Executive Summary

Elections offer choice between two extremes; multiple cleavages in country
In 2019, two national elections were held in Poland: the European Parliament elections in May 2019, and elections to the two chambers of the Polish parliament, the Sejm and the Senate, in October 2019. Like the local elections in October 2018, these elections were set as a choice between two extremes. The opposition argued people should opt for a pro-European, progressive perspective that respects the rule of law, whereas the government presented itself as the political choice for traditional national and family values, and social protection. In the elections to the European Parliament, the democratic opposition even formed a single bloc, the European Coalition. Both elections were won by the governing PiS, which won 45.3% of the votes for the European Parliament and 43.59% of the votes for the Sejm. In the Sejm, the PiS now faces four opposition alliances, the Civic Coalition led by the Civic Platform (PO), the Polish Coalition around the Polish People’s Party (PSL), the Left led by the Social Democrats (SLD) and the nationalist Konfederacja. The election results show the usual north-west versus south-east and urban versus rural cleavages. In the elections to the European Parliament and the Polish parliament alike turnout increased – from 23.83% in 2014 to 45.68% in the 2019 European Parliament elections, and from 50.92% to 61.74% for the national elections. This can be considered a positive development regarding political participation.
More votes for PiS, but same share of seats
While PiS was able to increase its vote share for the Sejm from 37.6% in 2015 to almost 45% in 2019, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński was not satisfied with the election results. To start with, the increase in the vote share has not translated into a higher share of parliamentary seats. As more parties and coalitions secured the necessary threshold to enter parliament, PiS won the same 235 out of 460 seats it had won in 2015. Secondly, the opposition succeeded in receiving a small majority of seats (51 out of 100) in the Senate, the second chamber of the Polish parliament. Here, favored by the first-past-the-post system, cooperation between the parties of the democratic opposition worked and they did not compete against each other in the election. Finally, Solidarna Polska/Razem and Prozumienie, the two PiS partners, also increased their share inside the PiS fraction in parliament (winning 18 seats each).
Expansion of social benefits wins over voters
The strong showing of PiS has stemmed primarily from the favorable economic situation and popularity of particular policies rather than from the popularity of specific politicians or overall support for PiS. In addition to its strong control over the media, the government’s main tool for winning over voters was its expansion of social benefits. The government inter alia increased the minimum wage and the family allowance, cut taxes, and announced a 13th pension payment. In adopting these and other reforms, the PiS government continued to bypass legal requirements for regulatory impact assessments and public consultation by strongly relying on legislative initiatives proposed by individual members of parliament rather than by the government or its parliamentary caucus. The government also benefited from its absolute majority, PiS’s strong party discipline and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s close collaboration with long-term party leader Jarosław Kaczyński who continues to exert substantial informal influence. Precisely because so many bills have sailed so quickly through parliament, the quality of legislation has proven to be very poor, often requiring immediate amendments.
Catholic Church serves as
direct political actor;
PiS and church maintain close alliance
The electoral victory of PiS cannot be understood without taking the role of the Catholic Church into account, not as a religious institution, but as a direct political actor. The Catholic Church in Poland has openly instructed believers who they should vote for, while also threatening local and national politicians with excommunication if they support bills that are contradictory to the Catholic Church’s religious values and “social teaching,” and to specific economic interests. During its government term, PiS supported legislative proposals and draft bills almost identical with the interests of the Catholic Church and the clergy. On many occasions, Kaczyński has unequivocally supported this institution, equating Polishness with Catholicism and labeling Poles unattached to the Catholic Church as alien to the nation. Moreover, liberal elites have been identified as to be the main enemy, and their replacement with a new patriotic elite, capable of “defending the Polish family” and creating a Polish version of a welfare state, was promised if PiS was successful at the polls. PiS has successfully avoided having its policy visions labeled as “socialist,” offering instead an association with the notion of “solidarity” which still resonates positively in Poland.
Quality of democracy
deteriorating; strong
rhetoric against
migrants, minorities
In the period under review, the quality of democracy in Poland has deteriorated further. The Constitutional Tribunal, the public media and the civil service have been turned into partisan bodies. Meanwhile, attempts to undermine the political independence of the Supreme Court, the National Council of the Judiciary and ordinary courts have continued, although these attempts have resulted in the European Commission initiating three infringement procedures. Two of these procedures have already led to European Court of Justice decisions against the Polish government. Political liberties are undermined by restrictions of assembly rights, with harassment by the police increasing and government control of NGO funding expanding. In late 2018, the PiS government passed an amendment of the electoral law. Citizens living abroad were stripped of their right to vote by post. Moreover, the government increased its control over the National Election Commission (Państwowa Komisja Wyborzca, PKW) and its executive body, the National Election Office (Krajowe Biuro Wyborcze, KBW). The changes will become effective after 2019. The quality of democracy has also been affected by the government’s strong rhetoric against Muslims, migrants, the LGBT community and so-called gender ideology, as well as by rising levels of political polarization, corruption and cronyism within state-owned enterprises – issues that became especially visible during campaigning for the recent national elections. Obsessed with enforcing a reinterpretation of Polish history, the PiS government has also sought to impose its national-traditionalist and Catholic values on public institutions and society.
Declining international reputation
Hence, the PiS government’s international reputation has not improved. The European Commission, backed by the European Parliament, has stuck to the Article 7 procedure launched in December 2017 – which states that a persistent breach of the European Union’s founding values by a member state can lead to the suspension of certain membership rights. The European Council has not yet taken a decision since several EU member states, particularly Hungary, have declared that they would not support a vote against Poland. Other forms of external pressure, especially infringement procedures at the European Court of Justice, have had a greater impact.
Markowski, R. (2019): Creating Authoritarian Clientelism: Poland After 2015, in: Hague Journal on the Rule of Law 11(1): 111-132.

Markowski, R. (2020): Plurality support for democratic decay: the Polish parliamentary election of 2019, in: West European Politics, forthcoming.

Matthes, C.-Y. (2020): Polen: Erosion von Pluralismus und Rechtsstaatlichkeit – Ausbau des Sozialstaats. Das konservativ-nationale Programm der PiS-Regierung, in: G. Verheugen, K. Vodička, M. Brusis (eds): Demokratie im postkommunistischen EU-Raum. Erfolge, Defizite, Risiken, forthcoming.
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