Jaroslaw Kaczynski, right, stands beside Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Source: (Radek Pietruszka/EPA-EFE)
A lot of fuss about nothing – this was my first reaction when my eyes looked at the exit polls that accurately predicted the official results of parliamentary elections held last Sunday in Poland. A lot of people, including myself, had suggested that these elections were the most crucial ones since 1989, the year in which the processes of democratisation in Central and Eastern Europe began. Why though? How did the parliamentary elections of 2019 differ from the ones in 2015 or 2011? There are at least two issues that made this election politically exceptional. First, the parliamentary tenure from 2015 to 2019 – held by the Law and Justice (PiS) party – was the first in history of modern Polish politics where the leading political party was able enough to acquire a legislative majority and form a government without any coalition partners. Second, it was also the first ever period in which the status of Poland as the model disciple of the post-1989 transformation that had moved successively from communist authoritarianism and a centrally planned economy to a neoliberal and competitive democracy had been undermined. Primarily because of the attempts of PiS to subordinate the judiciary, limit rights and freedoms, implement perilous social policies. Therefore, these elections were supposed to make sure that dreams of Jarosław Kaczyński (the leader of PiS) were be achieved, confirming that Warsaw is ready to become the second political Budapest.
The probability of illiberalism to triumph was the less predictable, as in August the opposition was still unsure about how to unite itself in the build-up to the upcoming electoral contest. Poland uses the D'Hondt voting system. In practice it denotes a disproportional privilege of seats for the biggest parties as well as a bonus of votes cast for committees that cannot cross the 5% threshold (or 8% in case the committee runs as a coalition of parties). This made it necessary for mainstream opposition parties to unite. Otherwise, the more niche parties in the opposition bloc would not cross the 5% hurdle to make it into parliament, meaning their votes to had de facto been cast for Law and Justice.
Ambiguous calculations around negotiations on the formation of possible oppositionist blocs made any predications obscure enough to dramatically galvanise public opinion and media. A victory for Law and Justice seemed to be more than obvious, however right up to election day it was unclear whether Kaczyński would secure a parliamentary majority. Leaders of smaller parties were similarly kept on their toes, as, according to pre-election polls, they were constantly floating around up the 5% threshold. Voting excitement led to massive mobilisation of civil society, which was reflected in the highest electoral turnout (over 61%) since 1989. Despite the emotions, the fears and hopes of Law and Justice losing or bolstering its power, as well as new potential committees entering the parliament, the final results turned out to be quite disappointing for the majority of running parties. From the perspective of political power, nothing much will actually change, by which I mean that Law and Justice will prolong its meagre five-seat majority and govern alone. The opposition indeed is going to become more colourful but it will still remain incapable of effectively preventing Kaczyński from rushing towards creating an illiberal fortress of a populist economy adorned with church nationalism.
“We deserve more!”
Even though the most important task of maintaining the power was accomplished, the PiS leader might be slightly disillusioned with the election results. Kaczyński’s limited satisfaction expressed by an unambiguous reaction of “we deserve more” has to be understood in the context of abundant, tempting election promises. Enlarging the package of social support pensions, doubling the national minimum wage, implementing tax exemptions for young people and tax relief for entrepreneurs, as well as huge investments in infrastructure and a revolution for the healthcare system, were supposed to attract hesitant and “politically cynical” voters. The latter instance, identified by two Polish sociologists (Przemysław Sadura and Sławomir Sierakowski), denotes a member of electorate who favours personal economic interest over values, ideology or political culture. Another reason why Kaczyński longed for a landslide victory comes from such aspects as the blunt and colourless campaign performed by his ostensibly biggest rivals (KO - Citizen’s Coalition) and the total governmental control over state media channels that constantly broadcasted propaganda of the PiS’s successes. The relatively poor election result that did not meet expectations might undermine the legitimacy of some of PiS’s most controversial reforms, including a planned “polonisation” of private media and the further subordination of judiciary.
Liberal malaise continues
Opposition party Civic Platform (PO), which decided to modify its image and run under a more neutral brand of a Citizen’s Coalition (KO), was the biggest loser in the election. The reasons to make such an assertion stem not only from unfulfilled dreams of liberals of taking the power back (liberals have lost already for the fifth time since the 2015 presidential elections), but also from a completely failed campaign which was highly reactionary to the movements pioneered by PiS, and which was deprived of any credible alternative policy ideas. A miserable failure in rural areas and among the people with the lowest level of education serves as evidence to claim that KO has lost the contact with its potential electorate and has no idea how to re-establish communication so that its policies correspond to voters’ needs. If ground-breaking reforms are not implemented within structures of the party soon, KO will be doomed to gradual political decay.
The Left comes back
The decision of three major left-sided parties – the SLD (post-communists), Spring (liberal left) and Together (new left) – to unite and consolidate produced the best results a leftist electorate could have imagined. After four years of parliamentary absence caused by the threshold mechanisms (the leftist coalition, with a result of 7.5%, did not make it into parliament in 2015, while the Together Party received 3.5%) the left finally entered the heart of Polish legislative body and became the third major political power. One can say it was an outright success, nevertheless, in the wake of the KO’s poor campaign, the final pre-election polls indicated the result to be much closer twenty than ten percent.
Agrarians maintain status quo
The leader of agrarian PSL (Polish People’s Party) Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz had been often criticised for trying to invite unpredictable populists from the movement led by former rock singer, Paweł Kukiz, to run under his party’s flag. However, it seems that there is still appetite among the mildly conservative electorate for a political alternative to PiS which respects rule of law and democratic standards. Indeed, some liberals feared that the PSL would pivot further to the right, making the party an ideal coalition candidate for PiS.
Far-right (finally) made it
Even though one month ago it was difficult to discern whether the far-right politicians were going to participate in elections, a reorganised Confederation surprised everyone, proved the inadequacy of the majority of polls and media outlets (who did not perceive it as a serious political player), and gained seats in parliament. The success is the more surprising as previous elections for Polish or European Parliaments had placed the far-right just below the threshold. Although eleven warriors holding extremely homophobic and anti-Semitic ideology will not have much legislative power, parliamentary discourse (and consequently public opinion) may continue to radicalise and polarise even more. The most important aspect of Confederation being part of the new parliament, though, regards the threat it can pose to leading PiS, which so far held an ironclad monopoly on representation of the right of the political spectrum.
A shred of hope
Sunday’s elections were not a total failure for the opposition. Even though throughout this entire article I have discussed the outcome of the elections for the lower chamber of the Polish parliament (Sejm), in the higher chamber (Senate) the opposition saw victory, winning 51 of the 100 seats. Nevertheless, this win was purely a symbolic one, since the Senate cannot effectively block any legislation introduced by the Sejm. The major role of the higher chamber for the time being is going to become a slowing down mechanism of the most radical reforms coming from the lower chamber.
From the perspective of political power, Law and Justice is going to maintain its position as a government operating without any coalition partners. What is obvious though is the fact that the upcoming execution of power is going to be much more demanding, as any ideas about dismantling liberal order will be contested by Senate, which will slow down the entire legislative process. Jarosław Kaczyński has also to rethink his ideological stances as PiS is going to be attacked from two conservative sides: the radical Confederation and the mild PSL. Courage and emotions might again turn out to be the decisive factors of Polish political developments.