Executive Summary

Increasingly fragile
hold on power
Poland has been governed by the right-wing populist PiS since 2015. In 2020, PiS reaffirmed its hold on power through Andrzej Duda’s re-election as president of the republic in June. However, this was a narrow victory with Duda winning only 420,000 more votes (in a country of more than 30 million eligible voters) than Rafał Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw. Moreover, since the 2019 parliamentary elections, rifts within the governing coalition have increased, as both coalition partners of PiS, the right-wing Solidarna Polska and the more centrist Porozumienie, have become more assertive. In August 2021, Porozumienie eventually left the governing coalition. Now, the government has to rely on unaffiliated members of parliament, the so-called plankton, to secure its majority in the Sejm. In the Senate, the second chamber of the Polish parliament, the opposition already holds a slight majority of seats (51 out of 100). Favored by the first-past-the-post system, cooperation between the parties of the democratic opposition worked in the 2019 Senate election (Markowski 2020).
Mixed record on
pandemic management
The government’s record in combating the COVID-19 pandemic has been mixed. On the one hand, the government succeeded in limiting the economic and social fallout from the pandemic. Real GDP declined by a mere 2.5% in 2020, much less than in most OECD and EU countries, and recovered strongly in 2021. The unemployment rate did not increase in 2020. Additional social spending has eased the situation for many families and pensioners. On the other hand, the Polish healthcare system reached its limit during the second wave of the pandemic and the government has failed to adapt the education system to the challenges of homeschooling. The excess mortality prompted by the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 was among the highest in the European Union.
Continued erosion
of democracy; ongoing civil rights concerns
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the erosion of democracy in Poland has continued (Matthes 2021). The government has continued to expand its control over the judiciary and the media. The government’s instrumentalization of political liberties is shown by the controversial handling of the 2020 presidential elections. Because of President Duda’s strong showing in the polls and the opposition’s low visibility during the lockdown, the PiS, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, long advocated sticking to the scheduled date of May 10 for the election. The government’s desire to take advantage of the situation figured prominently in delaying any declaration of a state of emergency, which would have made it impossible to hold elections. Although previously critical of postal voting, the government introduced a bill making it possible. As it was constitutionally impossible to change the format of an election at such short notice, this step was met with strong criticism even inside the governing coalition. As a result, the election was eventually postponed to June, and a mix of postal and in-person voting was applied. In the 2020 presidential election campaign, PiS used its control over the media to promote nationalist and homophobic rhetoric, and run a smear campaign against opposition candidates. Concerns about civil rights have also been prompted by the controversial October 2021 judgement of the Constitutional Tribunal, which questioned the supremacy of EU law, the state of emergency imposed on the regions along Poland’s border with Belarus, and the revelations in January 2022 that the government had used the Israeli Pegasus spyware to spy on opposition politicians, lawyers and public prosecutors.
Rifts in governing
With growing rifts within the governing coalition since 2019, the government’s strategic capacity has declined. Ministers Ziobro and Gowin, the heads of PiS’s coalition partners, have become more assertive, and have frequently clashed with each other and Prime Minister Morawiecki. To foster ministerial compliance, PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, who previously steered the government from outside, eventually entered the government as vice-prime minister after a major cabinet reshuffle in autumn 2020. Paired with the bypassing of legal requirements for regulatory impact assessments and public consultation by relying heavily on legislative initiatives proposed by individual members of parliament and government bills, the process of policymaking has remained exclusive and opaque. Likewise, the relationship between the central government and the country’s larger cities, most of them led by the opposition, has remained tense, limiting the scope for innovative subnational policies and infringing upon the quality of public services on the ground.
Major reform package criticized
In May 2021, the government presented a comprehensive new economic and social reform package. The “Polish Deal” (Polski Ład) has envisaged a comprehensive tax reform, new family benefits, greater spending on healthcare and additional public investment. Aimed at attracting voters ahead of the 2023 parliamentary elections, the package has been criticized for the additional spending commitments, the higher tax burden for entrepreneurs and the middle class, and the vague investment plans. The implementation of the new tax rules in early 2022 resulted in chaos.
Markowski, R. (2020): Plurality support for democratic decay: the Polish parliamentary election of 2019, in: West European Politics, 43/7, p. 1513-1525.

Matthes, C.-Y. (2021): 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, p. 113-130.
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