Immigration has become an issue in the most recent EU member state elections. In Poland now as well.
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 http://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/
Cross-posted from The Polish Politics Blog
Poland has completed construction on a new 186-kilometre border wall in an attempt to deter migrants entering from Belarus.
Although the cash-for-visas scandal knocked Poland’s ruling right-wing party off its stride, it also helped to ensure that migration remained a key issue in the closing stages of the Poland’s parliamentary election campaign. The governing party has tried to re-focus debate on to the EU ‘migration pact’ where the opposition remains vulnerable, and in such a closely-fought electoral contest the issue could be critical to the outcome.
Mobilisation is the key
Poland’s parliamentary election, scheduled for October 15th, is extremely closely-fought and evenly balanced. Opinion polls suggest that the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS), Poland’s governing party since autumn 2015, will emerge as the largest grouping but is likely to fall short of an overall majority. It is currently averaging 36% support but needs around 40% to have a good chance of securing an unprecedented third term in office. Somewhat surprisingly, given that the campaign was widely expected to be dominated by socio-economic issues, migration has emerged as one of the dominant campaign themes.
Given the extremely divided political scene there is very little evidence of any significant transfers of voter support between the governing and opposition camps. The election outcome will depend largely upon which of the two sides can mobilise their supporters to turnout and vote, and a relatively small number of voters could play a decisive role in determining the result. Most of the voters that Law and Justice lost since its 2019 election victory have not switched to the opposition parties and currently intend to abstain, so the key to the party’s success will be persuading these disillusioned electors to return to the fold. It has spent much of the campaign trying to find ways to win back these voters.
An emotive issue
An important element of Law and Justice’s campaign strategy has been to call multiple referendums on the same day as the parliamentary poll. These include questions designed specifically to remind voters about various unpopular policies and stances associated with the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping. Two of the four referendum questions are on migration issues, asking Poles if they oppose: the removal of a large fence erected last year along the Polish-Belarussian border to prevent the inflow of illegal migrants from the Middle East and Africa; and the EU’s latest proposals for dealing with migrants and asylum seekers. The vast majority of Poles oppose the EU ‘migration pact’ which will require member states that are less vulnerable to ‘irregular’ migrants crossing their border to either take in a minimum relocation quota or make ‘solidarity’ payments of 22,000 Euros per migrant not accepted.
The referendum questions are also meant to tie in with, and highlight, Law and Justice’s over-arching campaign themes of security and national sovereignty, and specifically to revive an issue around which it mobilised successfully in the run-up to 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 Civic Platform-led government 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.
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. It accused 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 – of being one of those responsible for the EU’s loose migration policies. Migration is an emotive topic that always has the potential to become electorally salient, particularly if linked to broader national security concerns. So Law and Justice saw putting the issue at the heart of its re-election campaign as a key means of mobilising its core supporters and persuading its disillusioned former voters to return to the fold.
Turning the tables on Law and Justice
Knowing that migration was a very difficult issue for the opposition, Civic Platform tried to turn the tables on Law and Justice. It argued that the Belarussian border fence was ineffective, and highlighted what it said 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. The objective here was to create doubts among wavering former Law and Justice supporters – who were disillusioned with the party but may have considered returning to the fold if they felt that the current opposition would end up accepting the EU’s plans if elected to office – that the ruling party really was as effective at controlling immigration as it claimed to be.
Indeed, at one point it appeared that Law and Justice’s plan to make migration a key election issue could backfire. Media reports suggested that the government was embroiled in a damaging fraud scandal involving Polish consular officials in developing countries processing work visa applications at an accelerated pace and without proper checks through intermediary companies in exchange for bribes. At the end of August, Piotr Wawrzyk, the deputy foreign minister responsible for consular affairs, was suddenly dismissed on the same day that Poland’s central anti-corruption Bureau (CBA) carried out a search of the ministry, and then dropped as a Law and Justice election candidate. Then, in September the scandal escalated when prosecutors announced that corruption charges had been brought against seven individuals, with three being detained, over their suspected involvement in alleged visa fraud.
This allowed Civic Platform and the opposition to argue that, while the government presented itself as being opposed to uncontrolled illegal immigration, it was actually overseeing a corruption-prone system in which hundreds of thousands of work visas could have been allocated in a fraudulent way, including to those who might pose a national security risk. Mr Tusk dubbed it the ‘biggest scandal of the twenty-first century in Poland’.
