How is Poland’s new ruling coalition governing?

By Aleks Szczerbiak

Poland’s ideologically diverse new government is prioritising “settling accounts” with its right-wing predecessor and elite replacement. But Poles may quickly tire of this if they view it as “revenge politics”. And looking for get-arounds to avoid possible presidential vetoes and Constitutional Tribunal referrals leaves the new administration open to accusations that they are themselves violating the “rule of law”.

An ideologically diverse coalition

At the beginning of December, a new Polish coalition government comprising the previous opposition parties was sworn into office. The new administration is led by Donald Tusk, who served as Polish prime minister between 2007-14 and then European Council President from 2014-19.

Poland’s new government, led by @donaldtusk, has been sworn into office by President @AndrzejDuda.

„We come from different political camps but I am open to cooperation,” said the president, who was an ally of the conservative former government

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 13, 2023

Tusk returned to Polish politics in 2021 to resume leadership of the then-main opposition grouping, the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), which, after an eight-year interlude, once again became the country’s main governing party.

The new coalition is very ideologically and programmatically heterogeneous, ranging from economic and social liberals, agrarians, centrists and social democrats through to moderate social conservatives.

It contains three main groupings: Civic Platform, the eclectic Third Way (Trzecia Droga) coalition and The Left (Lewica), each of which themselves comprises, or was elected at the head of, alliances of several parties.

Opposition to the outgoing government – led since autumn 2015 by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – and a desire to undo its legacy were, and remain, the main things that unite these groupings.

Poland’s new government is a diverse coalition ranging from left to centre-right and contains a mix of big names and new faces, including some from outside politics.

Read our profile of every minister and some of the challenges each will face ⬇️

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 13, 2023

The new government is divided on both socio-economic and moral-cultural issues, but it is the latter that are likely to form the biggest threat to its programmatic cohesion.

This is partly because The Left performed less well than expected in the October parliamentary election and its most radical component, the seven deputies who represent the Together (Razem) party, has decided not to join the government, having failed to secure financial guarantees for the implementation of its social policy programmes on housing and health care.

The more centrist New Left (Nowa Lewica) party, whose members have taken up ministerial positions, is more biddable and concerned primarily with moral-cultural questions.

The pressure on the new government on socio-economic issues will come from the fact that, to win the election, it had to make (some argue overpromise) a series of extremely costly spending pledges.

Poland’s main opposition has unveiled 100 policies for its first 100 days in office if it wins power

They include doubling the tax-free income threshold, making abortion „legal, safe and available”, raising public-sector pay and abolishing the Church Fund

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) September 11, 2023

On the one hand, it has to be seen to deliver on these, not least with important local elections coming up in April and European Parliament elections in June 2024.

Hence Tusk’s inaugural parliamentary policy speech and the new government’s first budget confirmed some of PO’s key election campaign promises, such as a 30% pay increase for teachers and 20% for other public sector employees, and introducing a new 1,500 złoty-per-month childcare benefit for mothers who return to work after maternity leave (the so-called “grandmother’s allowance”).

On the other hand, the government is not implementing its costliest pledge to radically increase the annual tax-fee income threshold to 60,000 złoties which PO had also promised to implement within its first 100 days in office but now argues that it is too late in the tax year to introduce such a change.

The new government has approved an amended budget for 2024 that includes many of its pre-election promises, such as a 30% pay raise for teachers.

The new plans assume an 11% higher budget deficit next year than planned under the previous government

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

Moral-cultural issues are problematic

But it is moral-cultural issues that are likely to be the most problematic and divisive for the new government, particularly the question of abortion.

Many commentators felt that the huge protests against the Polish constitutional tribunal’s October 2020 ruling – that abortions on the grounds of serious and irreversible birth defects are unconstitutional – was a key turning point in the PiS government’s slump in support from which it never really recovered and which culminated in its recent election defeat.

As a consequence, this issue has assumed huge symbolic importance for many of the new government’s supporters.

Poland’s prime minister has admitted it was a “mistake” for the ruling party to push for the constitutional court to introduce a near-total abortion ban in 2020.

