Could the migration issue swing this year’s Polish election?

By Aleks Szczerbiak

Migration is not the most important issue in Poland’s October parliamentary election but it could become salient if linked to national security concerns.

In a closely fought contest, where the key to victory is mobilisation of each side’s electoral base, it may play a decisive role in determining the outcome, although the main beneficiary could end up being a radical-right challenger party.

Migrant relocation back on the agenda

Last month, migration emerged as a campaign issue in the run-up to Poland’s 15 October parliamentary election.

This followed EU states agreeing, by a qualified majority, to a new “migration pact” providing for the compulsory relocation of “irregular” migrants within the bloc, which the Polish government – led, since autumn 2015, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – along with Hungary tried unsuccessfully to block.

The pact would require EU member states that are less vulnerable to migrants crossing their border to either take in a minimum relocation quota from “frontline” states or make “solidarity” payments of €22,000 for each migrant not accepted.

Poland has condemned new rules agreed by EU member states, which will require countries to pay €20,000 for each relocated migrant or asylum seeker they refuse to take in.

It was one of only two countries, along with Hungary, to vote against the deal

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) June 9, 2023

PiS faces a tight election and was hoping that migration would develop into a major issue dividing the main parties as it did during the 2015 parliamentary election, held at the peak of that year’s European migration crisis.

Then, PiS, at the time the main opposition party, lambasted the government led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the principal opposition grouping, for agreeing to admit 6,200 migrants as part of a similar EU-wide scheme for the compulsory relocation of mainly Muslim migrants from the Middle East and North Africa.

PiS viewed the scheme as part of a wider clash of cultures, arguing that its political and symbolic importance went well beyond the numbers involved and that it threatened the country’s sovereignty, national identity and security.

The party warned that there was a serious danger of Poland making the same mistakes as many West European states with large Muslim communities, as the scheme could lead to admitting migrants who did not respect the country’s laws and customs and would try to impose their way of life.

We stopped EU “imposing foreign culture of Islam on us”, says Polish minister following ECJ ruling

PiS has continued to argue that allowing mass immigration from Muslim-majority countries threatens Poland’s status as one of Europe’s safest countries, referring, for example, to the recent riots that swept across France after police shot dead a 17-year-old boy with Algerian roots.

Compulsory EU migrant relocation also remains overwhelmingly unpopular: three opinion polls conducted since the migration pact was announced showed 67-76% of Poles opposed to the idea.

PiS also pointed out that, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, several million refugees entered Poland and (while many later moved to other countries and some returned home) over a million were believed to have stayed in the country, an enormous humanitarian effort that the EU has taken for granted, providing Poland with only €200 for each refugee hosted.

The Polish government estimates that 1.3-1.4 million Ukraine refugees remain in the country one year on from Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Poland has been the primary destination for those fleeing the war

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) February 23, 2023

With the vast majority of Poles strongly opposed to the EU’s plans, PiS was banking on the migration issue helping the party secure an unprecedented third term in office.

In an attempt to make it a major campaign issue, PiS is planning to hold a national referendum on Poland’s participation in the EU migration pact alongside the parliamentary election. This should also help secure the 50% turnout threshold required for a referendum to be constitutionally valid.

Mr Tusk goes on the attack

Poland’s opposition parties knew that migration was a very difficult issue for them and that they could not allow it to dominate the election. They argued that a referendum was unnecessary because it was clear that there was a broad public consensus against EU relocation quotas.

The opposition accused PiS of using the issue to distract Poles from the government’s other failings: the rising cost of living and economic insecurity, its inability to secure frozen EU coronavirus recovery funds, and dissatisfaction with the country’s restrictive abortion laws.

Both the opposition and EU officials also accused PiS of misrepresenting the migration pact, arguing that no country would be forced to receive relocated migrants. Indeed, having taken in so many Ukrainian refugees, Poland would, they said, probably be exempt from having to make ‘solidarity payments’ and could even end up being a beneficiary of them.

