Aleks Szczerbiak – Could the migration issue swing this year’s Polish election?

Model EU politician Donald Tusk burnishing his EU credentials: first the snout in trough, then moral posturing

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. He is author of Poland Within the European Union? New Awkward Partner or New Heart of Europe?(Routledge, 2012) and ‘Politicising the Communist Past: The Politics of Truth Revelation in Post-Communist Poland‘ (Routledge 2018). He blogs regularly about developments on the Polish political scene at

Cross-posted from The Polish Politics Blog


Photo: European People’s Party licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Migration is not the most important issue in Poland’s October parliamentary election but it could become salient if linked to national security concerns. In a closely-fought contest, where the key to victory is mobilisation of each side’s electoral base, it may play a decisive role in determining the outcome, although the main beneficiary could end up being a radical right challenger party.

Migrant relocation back on the agenda

Last month, migration emerged as a campaign issue in the run-up to Poland’s October 15th parliamentary election. This followed EU states agreeing, by a qualified majority, to a new ‘migration pact’ providing for the compulsory relocation of ‘irregular’ migrants within the bloc, which the Polish government – led, since autumn 2015, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – along with Hungary tried unsuccessfully to block. The pact would require EU member states that are less vulnerable to migrants crossing their border to either take in a minimum relocation quota from ‘frontline’ states or make ‘solidarity’ payments of 22,000 Euros for each migrant not accepted.

Law and Justice faces a tight election and was hoping that migration would develop into a major issue dividing the main parties as it did during the 2015 parliamentary election, held at the peak of that year’s European migration crisis. Then, Law and Justice, at the time the main opposition party, lambasted the government led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the principal opposition grouping, for agreeing to admit 6,200 migrants as part of a similar EU-wide scheme for the compulsory relocation of mainly Muslim migrants from the Middle East and North Africa. Law and Justice viewed the scheme as part of a wider clash of cultures, arguing that its political and symbolic importance went well beyond the numbers involved and that it threatened the country’s sovereignty, national identity and security. The party warned that there was a serious danger of Poland making the same mistakes as many West European states with large Muslim communities, as the scheme could lead to admitting migrants who did not respect the country’s laws and customs and would try to impose their way of life.

Law and Justice has continued to argue that allowing mass immigration from Muslim-majority countries threatens Poland’s status as one of Europe’s safest countries; referring, for example, to the recent riots that swept across France after police shot dead a 17-year-old boy with Algerian roots. Compulsory EU migrant relocation also remains overwhelmingly unpopular: three opinion polls conducted since the migration pact was announced showed 67-76% of Poles opposed to the idea. Law and Justice also pointed out that, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, several million refugees entered Poland and (while many later moved to other countries and some returned home) over a million were believed to have stayed in the country; an enormous humanitarian effort that the EU has taken for granted, providing Poland with only 200 Euros for each refugee hosted.

With the vast majority of Poles strongly opposed to the EU’s plans, Law and Justice was banking on the migration issue helping the party secure an unprecedented third term in office. In an attempt to make it a major campaign issue, Law and Justice is planning to hold a national referendum on Poland’s participation in the EU migration pact alongside the parliamentary election. This should also help secure the 50% turnout threshold required for a referendum to be constitutionally valid.

Mr Tusk goes on the attack

Poland’s opposition parties knew that migration was a very difficult issue for them and that they could not allow it to dominate the election. They argued that a referendum was unnecessary because it was clear that there was a broad public consensus against EU relocation quotas. The opposition accused Law and Justice of using the issue to distract Poles from the government’s other failings: the rising cost of living and economic insecurity, its inability to secure frozen EU coronavirus recovery funds, and dissatisfaction with the country’s restrictive abortion laws. Both the opposition and EU officials also accused Law and Justice of misrepresenting the migration pact, arguing that no country would be forced to receive relocated migrants. Indeed, having taken in so many Ukrainian refugees, Poland would, they said, probably be exempt from having to make ‘solidarity payments’ and could even end up being a beneficiary of them.

However, notwithstanding the fact that Law and Justice opposed the forced relocation of illegal migrants in principle, the ruling party argued that such exemptions would not be automatic and the pact’s provisions could be used by the EU political establishment as leverage in clashes with Poland over other issues. A referendum was necessary, they said, to legitimate the Polish government’s stance and because they did not trust assurances from EU officials who had a record of being duplicitous with, and applying double standards to, Law and Justice.

In fact, knowing the dangers that the issue posed, Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk – who was prime minister from 2007-14 and then returned to Polish politics in 2021 following a stint as European Council President – tried to turn the tables on Law and Justice. In a series of viral social media videos published at the beginning of July, Mr Tusk highlighted what he argued was the dissonance between the ruling party’s rhetoric on this issue and the fact that it had overseen Poland’s largest ever wave of immigration, including many more foreign workers from outside Europe than the EU was planning to transfer.

