WARSAW — The campaign language ahead of this year’s Polish general election is apocalyptic — painting it as an existential battle for the soul of the EU’s fifth most populous country — but the likeliest outcome is a chaotic stalemate.
If the ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) maintains power for a third term, there is limited potential for further damage to Poland unless they choose to leave the EU – which is unlikely. If the opposing party wins, they will be constrained by PiS-controlled courts and institutions and a disagreeable president, limiting their ability to make significant changes and instead only being able to make superficial adjustments to the current state of affairs.
Internationally, Poland is too important to be kept in the deep freeze forever; with a fast-growing economy, a big military and a key role in supplying Ukraine, it is no Slovakia. A PiS win will mean greater efforts to find some accommodation with Warsaw; an opposition victory will dramatically improve the atmosphere, but there are limits to even an opposition-ruled Poland’s coziness on many issues that are key to the EU.
A successful opposition win may decrease PiS’s established benefits, which have been utilized to manipulate the political landscape in their favor. This could result in a gradual shift away from the dominant right-wing party that has controlled Polish politics for the past eight years. However, this is not a immediate solution.
Both parties continue to assert that the October 15 election holds significant importance, despite no hindrances.
Based on PiS’s perspective, Donald Tusk, the leader of the opposition, is an unfaithful Polish citizen who is collaborating with Germany and Russia to transform the nation into a subservient state by allowing large numbers of migrants to enter.
Additionally, he is proposing an increase in the retirement age.
On Sunday, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS and the true power in Poland, declared to his followers: “Donald Tusk was forced to accept a position of subordination to Germany and, by extension, Russia.”
“Put an end to Tusk. Only PiS can guarantee the safety of Poland,” proclaims a campaign advertisement.
The opposition, headed by Tusk’s Civic Coalition, sees another four-year term with Law and Justice in power as a significant threat to Poland’s democratic status. This could also lead to the rights of women being compromised due to a strict abortion law and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community by members of the ruling party.
At a political event in the summer, Tusk stated that the ruling party, Law and Justice, is detrimental and poses a constant danger to our security as each day and month passes under their leadership.
The provocative statements are intended to sway the voters; the latest results from POLITICO’s Poll of Polls reveal PiS with 37 percent and Civic Coalition with 30 percent – indicating that forming a new government will involve assembling a coalition with smaller parties.
Not all of it is just rhetorical manipulation.
According to Professor Aleks Szczerbiak, there is a common inclination to claim that this election is the most significant since 1989, when communism was overthrown. However, in this case, there is a stronger argument to support this statement due to the high level of polarization.
The result will be closely monitored, from Brussels to Kyiv.
The European Union is hopeful that if PiS is removed from power, Poland will go back to following the leadership of Tusk. Tusk was the prime minister of Poland during a time of strong collaboration with the EU and Germany. He later became president of the European Council. As an additional incentive, Brussels will probably promptly release €36 billion in loans and grants from the pandemic recovery fund that were previously delayed due to concerns about PiS’s changes to the court system and its impact on judicial independence.
The attempts by the EU to take away Poland’s voting rights through court cases, resolutions, infringement procedures, and Article 7 would probably be put on hold.
The German government would be relieved to see the end of a government that has continuously provoked Berlin and requested $1.3 trillion in restitution for the damages caused by the Nazi occupation. However, the opposition has not abandoned this demand.
Poland has been one of Ukraine’s fiercest advocates during the war — sending tanks and jet fighters ahead of most other countries, offering diplomatic support, receiving millions of refugees who fled the early days of the war, and serving as the main transshipment point for weapons and other aid heading east.
However, the election campaign has negatively affected that relationship.
The city of Warsaw took the initiative to prevent Ukraine from exporting grain, fearing it would lower Polish prices and negatively affect farmers – a crucial voting group. After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke out against Poland at the U.N., President Andrzej Duda angrily compared Ukraine to a drowning person who puts their rescuers in danger.
The Prime Minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, advised the Ukrainian government to refrain from actions that would harm the Polish farmers. He announced last month that Poland will suspend the delivery of weapons to Ukraine in order to replenish their own supply.
The Foreign Minister of Poland, Zbigniew Rau, did not attend the summit in Kyiv this week. He stated that it will require a massive endeavor to improve relations.
Tusk pledged to initiate a reset: “We must not let the state of Polish-Ukrainian relations be dictated by the carelessness and disorder caused by the Polish government.”
A win for PiS will have a significant impact throughout Europe.
The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is the closest ally of Kaczyński, has been constructing his undemocratic government for more than ten years. With a right-wing leader, Giorgia Meloni, in charge of Rome, populist Robert Fico winning in last week’s election in Slovakia, and the far-right Alternative for Germany party rapidly growing in popularity, it is clear that the right-wing is gaining power throughout Europe.
This is likely to weaken the already fragile control of centrist parties in the European Parliament during the upcoming election next year.
Additionally, this will prevent any possibility of reaching a consensus on a migration agreement to address the influx of individuals crossing European Union borders. It will also hinder any attempts to reform EU institutions in preparation for potential expansion to Balkan countries and Ukraine.
A government led by PiS will impede changes in areas such as taxation and foreign policy that could compromise the country’s ability to veto. Additionally, there is a contrasting stance on immigration,” cautioned a high-ranking official in the Polish government who requested anonymity. “Our view of the European Union differs.”
