How will the “Russian influence” commission affect this year’s Polish election?

By Aleks Szczerbiak

The law paving the way for a powerful new state commission investigating Russian influence in Polish public life has further polarised an already bitterly divided political scene. Both the main liberal-centrist opposition and right-wing ruling party believe they will benefit from this ahead of autumn’s parliamentary election.

Undermining or strengthening democracy?

Last month, the Polish political scene was shaken up by 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.

The commission would have wide-ranging powers to access classified materials, order searches and seizures of evidence, and investigate the processes behind administrative and policy decisions. It could also overturn those decisions deemed to have been made under, and punish public officials who succumbed to, Moscow’s influence.

The president has announced he will sign a bill creating a commission to investigate Russian influence, which can ban people from public office for 10 years.

The opposition say it will be used for political purposes, and a new poll shows most Poles agree

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) May 29, 2023

The commission will examine actions between 2007-2022, a period covering the 2007-2015 governments led by the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), now Poland’s main opposition party, as well the current administration led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, the country’s governing party since autumn 2015.

Many commentators argue that the probe is aimed primarily at PO leader Donald Tusk, who was prime minister from 2007-14 and returned to Polish politics in 2021 following a stint in Brussels as European Council President. PiS has often accused Tusk of having been too friendly towards, and allowing Poland to be unduly influenced by, Russia during his tenure as prime minister. The commission’s critics refer to the law establishing it as “Lex Tusk” or the “Tusk Law”.

The government’s opponents have strongly criticised the proposal as creating an unconstitutional body that is open to abuse, portraying it as one of the most dramatic moments in Poland’s post-1989 democracy.

Given that the commission’s members will 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 says that its real purpose is to act as a political weapon designed to target and undermine the ruling party’s opponents ahead of this autumn’s 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”

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) May 30, 2023

Indeed, they argue that the commission has such broad powers that it could even be used to eliminate PiS’s political rivals from public office without the involvement of an independent court.

The commission would, as part of an administrative decision, be empowered to unilaterally issue so-called “remedial measures” (środki zaradcze) in cases where it deemed that Russian influence led to the undermining of Polish national interests including: cancelling administrative and business decisions, preventing officials from receiving a security clearance, and disqualifying them from positions where they would manage public funds for up to 10 years.

The government’s supporters, on the other hand, have framed the commission as an urgent and necessary means of defending and strengthening democracy and national interests by investigating and rooting out all potential Russian influences in Polish public life.

They argue that Poles have a right to know, and make up their own minds about, how elected representatives and other officials have fulfilled their functions, suggesting that only those with something to hide were opposed to the commission.

Jarosław Kaczyński has accused the opposition and its supportive media of acting like Russia.

„Whenever Poland’s interests are at stake, Tusk is against [them],” he said, criticising the opposition leader for „standing on the side of evil”

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) June 13, 2022

They point out that the probe was PiS’s response to a call from Tusk last October for the establishment of a commission of inquiry specifically to investigate Moscow’s influence on the government’s energy policy.

The opposition say that Tusk called for this investigation to be conducted by a parliamentary committee; PiS responds that the proposed commission is based upon an analogous – and, they argue, successful – “verification” body set up to investigate irregularities during the post-communist “re-privatisation” of Warsaw real estate.

Law and Justice also insists that the commission does not have the power to deprive anyone from holding public office without due process and that its decisions can be appealed to the administrative court.

However, there is disagreement as to whether the “remedial measures” take effect immediately or only when the judicial review is completed. The government’s critics also argue that the administrative court can only consider whether the commission followed the correct procedure not the substance of its rulings.

The EU has opened legal action against Poland over its new Russian influence commission, which can ban individuals from public office.

This is an „absurd attack” and „interference in Poland’s internal affairs”, says a deputy leader of the ruling PiS party

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

Duda’s dramatic about-turn

In fact, in a sudden and dramatic about-turn only four days after approving the law establishing the commission, PiS-backed President Andrzej Duda proposed three key amendments to it.