He claims “he has always been a supporter” of the abortion law that existed before the ruling

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) November 6, 2023

However, although there is broad consensus within the coalition that the tribunal’s ruling should be reversed, it is very divided on what precise form that should take.

PO and The Left are committed to liberalising the law to allow abortion, more or less on demand, up to the twelfth week of pregnancy. But the Third Way wants a return to the much more restrictive so-called abortion “compromise” that existed before the tribunal ruling, together with a national referendum on the issue.

The Third Way is an electoral alliance comprising two groupings: the agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), whose moderate social conservatism reflects its predominantly rural and small-town electoral base; and the liberal-centrist Poland 2050 (‘Polska 2050) grouping formed to capitalise on TV personality-turned-politician Szymon Hołownia’s success in the 2020 presidential election, when he finished third with 14% of the votes.

Indeed, Hołownia’s continued presidential ambitions provide another potential source of instability within the coalition. He is already using the very high-profile post of speaker of the Sejm (the more powerful lower parliamentary chamber), the second most senior Polish state office after the president, to promote himself ahead of the summer 2025 presidential poll.

Parliament will host a Christmas meal for homeless people and others in need for the first time this week.

„Christmas is a time when no one should be alone. We want parliament to be an open place for citizens, for people to feel that it is their place”

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 18, 2023

However, PO Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, who narrowly lost the 2020 election, will no doubt also be looking to make another presidential run, as may Tusk himself if he does not secure a senior EU post after the current European Commission’s term of office ends in 2024.

Settling accounts with PiS

So given that what unites these parties is their opposition to PiS, one of the new government’s top priorities is a so-called “reckoning” (in Polish: rozliczenie) with the previous administration’s alleged abuses of power.

A key instrument to achieve this will be high-profile special parliamentary investigative commissions. One such commission has already been established to investigate the legality and correctness of the so-called “envelope election” (wybory kopertowe).

This was an unsuccessful attempt by PiS to hold the spring 2020 presidential poll by postal ballot rather than through in-person voting at polling stages during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, which cost the Polish taxpayer 70 million zloty.

The new government argues that this involved violations of the law, while PiS insists that it had a constitutional obligation to organise the scheduled election safely and that all of its actions were legal.

Parliament has approved the creation of a commission to investigate the postal elections that the PiS government tried to organise amid the pandemic in 2020 but which were eventually abandoned

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

Two further commissions of inquiry are planned to investigate allegations that the Law and Justice government misused the Pegasus spyware system to spy on its opponents illegally, and that foreign ministry officials sold Polish work visas in exchange for bribes.

The problem here for the new government is that recent experience suggests that Poles become very quickly bored of these kinds of attempts at settling accounts with previous administrations.

None of the committees of enquiry set up by both the previous PiS government and its PO-led predecessor had anything like the political impact of the famous commission investigating the so-called “Rywin” corruption scandal twenty years ago, which helped to precipitate the re-alignment of the Polish party system.

Indeed, although the new administration’s supporters insist that they are simply trying to hold PiS to account for their time in office, Poles want their governments to be forward-looking and grow tired very quickly of what they often perceive as acts of “revenge politics”.

So, unless these commissions can reveal something really striking and eye-catching to discredit the previous government, they too are unlikely to develop much political traction.

A politician whose phone was surveilled with Pegasus spyware has won an apology and 200,000 zloty compensation from state TV, which published his private messages.

The former PiS government was accused of using Pegasus against opponents to discredit them

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 18, 2023

Elite replacement is a priority

The new government is also prioritising public appointments and elite replacement. This is partly because it is much easier to secure agreement within a programmatically diverse coalition on personnel than on policy matters.

Sharing out the spoils of office is often the “glue” that holds together Polish governments and political formations. But it also ties in with another one of the government’s leitmotifs of, as they put it, “repairing the state” and “restoring the rule of law”.

The PiS government argued that the institutions and elites that emerged during Poland’s post-1989 transition to democracy were deeply flawed. It implemented a programme of radical state reform, particularly of the judiciary which it saw as closely entwined with, and committed to defending, the interests of the post-communist elite.

