Law and Justice won Poland’s election on 13 October, increasing their vote share and maintaining a majority in the lower house of the Polish parliament, the Sejm. However, as Aleksandra Sojka explains, the party may nevertheless find itself in a weaker position following the loss of its majority in the upper house, the Senat.
Aleksandra Sojka is a Juan de la Cierva Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Social Sciences, Carlos III University in Madrid, Spain, and a Visiting Fellow in the LSE’s European Institute.
Cross-posted from LSE EUROPP
In 2015, in what might be deemed an accident of the Polish democratic system, PiS obtained an absolute majority of seats in the lower chamber of Poland’s parliament (the Sejm) while receiving only 37% of the popular vote. This was possible due to the majoritarian effects of the proportional electoral system, the fact that electoral barriers left radical right and left parties outside the parliament, and relatively low participation (51%). Back then, PiS promised to help “lift the Poles from their knees,” appealing to notions of national dignity and promising a corrective to the supposedly flawed democratic transition.
Law and Justice
The electoral success of PiS occurred after decades of deep social, economic and political reforms in Poland. Poles suffered from brutal socio-economic costs linked to the ‘shock therapy’ of adjustments made after 1989. The hope was that the results of these liberal market reforms would bring about the wealth and welfare observed in western democracies. Under the government of the liberal PO, Poles often heard their politicians brag about how well the Polish economy was doing, especially relative to the global difficulties during the economic crisis era (Poland was the only EU member state with uninterrupted economic growth by the end of that decade). However, an important segment of Polish citizens remained excluded from reaping the benefits of privatisation and from opening the country up to international trade and foreign investment.
This was true especially in the rural and eastern parts of the country, which remain the least economically developed. In this context, PiS came to power in 2015 with the promise of stronger social protection from the state. These promises materialised in the 500+ programme, which offers financial help to Polish families by paying a small subsidy to all families with children (500 PLN, around 125 euros, per child monthly). This PiS social programme, with its many problems, stands in sharp contrast to the lack of serious redistribution efforts during the era of liberal government under Civic Platform, when the uncontested paradigm was that Poland’s economy was doing well, but the country was nowhere near rich enough to have a generous welfare state.
The social programme of PiS proved to be a great success among their electorate, giving many people a sense of dignity and making them feel like participants in the economic success of the country. Yet, generous social transfers were only a small part of a broader programme which included a vision for the overhaul of democratic institutions in Poland. According to the party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, these institutions were flawed from their inception. Polish democracy was rooted in a failed process of economic, political and social transition, which has been dominated by communist elites and spies, selling out the Polish economy to foreign investors and giving up national sovereignty to international elites without taking proper care of Polish citizens.
PiS has been correcting these flaws over the past four years. These reforms have sometimes put it on a collision course with the EU, as happened with the conflict over the rule of law after the reform of the judiciary. Other efforts, such as complete domination of the Constitutional Court and the public media, or the takeover of public enterprises by party loyalists, remain uncontested, and together with its programme of social transfers, they have helped the ruling party maintain a tight grip over an important part of Polish society.
The 2019 elections
The campaign for the 2019 parliamentary elections therefore took place in a country dominated by PiS and in the context of its firm hold over public institutions. The main issues of the campaign remained the idea that PiS is the only party that cares for Polish citizens and will do everything to protect them from the maladies of the global economy, exploitation by corrupt liberal elites, and the scheming of cosmopolitan elites within international institutions to take away their sovereignty and dignity.
While in 2015, PiS took advantage of the migration crisis to stir fears about refugees (even if very few were aiming to make it to Poland), in 2019 the enemy became LGBTI individuals, who supposedly put at risk the notion of the traditional Polish family. These ideas have been embraced by a conservative segment of the Polish Catholic church and channelled through the Polish state media, which has been transformed into a source of crude government propaganda and alternative facts, and whose only purpose is to hail the many successes of the governing party (the Director of Polish state television, which is supposed to remain independent, was seen celebrating PiS’s electoral success with Kaczynski on Sunday). These symbolic politics of the ruling party have contributed to strong polarisation within Polish society, based on the notion that those who oppose PiS and its reform are something akin to traitors of the national community.
The fragmented opposition tried to offer an alternative: the Civic Coalition, embodying the economic success and liberal project of the previous government; the Left, uniting left-wing politicians across the spectrum in the aim of passing the electoral threshold that they failed to clear four years ago; and the agrarian party of the PSL, incorporating the anti-system followers of the rock singer Pawel Kukiz to appeal to the anti-system segment of the radicalised Polish youth.
