By Stanley Bill
The title of this article might look dubious in reference to a party that has just won a historic election victory. With a second consecutive majority, and an unprecedented 44% of the vote, Law and Justice (PiS) is now the most successful party in Poland’s post-1989 history. But the coming period in government is already shaping up as a challenge to its resolve.
PiS looks set to face new constraints, after a barnstorming first term in which fortunate circumstances gave it more unfettered power than its 2015 vote share (38%) arguably justified. This power was inflated by other parties not crossing the parliamentary threshold. Now – with a new configuration of the parliament – PiS faces not so much a decline as a political reality more closely reflecting the actual level of its popular mandate. The party will remain strong, but may struggle to recapture its earlier successes.
Here are nine challenges PiS might face in the coming years:
1. A livelier parliament
Crucially, the bottom line remains unchanged: PiS’s slim majority in the parliament means it still has the power to force through legislation. But new parties and fresh faces will contest its policies from both left and right. The unified Left already says it intends to propose legislation on same-sex marriage. Admittedly, this may even be good for PiS, as it likes having these kinds of cultural battles, especially with servile public media to fan the flames. But the presence of far-right Confederation (Konfederacja) will be more problematic, forcing PiS’s hand on tricky issues it prefers to avoid – like Poland’s abortion “compromise” and Jewish property restitution. A challenge from its right flank could stretch to breaking point PiS’s traditional balance between moderate and more radical positions.
2. A hostile senate
PiS has lost control of the upper house (for now). If they work together, the opposition will be able to hold up new bills for up to thirty days. This will put the brakes on PiS’s legislation train, preventing the party from rushing through questionable laws and exposing it to increased scrutiny. The resulting delays and debates may also reduce the external impression of the party’s no-nonsense efficiency, which has formed part of its appeal among some voters. PiS has been trying to attract potential defectors to re-establish the lost senate majority, and has also lodged protests to the Supreme Court for a recount in six senate districts. Watch this space.
3. Internal disunity
It is often forgotten that the parliamentary majority belongs not to PiS alone, but to a coalition that also includes Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro’s United Poland (SP) party and deputy prime minister Jarosław Gowin’s more centrist Agreement (Porozumienie) party. Election results have strengthened these junior partners, giving them 35 of the 235 seat majority (doubling their previous share). They are already jockeying for position. Ziobro is pushing for further confrontation on judicial reform. The economically liberal Agreement rejects this path, and also promises to defend entrepreneurs against the worst effects of PiS’s redistributive policies. Members of the two junior partners have exchanged sharp public words with each other. The already-existing cracks in the ruling camp may be widening.
4. Losing momentum
The ruling party has seemed thrown by its slightly-worse-than-expected electoral result (polls suggested the coalition might reach 47% of the vote). Despite four years of generous social spending and harnessing state media as a propaganda mouthpiece, PiS has ended up with exactly the same majority as in 2015. The tone of leader Jarosław Kaczyński’s speech on election night was one of disappointment, saying his party did not get what it “deserved”. With more obstacles to face, it will take discipline to recapture the energy of the first term. The party also risks become a victim of its own success. After so much frenetic activity, there is less for it to achieve in the second term. With forecasts of lower growth, the budget will not easily sustain additional social spending. PiS may even struggle to keep its latest promises, which include almost doubling the minimum wage. Poland’s previous two-term government, led by centrist Civic Platform (PO), ran out of steam in its second term, as it struggled for fresh ideas amid mounting scandals.
5. Presidential elections in 2020
PiS’s incumbent candidate President Andrzej Duda currently has a very strong position, with high poll figures for trust and job approval. However, a combined opposition candidate would have a solid chance of beating him. A hostile president with a legislative veto would completely change the game for PiS. With opposition candidates still unknown, it is difficult to make predictions on how this race will play out. The whispers are that outgoing President of the European Council Donald Tusk is unlikely to run, but much could change over the coming months.
6. Revolutionary dilemmas
PiS’s leaders have signalled intentions to complete their revolutionary judicial reforms – interrupted by the European Court of Justice – and to introduce new legislation intended to tame unfriendly private media. In the previous term, they made many of their big moves early. With presidential elections looming, they might be reluctant to do so this time, as they need to keep centrist voters onside for President Duda. But if they wait until after the 2020 elections, they run the risk of facing an opposition president who will then be able to block their plans.
7. The Kaczyński question
The leader looked tired and bitter on election night. Perhaps he can still reinvigorate himself, but, at 70, he may step down sooner rather than later. Without him, the spectre of simmering conflicts in the ruling camp will loom large. There is no obvious successor to the leader, and several competing candidates will stake their claims. A three-way showdown might ensue between Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, justice minister Ziobro, and the old party barons. The foundation of Kaczyński’s success was his ability to unite the previously fractious Polish right. Without him, it might fall apart again.
8. Economic downturn
If predicted global economic turbulence hits while PiS is grappling with the challenges summarised above, then this term may well be its last. The ruling party’s success has been closely tied to favourable economic conditions, which have allowed it to introduce popular programmes of social spending (though they have also done well to close VAT shortfalls). Perhaps most importantly, unemployment has been at historic lows. If voters start to lose their jobs, then PiS will have a problem.
9. Fresh scandals
PiS has seemed immune to serious damage from the kinds of public scandals that sank its opponents. A string of controversies – from alleged corruption in financial regulators and the defence ministry to misuse of parliamentary privileges and harassment of judges in the justice ministry – have had little impact on PiS’s support. But recent storm clouds gathering around the new head of the Supreme Audit Office and an alleged VAT “mafia” operating in the finance ministry might start to make a dent. The VAT revelations could tarnish one of PiS’s most widely-trumpeted successes: increased VAT revenue collection. Especially if the economic situation changes, voters might become less tolerant of such scandals. PiS may also find – like the PO-PSL government before it – that the cumulative effect of multiple affairs over two terms eventually contributes to an electoral desire for change.
PiS’s fate will also partly depend on the opposition. If the centrist Civic Coalition (KO) fails to reinvent itself after a lacklustre four years, then PiS might maintain its strong position by default, perhaps only losing its absolute majority at the next elections. The rejuvenated Left lacks the underlying support to challenge seriously, though it has comparatively strong backing among young people. Far-right Confederation – which also has high support among the youth – is too extreme for most voters. The grouping includes exponents of antisemitic conspiracy theories and open opponents of democracy. However, there is some overlap in its rhetoric with the more radical factions of PiS and with Ziobro’s SP. The formation of a larger far-right grouping in Polish politics is one possibility in a post-Kaczyński future.
PiS’s sustained success has changed the course of Polish political and social history. Yet the new term will bring challenges that might mean its best days are over. The party will govern, but with more constraints. PiS will have to work hard to avoid its predecessors’ fate of a second-term decline and fall.
Main image credit: Krystian Maj/KPRM (under public domain)
Stanley Bill is the founder and editor-at-large of Notes from Poland. He is also Senior Lecturer in Polish Studies and Director of the Polish Studies Programme at the University of Cambridge. He has spent more than ten years living in Poland, mostly based in Kraków and Bielsko-Biała.
He is the Chair of the Board of the Notes from Poland Foundation.