Poland’s parliamentary election: the ultimate explainer

Poland votes this weekend, with the Law and Justice party widely expected to win. What are the big isuses dominating the election?

Also available in

Despite the forecast autumn weather, this Sunday will see one of the hottest political days in Poland for years.On 25 October, parliamentary elections will take place that may mark a major shift in the Polish politics. Here is what to look at in this election and what to expect.

What’s at stake?                           

Paradoxically, the main question is not who wins. The answer here is already pretty obvious. The national-conservative Law and Justice of Jarosław Kaczyński, in opposition for the last eight years, has consistently led in the polls and should easily reach the substantial plurality of votes. With the winner looking almost certain, only one question remains: will Law and Justice be able to form a government alone? At this point it seems an unlikely scenario but one which cannot be, however, ruled out. But even if it wins, questions remain over its ability to build a coalition. Here the five small parties, from left to right, come into play. Ultimately whether the victory of Law and Justice is real or pyrrhic depends on how many and which of them make it into the parliament. Turnout too will be key. The turnout of the last presidential elections, traditionally the most popular in Poland, was unimpressive with 49 percent in the first round and 55 percent for the second. A relatively high turnout would prove the maturity of Polish society and become a real measure of actual victory.

Why are the Polish people angry?

That Poles are angry and disappointed became clear in May 2015 when, out of the blue, the unknown Law and Justice politician, Andrzej Duda, was elected President of Poland and the rock-star and anti-establishment populist Paweł Kukiz won over 20 percent of votes in the first round. Yet, after the most successful decade in Poland’s modern history such anger may be thought at least a little surprising. But there are three key motivations that underpin this discontent.First of all, the stunning economic success and the vision of Poland as a “green island” amidst the dark seas of the economic crisis have raised aspirations in the society that often go unfulfilled. Living standards in modern Western Europe is, for the majority of Poles, the reference point, rather than those of the communist past. At the same time the quality of social services (health care and pensions in the first instance) is very poor. Many young people do not believe into a better future. They are on low incomes and therefore they are unable to afford accommodation of their own or to start a family.

Secondly, one should not forget the ruthless propaganda about Poland as a “ruined country” put out for years by Law and Justice which has undermined confidence in the state and fuelled populist sentiments. Thirdly, the arrogance of Poland’s ruling elites towards people’s concerns may prove to be the nail in their coffin. This was certainly the case with President Komorowski who, in May, advised concerned young people to simply change their jobs and get a loan.

What should we be concerned about?

People are hungry for change but a Law and Justice one-party government may be too much of a change for most Poles. Law and Justice commitments in the realm of social and economic policy, including withdrawing an increase in retirement age, would cost 50 billion Zloty, according to experts, with only vague detail on where this money will come from. If Poland were to fall foul of EU deficit procedures, it would be a major blow to its international credibility. Furthermore, the president of Law and Justice, Jarosław Kaczyński, made a pledge some years ago that there would, one day “be Budapest in Warsaw”. While he has since distanced himself from Victor Orban because of their different approaches towards Russia, the “Hungarian way” seems to remain appealing for a part of the leadership, with their similar stances on the refugee crisis just one example of this.

What could we hope for?

Many would say that the end of the duopoly of Law and Justice and Civic Platform would be a reason to smile on Sunday evening. The rivalry between them has dominated the Polish political landscape for the last ten years and the very low confidence in the political class has much to do with their constant ideological fights. The rise of a new liberal (The Modern) as well as leftist (Together) parties may be the harbinger of change with debates about taxes, social services and the role of state slowly but steadily replacing the petty grievances and philosophical clashes which have dominated Polish politics. Provided the newcomers get into the Sejm there is a chance for the reconstruction of the political landscape and an opportunity to raise the standards of the public debate.

What will surprise you?

The feminisation of the Poland’s traditionally patriarchal politics. The leaders of the three biggest political parties are women and all of them are the official candidates for the prime minister’s office. Ewa Kopacz, the current head of government and the leader of ruling Civic Platform is the successor of Donald Tusk. Before that, she was the minister of health and the speaker of the parliament. Beata Szydło, the candidate of Law and Justice is its deputy leader and a treasurer of the party.  Her success as the head of Duda’s tremendous presidential campaign was rewarded by Kaczyński with the position of Spitzenkadidat. Like Duda she is the softer (although rarely smiling) image of Law and Justice in order to attract centrist voters. But even the Left finally managed to push the old-stager, ex-communist leaders like Leszek Miller into the back row and put the young, good-looking and charismatic Barbara Nowacka at the top of their list. It will remain uncertain, however, whether this manoeuvre will be enough to rescue the Left from slipping into irrelevance.    

What should Europe expect?

In relation to Russia and Ukraine, in the field of energy and climate policy, in security policy stressing the importance of NATO and the US, Polish interests won’t change with a Law and Justice government. Despite the polarisation of party politics, there is still quite a broad consensus on Poland’s core foreign and security interests, though less so on how to pursue them. The Tusk-Kopacz government of Civic Platform has consistently argued that a strong partnership with Berlin and Paris (“being in the mainstream of EU politics”) is the best strategy – otherwise Poland risks becoming irrelevant. Law and Justice would rather form a counterweight to the big powers, one that takes in the central Europe and the Baltic states. In this instance, Angela Merkel may be less than amused by a prospective change in Warsaw’s stance on, say, the refugee crisis. But even a Szydło-Kaczyński government will have to recognise that a Visegrad coalition that incorporates Orban’s Hungary may not live up to Poland’s aspirations for a tough Russia policy.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Authors