Poland’s criticism of the EU’s planned migration pact is „incomprehensible” and „untrue”, says Commissioner @YlvaJohansson.

She says Poland would be exempted from receiving or paying for additional migrants because it is hosting so many Ukrainian refugees

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) June 26, 2023

However, notwithstanding the fact that PiS opposed the forced relocation of illegal migrants in principle, the ruling party argued that such exemptions would not be automatic and the pact’s provisions could be used by the EU political establishment as leverage in clashes with Poland over other issues.

A referendum was necessary, they said, to legitimate the Polish government’s stance and because they did not trust assurances from EU officials who had a record of being duplicitous with, and applying double standards to, PiS.

In fact, knowing the dangers that the issue posed, PO leader Donald Tusk – who was prime minister from 2007-14 and then returned to Polish politics in 2021 following a stint as European Council president – tried to turn the tables on PiS.

In a series of viral social media videos published at the beginning of July, Tusk highlighted what he argued was the dissonance between the ruling party’s rhetoric on this issue and the fact that it had overseen Poland’s largest-ever wave of immigration, including many more foreign workers from outside Europe than the EU was planning to transfer.

Opposition leader @donaldtusk has called for Poland to „regain control of its borders” amid an influx of Muslim migrants

His remarks were criticised by the government but also opposition figures, who accused him of a „bidding war” on anti-migrant rhetoric

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) July 3, 2023

Tusk said that PiS was preparing legislation that would make it easier for even more migrants from Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria and Pakistan to enter Poland.

He was referring to a law drafted by the government to address labour market shortages that involved expanding the list of countries whose citizens could apply for a visa directly from the foreign ministry rather than via a local Polish consulate.

Tusk also accused the government of having already issued work permits to more than 130,000 migrants from Muslim countries in 2022 alone, fifty times more than in 2015, the last year that PO was in office.

Poland has issued more first residence permits to non-EU immigrants than any other EU member state for the fifth year running.

It issued almost one million permits in 2021, more than twice as much as any other country and one third of the EU total

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) August 11, 2022

Law and Justice on the back foot

PiS responded by saying that the 130,000 figure was for work permits alone and only a fifth of these applicants were actually issued with visas entitling them to stay in Poland temporarily.

They said that there was a clear difference between migrants verified by the Polish government who were allowed to enter the country legally in a controlled way, and EU-imposed quotas of illegal migrants.

PiS also argued that PO was only pretending to be against illegal immigration for electoral purposes, noting that as European Council President Tusk had threatened Warsaw with sanctions for opposing the original EU relocation scheme.

More broadly, PiS argued that PO was unreliable on this issue, citing examples of prominent party figures who had interfered with the work of patrols on the Polish-Belarussian border.

A “container town” that will house up to 6,000 foreign workers – mainly from Asia – has been set up at the site of a chemicals plant being built by Polish state energy firm Orlen.

The facility features canteens, a police station, and even a cricket pitch

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) June 20, 2023

At the same time, other opposition parties, commentators and migrant rights groups criticised Tusk for using anti-immigrant language, particularly his allusions to the French riots, and the fact that he included the prefix “Islamic Republic” when referring to the Iranian and Pakistani states, and concluded by talking about the need for Poland to “take back control of its borders”.

Indeed, in the past PO had itself accused PiS of exploiting anti-Muslim rhetoric for political gain, and Tusk’s statements ran counter to its own political base’s very pro-immigration views.

Nonetheless, Tusk was clearly prepared to take a risk and hammer away at PiS on this issue. In fact, most anti-government commentators appeared to either accept Tusk’s claim that his objective was simply to highlight PiS’s hypocrisy, or felt that it was necessary tactically for him to respond in this way to defuse an extremely difficult issue for the opposition.

Tusk’s migration pivot was an interesting case of how the PO leader appears to be mastering the tactic of neutralising problematic issues by turning the tables on the ruling party.

