VISEGRAD BLOG: Polish election is a crossroads for Europe

VISEGRAD BLOG: Polish election is a crossroads for Europe
Triple trouble: Poland's Mateusz Morawiecki and Jaroslav Kaczynski, together with Hungary's Viktor Orban (left to right). / bne IntelliNews
By Robert Anderson in Prague October 14, 2023

Poles vote on Sunday in an election that will either extend the eight-year rule of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s radical right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) or mark a return to power for Donald Tusk’s centre-right Civic Platform party in coalition with centrist and leftwing partners.

The election has huge implications not just for Poland and Central Europe but also for Europe as a whole.

It would not change Poland’s stance against Russian aggression. Poland has been a major international player in the West’s response to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, both as a military supply hub and a cheerleader. Though PiS has cynically used domestic frustration with the cost of this role – particularly with regard to cheap Ukrainian grain imports – to try to win votes, whichever party wins is likely to maintain Poland’s support for Ukraine and call for other countries to do the same.

Instead, the key difference between the parties for Europe is in their attitude to the European Union. PiS has been engaged in a long fight with Brussels over its blatant violations of the EU’s values, notably on the rule of law, as it attempted to consolidate its control of the state. In PiS’ second term the EU finally began to respond, freezing some vital funding until the party reverses changes that had damaged judicial independence.

Partly in response to this Commission offensive, PiS has pursued an obstructive and destructive policy in the European Council, together with Viktor Orban’s Hungary. This has hampered the EU’s attempts to prepare the bloc to meet the challenges of particularly climate change and growing refugee flows, as well as the reforms and funding needed to cope with a greatly enlarged union in the future.

In another cynical move, PiS has also tried to stoke animosities towards Germany by launching an old claim for further compensation for Nazi destruction in the Second World War, and by making spurious allegations that Berlin is Tusk’s puppet master.

If PiS were to be re-elected, this conflict with Brussels, if not with Germany, would continue or even worsen, particularly if it is dependent on the far-right Konfederacja party for its majority, as looks likely.

It could also gain further fuel from the recent Slovak election. With the re-election of Robert Fico’s populist leftist Smer party in Slovakia on September 30, three quarters of the Visegrad Group of Central European states are now led by populist parties that use Brussels bashing as a good diversion from domestic woes, and have little interest in advancing Europe-wide solutions to common problems.

Under a Civic Platform-led coalition much – but not all – of this tension with Brussels would disappear. Tusk, a former EU Council president, has the knowledge and contacts in Brussels to quickly rebuild relations with Germany and the rest of the EU. The change in Poland's internal character and external outlook would then allow the country to take its rightful place at the centre of EU policymaking. If Poland shifted its stance, Fico’s Slovakia too would quickly fall into line, leaving Orban’s Hungary as the only remaining troublemaker.  

This election could also affect the mood in Europe, amid fears that radical right-wing populist parties are on the march, while traditional centre-right parties rush to adopt their policies and form governments with them.

As well as Hungary and Poland, recent elections have led to the victory of Georgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, the Finns party becoming part of the Finnish government, and the Swedish Democrats exercising significant influence over the centre-right minority Swedish government. A change of government in Poland could therefore mark a seismic shift that would be heard across the continent, emboldening centrists to put up more resistance to the populists’ destructive vision.

This blog first appeared on bne IntelliNews's Best of the Week. To sign up for the daily Editor's Picks newsletter, please click here.