COMMENT: How will the war in Ukraine affect Polish politics?

COMMENT: How will the war in Ukraine affect Polish politics?
The homeland defence law will accelerate the pace of increased defence spending and more than double the size of the Polish armed forces.
By Alex Szczerbiak in London March 3, 2022

Poland’s raised international profile as a key regional diplomatic and military player, together with the tendency for citizens to rally around political leaders at a time of national crisis, are likely to boost support for the country’s rightwing ruling party. Although this ‘rally effect’ will subside, and foreign policy issues are rarely decisive in determining election outcomes, this particular conflict could leave a more long-lasting domestic political footprint, making national security questions much more salient.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raises a whole series of huge diplomatic, economic, security and humanitarian challenges for Poland.

These include: further increases in the price of energy and raw materials that will push up inflation, already at its highest level for more than twenty years; the economic knock-on effects of Western sanctions; and a potentially huge refugee crisis, with estimates that more than one million Ukrainians could flee to Poland to escape the armed conflict.

Although it remains ahead in opinion polls, the rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015, has lost support over the last 18 months as it faced an accumulation of political difficulties. These have included: the coronavirus pandemic crisis, ongoing rule of law disputes with the EU political establishment, infighting within the governing camp, and rising costs of living.

However, the war in Ukraine has now completely overshadowed all of these issues and is likely to consolidate support for PiS. The ruling party will probably benefit from what political scientists call the ‘rally effect’: an inevitable psychological tendency for worried citizens to unite around their political leaders and institutions as the embodiment of national unity when they feel that their country faces a dramatic crisis or external threat.

It is too early to tell how significant, or long-lasting, a boost for PiS the crisis might provide. But there were already some indications that the party’s polling numbers had started to tick up, even before the outbreak of armed hostilities. According to the E-wybory website, which aggregates voting intention surveys, PiS averaged 34% opinion poll support in February – an increase of 3 points compared to January, although still well short of the 40% average that it enjoyed until autumn 2020, and which would allow the party to secure an outright parliamentary majority.

PiS argues that it has taken a series of measures to make Poland more militarily self-sufficient. The latest of these is the so-called homeland defence law which will accelerate the pace of increased defence spending and more than double the size of the Polish armed forces.

However, much of the media spotlight has focused on the government’s international role in trying to resolve the crisis. This has provided Warsaw with an opportunity to raise its diplomatic and military profile as a key strategic regional player. Given Poland’s critical geographical location, and the fact that it is Nato’s largest member and top defence spender in the region, the country plays a pivotal role in the alliance’s security relationship with Moscow.

The Polish government and PiS-backed President Andrzej Duda have been at the forefront of efforts to persuade the Western international community to develop a common, robust response to what they always saw as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperialist destabilisation of the region, and specifically to ensure that sanctions on Moscow were maintained and extended.

PiS has, for a long time, criticised Germany and other Western powers for their over-conciliatory approach towards developing economic and diplomatic relations with Moscow over the heads of their European allies. This was exemplified by the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which runs directly from Russia to Germany across the bed of the Baltic Sea, bypassing Poland and Ukraine, and which Berlin has now belatedly suspended approval of.

Indeed, some observers argued that pressure from the Polish government, and specifically Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, played a pivotal role in persuading Germany to make an abrupt change of course after the invasion started by agreeing to reverse its historical non-intervention policy and send weapons to Ukraine, as well to increase defence spending to over 2% of the country’s GDP (a level considered a minimum by Nato), and block Russian access to the SWIFT international payments system (having initially opposed such tough economic sanctions).

The crisis has also been an opportunity to improve Warsaw’s fraught relations with the US Biden administration. PiS enjoyed very strong ties with Joe Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, whom it came to see as a conservative ideological soulmate. This, together with Biden’s pivot back to developing stronger ties with the EU political establishment (especially Germany), made it considerably more difficult for Warsaw to pursue its international policy agenda.

However, Polish-US relations already started to improve last December when Duda vetoed a controversial media law that the USA felt threatened the commercial interests of the American-owned Polish TVN broadcaster, which takes a strongly anti-Law and Justice editorial line. Now Poland has become the main destination for new US troops arriving in the region since January to strengthen Nato’s Eastern flank. The Biden Administration also announced a $6bn weapons sale to Warsaw, which included 250 M1 Abrams tanks.

A tricky situation for the opposition

At the same time, the opposition parties lack the instruments to exert any real influence at the international level, and, for the sake of national unity, have largely refrained from criticising the government overtly, for the moment at least. Moreover, all the main Polish political groupings share the goal of strengthening Ukraine’s pro-Western orientation and countering Russian expansionism. Eastern policy has generally emerged in the context of domestic politics as a so-called ‘valence’ issue: where parties agree on overall objectives but compete over which of them is the most competent to deliver on these shared goals.

