By Aleks Szczerbiak
Although polarisation of the political scene has led to an increase in support for the main liberal-centrist opposition party, this has been largely at the expense of other, smaller anti-government groupings.
Opposition parties have also yet to find an effective response to the rise of a radical-right grouping that looks likely to hold the balance of power in the new parliament.
The political scene polarises further
Last month, the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping, saw a sharp increase in its opinion poll support.
The party – led by Donald Tusk, who was prime minister from 2007-14 and returned to Polish politics in 2021 following a stint as European Council president – was the beneficiary of the further polarisation of an already bitterly-divided political scene.
This followed the passage of legislation paving the way for the establishment of a powerful new state commission tasked with investigating whether important economic and political decisions taken under Russian influence undermined the country’s national security.
Supporters of the government – led, since autumn 2015, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – framed the commission as an urgent and necessary means of defending democracy by investigating and rooting out all potential Russian influences in Polish public life. They argued that Poles had a right to know, and make up their own minds about, how elected representatives and other officials had fulfilled their functions.
However, given that the commission’s members would be appointed by the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament where PiS has a majority, and its chair nominated by the prime minister, the opposition said that its real purpose was to target and undermine the ruling party’s opponents ahead of the autumn parliamentary election.
The US and EU have expressed concern over Poland’s new commission to investigate Russian influence, which can ban individuals from public office.
The US says it could be „misused to interfere with elections” by „blocking opposition politicians’ candidacy” https://t.co/1MGt53XXWT
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) May 30, 2023
Indeed, many commentators argued that the probe was aimed primarily at Tusk, whom PiS has often accused of having been too friendly towards, and allowing Poland to be unduly influenced by, Russia during his tenure as prime minister.
Moreover, given that the commission’s powers included a provision to exclude public officials from office for up to 10 years – without, government critics argued, the involvement of an independent court (a claim contested by PiS) – the opposition portrayed its formation as one of the most dramatic moments in Poland’s post-1989 democracy.
In fact, PiS-backed President Andrzej Duda proposed amendments that would remove the law’s most controversial provisions, including the commission’s ability to exclude officials from public office.
Nonetheless, the opposition argued that, even with the presidential amendments, the commission was still an unconstitutional hybrid combining administrative and judicial functions, and the manner of its appointment empowered Law and Justice to use it to slander its political opponents.
The government’s majority in parliament has approved changes to the commission investigating Russian influence.
Though the amendments reduce its powers, they were still opposed by the opposition, who say the commission will be used for political purposes https://t.co/d20Gd5iw6I
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) June 17, 2023
Polarisation boosts Mr Tusk
The main political effect of the debate surrounding the commission was to raise the stakes in the upcoming election even further which, in turn, led to a strengthening of the emotional polarisation between the pro- and anti-government camps, and specifically between PiS and PO as the two leading protagonists.
This further polarisation benefited PO because it increased the imperative for the government’s opponents to consolidate and rally around the largest opposition party to defeat PiS as the top priority.
It also focused public attention upon, and forced the other anti-government parties to rally around, Tusk as the commission’s apparent main target and embodiment of opposition to it.
Prosecutors have opened an investigation into whether Donald Tusk, the leader of Poland’s main opposition party, abused his powers when previously serving as prime minister.
The crime carries a potential prison sentence of up to ten years https://t.co/eR8qOtIdyp
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) April 25, 2023
This dynamic could be seen in the run-up to the huge anti-government protest march in Warsaw on 4 June – the anniversary of the partially-free 1989 elections that paved the way for the collapse of Poland’s communist regime – organised by PO to mobilise the opposition around Tusk as its figurehead.
The march became a rallying point for protest against both the Russian influence commission specifically and PiS more generally, turning into one of the largest demonstrations in post-communist Poland and thereby providing a morale-booster for the opposition.
This is important because, given the extremely divided Polish political scene, there is very little evidence of any significant transfers of support between the governing and opposition camps, so the key to this year’s election will be the two sides’ respective levels of mobilisation.
