By Paweł Musiałek
This article is published in cooperation with the Jagiellonian Club think tank.
Things look pretty straightforward now after the Polish parliamentary election. We know who won and who lost, who is happy and who is sad. We know who will be missing in the new parliament, and who will be taking their seats for the first time. We have seen voter swings and know why they happened. The only thing we do not know is what the second term of the United Right government, led by the Law and Justice party (PiS) in alliance with two smaller parties, will look like. This is the hardest question to answer. Even those who will be in government do not yet have an answer.
But there are several reasons to believe that these four years will be different. And, quite probably, they will be at least a little better than the previous four. A word of warning for anti-PiS voters, though: party leader Jarosław Kaczyński will not be apologising to the opposition, the liberal elites, judges, the LGBT community or Brussels. And yet for those who are counting on finding a solution to public problems, and not the dissolution of PiS, there’s a small light at the end of the tunnel that suggests the coming years will be more productive than the previous ones. What are the grounds for this cautious optimism?
First, the bar is set low for the new government. In our report card summarising four years of public policies we gave the United Right a C. We noted a number of interesting reforms in various areas, but these did not change the picture of the overall time in office. The PiS government – despite often being correct in its analysis and identification of Poland’s ills and challenges – proved inept in making the necessary reforms in key areas of the state. The self-proclaimed “good change” camp did follow through on many of its electoral promises, but only those which they could achieve with bank transfers or one piece of legislation. When it was necessary to solve a complex public problem with a combination of instruments, they tended to be less successful.
Failure to shorten patient waiting times, unsuccessful rebuilding of the prestige of vocational training, highly controversial education reform, dubious increase in transport access, ham-fisted promotion of Polish history abroad, and unrealised plans for the production of Polish electric cars – these are just some of the topics featuring prominently in the media where success has proved hard to come by. The low starting bar means that it will not require a superhuman effort for the new government to improve its record, especially as a burden of the past four years is not only unsuccessful reforms, but also the enormous revolutionary turmoil, which lessens expectations still further.
Second, an additional four years will allow the government to complete many of the reforms commenced during its first term. The lack of success was often the result of numerous delays, which prevented some programmes from being finalised before the end of the parliamentary term. We can expect to see tangible outcomes for at least some of them in the next four years. One programme worth noting here is Home Plus (a scheme to build state-subsidised affordable housing), which, after a lengthy period of preparations and negotiations with local authorities, the government accelerated only towards the end of the term. Another is the Clean Air programme, which ought to gather speed after the banking sector is included in the application process for thermomodernisation of buildings. Several institutional projects should also be finalised shortly, such as the Polish History Museum, as well as other infrastructure projects.
From this point of view, PiS’s continued majority is a good sign – it makes sense for these incomplete issues to be continued by the people that began them. At least so that they can face their own music, and we avoid the traditional squabbling over who started it if things go wrong. Eight years is plenty for even complex projects to be prepared and implemented; for any problems to be sorted out; and above all, to take responsibility for the entire process.
Third, we can assume that the next four years will bring improved public administration as the personnel responsible for it gain in experience. The “young guns” of the right let loose in 2005 often lacked any previous experience of public institutions. This is hardly surprising. When PiS regained power in 2015 it was after a break of eight years, and before that they had governed for just two years, and in a coalition, which made it hard to gain experience. Another reason for the weakness of its personnel was the fact that it was harder for PiS to hire experts as it had been brought to power on a wave of anti-establishment emotions. Even after a whole term, many people still might be unqualified for their positions, but four years’ experience in the field make a difference, and a large injection of knowhow should pay dividends.
Fourth, four years of government not only gave personal experience to many of the people who entered public institutions with the “good change”, but also taught a collective lesson to PiS’s leaders. Many of the party’s failures resulted from unrealistic plans. It is easy to hatch ambitions for Poland to “rise from its knees” when your party is in opposition and does not have the means to test its own ideas. The last four years have been a big test for many projects that did not pass the reality check. Abandoning promises of a million electric cars by the end of 2020 shows that, in some areas, PiS politicians now accept that there might be greater friction than they had previously expected. PiS will certainly never be satisfied with a modest “tightening of the screws” in the state machinery; in the Polish historical tradition, Kaczyński’s party’s DNA is characterised by the fantasy of the Uhlan warriors rather than the “work at the foundations” of the Positivists. In the next four years, though, there are likely to be fewer unrealistic ideas, especially as PiS have already been taken to task on a number of occasions for the discrepancy between the Poland of their dreams and the Poland of their possibilities.
Fifth, hopes for smoother government can be pinned on Mateusz Morawiecki, who seems likely to stay on as prime minister. The last two years were undoubtedly smoother than the first two, under the stewardship of Beata Szydło. Greater management skills, wider intellectual horizons, genuine ambitions to reform, and also a more competent support base have given the current head of government an advantage over his predecessor, as well as other potential replacements.
