Dismantling illiberalism in Poland

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Welcome back. After Sunday’s Polish parliamentary elections, the victorious opposition leader Donald Tusk proclaimed: “This is the end of bad times . . . Poland won, democracy won.”

You could almost hear the sighs of relief across European capitals (apart from Budapest) when the Polish result came in. Still, the job is anything but complete. Will a Tusk-led government be able to reverse the capture of state institutions by the rightwing nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party over the past eight years? And what are the implications for Europe? I’m at tony.barber@ft.com.

I’m dividing this newsletter into four parts: the election campaign, voting patterns and result; the difficulties that will face the incoming government; the Polish economy; and the impact on Europe, including the outlook for hard-right and populist parties.

Worms and an unfair playing field

In the words of Timothy Garton Ash, a British historian and expert on central Europe, the opposition’s triumph showed that “even an unfair election can be won against the odds”.

As Jarosław Kuisz, author of the recently published The New Politics of Poland, wrote for the FT, Poland was awash in PiS propaganda during the election campaign. “The deluge exceeded all limits of decency,” he observed.

Among numerous examples I could cite from the PiS-controlled state media, let me give just one. In March, the public broadcaster TVP aired a news conference given by Bartosz Kownacki, a PiS legislator. It was accompanied by a news ticker that read: “The opposition’s proposals for Poles: worms instead of meat.”

This referred to the ludicrous, false allegation that Tusk’s Civic Platform party planned to limit meat consumption and make the famously pork-loving Poles eat insects.

In recent elections in Hungary and Turkey, the playing field was also far from level, and the countries’ illiberal and strongman rulers carried the day. But not in Poland — why?

Garton Ash writes:

Many voters simply got fed up with the corrupt, petty, backward-looking, obscurantist rule of [PiS], the party led by the 74-year-old Jarosław Kaczyński, who is a kind of one-man walking anthology of resentment.

Tusk triumphs but small parties advance

This is undoubtedly true. But there was also a risk that many voters would see Tusk, 66, as a figure from a bygone era.

Tusk’s career dates to the glory days of the independent Solidarity trade union, which challenged communism, in the end successfully, in the 1980s. He served as Poland’s prime minister from 2007 to 2014, and then had a stint as president of the European Council, the body that groups heads of EU governments.

Tusk deserves credit for leading the opposition to victory in the face of slanderous accusations from PiS that he was a German stooge or agent.

Still, the fact remains that millions of Poles voted neither for Kaczyński’s PiS nor for Civic Coalition, the four-party electoral force led by Tusk’s Civic Platform.

Marta Prochwicz-Jazowska, writing for the German Marshall Fund of the US, puts it like this:

“The strong showing of smaller parties indicates a desire among Polish voters for genuinely new leadership.”

In this excellent summary for the Fondation Robert Schuman in Brussels, Corinne Deloy explains that in the elections for the Sejm, or lower house of parliament, Civic Coalition won just over 6.6mn votes. The two other opposition groups — the centrist Third Way alliance and the leftist Lewica party — won a combined vote of almost 5mn.

On the pro-government and rightwing side, Kaczyński’s electoral coalition won 7.6mn votes — but the extreme-right Confederation took just over 1.5mn.

You are seeing a snapshot of an interactive graphic. This is most likely due to being offline or JavaScript being disabled in your browser.

In other words, more than 30 per cent of voters shunned the parties of both Kaczyński and Tusk. It is this split in the overall vote that explains why Tusk — assuming he becomes prime minister — will have to govern with what might prove to be an unwieldy coalition of Civic Coalition, the Third Way and Lewica.

Geographical differences

As in past Polish elections, the opposition vote was concentrated in western zones of the country and in the major cities.

The PiS vote was highest in the less developed, more traditionally Catholic east and south-east, particularly in smaller towns and rural areas. Alicja Ptak provides a good overview, with charts, on the Notes From Poland site.

Obstacles in the new government’s path

So, what lies ahead?

The first thing to keep in mind is that PiS must co-operate in an orderly, peaceful transfer of power to the opposition. Will that happen? Maciej Kisilowski of the Vienna-based Central European University outlines the reasons for concern.