Hundreds of thousands of people have joined protests around Poland today against the ruling PiS party.
„We are here today so the whole world can see how strong we are and how many of us are ready to fight for democracy and a free Poland,” said @donaldtusk https://t.co/kzYIuOmPZ4
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) June 4, 2023
The emergence of the commission as an issue in the week leading up to the march also forced some other opposition leaders, who had earlier been wary about offering it their full support, to participate enthusiastically – and then, on the day, be completely marginalised by Tusk.
Unlike many Polish opposition politicians, Tusk is often good at reading the public mood and used a march that had been planned many weeks earlier to very successfully tap into this anti-PiS backlash.
According to Politico Europe’s aggregator of Polish opinion polls, although Law and Justice remained the largest party averaging 36% support, Civic Platform saw its ratings increase from 27% at the beginning of May to 31% in July.
Will Tusk mobilise PiS voters?
Although Tusk is tactically adroit and often able to put PiS on the defensive, most recently over the government’s apparently insufficiently restrictive immigration policy, up until now PO’s electoral strategy has been based primarily on mobilising around a very radical critique of the ruling party.
The decision comes after opposition leader @donaldtusk accused PiS of hypocrisy regarding its migration policies.
His remarks were criticised by some parts of the opposition for stoking anti-immigrant sentimenthttps://t.co/67wZMcqc0i
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) July 5, 2023
This is rooted in the premise that there is a natural anti-PiS majority that simply needs to be mobilised by whichever grouping is best placed to defeat the ruling party.
But while many Poles are clearly exhausted with the incumbent government, it is questionable whether the underlying appetite for political change is sufficiently strong for PO to win the election without also setting out a more comprehensive programmatic alternative.
Moreover, PIS also feels that it is in its interests to polarise Polish politics in this way, particularly if the opposition becomes synonymous with Tusk. Although he is a very articulate and effective critic of the ruling party, opinion polls also show that Tusk is one of Poland’s most distrusted politicians.
Given that he was prime minister for seven out of the eight years that PO was in office, few politicians better embody the previous government which came to be viewed by many Poles as lacking social sensitivity and out-of-touch with their needs.
Tusk is also a very polarising figure, with loyal devotees but also fierce opponents among the PiS core electorate, so giving him a higher profile may actually persuade some of the ruling party’s more reluctant supporters to turn out and vote.
Opposition leader Tusk says the ruling PiS party is supported by – and shares a similar mentality with – unemployed men who drink and beat women and children
The remarks – now deleted from his party’s social media – show „how he perceives Poles”, says PiS https://t.co/rvakXlIxgz
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) May 12, 2023
Most of the voters that PiS has lost since its 2019 election victory have not switched to the opposition and currently intend to abstain, so the key to its success this time will be persuading them to return to the fold.
Squeezing the smaller opposition parties
Another problem for the opposition is that the increase in support for PO appears to have come largely at the expense of the other, smaller parties and groupings.
The opposition’s combined vote and projected seat share in the new parliament appear to have stalled short of an overall majority; indeed, according to some polls they may have actually fallen.
For the moment, this appears to have had less impact on The Left (Lewica) grouping. This is struggling to win over new voters and remains extremely vulnerable to being squeezed by tactical voting as the election campaign develops a polarising dynamic.
But support for The Left has, according to Politico Europe, plateaued at around 8%, above the 5% parliamentary representation threshold for individual parties.
Poland’s main left-wing opposition has unveiled a „Plan for Mothers” ahead of this year’s elections, including:
– improved reproductive healthcare
– 100,000 new nursery places
– equal pay for men and women in the same position
– better alimony enforcement https://t.co/mx1OuwHrEL
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) May 29, 2023
Rather, Civic Platform appears to be squeezing the Third Way (Trzecia Droga) grouping, an electoral coalition comprising the centrist Polish People’s Party (PSL), that traces its roots to the 19th century agrarian movement, and liberal-centrist newcomer Poland 2050 (Polska 2050) set up by former TV celebrity Szymon Hołownia to capitalise on his strong showing in the 2020 presidential election when he finished third with 13.9% of the vote.
