By Aleks Szczerbiak
Calling multiple referendums on the same day as the parliamentary election helped the right-wing ruling party seize back control of the campaign agenda and put the opposition on the back foot.
While media interest in the referendums has waned, they still provide the ruling party with an opportunity to steer election debate back onto its core issues.
Winning back disillusioned voters
Poland’s parliamentary election, scheduled for 15 October, is extremely closely fought and evenly balanced.
Opinion polls suggest that the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s governing party since autumn 2015, will emerge as the largest party but fall short of an overall majority. It is currently averaging 36-37% support but needs around 40% to have a chance of securing an unprecedented third term in office.
Given the extremely divided political scene, there is very little evidence of any significant transfers of voter support between the governing and opposition camps, so the election outcome will depend largely upon which of the two sides can mobilise their supporters to turn out and vote.
Most of the voters that PiS lost since its 2019 election victory have not switched to the opposition parties and currently intend to abstain, so the key to success will be persuading these disillusioned electors to return to the fold. Over the last few months, the party has been trying to find ways to “reset” the election and win back these voters.
PiS’s electoral successes up until now were based on delivering on its generous but costly social welfare spending programmes. And it was concerns about the economic situation and falling living standards that were the main reasons why many of PiS’s erstwhile supporters became disillusioned with the party.
So the first of these initiatives was a pledge to increase payments from its extremely popular child benefit programme from 500 to 800 złoties per child per month from the start of 2024.
Poland’s ruling PiS party has announced a rise in its flagship child benefit scheme from 500 to 800 zloty per month as it campaigns for a third term.
It has also pledged free medicine for children and seniors and the end of tolls for using motorways https://t.co/S2Iek3tYHF
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) May 14, 2023
Then it passed 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 had undermined Poland’s national security.
The commission is meant to examine actions between 2007-2022, a period covering both the current administration and the 2007-2015 governments led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), now Poland’s main opposition party.
Many commentators argued that the commission was aimed primarily at PO leader Donald Tusk, whom PiS has often accused of allowing Poland to be unduly influenced by Russia during his tenure as prime minister between 2007-14.
The government’s majority in parliament has voted to appoint members of a commission tasked with investigating Russian influence.
The body was formed despite the EU warning Poland not to do so before elections and the opposition boycotting the process https://t.co/fX9ohvb7Tw
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) August 31, 2023
Finally, the party hoped to use its opposition to a new EU “migration pact”, providing for the compulsory relocation of “irregular” migrants within the bloc, as a way of reviving an issue around which it had mobilised successfully in the runup to the 2015 parliamentary election at the peak of that year’s European migration crisis.
The pact, which will 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, is opposed by the vast majority of Poles.
Highlighting security and national sovereignty
However, for various reasons, none of these initiatives proved to be campaign game-changers. So PiS’s latest plan, announced in mid-August, is to organise a series of referendums on the same day as the parliamentary poll.
The original idea was to hold a referendum with a single question asking Poles to reject the EU migration pact. However, the party’s polling and focus group research found that, although most Poles supported the government’s stance on this issue, it was just not salient enough this time around to cut through to voters in the way that Law and Justice hoped.
Poland’s ruling party has now unveiled all four questions it wants to include in a referendum, including asking Poles if they „support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa…imposed by the European bureaucracy” https://t.co/sWDMhjIqpF
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) August 14, 2023
A referendum with just one question on this particular topic could also have ended up boosting support for the radical-right Confederation (Konfederacja) party, which has seen an upsurge in support over the last few months.
Many polls suggest that it could hold the balance of power as the “third force” in the new parliament. Confederation has an even more radical approach to migration and no record in office to defend, so can easily outflank PiS by, for example, arguing that migrants should not receive state welfare benefits.
So PiS decided to add three other referendum questions asking Poles if they oppose: the sale of state-owned strategic economic assets to foreign entities; the removal of a fence erected last year on the Polish-Belarussian border to prevent illegal migration; and raising the retirement age, which PiS lowered to 60 for women and 65 for men.
Polish ruling party unveils referendum question to let “ordinary Poles” not “German politicians” decide
These questions are meant to tie in with and highlight PiS’s overarching campaign themes of security and national sovereignty; its election slogan is “A secure future for Poles” (Bezpieczna przyszłość Polaków).
Political ploy or voice of the people?
The referendum questions are also awkward ones for the opposition and designed specifically to remind voters about various unpopular policies and stances associated with PO, and particularly Tusk.
For its part, the opposition argues that the referendums are pointless because they ask questions about issues that are already settled and where there is no political contestation.
They also accuse PiS of misrepresenting the EU migration pact, arguing that it includes an exemption for countries that are under migratory pressure such as Poland, which has welcomed millions of refugees from Ukraine following the Russian invasion and could actually benefit from the system of solidarity payments.
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 https://t.co/2j70gylHly
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) June 26, 2023
The opposition says that running the two campaigns simultaneously is simply a ploy to help PiS circumvent campaign finance regulations because it can use expenditure on the referendums to promote the party’s core election issues.
This, they say, will negatively affect the transparency and integrity of the electoral process because, while election campaign financing laws in Poland closely scrutinise expenditure by political parties, in practice it will be impossible to distinguish election from referendum campaign expenses.
