Jan Cienski in Warsaw -
Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS) finally won an election in December after nine years of trying, but the victory was so marginal, squeezing out only a half percentage point win over the ruling Civic Platform party and taking fewer seats in regional assemblies than their centrist foes, that the party treated it more like a defeat than a win. Sensing its inability to win this year’s parliamentary elections and oust the hated Civic Platform from power, the PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has instead turned to the streets – but is this playing into the government’s hands?
To the frustration of the right-wing opposition party, it will only rule in one of Poland’s 16 regions – the same one it ruled before the November election. No other party wanted to join it in a coalition, fearing their reputation for swallowing up the supporters of smaller partners. The outcome, with PiS winning 26.85% of the national vote, also underlined that Kaczynski has been unable to break out of his party’s natural base – which tops out at about a third of the electorate.
So on the December 13 anniversary of the 1981 declaration of martial law, when communist dictator Wojciech Jaruzelski used the army to crush the Solidarity labour union, thousands of Kaczynski supporters crowded into central Warsaw to denounce the government and the conduct of the November local elections. The irony is that both PiS and Civic Platform have their roots in the Solidarity movement that ended up defeating the communists.
Chanting anti-communist slogans popular during the 1980s about chasing out the “red scum,” the crowd listened to Kaczynski comparing the current centrist government of Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz to that of the communists before 1989. “We have to remove the bag of rocks which is this government from the backs of our nation,” he said.
Kaczynski is trying to build his appeal by questioning the outcome of the local elections narrowly won by his party. The vote was marred by a very high percentage of spoiled ballots – almost 18% of those cast for regional assemblies. There were also problems with the vote count, which took a week to publish, and with the computer system of the agency in charge of running elections. Finally, the outcome was also surprising, differing from exit polls published right after the vote and giving an unexpectedly high level of support to the Polish Peoples Party, the junior member of the ruling coalition which finds its strongest support in villages and small towns.
Although there is no proof that the vote was rigged, that has not stopped Kaczynski from complaining that the election was “falsified.” During the march, he also attacked the judicial system, saying that judges were in cahoots with President Bronislaw Komorowski to cover up vote fraud. The government had undertaken a campaign to “influence the courts: one could even say to terrorise the courts, and this with the participation of the president”, Kaczynski declared.
That particular comment prompted a sharp response from some of Poland’s most senior judges, who wrote that there were offended at Kaczynski’s accusations. The attacks smack of techniques popular with the government of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, whose right-wing Fidesz party has seized control of almost all of the state’s institutions, something that has alarmed pro-democracy groups and the EU. That is no coincidence. Kaczynski and his allies have called for “Budapest on the Vistula,” hoping to replicate Orban’s success in rebuilding Poland if they ever come to power again (PiS ruled briefly from 2005-2007).
The problem for PiS is that Poland’s other political parties well remember that short stint in power, during which it absorbed the followers of two smaller coalition partners, sent anti-corruption police against the leaders of one of those parties, and in the end destroyed both of them. That has made all other Polish parties wary of joining in a coalition with PiS.
With no ability to form a coalition, PiS has to win this year’s parliamentary elections to both the Senate and the Sejm probably to be held in October. But as the results of the local elections show, the party has a natural ceiling of support that it has been unable to shatter despite a decade of effort. PiS traditionally finds the bulk of its backing in the poorer and more conservative east of the country, and generally does worse in the wealthier west and in larger cities. The latest election did show an uptick in support from voters too young to remember PiS’s controversial two-year government, but Kaczynski is still far from being able to return to his old desk in the prime minister’s office.
However, by taking to the streets, Kaczynski ends up spooking the centrist voters who could help him increase his vote share. For years, Civic Platform has built the main thrust of its election campaigns less on a positive message of how to improve the country, but rather in warning of the disaster that would follow if Kaczynski were elected. Kopacz’s untried government is again seizing on that opportunity. The prime minister has already accused Kaczynski of trying to “set the country on fire.”
“Poles do not want more scenes of hate, they want calm in the country,” Kopacz said. “Kaczynski guarantees neither one nor the other.”
Michal Szuldrzynski, a columnist of the Rzeczpospolita newspaper, feels that Kaczynski is actually playing into Kopacz’s hands. “The more radical Jaroslaw Kaczynski is, the greater the fear of Civic Platform voters and the greater their loyalty to it in the next elections, despite their earlier disenchantment with the party,” he writes.
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