The alliance was formed in April because Poland 2050 was losing support and PSL hovering dangerously close to 5%, in the hope that the two groupings combined would comfortably cross the higher 8% parliamentary threshold for electoral coalitions. Indeed, according to Politico Europe, the Third Way initially averaged around 14% support.
However, particularly after the 4 June march, support for the Third Way has been on a downward trend and the grouping now appears at serious risk of failing to cross the 8% threshold.
Opposition parties Poland 2050 and PSL have formed a coalition ahead of this year’s elections.
They say it will offer a „third way, an alternative to a Poland torn in half”. It will also help them avoid falling below the vote threshold to enter parliament https://t.co/nNo7MhDnUH
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) April 27, 2023
The opposition will not secure a majority in the next parliament simply by shuffling around support within its own ranks, especially if this means that one of the smaller parties fails to cross the electoral thresholds.
All of these votes will then be wasted and there could be a repeat of the 2015 election, when PiS secured an outright majority with only 38% of the vote because left-wing parties and groupings fell short of the thresholds.
Confederation could be kingmaker
The opposition’s other problem is that it has not yet found an effective response to the rise in support for the radical-right Confederation (Konfederacja) grouping which, according to Politico Europe, is averaging around 12% in the polls. The same polls suggest that Confederation is increasingly likely to hold the balance of power in the next parliament.
The far-right Confederation is now running third in the polls with double-digit support.
That raises the likelihood of it holding the balance of power after this year’s elections and has led to renewed scrutiny of the views of its young new leader https://t.co/jrC2mmxENi
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) April 2, 2023
The party has professionalised its image by sidelining its most controversial figures and giving a higher profile to younger, more charismatic leaders who can communicate its radical programme in a more measured and reasonable way.
Confederation has developed a strong online presence and built its profile through social media, which is its younger core electorate’s main source of political information.
The small-state party has also benefited from the strong pivot to the left on socio-economic issues by PO which was formed originally as a pro-free market party but, in an effort to outbid PiS on social spending, has now almost completely abandoned its earlier liberal roots.
As a political formation that has always attacked both PiS and the other opposition parties with equal vigour, the increased polarisation of the political scene has, if anything, actually strengthened Confederation among Poles looking for a credible ‘third force’.
Facebook has lifted the ban it imposed on far-right party Confederation last year for spreading Covid misinformation and hate speech.
The social media giant says the end of the pandemic and Poland’s upcoming elections are behind the decision https://t.co/Lel1XnRSCX
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) June 12, 2023
Most commentators assume that Confederation will come to some kind of post-election accommodation with PiS because its nationalist wing is nominally ideologically closer to the current ruling party.
However, it is difficult to envisage a grouping like Confederation, for whom reducing state intervention is a core element of its appeal, being given a significant say on economic matters in a government led by PiS, which owes much of its recent political success to large social welfare programmes.
Moreover, Confederation’s own long-term strategic goal is to replace PiS as the dominant party on the Polish right.
In fact, Confederation’s voter base is quite ideologically diverse, exemplified by the fact that supporters of its 2020 presidential candidate Krzysztof Bosak divided evenly between the PiS and PO candidates in the second round run-off.
Poland’s main political groups all held campaign events today
The ruling coalition criticised EU „attacks”; PO warned against isolating Poland
Confederation called for tax cuts. Third Way outlined its „radical centrism” and The Left its support for women https://t.co/RSuWPjFkrN
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) June 24, 2023
Indeed, in some ways it may be easier for the current opposition parties to accommodate Confederation’s economic policy demands. However, it will be difficult for Confederation to maintain its radical “anti-system” image if it ends up making the kind of compromises and deals that are required to participate in a governing coalition.
The most likely scenario, therefore, is for the party to prop up a minority government through an informal governing pact rather than a formal coalition agreement.
So even if the current opposition parties can come to an arrangement with Confederation, this is likely to produce a weak and unstable government, almost certainly paving the way for another, this time earlier, parliamentary election.
Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex. The original version of this article appeared here.