Mr Tusk said that Law and Justice was preparing legislation that would make it easier for even more migrants from Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria and Pakistan to enter Poland. He was referring to a law drafted by the government to address labour market shortages that involved expanding the list of countries whose citizens could apply for a visa directly from the foreign ministry rather than via a local Polish consulate. Mr Tusk also accused the government of having already issued work permits to more than 130,000 migrants from Muslim countries in 2022 alone, fifty times more than in 2015, the last year that Civic Platform was in office.

Law and Justice on the back foot

Law and Justice responded by saying that the 130,00 figure was for work permits alone and only a fifth of these applicants were actually issued with visas entitling them to stay in Poland temporarily. They said that there was a clear difference between migrants verified by the Polish government who were allowed to enter the country legally in a controlled way, and EU-imposed quotas of illegal migrants. Law and Justice also argued that Civic Platform was only pretending to be against illegal immigration for electoral purposes, noting that as European Council President Mr Tusk had threatened Warsaw with sanctions for opposing the original EU relocation scheme. More broadly, Law and Justice argued that Civic Platform was unreliable on this issue, citing examples of prominent party figures who had interfered with the work of patrols on the Polish-Belarussian border.

At the same time, other opposition parties, commentators and migrant rights groups criticised Mr Tusk for using anti-immigrant language, particularly his allusions to the French riots, and the fact that he included the prefix ‘Islamic Republic’ when referring to the Iranian and Pakistani states, and concluded by talking about the need for Poland to ‘take back control of its borders’. Indeed, in the past Civic Platform had itself accused Law and Justice of exploiting anti-Muslim rhetoric for political gain, and Mr Tusk’s statements ran counter to its own political base’s very pro-immigration views.

Nonetheless, Mr Tusk was clearly prepared to take a risk and hammer away at Law and Justice on this issue. In fact, most anti-government commentators appeared to either accept Mr Tusk’s claim that his objective was simply to highlight Law and Justice’s hypocrisy, or felt that it was necessary tactically for him to respond in this way to defuse an extremely difficult issue for the opposition. Mr Tusk’s migration pivot was an interesting case of how the Civic Platform leader appears to be mastering the tactic of neutralising problematic issues by turning the tables on the ruling party. Earlier this year, for example, he responded to a Law and Justice pledge to raise increase its flagship child benefit programme payments from 500 to 800 złoties per child per month from the start of 2024 by making a counter-proposal to increase them immediately.

For sure, most Poles do not see Mr Tusk as particularly credible on this issue: a July poll by the United Surveys agency for the right-wing ‘’ news portal found that, by a 58% to 28% margin, respondents did not feel that Civic Platform would defend Poland against mass immigration from Muslim countries. Rather, his attacks on Law and Justice’s migration policy were meant to knock the ruling party off-balance and undermine its narrative on an issue that it previously felt that it ‘owned’. Mr Tusk’s message was aimed particularly at wavering former Law and Justice voters currently disillusioned with the ruling party but who, thanks to the referendum gambit, might return to the fold if they felt that, if elected to office, the current opposition parties would end up accepting the EU migration pact. Indeed, it unsettled Law and Justice to the extent that, two days after Mr Tusk published his video, the government withdrew its proposed new visa access rules.

Who will benefit?

A July survey by the IBRiS agency for the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ daily found that most Poles (35%) said that inflation and the cost of living were the most significant election issues followed by national security (22%), health (17%) and the war in Ukraine (11%) with only 6% citing migrant relocation. Law and Justice will not be able to recreate the febrile political atmosphere that surrounded the migration issue in 2015, and even then it was not the most important one for most voters. However, migration remains an emotive topic and has the capacity to become electorally salient, particularly if linked to national security concerns. For example, over the last two years thousands of migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa have attempted (largely unsuccessfully) to cross over into Poland with the encouragement of the Belarussian authorities, and this is now even more of a potential flashpoint with Russian Wagner Group mercenaries stationed across the border.

Moreover, given that there is little evidence of significant voter transfers between the governing and opposition camps, the key to victory in this year’s election will be the two sides’ respective levels of mobilisation of their core electorates. IBRiS found the number of respondents for whom migrant relocation was a major issue increased to 10% among Law and Justice voters, while another 40% cited security concerns more generally. In a closely-fought election, the migration issue could thus be crucial to determining the outcome.

However, holding the migration referendum to coincide with parliamentary polling day may instead end up boosting support for the radical right Confederation (Konfederacja) party. This grouping has recently seen an upsurge in support and currently looks set to hold the balance of power in the new parliament as the ‘third force’ in Polish politics. The Confederation has an even more radical approach to the migration issue and no record in office to defend, so can easily outflank Law and Justice. It has, for example, suggested that Poles should be asked whether they support immigrants receiving state welfare benefits. ‘Anti-system’ challenger party electorates often contain many people who express support for them in opinion polls but do not actually end up voting. Combining the election and migration referendum could encourage such ‘soft’ Confederation voters to actually turn out. This would be ironic given that one of the reasons why Law and Justice raised the migration issue originally was to stymie the Confederation’s growing electoral bandwagon.

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