Poland is in for a year of faltering growth and still elevated inflation, both of which could dent the chances of Jaroslav Kaczynski's PiS. / bne IntelliNews
By Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw January 9, 2023

This outlook is part of bne IntelliNews' annual series of reports looking ahead to what 2023 holds for the countries in our region. To read the full report, click here or download the pdf at the bottom of the article.

"Every year is like no other but some years are even more like no other" is perhaps the best summary of what is to come in 2023. A war next door, polycrisis at home, and an election to top it all off are nearly certain to result in a year rife with volatility and uncertainty.

Politics will trump everything else in Poland in 2023, as the ruling right-wing coalition of the Eurosceptic United Right – made up of Law and Justice (PiS) and its more radical partner United Poland – will scramble to secure an unprecedented third straight term in office. 

Should they win, further consolidation of power and more democratic backsliding are in store. In fact, governance could deteriorate well before the actual election, as the ruling camp will not hold back – or so it is feared – from anything to make sure it defeats the opposition.

A win for the opposition will not, of course, magically bring Poland back to the pre-PiS era (which had so many problems that it proved a fertile ground for PiS to win in the first place). A new government will face a PiS-linked president until 2025 and a PiS-linked head of the central bank, to name just two centres of power that will remain under the influence of the incumbent government.

Economy-wise, Poland is in for a year of faltering growth and still elevated inflation, both of which could dent PiS’ chances to win. On the other hand, if analysts’ prediction of a returning economic rebound in the second half of 2023 prove true, the ruling party may well try to sell the “we have got you through the worst safely” story in the campaign.

A big question mark is Russia’s war in neighbouring Ukraine. The winter months could increase the inflow of refugees to a country struggling economically and in which political acrimony is only set to intensify ahead of the election.

On the EU front, the government must scramble to make sure that billions from the bloc’s pandemic recovery fund finally start flowing. That will be subject to much politicking – including possible tactical support from the opposition for legislative changes necessary for the funds to arrive.

If the funds are lost, a bitter blame game will ensue and could strengthen the currently small anti-EU sentiment in the general population. 

In a country where polarisation matches that of the UK or the US, an election year will only give rise to more polarisation and accompanying acrimony. The actual vote will not take place until around October – the exact date will be set by President Andrzej Duda in the summer – but campaigning had begun already in 2022 as economic and political crises converged in the wake of Russia’s war against Ukraine. 

The election’s framing is simple. The ruling United Right coalition aims at winning an unprecedented third straight term in office. The opposition wants to take the power back from PiS, which, it says, has ruined the economy and pushed it to the very margins of the European Union by subjugating the country’s judiciary, trampling on media freedom, discriminating against minorities and refugees, all the while beating the war drums as Russian missiles keep raining down on neighbouring Ukraine.

The panoply of crises might suggest that voting patterns are in for a tectonic shift back to the centre-right led by the Civic Coalition’s Donald Tusk (with the Left maybe getting a couple of seats in the new government).

But fantasy it does not need to be; PiS may have weakened in the polls but it has not collapsed and if it can weather the difficulties of the winter, the election’s outcome is anything but given.

That is a big if, of course. The ruling party is being hammered for rampant inflation and what seems a botched response to it by the PiS-friendly National Bank of Poland (NBP) that has plunged the economy into a downturn, the real extent of which is only expected to become clear in 2023.

PiS has reasons to expect that its popularity will dwindle further as the cost of living crisis gathers momentum. If winter proves harsh, even the most dedicated voters could eventually question their allegiance to the ruling party as prices soar for essentials such as food, gasoline, or coal for heating (securing the affordable supply of which PiS had made one of its priorities, with mixed results). Depending on how deep the economic downturn will turn out to be, a possible rise in the unemployment rate is another headache for PiS.

In an election year, PiS will be tempted to further loosen fiscal policy and will most certainly try doing so. But it will have less and less wiggle room unless, warns the opposition, it wants the energy and economic crises to become underpinned by a financial one. The latter could be further exacerbated by the stalemate over €36bn from the EU’s pandemic recovery fund, the disbursement of which is on hold as Brussels considers PiS’ judiciary reforms anti-democratic and in breach of EU laws.

If the ruling party thinks it can weather all that, they may not be being irrational. Inflation is already showing signs of abating, feeble as they may be. Poland’s economy is diverse enough to give analysts grounds to say that it could start rebounding from the bottom of the cycle (expected in Q1) as soon as around June. Any signs of economic recovery in the Eurozone will only improve the odds for a relatively clean escape from the current melee. 

PiS also needs to make peace with its increasingly unruly coalition partner, United Poland, a small party that nonetheless has enough MPs to guarantee the government majority in the parliament. United Poland has dug in  its heels over the reform of the judiciary, painting the EU as a Germany-controlled behemoth on a mission to end nation-states, no less. 

The rogue coalition partner has PiS in a difficult position. The party keeps manoeuvering between what seems an achievable compromise with the EU over the recovery fund money and cosying up to United Poland over the EU’s alleged usurpation of powers and, more generally, the perceived attempts by the West at uprooting traditional gender roles.

The staunchly pro-EU opposition is not without problems, either. The key issue is whether the main opposition parties – Tusk’s Civic Coalition, its fellow yet separate centrist liberals from Polska 2050, the Left, and the agrarian party PSL – should run as one, giving voters a clean-cut choice between continuation and change. Simulations of how Poland’s election system could work in favour – or against – the single opposition block do not offer decisive answers.

“Although opposition parties know that contesting the next election as separate lists favours the right-wing incumbent, a single united bloc remains extremely unlikely given their diverse electorates and because it would mean accepting [Civic Coalition’s] hegemony,” political scientist Aleks Szczerbiak wrote in an analysis earlier this year.

“Most have adopted a wait-and-see approach, and final decisions about the configuration of opposition lists may not be taken until spring,” Szczerbiak added.

Amidst all the crises and uncertainty brought by Russia’s war in Ukraine, Poland taking in well over a million Ukrainian war refugees  without much friction seems a small miracle. Poles opened up their houses and wallets to help in the weeks and months immediately after the invasion. 

Nearly a year on, Ukrainians have blended in, finding jobs and sending their children to Polish schools. Joint effort by the people and the government – which granted refugees most basic rights that Poles have – has not resulted in a backlash yet. The question is open whether a deepening economic crisis will make nationalistic fervour a factor in politics.