Should PiS put up resistance, I imagine that the reaction from large parts of Polish society, not to mention the country’s allies abroad, would be one of unqualified disapproval, even outrage.

Let’s assume that the opposition will take office, though it may take until December. The main difficulty — set out in this piece by Raphael Minder, the FT’s Warsaw correspondent — will be that PiS appointees will still control large parts of the state apparatus.

These include the central bank, the upper levels of the judiciary, the state media, public administration and state-controlled segments of the economy.

Moreover, Andrzej Duda, the elected head of state, is a PiS-aligned politician. Up to the end of his second term in 2025, Duda will have the power to block legislation put forward by the new government, because it will lack sufficient votes in parliament to overturn any presidential vetoes.

Finally, although the new coalition will have a strong interest in avoiding internal disputes, one can expect friction to emerge over time among the ruling parties on economic policy, the welfare state, the role of the Catholic church and abortion.

Such differences are likely to come to the fore as Poland gears up for next year’s European parliament elections, as well as a round of local elections that the PiS government controversially delayed from this year.

A boost for the economy

All that said, the outlook is brighter on other fronts. The EU, with which PiS clashed over the rule of law, will surely look with favour on the new government’s efforts to restore judicial independence.

Because of Duda’s role, and because PiS packed the courts with its supporters, the process won’t be straightforward. But in principle a change of government ought to unlock tens of billions of euros for Poland from the EU’s post-pandemic recovery funds and from the regular EU budget, as Leszek Kąsek and Rafał Benecki write for ING bank.

Moreover, the positive market reaction to the election result suggests that international investors will look more kindly on Poland.

It won’t all be plain sailing. A core element of PiS’s electoral appeal was its generous welfare programmes, especially expanded child benefit support. But some economists think these measures were to the detriment of useful long-term investment.

Hanna Cichy, head of economic research at Polityka Insight, says:

[PiS] profoundly changed the structure of public spending, with direct payments for numerous categories of the population, but [left] public services in a sorry state, especially in education.

All the policies of this government have been characterised by a short-term vision, based on an electoral logic.

Return to Europe

As regards the international scene, I expect Poland under a new government to return to its stance of strong wartime support for Ukraine, which PiS diluted in recent months, doubtless for electoral reasons.

In terms of Ukraine’s EU membership bid, however, it may prove hard for the new government to execute a complete retreat from the position, mapped out by PiS, of fierce defence of the interests of Polish farmers.

Under a new government, Poland may also not fall wholly in line with the EU on issues such as migration and asylum reform.

On the whole, though, the opposition’s electoral victory leaves Hungary under its illiberal premier Viktor Orbán more isolated in the EU in its quarrels with Brussels and western European governments over Ukraine, the rule of law and other matters.

Lech Wałęsa
Lech Wałęsa, former Polish president and Solidarity founding leader, a month before Poland’s first legislative elections in June 1989 and the other most famous democratic victory in modern Poland © Reuters

Orbán can count on some sympathy from Robert Fico, Slovakia’s newly elected prime minister — but I’m not convinced Fico will rock the boat with the EU as much as Orbán may be hoping.

Lastly, we should think twice before concluding that the Polish election result marks a turning of the tide for hard-right and populist parties in Europe.

Each country moves to its own political rhythms and in accordance with its own electoral cycles. To take just one example, the hard right is still setting the pace in Austria, benefiting from being in opposition, and is well placed to come top in next year’s elections there.

In Europe, the struggle between moderate parties and more extreme and unconventional forces goes on.

More on this topic

From coal to consensus: Poland’s energy transition and its European future — a report by Szymon Kardaś for the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank

Tony’s picks of the week

  • Security service chiefs of the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand — the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing network — met in Silicon Valley this week to raise public awareness about the risks posed by China in high-tech sectors from quantum computing to synthetic biology. The FT’s Demetri Sevastopulo has the story

  • One year after its inauguration, the European Political Community looks increasingly rudderless after a summit in the Spanish city of Granada that achieved almost nothing noteworthy, Steven Blockmans and Dylan Macchiarini Crosson write for the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies

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