Earlier this year, for example, he responded to a PiS pledge to raise increase its flagship child benefit programme payments from 500 to 800 zloty per child per month from the start of 2024 by making a counter-proposal to increase them immediately.

Increasing the level of the government’s flagship child benefit policy was one of the campaign promises announced by the ruling party in May.

Yesterday most opposition MPs also voted in favour, though PSL, Poland 2050 and Confederation were opposed

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) July 8, 2023

For sure, most Poles do not see Tusk as particularly credible on this issue: a July poll by the United Surveys agency for the right-wing news portal found that, by a 58% to 28% margin, respondents did not feel that PO would defend Poland against mass immigration from Muslim countries.

Rather, his attacks on PiS’s migration policy were meant to knock the ruling party off-balance and undermine its narrative on an issue that it previously felt that it “owned”.

Tusk’s message was aimed particularly at wavering former PiS voters currently disillusioned with the ruling party but who, thanks to the referendum gambit, might return to the fold if they felt that, if elected to office, the current opposition parties would end up accepting the EU migration pact.

Indeed, it unsettled PiS to the extent that, two days after Tusk published his video, the government withdrew its proposed new visa access rules.

The government has halted work on a bill aimed at making it easier for workers from non-EU countries to get visas after criticism from the opposition.

They are „trying to make a technical thing into a political thing,” says minister @SzSz_velSek

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) July 5, 2023

Who will benefit?

A July survey by the IBRiS agency for the Rzeczpospolita daily found that most Poles (35%) said that inflation and the cost of living were the most significant election issues followed by national security (22%), health (17%) and the war in Ukraine (11%) with only 6% citing migrant relocation.

PiS will not be able to recreate the febrile political atmosphere that surrounded the migration issue in 2015, and even then it was not the most important one for most voters.

However, migration remains an emotive topic and has the capacity to become electorally salient, particularly if linked to national security concerns.

For example, over the last two years, thousands of migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa have attempted (largely unsuccessfully) to cross over into Poland with the encouragement of the Belarussian authorities, and this is now even more of a potential flashpoint with Russian Wagner Group mercenaries stationed across the border.

What is the issue that has concerned you the most recently?

– Inflation: 34.8%
– National security: 22.4%
– Health: 17.4%
– The war in Ukraine: 11.3%
– Relocation of refugees: 5.7%
– Education: 4.1%@IBRiS_PL poll for @rzeczpospolita:

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) July 12, 2023

Moreover, given that there is little evidence of significant voter transfers between the governing and opposition camps, the key to victory in this year’s election will be the two sides’ respective levels of mobilisation of their core electorates.

IBRiS found the number of respondents for whom migrant relocation was a major issue increased to 10% among PiS voters, while another 40% cited security concerns more generally. In a closely fought election, the migration issue could thus be crucial to determining the outcome.

However, holding the migration referendum to coincide with parliamentary polling day may instead end up boosting support for the radical right Confederation (Konfederacja) party.

This grouping has recently seen an upsurge in support and currently looks set to hold the balance of power in the new parliament as the “third force” in Polish politics.

One third of young Poles plan to vote for the far right at this year’s election, more than for any other political group, a study of voters aged 18-21 shows.

It also found that 80% say they are „frustrated with the current political situation in Poland”

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) July 25, 2023

Confederation has an even more radical approach to the migration issue and no record in office to defend, so can easily outflank PiS. It has, for example, suggested that Poles should be asked whether they support immigrants receiving state welfare benefits.

“Anti-system” challenger party electorates often contain many people who express support for them in opinion polls but do not actually end up voting.

Combining the election and migration referendum could encourage such “soft” Confederation voters to actually turn out. This would be ironic given that one of the reasons why PiS raised the migration issue originally was to stymie the Confederation’s growing electoral bandwagon.

Notes from Poland is run by a small editorial team and published by an independent, non-profit foundation that is funded through donations from our readers. We cannot do what we do without your support.

Main image credit: Ministerio de Defensa/Flickr (under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex. The original version of this article appeared here.

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