By Aleks Szczerbiak
Although the right-wing ruling party won a decisive victory, the overall balance of support for the government and opposition camps remains evenly divided. Next May’s presidential election now assumes critical importance and could be closer than originally anticipated, creating a dilemma for the ruling party as to how quickly to push ahead with reforms.
A decisive victory
The October 13th election saw a record 61.7% turnout, the highest in any post-communist Polish parliamentary poll. It reflected the polarisation of, and deep divisions within, Polish society in recent years. The government – led, since 2015, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – has come under heavy fire from its political opponents and the Western opinion-forming media, and been in an ongoing conflict with the EU political establishment, for allegedly undermining democracy and the rule of law in its approach to the judiciary, media, public appointments and civic rights.
The party’s supporters have robustly denied these allegations, arguing that the government’s actions were necessary to restore pluralism and balance to institutions which, they said, had been expropriated by extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elites. Both supporters and opponents of the government were highly mobilised, sensing that this was one of the most important and consequential elections since the collapse of communism in 1989.
In the event, PiS won a decisive victory in the election, securing 43.6% of the votes (up from 37.6% in 2015) and taking 235 seats in the 460-member Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament. This was the highest vote share won by any political grouping in a post-1989 election, and PiS became the first governing party grouping to secure re-election with an overall majority for a second term.
This achievement was all the more impressive given that less than 1% of the votes were cast for groupings that failed to cross the parliamentary representation threshold (5% for individual parties) compared with nearly 17% in 2015. The Polish electoral system – proportional representation with the d’Hondt method used for allocating seats – favours larger groupings, but less so when there are fewer such “wasted” votes.
PiS increased its popularity in spite of such intense criticisms because it was trusted on the socio-economic issues that voters cared most about. The party delivered on most of the high-profile social spending promises which were the key to its 2015 election victory, the most significant being its extremely popular flagship “500 plus” child benefit programme. “500 plus” had an important symbolic effect, providing a significant and clearly identifiable financial boost to many low-income households who felt frustrated that they had not shared sufficiently in Poland’s post-communist economic transformation.
An important element of this – that was linked to, but went beyond, the simple question of financial transfers – was what some commentators termed the “redistribution of prestige”. Many ordinary Poles who previously felt themselves to be second-class citizens started to sense that their government finally cared about and respected the less well-off, helping them to regain a sense of dignity and moral worth.
Although there was negative publicity surrounding various allegations of abuse of public office by PiS politicians, this did not damage the governing party to any great extent. Its supporters appeared to regard such allegations as either false, the occasional lapses of a generally honest party, or endemic to Polish politics, with PiS at least attempting to ensure that it was not only the governing elites that shared in the fruits of the economic transition.
At the same time, even if they had misgivings about some of the government’s specific measures, particularly its approach to constitutional issues and civic rights, many still felt that, for all its faults, PiS deserved credit for at least trying to tackle some of the shortcomings of the Polish state which were ignored by previous administrations.
Opposition success in the Senate
At the same time, the main opposition grouping, the Civic Coalition (KO) electoral alliance – led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2005 and 2007, but also including the smaller liberal Modern (Nowoczesna) and tiny left-wing groupings – failed to develop a convincing and attractive programmatic alternative on socio-economic issues because it was too associated with PiS’s discredited predecessor.
Although PO remains the largest opposition grouping, the Coalition only won 27.4% of the votes, down from the combined vote of 31.7% for its component parties in 2015, and 134 seats. It ran a poor campaign, and its only really successful initiative was to propose the emollient former parliamentary speaker Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska as the grouping’s prime ministerial candidate instead of PO leader Grzegorz Schetyna, who is as an extremely effective behind-the-scenes political operator but lacks dynamism and charisma and is one of Poland’s least trusted politicians. However, although the move helped to neutralise one of the Coalition’s most significant negatives, it came too late to allow Kidawa-Błońska to develop her profile as an authentic independent political figure.
Nonetheless, the Coalition retained a clear lead over the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which spearheaded a united “Left” (Lewica) slate – including the radical left Together (Razem) party and the liberal-left Spring (Wiosna) grouping led by sexual minorities campaigner Robert Biedroń – and finished third with 12.6% of the votes and 49 seats.
Although delighted to have regained parliamentary representation after a four-year hiatus, the left’s result was broadly in line with both poll predictions and the 11.2% combined vote share secured by the Alliance and Together in 2015 (albeit on a much lower turnout). Left-wing activists and commentators hope that the new parliamentary intake, which includes several dynamic and articulate younger deputies, will use this platform to shift the terms of the Polish political debate decisively to the left, especially on moral-cultural issues. However, it is unclear how these parties will work together in the future, and if they focus too much on moral-cultural questions it will undermine their prospects of winning over less well-off but socially conservative voters who might otherwise be receptive to the left’s socio-economic policies.