Although Morawiecki has at times used firm language and been very critical of the Third Republic (Poland’s post-1989 system of state) and its elites in a bid to increase his credibility to party activists and the electorate, his ambitions certainly do not boil down to historical payback in the liberal salons. His premiership has been more about putting out fires than igniting new ones. Both in relations with the European Union regarding the Article 7 procedure and with Israel in connection with the ill-fated amendment to the law on the Institute of National Remembrance, Morawiecki showed himself more adept at dialogue, although the tough starting position meant that outright success was hard to come by. Setting up the Centre for Strategic Analysis and other reforms of the prime minister’s chancellery made the government more effective, with one evident effect being a significant reduction in the amount of legislation produced. Four more years of Morawiecki as prime minister are therefore likely to be better than two apiece of Morawiecki and Szydło.
Sixth, everyone is aware that in the next four years the model of providing support through direct financial transfers will be hard to continue, forcing the government to search for more difficult solutions. Further tightening of taxation will not provide the same injection of income to the budget as it did in the last four years, as the lowest-lying fruit has already been picked. A global economic slowdown is also probable, further hampering the Polish economy. PiS will therefore need to show greater skill in its reforms than has previously been the case.
While deficiencies in the previous term were not costly, as many people were more interested in cash in their bank accounts along with exceptionally favourable conditions in the labour market, in the new parliament PiS will not be able to cover up potential failure with anything, as there will not be enough funds for additional transfers. And experience shows that voter gratitude has a short shelf life.
Seventh, pressure for better government will also come from the new party configuration in the parliament. A larger number of parties and a more ideologically diverse array of politicians will make it harder for Kaczyński to play his successful game of recent years. The rules involved constructing a simple dichotomy between Law and Justice and the “total opposition” – weak, divided and lacking in identity. Many voters chose PiS in recent years not out of love, but for want of a serious alternative. In short: they voted, but they were not happy about it. In the new term of the Sejm, disputes cannot be reduced to a simple binary division. Increasing the number of electoral alternatives will heap pressure on PiS to raise its standard of government.
Eighth, it appears likely that we can at last expect things to calm down on the EU front. The new European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, was elected in part thanks to Polish lobbying, which marks a good starting point for a reset in the government’s relations with the Commission. PiS’s decisive victory will have convinced the European elites that the United Right’s relations with Poles were not just a four-year romance, but look set to be a long-term relationship (albeit probably not a sacramental marriage).
Hints of a new openness have also been heard from Berlin, which realises that Poland could prove to be a useful partner in the EU, especially when it comes to blocking the protectionist impulses of Southern European countries. A more conciliatory approach from Brussels will also open PiS to a different language. The hostility of EU elites in recent years brought about a thirst for revenge among some PiS voters, which resulted in the frequent narrative of the bad EU punishing the government for its conservative views.
Ninth, the coming years will be more peaceful for specific institutions, since the period of revolutionary personnel changes is over. PiS took over what it could, and when it did not this was because of various inhibitory mechanisms that will not vanish in the next few years. It is worth noting that the party programme includes a promise of consultation of changes in the judiciary with the EU, which confirms the softened direction that Morawiecki began to follow many months ago. The huge damage to its image that PiS suffered over its court reforms will certainly dampen the party’s appetite for living dangerously. The potential acquisition of private media also seems unlikely, as it would set the same alarm bells ringing in Europe as the judicial reforms. Although nobody can get inside Kaczyński’s mind, we can assume that if PiS was planning such an acquisition, it would have done so already. It has had four years, after all.
Tenth, the latest PiS programme shows that the party has retained its intellectual freshness. It is worth noting the promise of further strengthening of the prime minister’s position in the cabinet, a key weapon in the struggle against ministerial autonomy. Among the party’s important pledges are the new tax regulations proposed in its previous programme. A scheme to simplify official communications seems innovative. The programme finally contains calls for deglomeration. The party also proposes solutions allowing women to combine work with family responsibilities, including support in establishing workplace nurseries and pre-schools as well as the option to book medical appointments online. There are many more interesting proposals, although there is also no shortage of unrealistic or even harmful ideas.
These arguments are not conclusive, of course. There are certainly a number of risks that threaten the optimistic scenario, and a separate article should be written about them. I would like to stress one fundamental such danger here – the fierce rivalry between the camps of Morawiecki and Zbigniew Ziobro, the justice minister. Focusing resources on the race to succeed Kaczyński could limit pro-state ambitions and bring down the proposed reforms. Mutual undermining and blocking of initiatives could have fatal consequences. A potential victory in this race for Ziobro would rule out the optimistic scenario, as his political soul is a “revolutionary”, and not a “modernising” one. The current justice minister is to blame for the greatest failures of PiS: the judicial reform, politicisation of the prosecutor’s office, and the amendment to the law on the Institute of National Remembrance (widely referred to in English as the “Holocaust law”).
For those who won’t be satisfied even by a significant improvement to the quality of PiS rule (the ones chanting “Constitution!” at protests), I have just one consolation. Eight years of PiS government will further cement the party in Poland’s post-1989 political history. This will help to explode one of the country’s most harmful myths, which reduce its low social capital still further. Eight years of rule will be sufficient to disprove the idea that the right did not create the government of the Third Republic because the left-liberal elites did not let them, and therefore could not accept responsibility for its failure. The “nationalisation” of the right will bring a lasting change to PiS’s legitimacy, founded on criticism of the post-1989 transformation. Eight years will be enough to force the right to accept its part in building the Third Republic and to take responsibility for both its successes and its failures.
The original version of this article can be found here.
Main image credit: Adam Stepien/Agencja Gazeta