’s movement, Modern is a completely new arrival this year, and one that is dominated by a single figure, Ryszard Petru. Though relatively young and politically inexperienced, Petru has garnered a good reputation as one of Poland’s leading economists, with stints working for the World Bank and PricewaterhouseCoopers. In the late 1990s he also acted as an advisor to Leszek Balcerowicz, the controversial architect of Poland’s post-communist economic transformation.
Modern preaches economic liberalism, aiming to reduce state involvement in the economy and further open it up to the free market. Petru argues that not enough has been achieved by the current government, and that with further reforms Poles could in a decade enjoy a German standard of living. The party has also attempted a more open and interactive approach to politics, encouraging input from its supporters, establishing a strong social-media presence and proposing that internet voting be introduced in Poland.
Leader: Paweł Kukiz
Average support in last six polls: 7.9%
Political position: Anti-establishment, increasingly right wing
Selected election promises: Completely new constitution, ending state financing for political parties, introducing presidential political system
Core voters: Protest voters sick of current political establishment
Former rock star Paweł Kukiz was the big political story for much of this year’s presidential campaign, in which he put himself forward as an anti-establishment candidate, ending up with an incredible 20% of the first-round vote. This was all the more impressive given that he had only one discernible policy: the introduction of single-mandate voting districts (known in Poland by its acronym, JOW), which Kukiz, rather implausibly, portrayed as a magic bullet that would make Poland’s politicians more accountable to the public. Now even that single issue has been neutralised, after a referendum last month on introducing JOW saw an embarrassingly low 8% turnout, rendering it invalid.
For his parliamentary campaign, Kukiz has gathered together a motley collection of conservatives, libertarians and nationalists (including some from the far right). Though eschewing a traditional program, Kukiz this week put forward a 33-page ‘strategy’ document. It outlines a plan to completely overhaul the Polish state via a new constitution, which he claims will increase government transparency and accountability, streamline the bureaucracy and strengthen security. However, when pressed on specifics, Kukiz, who is no politician, has a habit of responding tetchily, recently storming out of a TV interview when pressed on foreign policy, allegedly calling the presenter a ‘PiS-supporting whore’.
Leader of election campaign: Janusz Piechociński
Average support in last six polls: 5.4%
Political position: Agrarian, socially conservative, pro-EU
Selected election promises: Improving roads, expanding vocational education, exempting new businesses from social-insurance costs, increasing minimum wage
Core voters: Rural, agrarian
PSL has been very much a junior partner in the governing coalition with PO, remaining relatively anonymous during that period. This low profile, however, makes it the ideal ally for whomever wins Polish elections: in the 1990s and early 2000s it twice joined left-wing governments led by SLD, before later entering its current arrangement with centre-right PO in 2007. A possible partnership with PiS after this month’s election would therefore be no surprise. Indeed, the two parties have much in common: both believe in a degree of economic interventionism by the state, particularly in agriculture; both are socially conservative; both draw much of their support from rural areas.
The main question for PSL is whether it will even be in a position to join a coalition, given that it is in danger of failing to reach the 5% threshold of votes required to enter parliament (though the party historically has tended to do better in elections than polls have predicted). PSL recently launched a big effort to attract female and elderly voters, with promises of highly subsidised childcare, early retirement and other state handouts.
Leader of election campaign: Janusz Korwin-Mikke
Average support in last six polls: 4.8%
Political position: Conservative libertarian, extremely eurosceptic
Selected election promises: Scrapping income tax entirely, massive program of privatisation and deregulation, restoring death penalty, liquidating state education system
Core voters: Men aged 18-25
Like Kukiz’s movement and Modern, another party focused around a single figure, its eponymous founder Janusz Korwin-Mikke. Indeed, the party is purely a political vehicle for Korwin-Mikke, established following his ejection from the Congress of the New Right after lurid revelations about his private life.
It has always been something of a puzzle how Korwin-Mikke, with his signature moustache/bow-tie combination and his idiosyncratic brand of monarcho-libertarianism, has survived so long on the political scene. Between 1993 and 2014 he lost every election he competed in; in the four presidential elections he contested during that period, he never got more than 2.5% of the vote. Yet he is now enjoying something of an Indian summer, finally winning election to the European Parliament last year.
Polls suggest, however, that his personal appeal may not be enough to get his party over the 5% threshold. But should he manage it, his party would be a potential coalition partner for PiS. If this happens, expect fireworks. His ideology is radical: extreme libertarianism that favours abolishing a huge swathe of state functions, labour laws and taxes in favour of a dog-eat-dog free market. He is also prone to outlandish statements: democracy is ‘the stupidest form of government ever conceived’; the EU is a ‘communist project’; women are intellectually inferior to men and should not be allowed to vote; Hitler wasn’t responsible for (or even aware of) the Holocaust. Into this unpleasant mix he has also recently added a strident Islamophobia, seeking to exploit current concern over the reception of refugees (or ‘human garbage’, as he describes them) in Poland and Europe.
Leader of election campaign: Rejects the idea of having a single leader
Average support in last six polls: 2.7%
Political position: Economically left-wing, socially liberal, anti-establishment
Selected election promises: Higher taxes for the wealthy (with a top rate of 75%), limiting MPs’ pay to three times the minimum wage (which itself will be raised), 35-hour working week, introduction of same-sex marriage
Core voters: 30-something educated urban types
Another extremely recent entrant onto the political scene, formed in May this year. Often compared to Spain’s Podemos, it is a grassroots left-wing party with a youthful leadership and support. It offers an alternative for those frustrated with the established Democratic Left Alliance, presenting a program that is, economically and socially, very far to the left.
Has received relatively little media attention and, until recently, was polling extremely poorly (0-1% in most polls). But in the leaders debate, its representative, Adrian Zandberg, was regarded by many as the winner (although he was undoubtedly helped by low expectations and novelty factor). The party has since enjoyed a mini-bump in attention and support. Yet this is all in relative terms: it still looks likely to fall below the 5% threshold and, even if it manages to squeak past it, will be only a bit-part player in the new parliament. Given that there is a limited constituency in conservative Poland for such a socially liberal party, it seems unlikely that the there is much scope for further growth beyond eating into the SLD’s support. Indeed, one consequence of Zandberg’s performance in the debate may be that ZL voters migrate to Razem, resulting in both parties falling below their respective threshold’s and missing out on representation in parliament.