However, while agreeing with the government’s assessments of Russia’s actions and the potential threat that they pose to Polish national security, some sections of the opposition have tried to develop talking points critical of PiS.

For example, the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO) – the country’s governing party between 2007-14 and currently the main opposition grouping – called upon PiS to end its conflict with the EU political establishment over rule of law issues as quickly as possible, by abandoning its controversial judicial reforms. PiS has been in an ongoing dispute with the EU institutions, which agree with the criticisms levelled by Poland’s legal establishment and most opposition parties that these reforms undermine judicial independence and threaten the key democratic principle of the constitutional separation of powers.

PO has argued that PiS' conflict with the EU political establishment undermined national security by weakening Poland’s anchoring in the West and efforts to build alliances within Europe. The Ukrainian conflict, they said, also highlighted the fact that the main threat to Poland came from Moscow not Brussels or Berlin.

The government’s supporters countered that raising the rule of law dispute at this time made PO’s appeals for national unity appear hollow, particularly as the opposition party also implied an equivalence between PiS' reforms and the lack of judicial independence in Russia.

Moreover, PiS rejected the opposition’s critique of its reforms, arguing that, following Poland’s flawed transition to democracy in 1989, the judiciary was expropriated by and represented the interests of an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite, which then co-opted a new legal establishment that perpetuated its legacy. PiS' supporters also argued that the EU political establishment had used the rule of law issue as a pretext and that the root of the conflict stemmed from the fact that the Polish government had, they said, adopted a more robust and assertive approach towards defending and advancing the country’s national identity and interests within the EU.

At the same time, however, over the last few weeks the PiS government and Duda have been making a concerted effort to de-escalate the dispute with Brussels. This was mainly to secure Polish access to EU funds that the Commission is blocking, but also to help the West present a united front in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Moreover, by raising the rule of law issue, the opposition mis-read the national mood which, for the moment at least, seems to want its political leaders to focus solely on the Ukrainian crisis and put other contentious issues to one side.

Previously, opposition parties also strongly criticised attempts by PiS to develop links with rightwing Eurosceptic parties that have enjoyed close ties with Moscow, such as Marine Le Pen’s French National Rally and the Hungarian Fidesz grouping led by Viktor Orban, the ruling party’s closest EU ally.

For example, in January, PO's leader Donald Tusk, a former European Council president and Polish prime minister between 2007-14, criticised Morawiecki for attending a summit meeting in Madrid involving these and other parties, which he described as "a de facto meeting of the anti-Ukrainian international".

PiS countered by acknowledging that these parties sometimes had a different view of Moscow to Poland, but also pointing out that the Madrid summit’s final declaration unequivocally condemned Russian military operations on Ukraine’s border (although the version posted on Ms Le Pen’s website apparently made no mention of this).

The ruling party also argued that, in terms of practical policy preferences, the parties represented at the Madrid summit were no more pro-Moscow than many European centre-right and centre-left parties with whom the Polish opposition was closely allied and whose leaders often had business interests in, and close economic ties with, Russia.

Indeed, immediately prior to the Russian invasion, Morawiecki called upon Tusk to resign as president of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) transnational federation, which he dubbed the "Nord Stream 2 party" due to the critical role played by the German Christian Democrats (the grouping’s leading member) in the development of the controversial Russo-German pipeline.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has completely dominated political debate in Poland overshadowing all other issues. In addition to benefiting from the ‘rally effect’, PiS has been able to portray Warsaw as a key regional player while the opposition has no instruments to exert any real international influence.

Politicians are also acutely aware that most Poles feel that traditional partisan political divides pale into insignificance when the country faces such a major geopolitical security threat. Given this overwhelming imperative for national unity, for the moment at least disputes over PiS' rule of law conflict and other previously salient domestic political issues are on the back burner. The same is true of disputes over the two main parties’ international links which, until just before the Russian invasion, were also a source of bitter political disagreement.

Nonetheless, in spite of the displays of national unity, political calculations are obviously still being made behind-the-scenes and all of these issues are certain to resurface when Poland starts to return to more ‘normal’ patterns of political contestation.

In the longer-term, although the Ukrainian conflict will clearly have major geopolitical effects, it is unclear how long lasting the domestic political impacts will be. At some point the ‘rally effect’ will wear off, the next parliamentary poll is not scheduled until autumn 2023, and foreign policy issues are rarely decisive (or even particularly salient) in determining election outcomes.

However, this particular conflict is likely to leave a more lasting political footprint given its profound geopolitical impacts, economic knock-on effects, and the refugee crisis that it is likely to trigger. At the very least, security issues, both military and non-military, are likely to remain high on the Polish political agenda for the foreseeable future.

Alex Szczerbiak is a Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex. He runs "The Polish Politics Blog" where this article was first published.