Law and Justice – what’s in a name? Depends on who you ask – and there is hardly anyone without a strong opinion.
Poland’s ruling party, PiS, has made the grand vision promised by its full name nothing but a travesty, says the opposition. There can be neither law nor justice under a regime rife with corruption that has pretty much succeeded in harnessing Poland’s institutions – from public media to courts, from key state companies to schools – to build a new version of a one-party state, almost 35 years after the fall of the previous one.
For PiS and its supporters, that view is just short of insane – at least when one closely reads what the ruling party’s troll army is putting on X around the clock.
Eight years in power and with an appetite for another four, PiS has weathered crises no previous government did: the pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine, coupled with an energy and cost of living crisis that followed it.
Not only has the Polish economy not collapsed, but it appears on track to rebound after the slowdown that began in the second half of 2023, the unemployment rate is minimal, and the country is bulking up militarily to keep off the Russian threat.
Gone are the days of hourly wages below €1 (it’s more than five times that now) and Poland now spends tens of billions in welfare like the famous 500+ programme of unconditional monthly payouts of PLN500 (€108) per child that the previous government said was unaffordable.
In the vitriolic campaign ahead of the election on October 15, PiS is thriving on the polarisation it has created in Poland’s public life. The attacks are targeted mostly against the main rival on the opposition, the centrist Civic Coalition and its leaders Donald Tusk, onetime prime minister and European Council President.
In countless rallies that top PiS figures are currently holding daily countrywide, voters get a monolithic message: we are the guarantors of your prosperity and security and if “they” – meaning Tusk – win power back, all that we have done will be rolled back because “they” are elites closer to Berlin and Brussels than, say, Bialystok and Bilgoraj.
Herr Tusk, you are a traitor
“Just whose flag does Tusk bear in his heart, do you think?” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki asked a rally in Trzcianka, western Poland, last week. “You’re right, it’s Germany’s.”
The main lines of PiS campaign have emerged clearly by now. First, it is painting Tusk as an agent of Germany and the EU, and a traitor. A recent campaign stunt showed fragments of what was said to be Tusk’s military strategy in an event of a war with Russia, which appeared to plan on ceding half of the country’s territory and falling back on the Vistula for defence.
“Tusk’s line of treason,” soon filled the videos, social media posts, and rally speeches. Experts trying to explain that the leaked fragments were cutouts from a negative scenario for which any military must plan were drowned out in the noise of an ultra-partisan campaign.
Another line of attack is migration. PiS claims that the opposition’s return to power will make Poland another Lampedusa and Polish cities will face scenes of unrest “like in France”. A Tusk government will promptly sign up to the EU’s migration pact, assuming relocation of migrants from countries under pressure like Italy, PiS says. This resonates well in the largely homogenous society that Poland still is.
PiS also contrasts its welfare policies to those of its liberal predecessors, warning at the same time that a victory for liberals will see the return of low wages and an increasing retirement age.
The ruling party’s campaign is an extension of previous ones that juxtaposes PiS’ mix of right-wing identity politics and – holed as it is – social safety net with the liberals’ alleged plans to leave millions behind once again.
They’re going to take your money away
PiS is playing to well-established fears of the less affluent and less educated parts of the Polish society that live outside of the big cities, which indeed fell behind the rest of the country under Tusk's rule.
“When they [the opposition] come to power, they will take your money away … And they will let swindlers and scoundrels steal. They don't deserve a second chance,” Morawiecki told the rally in Trzcianka.
PiS has not always been this radical. Established in 2001, the party’s platform was initially fighting crime and corruption, building up on the popularity of then Justice Minister Lech Kaczynski, who would later become president.
Kaczynski’s death in a aircraft accident in Smolensk, Russia, in 2010, transformed PiS. The shock of the crash – which saw the president’s wife Maria and 93 other people die as well – pushed Lech’s twin brother Jaroslaw to embrace radical populism.
The shift began with blaming then Prime Minister Tusk for pretty much conspiring with Russian President Vladimir Putin to kill the president, despite robust evidence that poor training and pressure from top officials onboard pushed the presidential plane’s crew to land in poor visibility in Smolensk. The idea spread like wildfire among PiS voters, fanned by countless articles in PiS-friendly media.
Throughout Tusk’s second term as prime minister, PiS became the voice of the disenfranchised in Poland's much vaunted transformation from Communism.
PiS’ revolutionary 500+ plan – which the party pledged and summarily implemented in less than one year after seizing power in 2015 – gave it momentum and the audacity to go for more, with the opposition left to complain in the media afterwards – and not much else.
No holds barred
The party subjugated much of the country’s judiciary with the Constitutional Tribunal a top trophy, made the public media their own, and got on a warpath with the EU under the flag of defending national sovereignty against Eurocrats and their attempts at making the EU a Germany-ruled confederation.
In a viral, if widely ridiculed, video produced for the campaign, Kaczynski answers a call from the German embassy in Warsaw. He declines an invite to speak with the chancellor, telling the caller that the time when Germans told Poland what to do is “over”.
In the campaign heat, PiS has not only embraced calling rivals traitors but it has also sacrificed good relationships it had built with Ukraine in the wake of the Russian aggression.
To chip away at the far-right, PiS instituted a unilateral embargo on Ukrainian grain imports and lectured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to “dare not to attack Poland”, when Zelensky said the embargo was ill-conceived and ultimately played into the Kremlin’s hands by sowing discord between allies.
The eight years of PiS rule have been accompanied by a steady slide down the standards of democratic governance. Critics warn that four more years of PiS at the helm will push Poland right into the realm of semi-autocracies, also strengthening illiberal tendencies elsewhere in the EU.
“So much hinges on what happens in Warsaw,” an anonymous EU official told the Financial Times recently. “And the signs right now are not good.”
Don’t call it until it’s called
But the race to an unprecedented third straight term in office is far from over. For all its strength, PiS has not fixed longtime problems troubling Poles like the lack of quick access to quality health care, deteriorating public transportation networks, and grossly underfunded schools.
The opposition seems to have smartened up, too. “There is no money” disappeared from its media instructions, and it learnt to hit PiS where it hurts. A recent corruption scandal in the foreign ministry, which issued Polish visas for cash to the same people the government typically bashes as dangerous migrants is one example. Another is PiS’ inability to unblock tens of billions of euros from the EU’s pandemic recovery fund.
The latest polls give PiS an edge over the Civic Coalition but not necessarily over Tusk’s party and two other opposition groups – Left and the Third Way - combined. Ultimately, PiS’ winning four more years in power will hinge on tiny shifts between party electorates that the polls will not show until they are evident on election night.