Poland

   
 

Key Challenges

Diverse opposition has new leverage; opposition parties must retain identity
While the 2019 parliamentary elections have reaffirmed the ruling PiS party’s majority, the political and economic constellation has changed. The PiS government is now confronted with a more diverse opposition and will have to find compromises with the Senate. Furthermore, it will have to ensure that the rivalry between Zbigniew Ziobro and Mateusz Morawiecki, the main contenders for succeeding PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, does not become too pronounced. As economic growth has started to slow, the new government will command a smaller government budget. The controversies over the financing of the government’s costly election promises have already begun. The opposition faces significant challenges, too. It has to find the right balance between unity and diversity. It has to hold its slight majority in the Senate together, but must also make sure that the specific profiles of the different opposition parties are not lost to the voters, and that voters can see what the parties stand for and not only what they are against. Moreover, it needs to develop policy proposals that take the social concerns of a large proportion of the population into account, while minimizing the negative economic and fiscal side effects. For the opposition to be effective, they will have to do more than simply criticize the authoritarian clientelism of the PiS government.
President will shape democratic development
The future development of democracy in Poland very much depends on the outcomes of the 2020 presidential elections. The latter are crucial because the Polish president has veto powers, which can effectively block legislation adopted by the Sejm, as the post-2019 PiS majority falls short of the numbers needed to overcome them. If President Duda wins the elections, the PiS’s second term in power will very likely contribute to the further decay of democracy in Poland. Political clientelism is likely to expand, the dismantling of the separation of powers will continue and civil society will be marginalized. State hegemony is expected to dominate in all domains of life, following the Fidesz model in Hungary.
Is EU ready to defend
its core values?
There is however an alternative development path that would be more conducive to the return of the rule of law and liberal democratic norms, which hinges on two categorically different sets of factors. The first derives from the external context, particularly the EU institutions and more broadly the European infrastructure, including the European Council and the Venice Commission. The big question here is whether the European Union as a political community is serious about its constitutional foundations and ready to defend its core values, procedural principles of democracy, and the rule of law in EU member states. Poles are the most europhile citizens in the European Union, between 80% and 90% of the public supports Poland’s membership in the European Union. This certainly is an asset that ought to be utilized.
Local politicians can mobilize liberal voters
The second factor is the relationship between the central government of PiS, and major metropolitan centers and dozens of medium-size cities, which are run by opposition parties or non-PiS political alliances. This will be of crucial importance for the future of Polish politics and democracy. The ability of local politicians and alliances to organize citizens in defense of policies neglected by the PiS government and utilize their assets to mobilize liberal-democratic voters is crucial for the outcome of the 2020 presidential elections and the future of Polish democracy.
 

Party Polarization

Two dominant parties shape landscape; PiS majority has weakened checks and balances
The Polish party system is dominated by two parties that are both rooted in the Solidarność movement – the centrist Civic Platform (PO), and the populist-nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS). The two parties take different approaches toward socioeconomic issues. PO believes in the market as a regulator and sees the provision of equal opportunities for people as a primary goal, while the PiS advocates for greater state interference and broader social welfare. More important than these policy differences, however, are the two parties’ different views of Poland’s post-communist history and differing conceptions of democracy. Whereas PO sees Poland’s economic and political development since 1989 as being a successful transition to a market economy and a liberal democracy, PiS argues that the break with the communist past has been incomplete and that the common people have been betrayed by the liberal elites. Consequently, PiS calls for further efforts to rid the country and all state institutions of anything that has any tinge of communism. Whereas PO subscribes to compromise and pluralism, PiS has sought to eliminate checks and balances. The political polarization between these two camps has been exacerbated by the fact that the PiS government has ruthlessly used its parliamentary majority to expand its power and implement its own projects. Exploiting people’s fears and portraying liberals as a threat to Polish society has been central to the PiS’s electoral strategy. Given the government’s clear parliamentary majority, and the weakening of other checks and balances, polarization has not led to gridlock. However, the government’s strategy of passing bills very quickly, without much consultation and without searching for consensus has substantially undermined the quality of legislation.
Polarization
expanding further
The growing party polarization is illustrated by the fact that policy differences between PiS and PO voters in the 2019 parliamentary elections were much greater than in 2015 or, even more so, in 2011. At the same time, both political camps have experienced some shifts. PiS is now challenged by a more right-wing and euroskeptic but economically liberal party, the Freedom and Independence Confederation (KON), while the pro-European camp sees a strengthened Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the emergence of a new party (Spring) and, to a certain extent, a resurgent Polish People’s Party (PSL). (Score: 4)
Citations:
Markowski, R. (2020): Plurality support for democratic decay: the Polish parliamentary election of 2019, in: West European Politics, forthcoming.
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