Moreover, although PiS won a clear election victory, there was a sense among some commentators, and even party leaders, that it had performed below expectations and failed to deliver the “knock-out blow” to the opposition that many expected. In fact, the election only really confirmed what opinion polls had always shown: that the overall balance of support for the government and opposition camps is fairly evenly balanced. This reflects the fact that the opposition retains considerable political assets, including substantial financial resources and the backing of the country’s business and cultural elites, including much of the privately owned media.
This sense of under-performance was exemplified by the fact that PiS lost overall control of the Senate, winning only 48 out of 100 seats, the same number as the three opposition parties (who concluded a pre-election non-aggression pact in most constituencies) – 43 for PO, three for the agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), and two for the SLD – with the balance of power held by four independents, three of whom were elected with opposition support. (In one of the big surprises of the election, the PSL also performed strongly in the Sejm, securing 8.6% of the votes and 30 seats).
This is the first time since 1989 that a ruling party has not enjoyed a majority in Poland’s second chamber. The Senate confirms the appointment of certain key public officials and can slow down the approval of government legislation for up to 30 days. However, its amendments can be over-turned by an outright majority in the Sejm, and the Senate’s significance is more as a political platform, particularly in interrogating ministers and PiS-appointed officials and holding them to account.
The presidential election is crucial
Perhaps above all, PiS’s failure to secure a Senate majority provided the opposition with a much-need confidence boost ahead of the presidential election, scheduled for next May, when the ruling party-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda’s five-year term of office ends. Most commentators assumed Duda would win easily, given his high popularity ratings. However, although he remains the clear favourite, the parliamentary election showed how polarised the political scene is and that there are many opposition voters who are determined to use any opportunity to block PiS.
The presidential election could, therefore, be a much greater challenge for Duda than many government supporters previously anticipated, particularly if the opposition can field a popular and credible challenger (Kidawa-Błońska is being touted as one of the front-runners for this). Indeed, as PiS lacks the three-fifths parliamentary majority required to overturn a presidential veto, a defeat for Duda would be a disaster for the ruling party, seriously hampering the implementation of its legislative programme. So the presidential election now assumes crucial importance, and will dominate Polish politics over the next few months.
Given how critical delivering on its social spending promises has become to PiS’s credibility, the government will need to move quickly to honour its key election pledges. At a minimum, it will have to pass, or at least begin to implement, the five measures promised for its first 100 days in office: reducing social security premiums for small firms, pension bonuses, healthcare checks, new road construction programmes, and increasing direct farm subsidies to the EU average. As making social spending and welfare pledges has developed into the party’s chosen tactic for raising the electoral stakes to encourage the beneficiaries of these programmes to turn out to vote, PiS may also consider introducing some new promises in the run-up to the presidential poll, although this could place a strain on the state budget.
More broadly, the presidential election confronts PiS with a major strategic dilemma. The party remains committed to deepening and pushing forward with its radical state reform programme in areas such as the judiciary (where it believes that the legal establishment is part of a nexus of interests with opposition elites committed to blocking the party’s reforms) and the privately owned media (to re-balance what it sees as an in-built structural bias favouring the liberal-left).
It will be reluctant to put these issues on the back-burner as the beginning of a new term of office, when an incoming new government still enjoys considerable political capital, is generally the best time to introduce controversial measures. Indeed, delay risks the government having to cohabit with an opposition-backed president who could start to veto the most controversial elements of PiS’s programme as soon as they are sworn into office next summer. PiS also faces a challenge on its radical-right flank from the Confederation (Konfederacja) grouping which, in the other major election upset, secured 6.8% of the votes and 11 seats, and will no doubt call out the ruling party for any perceived “centrist” backsliding.
However, pushing ahead with radical reforms will also generate widespread domestic and international opposition. While the prospects of Duda losing the presidential election remain slim, PiS knows that the contest is likely to be evenly matched, and that it needs to avoid drawing the incumbent into sharp political conflicts that could damage his chances.
In the parliamentary election, one of PiS’s main tasks was to mobilise its core electoral base, hence its focus on the emotive moral-cultural issue of opposing what it called “LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) ideology” as an important secondary campaign theme. In the presidential election, on the other hand, a successful candidate has to craft a unifying and consensual appeal that can win over more than 50% of the voters. So the overarching strategic logic here will to be to avoid potentially divisive and polarising issues over the next few months.
Main image credit: Sławomir Kamiński/Agencja Gazeta