The new coalition, on the other hand, argues that many of PiS’ actions in office, particularly its judicial reforms, undermined democracy and the “rule of law”.

Donald Tusk, who is likely to lead Poland’s next government, met today with @EU_Commission President @vonderleyen in Brussels.

Afterwards, he said that concrete steps to restore the rule of law must be taken before the EU releases Poland’s frozen funds

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

In fact, many of PiS’s institutional reforms simply involved replacing one set of elite appointees with another, making it appear relatively easy for the new government to unravel them by making a new set of appointments.

This is fairly straightforward in areas such as public administration, state-owned companies, government supervisory bodies and the security services, where the new government is already replacing PiS appointees with figures more sympathetic to the pre-2015 establishment.

But elite replacement is more problematic where the appointees have constitutionally protected terms of office, such as the nearly 3,000 new judges nominated by Poland’s National Judicial Council (KRS) since it was overhauled by PiS in 2018.

Previously most of the council’s members were appointed by the legal profession themselves. But following PiS’s reforms, the majority have been selected mainly by elected bodies such as parliament.

The body responsible for nominating judges in Poland no longer matches the institution enshrined in the constitution due to changes made by the government, which increased political influence over the body, the Supreme Court has found

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) June 2, 2022

The new government questions the constitutional status of the revamped judicial council’s nominees, referring to them disparagingly as so-called “neo-judges”. But the Polish constitution protects them from dismissal.

The other problematic areas of elite replacement are those appointees or bodies where legislation is required to shorten their terms of office or change their composition – such as the KRS itself – because of the risk of a presidential veto or Constitutional Tribunal referral.

Until the 2025 election, the new government has to “cohabit” with a PiS-aligned President Andrzej Duda and lacks the three fifths parliamentary majority required to overturn his legislative veto.

Duda can also refer legislation to the constitutional tribunal (as can a group of 50 parliamentary deputies) which can strike down laws that it deems to be unconstitutional.

The problem for the incoming government is that all 15 members of the tribunal were elected by the Polish parliament since PiS came to office.

The legal status of three of these members is contested by the parties comprising the new government and much of the Polish legal establishment, but the process of appointing the other twelve has not been questioned which means that PiS-nominated appointees will have a majority in the tribunal for some time.

The heads of the Supreme Court and Constitutional Tribunal, both appointed under the former PiS government, have criticised proposed judicial reforms by the new administration, which they claim threaten the rule of law and violate the constitution

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 18, 2023

Get-arounds and role reversal

So the new government is trying to get around these constraints by, for example, passing parliamentary resolutions that question some of PiS’s appointments (invoking rulings by the EU courts and international bodies, or the Constitutional Tribunal when it comprised a majority of pre-2015 appointees) or ministerial directives that are not subject to presidential veto or constitutional tribunal referral.

An example of this was the government’s recent move to replace the management of Polish state TV and radio which, they said, had turned the public broadcasters into PiS propaganda tools (PiS argues that they helped to ensure political pluralism in a media landscape otherwise dominated by their liberal-left opponents).

These management boards were appointed by the National Media Council (RMN), and legislation is required to shorten the latter’s term of office (which runs until 2028) or change its composition.

The government’s takeover of public media this week was a “gross violation of the constitution” and „anarchy [intended] to circumvent the law”, says President Duda.

Some legal scholars and commentators have also raised concern at how it was achieved

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 21, 2023

However, culture minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz sacked the TV and radio management following a parliamentary resolution that cited a 2016 Constitutional Tribunal (dominated by pre-2015 appointees) ruling that the National Media Council was unconstitutional, although critics argue that this was a misinterpretation of the tribunal’s ruling.

As a consequence, we are already seeing a lot of role reversal, and are going to see even more over the next few weeks and months, with PiS citing the constitution and accusing the new government of violating the “rule of law” in exactly the same way that the now-governing parties did about its predecessor during the previous eight years when they were in opposition.

Yesterday’s chaotic takeover of public media highlights the difficulty Poland’s new government faces in repairing captured public institutions without resorting to the same dubious methods that degraded them in the first place, writes @StanleySBill

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 21, 2023

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Main image credit: Krysian Maj/KPRM (under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL)

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

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