Defusing the crisis
The visa scandal certainly knocked Law and Justice off-balance causing it to lose momentum at a critical point in the campaign. By appearing to show that the system for controlling permits for foreign workers coming to Poland was illusory and corrupt, the scandal opened up the party to charges of inconsistency and hypocrisy, undermining Law and Justice’s core campaign message that it was the only effective guarantor of secure Polish borders. It meant that the party had to exert energy on crisis management at a point when, following the success of its multiple referendums initiative, it was developing some real momentum for the first time in the campaign. It may also have planted some doubts among wavering Law and Justice voters as to whether the ruling party’s opposition to mass Muslim immigration was more rhetorical than real.
However, although the scandal may have fired up government opponents, it left Law and Justice voters and ‘undecideds’ distinctly unmoved and did not deliver the knock-out blow that many opposition politicians hoped for. Moreover, Law and Justice tried to defuse the crisis by suggesting that some of the problems identified dated back to the opposition’s time in power, and pointing out that the investigation only involved several hundred visa applications, not the hundreds of thousands claimed by the opposition, all of which were vetted with no security threats identified, and the majority in any case rejected. The party also insisted that it was the Polish state that had uncovered the scandal and took swift and decisive action against the suspected or implicated individuals. More broadly, Law and Justice argued that the government had brought migrant workers into Poland to fill specific labour market gaps, and that there was a clear difference between allowing verified migrants to enter the country in a legal and controlled way, and EU-imposed quotas of illegal, unverified migrants.
Keeping migration a top campaign issue
A series of further developments kept the migration issue at the top of the political agenda. Both the European Commission and Parliament sought clarifications on the cash-for-visas scandal, as did the German government which also introduced additional checks on its border with Poland to curb the flow of thousands of ‘irregular’ migrants passing along smuggling routes through these two countries. For its part, the Polish government introduced controls on the Slovak border, and re-iterated its opposition to the Union’s migration pact by rejecting a joint statement on the issue at the October EU leaders’ summit.
In fact, in spite of the reputational damage that Law and Justice may have suffered from the scandal, the party felt that ultimately it benefited from migration remaining a top campaign issue. It meant that the opposition was not focusing on other questions where the government was much more vulnerable, such as economic insecurity and the cost of living. Indeed, rather than highlighting the government’s hypocrisy on the migration issue as the opposition intended, Civic Platform’s attacks may have simply legitimised Law and Justice’s narrative that uncontrolled mass migration from predominantly Muslim countries undermined Polish security.
The continued salience of the migration issue also allowed Law and Justice to re-focus debate back on to the EU ‘migration pact’, where its stance was much more credible and coherent than the opposition’s, who it accused of only pretending to be against illegal immigration for electoral purposes. For its part, the opposition accused Law and Justice of misrepresenting the pact arguing that it included exemptions for countries under migratory pressure such as Poland, which has welcomed millions of refugees from Ukraine following the Russian invasion. However, Law and Justice pointed out that during the 2015 migration crisis Civic Platform was willing to accept EU compulsory relocation quotas, and that as European Council President Mr Tusk threatened the Polish government with sanctions for opposing the scheme. It argued that exemptions from the new migration pact would be at the whim of the Commission which, it said, was not a trustworthy partner and often applied politically-motivated double standards.
More broadly, Law and Justice argued that Civic Platform was unreliable on the migration issue, citing examples of prominent party figures who had interfered with the work of patrols on the Polish-Belarussian border. Berlin and Brussels’ interventions also played into Law and Justice’s narrative that foreign powers were trying to interfere in the election, and the party’s attacks on Mr Tusk whom it accused of working for Germany to undermine Polish interests. Finally, the release of ‘The Green Border’ (Zielona Granica), a film by Polish director Agnieszka Holland who is closely associated with the opposition, and which Law and Justice presented as a defamatory attack on Polish guards on the border with Belarus, also allowed the ruling party to portray itself as the only credible defender of national security.
Critical in a closely-fought contest?
Ultimately, the election is likely to be determined by whether the strongest driver of voting intentions ends up being dissatisfaction with Law and Justice’s record in government or wariness of handing the reins of power back to Mr Tusk and Civic Platform, together with the performance of the minor parties. Nonetheless, as a highly emotive issue, migration has, somewhat unexpectedly, come to play a key role in the closing stages of the campaign. Although the visa scandal made it something of a double-edged sword for Law and Justice, it also allowed the ruling party to turn the focus back on to the EU ‘migration pact’ where the opposition remained extremely vulnerable. This could be critical in such a closely-fought electoral contest, where the key to victory will be which of the two sides can mobilise their supporters most effectively.