The Poles have spoken: the populist Law and Justice party (PiS) is set to rule Poland for another four years with a comfortable majority in the Sejm, the lower house of the country’s parliament. Forty-four percent of voters backed the party, which has been in power since 2015, signalling their satisfaction with its generous approach to welfare spending and stewardship of a well-performing economy.
Yet, in the last four years, PiS has launched an unprecedented assault on the liberal democratic structures of the state. The party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has repeatedly cited Viktor Orban’s Hungary and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey as models to follow. And, though his success on Sunday falls short of landslide victory, it does mark a watershed moment for Europe. It represents the entrenchment of a semi-authoritarian system – through the democratic mandate – in one of the largest and most important European Union member states.
Hopes that the Poles would put an end to the experiment of Kaczynski’s ‘illiberal revolution’ have not been fulfilled. It is not that Kaczynski has conquered the hearts and minds of Poles. For, indeed, a new ECFR study shows that the views of the majority of PiS voters on many issues (Europe, the United States, religion, public finances) are at odds with most of wider Polish public opinion. Poland remains a deeply divided and polarised country, with 50 percent of voters rejecting PiS and the far-right Konfederacja.
But Kaczynski’s offer of a “Polish model of the welfare state” – based upon direct money transfers, not public services – proved a successful formula. The desire to reap the benefits of the post-1989 liberal transformation became overwhelming, especially among poorer groups in society. Child allowances, additional pension payments, and the promise of record increases in the minimum wage, coupled with aggressive propaganda by government-controlled public television, outweighed concerns about the political hegemony of PiS.
The implications for Europe of the party’s reconfirmation in power are twofold – and will be far-reaching.
The EU institutions and member states will have to deal with an emboldened partner, with a renewed democratic mandate. Against the backdrop of Angela Merkel’s waning power, political instability in Italy and Spain, uncertainty on the French political scene, and the United Kingdom leaving the EU, Poland’s government will have one of the most solid domestic power bases in Europe. It remains to be seen how it will use this, although the new EU agenda will be, in many ways, highly problematic for Warsaw and at odds with the country’s traditional interests.
Modern democracies usually die, not in revolutions, but step by step.
For instance, the idea of a Green New Deal as the EU’s flagship project irritates Warsaw greatly. Eighty percent of Poland’s electricity comes from coal plants, and, according to the ruling party, coal will remain the country’s primary source of power until well beyond 2040. The PiS hostility to this green agenda in Europe was evidenced back in June, when it blocked the EU carbon-neutrality goal for 2050.
The ambitions of Ursula von der Leyen’s “geopolitical” European Commission have also raised eyebrows in Warsaw. For, while PiS lends support to the idea of a new industrial policy to strengthen Europe, it is sceptical of proposals to “beef up” the EU’s defence framework , which it sees as a project advancing mostly French and German interests. In the last four years Poland has invested a lot in bilateral relations with the US, which has yielded agreements for a stronger American military presence in Poland.
The single market and migration are areas where Warsaw may not be inclined to accept new policy trends, either. Higher levels of protection for workers and consumers at the expense of market liberalisation, as well as the pressure of the EU’s refugee policy, have not gone down well in Poland in recent times. So the new mandate for PiS is likely to lead to some pushback – and a readiness to play hardball.
For the EU, Kaczynski’s Poland presents an unwelcome headache. For it cannot ignore Poland, or any other countries, backsliding towards semi-authoritarianism. Nor can it ignore the disastrous implications of such a scenario. Pro-democratic governments and political forces across Europe need to realise that modern democracies usually die, not in revolutions, but step by step.
Once this snowball has started rolling, it is difficult to stop. In the first years of its rule, PiS took control of the public media, and the judiciary, in violation of the Polish constitution. In the next term it is expected to further strengthen its grip on the state through the already-announced overhaul of the law courts, a clampdown on local government, checks on journalists, and a partial “repolonisation” of the media. Hostile, state-organised rhetoric against minority groups (LGBT, migrants) is also expected to continue.
If Brussels and other democratic capitals want to avoid a contamination of the EU system, they should use the full range of instruments at their disposal: such as infringement procedures before the European Court of Justice, Article 7, the rule of law, conditionality on EU funding, and support for Polish civil society. Political arguments will be no less important – and, as in relations with other external non-democratic powers, they will need to be vocal that ‘semi-authoritarianism’ is a clear violation of what Europe stands for – even if parties implementing it claim a renewed democratic mandate.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.