PO has also tried to turn these issues back on the ruling party. It accuses the government of itself having sold off parts of a major state-owned oil company to Saudi and Hungarian buyers. It argues that the Belarussian border fence is ineffective and that PiS has overseen a huge increase in both legal and illegal immigration.
The opposition also criticises the wording of the proposed questions for using, as they put it, loaded and emotive language designed to demonise its opponents and provoke a specific response in favour of PiS’s current policies. The real purpose of the referendum, they say, is to boost turnout among the ruling party’s core electorate.
An opposition leader has called on the electoral commission to introduce three measures to ensure that the referendum being called by the ruling party does not compromise the results of the parliamentary elections that will take place at the same time https://t.co/inwfjbWqJM
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) August 24, 2023
PiS counters that calling the referendums simply acknowledges the Polish nation’s constitutional right to influence politics directly, and that it is important to give ordinary Poles a decisive voice on these important issues.
Holding the referendums on election day, in the same polling stations and with the participation of the same electoral commissions, minimises costs. Moreover, if they are passed, the referendums would ensure that any future government formed by the current opposition parties would not be able to ignore the will of the people on these issues.
PiS argues that such a mandate is necessary because the opposition opposed building the wall on the Belarussian border and Tusk has in the past expressed support for the mass privatisation of Poland’s remaining state-owned assets.
It was, they point out, the previous PO-led government that increased the retirement age to 67 and, during the 2015 migration crisis, was willing to accept EU compulsory migrant relocation quotas.
Opposition leader @donaldtusk has pledged not to raise the retirement age if his PO party wins elections this autumn.
His comments come after one of his former advisors called for the age to be raised, as it was when PO was previously in power https://t.co/BbVeQQh1B8
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) January 12, 2023
PiS also argues that exemptions from the new migration pact would be at the whim of the European Commission which, it says, is not a trustworthy partner and often applies double standards.
Engage or ignore?
Moreover, although, by encouraging voters to boycott the referendums, the opposition may reduce turnout enough so that it does not cross the 50% threshold required for the plebiscites to be constitutionally valid (polls suggest it is hovering around this mark), this allows PiS to accuse its opponents of being anti-democratic and acting in bad faith.
Boycott calls also risk confusing and demobilising opposition voters. In order not to be counted in the referendum turnout, voters will have to refuse the ballot paper while still accepting those for the parliamentary election. Even taking the referendum voting card but not filling it in, or casting an invalid vote, will still be treated as participation.
The ex-head of Poland’s electoral commission has announced he will boycott the government’s planned referendum.
He also advised people on how to legally avoid participating while still voting in parliamentary elections due to take place at the same time https://t.co/NZ9giNlhdw
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) August 16, 2023
Indeed, even if the opposition ignores the referendums and refuses to engage substantively with the four questions, the plebiscites will still take place and PiS can accuse its opponents of having a hidden agenda and being secretly in favour of implementing these measures.
On the other hand, engaging with the referendum questions risks legitimating the process, and even just calling overtly for a boycott (even if this means simply explaining to its supporters how to abstain), risks shifting the focus of debate back onto PiS’s chosen issues.
Both sides want polarisation
More fundamentally, the referendum is aimed at polarising the election as a straight choice between PiS and PO. PiS feels that such a polarisation is in its interests and could persuade many of its more reluctant supporters to turn out and vote, particularly if the opposition becomes synonymous with Tusk.
Although he is a very articulate and effective critic of PiS, polls show that Tusk is himself an extremely polarising figure, with loyal devotees on the opposition side but also fierce opponents among the PiS core electorate.
The ruling party wants to make this year’s election a referendum on opposition leader @donaldtusk.
While old foes Kaczyński and Tusk are relishing their renewed battle, it may benefit neither and instead further fuel the recent rise of the far right https://t.co/CTdwyPVkKu
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) August 16, 2023
PiS’s original 2015 election victory reflected widespread disillusionment with the country’s ruling elite and a strong prevailing mood that it was time for change. Given that Tusk was prime minister for seven out of the eight years that PO was in office, few politicians better embody the previous government.
PiS believes that, however frustrated Poles may be with the current administration, most of them do not want to see a return to the status quo ante with which they still associate Tusk.
Interestingly, PO also believes that it benefits from such a polarisation because this increases the imperative for the government’s opponents to consolidate and rally around the largest opposition party.
The party’s campaign strategy appears to be based on the idea most Poles are tired of the government and that it only needs to persuade them to vote for PO and Tusk if they want change.
Returning to Law and Justice’s core issues
The multiple referendums initiative helped PiS to seize control of the election campaign narrative and put the opposition on the back foot. The referendum questions clearly strike a chord with many voters and have exposed what the ruling party says is the opposition’s questionable record on these issues.
Even if they are questions that are mostly of interest to the ruling party’s core supporters, it is the mobilisation of these voters, and winning back those ex-PiS supporters who plan to abstain, that will be critical in determining the election outcome.
For sure, news cycles inevitably move on and the initial interest surrounding the referendums has already waned somewhat. But the fact that they will still take place on polling day means that the referendums will not fade entirely as some earlier hoped-for “game changers” did.
They also provide PiS with a pretext to steer debate back onto its core issues if at any point over the next few weeks the ruling party feels that is it losing control of the campaign agenda and the narrative is shifting onto issues more favourable to the opposition.
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Main image credit: Slawomir Kaminski / Agencja Wyborcza.pl
Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex. The original version of this article appeared here.