Election Campaign in Poland: The Desired Turning Point at Reach

© picture alliance / NurPhoto | Jaap Arriens

This Sunday, parliamentary elections will take place in Poland. Few other elections in Central Europe this year are likely to attract as much attention as this one. Poland, with its almost forty million inhabitants, has long been a significant player within the European Union. Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine in February 2022, Poland has gained even more political weight thanks to a clear positioning in favour of full support for the victims of the Russian attack. Poland's economy is currently developing dynamically. The country devotes a remarkable four percent of its GDP to its defence budget. This makes it the largest contributor within NATO. The money flows mainly into the expansion of the army; the country wants to build up one of the strongest and best-equipped armed forces in the EU. Right after the Russian attack began, Warsaw made a name for itself as Kyiv's most important and reliable partner in the EU. With the start of the current election campaign, however, the historically rather unusual cross-camp political unity began to crumble.

The Polish political party landscape is exceptionally volatile. Many parties have an extremely short lifetime. The two most successful exceptions: The national conservative party Prawo i Sprawiedlivość (English: Law and Justice, abbreviated PiS) led by Jarosław Kaczyński and the pro-European, conservative-liberal Platforma Obywatelska (English: Civic Platform, PO) of former European Council President Donald Tusk. Polish society is strongly polarised. A kind of culture war is raging between the two groups. The combination of mood-oriented volatility and chauvinism has become the trademark of the PiS. After eight years of dismantling the democratic system through the PiS government, there is nevertheless great hope for change: several recent polls show that the PiS needs at least one coalition partner to continue governing.

PiS and the united opposition

In the years of opposition in the Sejm, the PO has moved more and more into the centre of the Polish political spectrum. Before the election campaign, the PO joined forces with the moderate left wing Zieloni (The Greens), Inicjatywa Polska (The Polish Initiative), which also belongs to the moderate left-wing camp, and with the liberal Nowoczesna party (Modernity). The name of the alliance is Koalicja Obywatelska (Civic Coalition, abbreviated KO). The alliance is not exactly homogeneous in terms of ideology and electorate. What holds the partners together above all is their criticism of the fundamental attitude of the PiS and its leadership.

Apart from KO and PiS, only three other parties are likely to have a chance of entering or re-entering parliament. Current polls put PiS at just under 33%, KO at 31%. In third place is the electoral alliance Trzecia Droga (Third Way) with around 13%. The alliance between the agrarian, conservative-centrist party Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe (Polish People's Party, PSL) and the liberal-centrist Polska 2050 (Poland 2050) was quite surprising. In terms of ideology, both are seen as smaller sisters of the notorious antipodes PiS and KO. What seems unthinkable on a large scale was possible on the small one: the party leaders of PSL and Polska 2050 formed a coalition that aims to create an alternative to the two dominant political giants. As far as the classically left segment of the political spectrum is concerned, only Lewica (The Left) can hope for parliamentary representation. At present, the party has about 11% in the polls. The far-right and resolutely eurosceptic party Konfederacja (The Confederation) is also expected to have a good chance of entering the Sejm, even if its polls are rather weakening a few days before the elections. The demise of Konfederacja would be bad news for the PiS, which would lose a potential coalition partner.

Thanks to the unusual unity of the entire opposition, PiS has no natural coalition partner apart from Konfederacja. A great triumph for the opposition was the March of a Million Hearts in Warsaw, to which Donald Tusk had mobilised his supporters at the beginning of October. Around one million people took part in the largest protest against a government since the fall of the Iron Curtain. It was supported by all opposition parties, but also by well-known figures from society and culture.

Key topics of the election (anti)campaign

Several issues dominated the election campaign agenda. The general tone in recent weeks has been almost apocalyptic. The term "fateful choice" was frequently used.

A crucial topic are women's rights. The status of women deteriorated after the strengthening of the abortion law in 2020. Since then, the birth rate in Poland has demonstrably sunk. Women who want to have an abortion usually do it in the neighbouring Czech Republic. Because of the fear of the legal consequences, many doctors refuse to perform an abortion even if a patient's life is in danger due to a complicated pregnancy. Investigations against gynaecologists occur repeatedly. Because of that, several women have tragically died because an abortion was denied to them. For these reasons, concern about pregnancy by Polish women has increased and the birth rate has fallen to its lowest level since the Second World War. PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński caused outrage when he attributed the low rate to young women being too hedonistic and preferring alcohol consumption to starting a family. The opposition is gaining popularity among the cohort of younger women, also because of this restrictive abortion law and its consequences.