Despite the strong language used, the election is not expected to greatly worsen the relationship between Warsaw and Brussels.
Kaczyński has made a commitment that if his party is victorious, he will carry on with the alterations to the judicial system that have caused concern within the EU. This comes after acknowledging that the previous reforms have been unsuccessful. He declared, “This time, it will be a success.”
His political group has initiated communication with Brussels in an attempt to undo certain alterations made to the highest courts. However, they have been unsuccessful in persuading the Commission to release the withheld funds.
If the Law and Justice party is elected for a third term, the EU institutions will need to determine if they want to maintain the conflict or find a compromise with Poland, which has firmly embraced a populist agenda.
The Polish government official expressed that both parties must be willing to compromise in order to reach a resolution, using the phrase “it takes two to tango.”
Hungary demonstrated this week that permanent exclusion is not a viable solution, as they skillfully maneuvered to persuade the EU to release restricted funds in order to prevent Orbán from vetoing aid for Ukraine.
Although some opposition members accuse PiS of aiming to initiate a Polexit and withdraw Poland from the EU, Law and Justice has stated that it has no plans to follow in the footsteps of the U.K. and leave the union.
According to PiS MP Radosław Fogiel, the focus of PiS has consistently been on the EU.
A Poland led by the opposition would not be a cooperative ally for Brussels. Despite initial cordiality, persistent issues such as Poland’s reliance on coal energy, resistance to adopting the euro, and hesitation towards accepting a high influx of migrants, as expressed by Tusk during the campaign, will resurface.
Jacek Czaputowicz, a previous foreign minister for the PiS government, stated at the Warsaw Security Forum that even with a change in government, there will likely be significant public resistance to altering migration policies.
The significant and influential agricultural industry in Poland presents a major challenge for Ukrainian grain exports and for the EU’s future attempts to adjust for the inclusion of less affluent member states.
Politicians in Ukraine are expecting the tensions with Warsaw to decrease following the election.
Former Ukrainian ambassador to Poland, Andriy Deshchytsia, stated that war takes a toll on both Ukraine and Poland, causing strong emotions on both sides. He also mentioned that the political atmosphere in Poland, especially during election campaigns, tends to politicize even economic matters. Despite this, Deshchytsia acknowledges that the Russian threat still looms, just as it did a year ago. As a result, he believes that the only option is to continue seeking a compromise.
As bad as it gets
The election is not expected to have a major impact at home, despite the dramatic rhetoric during the campaign.
In the past eight years, PiS has caused significant harm and it is challenging to predict the extent of its potential actions while maintaining EU membership. The state media resembles North Korea in a milder form, state-run companies are filled with party loyalists, the highest courts are heavily influenced by politics, a large portion of the Catholic Church aligns with PiS, the police have shown no hesitation in using force against opposition protestors, and the prosecutor’s office is used for political purposes – dismissing investigations against those in power while aggressively targeting opponents of the regime.
However, it will be challenging to increase that level of control in an economy with a thriving private sector, a robust civil society, and significant private media presence.
Private media companies in Poland are owned by foreign corporations and there are no indications that they plan to leave the market. In the past, an attempt to interfere with the operations of TVN, the biggest private TV network in the country, was swiftly rejected by the United States.
The European Union is currently developing a set of guidelines to protect media independence from political influence and promote diversity. Commission Vice President Věra Jourová stated that this will serve as a significant warning to member states.
If the opposition wins, the relationship with Brussels will be significantly altered and a new administration will eliminate additional legal modifications for the courts. However, any attempt to reverse these reforms and other laws passed by PiS will face a major obstacle: President Duda.
No polls are showing a potential opposition victory significant enough to secure a two-thirds majority of MPs necessary for overriding presidential vetoes. The highest courts in the country are composed of judges chosen by the current administration, resulting in potential legislation being tied up in lengthy legal battles.
According to Szczerbiak, even if the opposition wins a majority, which seems unlikely currently, they are still divided within and will encounter a president with veto power over their laws.
It is possible that Duda may work together with Tusk, since Tusk has warned of legal action against him for disregarding the constitution.
According to Wawrzyniec Smoczyński, a political analyst and president of the New Community Foundation, Duda is skilled at making deals. Smoczyński believes that Tusk poses a significant risk for Duda, so the best way to mitigate this risk is to negotiate a deal.
If Duda refuses to cooperate, a non-PiS administration may only be able to remove PiS supporters from state-owned companies, the government, and the media.
Tusk promised that the public media will be returned to you overnight. He assured that everyone will be removed from there.
The minor actions are unlikely to appease opposition supporters who desire retribution against Law and Justice and a complete separation from the previous eight years.
Paweł Piechowiak, who participated in the recent opposition march in Warsaw and proudly displayed large Polish and EU flags while his cheeks were painted in rainbow hues, expressed his frustration by saying, “Poland is in a state of chaos. The country cannot be further destroyed.”
However, these alterations in personnel could potentially have lasting effects by shifting public media’s support away from PiS, potentially weakening the party’s support in rural and small-town areas of Poland.
This has the potential to alter the political landscape, particularly if the following administration is short-lived and there is a premature election. It may also have an impact on the forthcoming European Parliament election and Poland’s presidential election in 2025.
According to Szczerbiak, the parliamentary election could be considered as the initial phase of a larger campaign.
Reporting from Kyiv, Veronika Melkozerova made a contribution.