On Oct. 15, Poland holds parliamentary elections in what might be the most closely watched European vote this fall. Opinion polls point to a nail-biter. Will the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has dominated Polish politics since its election victory back in 2015, secure an unprecedented third term? A third term that could spell more sparring with Brussels and Berlin and a continued socially conservative domestic agenda. Or will a clutch of opposition parties seize power, attempt to mend relations with various European capitals, and push to roll back some of the previous controversial reforms, such as the politicization of the judiciary?

Like so many other times in recent political history in Poland, the two biggest parties fighting it out are the conservative PiS and the center-right Civic Coalition (KO). Polls show that PiS is likely to finish first with roughly 35 percent of the vote and KO a bit behind with close to 30 percent.

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Both will be looking for potential coalition partners among three political groupings that are all polling around 10 percent of the vote: The Left political alliance; the Third Way, a political coalition between the agrarian Polish People's party and a new centrist force called Poland 2050; and the far-right Confederation party.

The first two look primed to join forces with the Civic Platform, so the party to watch here is Confederation. At first it appears that it would be a natural partner for PiS with its hard-line stance on migration, the EU, and social issues. But there are clear hurdles to overcome.

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Confederation likes to portray itself as a "political outsider," keen to revamp the entire system rather than just joining government as a junior partner. Its "pro-business" agenda with lower taxes and social-spending cuts also runs counter to PiS's lavish benefits payouts in recent years. That could mean a hung parliament, which has spawned predictions that, in case of a stalemate, snap elections might be called in early 2024.

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Deep Background: As well as being a fight between old rivals PiS and KO, these elections are yet another round in the ongoing battle between the two men that have dominated Polish politics this century: Law and Justice's Jaroslaw Kaczynski and the Civic Platform's Donald Tusk.

Both sprang from the Solidarity movement that ousted the country's communist regime and ushered in democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and both have enjoyed stints in power and remain their parties' leaders and biggest stars. Kaczynski served as prime minister in 2006 and 2007, but, since PiS returned to power in 2015, he has avoided running for premier, preferring to remain deeply influential behind the scenes.

Tusk, on the other hand, was prime minister from 2007 to 2014 before becoming president of the European Council, which sets the direction and priorities for the European Union, and heading the center-right European People's Party (EPP), the biggest political grouping in the European Parliament. In 2022, Tusk returned to Poland to head the Civic Coalition again as, without him, the party had taken one electoral beating after another.

The fact that there is no love lost between the two men only spices up the rivalry. The two men's issues with each other go back to the Smolensk air crash in 2010, where the president at the time, Jaroslaw's twin brother Lech Kaczynski, was killed along with many senior Polish politicians and officials. Kaczynski continues to blame the death of his brother on Tusk, who was prime minister at the time. He has often pushed the widely discredited conspiracy theory that it was Tusk, working with the Kremlin, who was behind the plane crash, which claimed 96 lives.

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Foreign observers often warn about political backsliding in Poland under the Law and Justice party, pointing to severely restricted abortion rights, the emergence of "LGBT-free" local municipalities, and, crucially, the politicization of the judiciary. That has led to EU funds being withheld, numerous cases in the European Court, and the possibility of Warsaw losing voting rights in the Council of the European Union, which can amend or veto European Commission proposals. But despite all that, PiS remains popular in Poland.

The party's popularity can be explained by much of the electorate identifying with the party's socially conservative agenda, which plays up the country's nationalist and Catholic character and regularly airs historical grievances, especially toward Germany. But the party has also overseen healthy economic growth, helped by a steady stream of EU funds (Poland is the biggest net recipient of Brussels cash), and increased social spending.

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One of the biggest criticisms of the Civic Coalition's time in power, between 2007 and 2015, was that it only catered for cosmopolitan city folk and neglected the countryside and the less well-off. Law and Justice has taken note. Its flagship child benefits program -- named 500+ after the 500 zlotys ($115) per month per child it offered parents -- has proved popular, with the allowance now increased to 800 zlotys. While in power, the PiS has promised not to increase the pension age and has banned the selling of state companies to foreign concerns -- both of which have been well received.

But don't expect a sudden rollback of many of these reforms if the more liberal opposition wins. The current president, Andrzej Duda, is largely seen as loyal to PiS and wields a veto that can only be overturned by a three-fifths parliamentary supermajority, which is unlikely to be reached by KO and any potential partners. And then there is a constitutional tribunal, which tests the legality of laws passed in parliament, and whose appointees are thought to be supportive of PiS; plus a potentially hostile prosecutor-general and other levers of political power that have been put in place by PiS over the last eight years.

Then there is the issue of Poland's war-torn neighbor Ukraine. In the aftermath of Russia's full-scale invasion of the country in February 2022, Poland was perhaps Ukraine's biggest supporter. It hosts the largest number of Ukrainian refugees, has pushed in Brussels for strong EU sanctions against Russia and generous aid packages for Kyiv, lobbied hard for Ukraine's EU and NATO memberships, and Poland remains the main conduit for arm deliveries to the front.

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But the run-up to these elections has also seen a radical change from Warsaw. It started with Poland (and other eastern EU member states) in May blocking the passage of certain Ukrainian agriproducts entering the EU, complaining that a glut of food jeopardized the livelihoods of its own farmers. Despite mediation by Brussels, to this day Warsaw is only allowing the transit of a few Ukrainian products. Most EU diplomats I have spoken to see the whole affair as Law and Justice's cynical attempt to win rural votes, a crucial segment of the Polish electorate.

It doesn't stop there. Recently Poland wanted to postpone an EU decision to allow Ukrainian refugees in the bloc to continue to have access to local labor markets, housing, and health care. Polish officials on various political levels have been reluctant of late to meet their Ukrainian counterparts and Warsaw has hinted that no new Polish arms deliveries to Kyiv are forthcoming.

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With the dialing down of rhetoric and vote-seeking populism, Polish-Ukrainian relations are likely to improve after the elections, regardless of who gets into power. But will it return to the peak of good relations seen in the immediate aftermath of the Russia invasion?

One thing is certain: The closer Ukraine gets to EU membership, the more Poland and Ukraine will become political rivals. Yes, trade between the pair will likely soar, but they will also compete for the same EU funds designated for farmers and poorer regions. And Warsaw will wield its EU veto powers in Ukraine's EU accession process if it feels its economic or political interests are threatened.

On the same day as the parliamentary elections, there is also a referendum asking four questions about the potential privatization of state-owned enterprises; increases to the retirement age; the admission of migrants under the EU relocation mechanism; and the removal of the barrier on Poland's border with Belarus, which was put up to stop migrants, usually from non-European countries, that Warsaw says Minsk is pushing into the country.

The referendum questions have been heavily criticized for being leading, aimed at exploiting the opposition, and designed to increase voter turnout for Law and Justice. It has also been compared to similar referendums held under the ruling right-wing Fidesz party in Hungary in recent years, which critics also said were designed to drum up support for the government. More than 50 percent of all registered voters have to participate for the result to be valid and, with the opposition urging a boycott, it will be interesting to see if that number is reached and how this referendum will be used politically in the future

Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO.

Reprinted from Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter which focuses on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods. See the original here.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

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