One problem that dominates the daily lives of all groups of voters is inflation. Each of the two camps blames the other for the rise of the living costs. Donald Tusk never tires of pointing out that the PiS has failed in the eight years of its government to protect citizens against the rigours of economic and geostrategic crises within the framework of an appropriate economic and social policy. Moreover, the PiS is criticised for depriving the country of millions of euros from the European Recovery Fund thanks to its rule of law and energy policies.

In the hot phase of the election campaign, the PiS government played the classic populist card and pushed fuel prices at the petrol stations of the state-owned Orlen Group to a level well below the market price. This also artificially decelerated inflation and the government made sure to give itself a credit for it. Since then, the country has been in a veritable fuel frenzy. Many petrol stations ran out of fuel after only a few hours. Even the PiS cannot outwit the laws of the market.

Another focal point of the election campaign is the security issue. This has two dimensions: illegal migration and the geostrategic challenges of the Russian war in Ukraine. After all, the government and the opposition agree on one point, namely support for Ukraine. Russia represents the common image of the enemy. There is also no disagreement between PiS and PO on questions concerning the modernisation, professionalization and rearmament of the Polish army. During its years in government, PiS has significantly increased defence spending and acquired modern weapons technology in the USA. In the current situation, the government can now market this as a forward-looking policy.

From the very beginning, the government has been using the heaviest campaign tools against the PO and Donald Tusk. The peak of PiS's anti-Tusk propaganda was the release of a top-secret NATO strategic document outlining the worst-case scenario for the defence of Polish territory in the event of an attack by Russia. This document dates back to 2011, a time when the PO was in power. However, it was drafted by Polish generals and approved by the then President Lech Kaczyński. The PiS now falsely misused this document to accuse Tusk of wanting to hand over the eastern parts of Poland's territory to Russia.

Tusk is portrayed as a treacherous vassal of the German government and the Brussels bureaucracy in PiS election spots, but also in the pro-government state media, where Berlin and Brussels are often associated with dictate and suppression of Polish sovereignty. As a former president of the European Council, Tusk is of course well connected and highly regarded in both capitals. He stands for a clearly pro-European course and cherishes the partnership with Germany. All of this was repeatedly linked in PiS campaign videos to the growing influx of illegal migrants into Europe, especially after it was revealed that the Polish Foreign Ministry and consular services had been issuing visas to migrants from Africa and the Middle East in exchange for bribes. The government introduced controls at the country's external borders and its videos show Tusk allegedly agreeing to an EU relocation mechanism, accompanied by images of migrants full of aggression and violence designed to create fear. PiS does everything to divert attention from its own mistakes and to get votes from the far-right camp. In doing so, it is even putting its good relations with Ukraine at risk. A relevant example is the blockade of Ukrainian grain imports to Poland (and also to Slovakia and Hungary). Under pressure from their own farmers, the countries banned the import of cheaper grain from Ukraine. In Poland, the dispute developed into a suspension of armsdeliveries from Poland to Ukraine.

Almost all of these issues are addressed in the referendum initiated by the government, which is taking place parallel to the parliamentary elections on Sunday. The questions are so suggestive that one can only answer with a "no". The PiS's calculation: to further increase its electoral support through the referendum. The opposition, however, has strongly advised its supporters not to take part in the referendum.

The questions in the referendum: 

(1) Do you support selling off state assets to foreign companies, leading to a loss of Polish control over strategic sectors of the economy?

(2) Do you support the raising of the retirement age, including the reintroduction of the higher retirement age of 67 for both men and women?

(3) Do you support the removal of the barrier on the border between the Republic of Poland and the Republic of Belarus?

(4) Do you support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa in accordance with the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy?

The referendum is to be held exactly twenty years after the referendum in which Poland decided to join the European Union. On this symbolic anniversary, Poles will now decide on their future in the alliance of democratic states. The result is likely to be close.

Barbora Krempaská is a project manager at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom's Central European and Baltic States Office in Prague.