In a symbolic victory for the opposition, in the final week of the electoral campaign the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Olga Tokarczuk. Tokarczuk, a feminist, vegetarian, and an animal rights activist, exemplifies the enemies of PiS within Poland – the progressive segment of Polish society that remains beyond their reach. Moreover, as a writer who questions the myth of Poland’s historically formed cultural and religious homogeneity, and vindicates a plural and open identity, she offers a counter-narrative to the symbolic politics of the ruling party (the Minister of Culture said in a recent interview that he has not finished reading her last book, but it did not seem very good).
Strong polarisation and the sense that an important decision about Poland’s future was to be made in this election, translated into a very high turnout – 61.7%, only slightly less than the highest ever turnout since 1989, which occurred during the partially free elections that marked the path towards democratic transformation. This strong electoral mobilisation, however, was of no particular benefit to either the government or the opposition. The official results came in on Monday, as shown in the table below.
Table: Results of Poland’s parliamentary elections
PiS retained its control of the Sejm, with the same number of seats as in 2015, even though it earned six percentage points more of the vote share and over 2 million more votes than in the previous election. “We received a lot, but we deserve more. This means a commitment to even better work, new ideas and looking at social groups that did not support us,” was the verdict from Jarosław Kaczyński, who indicated that he was disappointed that the efforts of PiS did not improve their position in the Sejm and bring about the desired majority to change the Constitution (307). Promising to look into the social groups that do not support PiS sounds ominous and does not bode well for any reconciliation within a divided Polish society.
Making matters worse for PiS is that the opposition narrowly won in the upper chamber of parliament (the Senat). This was an important symbolic and practical success for the opposition parties, who agreed not to compete against each other (the electoral system is majoritarian in the Senat). Unless PiS manages to steal away a member of the opposition or one of the independent candidates closely aligned with the opposition, passing laws in ‘express mode’ and without any serious discussion, a staple of the PiS government, will not be an option anymore. Also, the Senat has a role in appointing some of the key positions in the state, such as the Ombudsman. Current Ombudsman, Adam Bodnar, has been one of the most ferocious critics of the government and its democratic backsliding, and PiS was looking forward to getting rid of him in 2020. This might turn out to be more difficult than anticipated if the opposition maintains control of the upper chamber of parliament.
The open party-list system in the Sejm offers further insight into the dynamics of Polish politics in the future and there is bad news for both the ruling party and the main party of the opposition. On the one hand, Kaczynski has been re-elected, but he obtained far fewer votes than the Civic Coalition candidate in Warsaw. Moreover, some top PiS officials have not retained their seats in the parliament. The overall vote share for PiS, thought a sound result, nevertheless revealed cracks within the foundation of the ruling party’s grip on Poland. At the same time, the leader of the opposition, Grzegorz Schetyna, received fewer votes than the PiS candidate in his electoral district. Therefore, the leadership of the liberal PO is also now on shaky grounds.
On the other hand, the Left will re-enter the Sejm with 12.6% of the vote (in 2015 they fell 0.5% short of the 8% electoral barrier for coalitions). They contested the election with younger leftist candidates who have the potential to renew the image of the Polish left and embody a more open discourse within the parliament. Still, the Left includes members of various parties with quite different electorates and goals, and only time will tell if they will be able to continue working together or whether the fight for leadership will bring back the disastrous divisions of the past.
Perhaps the most worrying result was the success of a radical party to the right of PiS. The Confederation, led by Janusz Korwin-Mikke, was undoubtedly helped by the normalisation of radical right discourse within the state-controlled media. This might mean that if PiS wants to recover its control of right-wing politics in the country, it will have to try harder to appeal to voters to their right, with an increase in misogyny, homophobia, antisemitism, and Islamophobia all potential concerns.
Ultimately, the results imply some new constraints for PiS. Even though the party managed to keep control of the Sejm, it has lost control of the Senat, and the upcoming election of a new President in 2020 offers yet another chance to challenge its domination of the Polish political landscape. Given that the presidential candidate must obtain a majority of votes to win, this might be difficult for PiS under current circumstances. Sunday’s election also indicates that some degree of cooperation within the opposition camp, which stopped short of merging into a single bloc, can be successful, and if they manage to find a candidate that could appeal to its different sectors of support (the liberals, the left and farmers), they could succeed in taking over the presidency.
Indeed, there may have been good reasons for Kaczynski’s sombre mood, in spite of PiS seeing an increase in votes in comparison to 2015. If PiS has hit its ceiling in these elections, the future of Kaczynski’s project to overhaul Polish democracy into something mirroring Viktor Orbán’s ‘illiberal state’ in Hungary might have peaked. This is especially true given the relatively favourable conditions during the campaign, which was marked by the country’s continued strong economic performance, despite costly social transfers, and the party’s control of the public media.