Poland’s ruling PiS begins to falter just days before pivotal election

Poland’s ruling PiS begins to falter just days before pivotal election
Tusk has gone as far as turning PiS’ very own anti-immigrant policy on its head by accusing the government of granting hundreds of thousands of non-EU citizens visas. / bne IntelliNews
By Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw October 11, 2023

Poland’s radical rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) party's bid to retain power in the elections this Sunday might just be unravelling.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s focus on attacking arch-rival and former premier Donald Tusk – the leader of the centre-right  Civic Coalition – during a live debate on the government-run broadcaster TVP on Monday allowed leaders of smaller parties to shine, possibly boosting the opposition’s overall chances of winning a majority.

Then came Tuesday morning. Poland woke up to the shocking news that two of the country’s top generals – Rajmund Andrzejczak, chief of the general staff, and Tomasz Piotrowski, operational commander of the armed forces – had handed in their resignations.

The generals calling it quits came as a clear blow to the ruling party, which has made national security - not just in the context of militant Russia but also migration - a key theme of the campaign. The long silence that followed from Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak,  Morawiecki, and President Andrzej Duda, hinted at chaos in the ruling camp.

Tip of the iceberg

Critics of the ruling party say that the storm in the military is symptomatic of PiS-produced crises that have damaged virtually all public life in Poland.

Public media, a large part of the judiciary and prosecution, state-controlled companies, and schools have all fallen under the tight control of PiS. The government has channelled billions to friendly media and foundations.

PiS has also been at odds with the European Union on a number of issues ranging from climate policy to rule of law, ultimately resulting in Brussels holding up tens of billions of euros slated to prop up the Polish economy in the wake of the pandemic.

At the same time, PiS’ policy of mixing conservative identity politics – via catering to national pride rooted in history – with elements of the welfare state continues to echo well with a large part of Polish society.

PiS recognised correctly – and to maximum political effect – the previously untapped political potential of disillusioned poorer voters in the elections of 2015 and 2019.

The ruling party also averted major economic crises during the pandemic and in the early months of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Even inflation, the opposition’s longtime favourite angle of attacking PiS, is now steadily down to single-digit figures, even if still clearly above the central bank’s target. The unemployment is at a 30-year old low of 5% while real wages have grown an estimated 24% under PiS.

Trying not to lose

In 2023, however, the sources of PiS’ successes may be running dry. There is the classic popular fatigue with a government that has been in power for a long time – a sought-after third term would be unprecedented.

Then there is PiS’ focus on attacking Tusk while apparently overlooking the challenge posed by the rising Left and the Third Way. The ruling party has become so focused on Tusk that it failed to come up with any programmatic game-changer – or more precisely, its supposed game-changers were surprisingly quickly neutralised by Tusk.

“PiS is essentially trying not to lose rather than trying to win,” Ben Stanley, a political scientist at the SWPS University in Warsaw, told bne IntelliNews.

“They have been able to hold on what it has but it seems to have no clear strategy of gaining voters,” Stanley says.

Tusk’s strength is other people

Setting up what is likely to be the last clash of the political titans of his generation, Tusk is the opposition’s hope now to lead it to a victory on Sunday.

Somewhat cynically, Tusk has gone as far as turning PiS’ very own anti-immigrant policy on its head by accusing the government of granting hundreds of thousands of non-EU citizens visas – some of them in exchange for bribes going to an alleged criminal ring inside the foreign ministry.

That, along with Tusk’s leading huge rallies in Warsaw in June and October, has helped the opposition move on from just being reactive to begin dictating the campaign pace instead.

But in an early sign of the political landscape’s tectonic shift, Tusk’s leadership would not matter were it not for the smaller Left and the centrist Third Way that must do well on Sunday to ensure Tusk even has partners to build a new government with.

While polls have long been not precise enough to predict whether a PiS-led or a Civic Coalition-led majority is possible, they are clear that the new parliament will depend on tiny shifts in voter behaviour that no poll is able to detect.

Not just a Polish affair

The election's outcome will reverberate globally. A new government will be at the helm of a country that is crucial to West's effort to help Ukraine fight back the Russian aggression. With a pro-European government made up of today's opposition, however, Poland's position in the EU will change to more convergent with the European mainstream.

A new-old PiS (or PiS-led) administration will present Brussels - and also Washington - with a more challenging task of working together for Ukraine's victory while having to navigate the numerous problems that PiS radical politics will put up along the way. 

Recent spat with Ukraine over grain imports was a case in point, with PiS also managing to frame it in the context of EU enlargement policy, accusing Kyiv of betting on Germany, rather than Poland, in its bid for membership.

PiS' EU policy may even become more hostile if it is forced to strike a coalition deal with the far-right party Konfederacja to retain power.

Knife's edge

As polls suggest now, PiS can count on 36% of the vote against Civic Coalition's 30%. That gives neither party a majority. PiS’ most likely coalition partner, the far-right Konfederacja, averages 9% while the Left and the Third Way are at 10% each. Konfederacja has said it will not work with either big party, while the Left and the Third Way are clearly aiming to be partners of the Civic Coalition.

“Things are on a knife’s edge. Small changes could have a significant impact,” says Stanley.

“In each individual poll we’re looking at a 3% margin of error in both directions so it’s perfectly possible those polls might be wrong one way or the other,” Stanley says.

Should the opposition form a stable majority, it will only have a steep mountain to climb, says Aleks Szczerbiak, a political scientist at the University of Sussex.

“The hostile president, the PiS-controlled public media and the constitutional court are enough to make the new government’s life miserable,” Szczerbiak says.

“It is expectable that this is going to be a PiS plan in case it becomes the opposition,” Szczerbiak says.