Firstly, and most importantly, removing the “remedial provisions” allowing the commission to prevent officials from receiving a security clearance and exclude them from public office. Instead, the commission will be able to issue a statement declaring that a person was found to have acted under Russian influence, and therefore a proper performance of their duties in the public interest could not be guaranteed.

Secondly, allowing appeals against the commission’s decisions to be made through a general court rather than the administrative court system. Thirdly, specifying that it should comprise non-partisan experts rather than sitting legislators.

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

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) June 17, 2023

Opposition politicians mocked the president for changing his mind and argued that, even with the proposed amendments, the commission was still an unconstitutional hybrid combining administrative and judicial functions.

The manner of the commission’s appointment, they said, still empowered PiS to use it to slander its political opponents, particularly given the unclear definition of what constituted acting under “Russian influence”, and called for it to be scrapped entirely.

For his part, Duda argued that the commission’s main purpose of revealing the truth about the influence of Russian agents in Poland was preserved. He defended his actions by saying that, even when he had allowed the law establishing the commission to come into force, he also raised concerns by asking the Polish constitutional tribunal to examine its most contentious provisions.

However, Duda was no longer confident that this internally conflicted body would be able to review the law in a timely fashion.

The PM has appealed to a group of rebel constitutional court judges to “think about the good of Poland” and end their refusal to rule on a law intended to unlock billions of euros of EU funds.

The rebels do not accept the legitimacy of the chief justice

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) April 28, 2023

Some commentators argue that Duda may have bowed to international pressure. The European Commission – which has clashed repeatedly with Warsaw over PiS’s judicial reforms, and is currently blocking the country’s access to millions of euros of coronavirus recovery fund monies – almost immediately raised concerns about the Russian influence commission’s conformity with EU law.

But Duda is unlikely to have been influenced by pressure from Brussels and it is more probable that his sudden change of heart was prompted by criticisms from the USA. Maintaining and strengthening Poland’s military alliance with Washington, whom Poland views as its main ally in countering Russian expansionism, has been Duda’s top foreign policy priority since the invasion of Ukraine.

Although the Sejm has now approved Duda’s amendments, the opposition-controlled Senate second chamber has the power to delay the legislation for a further month so the commission may not begin work until mid-August, making the original plan for an initial report in mid-September, just weeks before the election, unrealistic.

It is also unclear how an ongoing opposition boycott will affect the commission’s legitimacy and level of media interest in its work, and whether it will impose draconian penalties if opposition-linked witnesses refuse to give evidence.

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

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) June 17, 2023

Strengthening pro- versus anti-government polarisation

The main political effect of the debate surrounding the formation of the commission has been to raise the stakes in the upcoming election even further, with the opposition arguing that if PiS wins another term of office this will represent a decisive hammer-blow to Polish democracy.

This, in turn, has 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 is important because, given the already 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.

PiS continue to lead the polls. However, their level of support, around 34%, has remained static in recent months and is not enough to guarantee a continued parliamentary majority at this autumn’s elections.

Monthly polling averages via @ewyboryeu:

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) June 17, 2023

This further polarisation benefits PO because it increases 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 focuses public attention upon, and forces the other anti-government parties to rally around, Tusk as both the Russian influence commission’s apparent main target and the embodiment of opposition to it. This makes it very difficult for other opposition party leaders to develop a distinctive alternative pitch.

This dynamic could be seen in the run-up to huge anti-government 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 electorate 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.

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

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) June 4, 2023

The emergence of the commission as an issue at the beginning of the week leading up to the march forced some other opposition leaders who had earlier been wary about offering it their full support to participate enthusiastically – but then, on the day, be completely over-shadowed by Tusk.

However, 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 PiS, opinion polls show that Mr Tusk is also one of Poland’s most distrusted politicians.

PiS’s original 2015 election victory over PO 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 which came to be viewed by many Poles as lacking social sensitivity and out-of-touch with their needs.

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

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

PiS is also hoping that the commission’s revelations about how Tusk developed Poland’s relations with Russia when he was prime minister will strengthen the negative view that many voters have of him.

Indeed, Tusk is himself 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.

Most of the voters that PiS has lost since its 2019 election victory have not switched to the opposition parties and currently intend to abstain, so the key to its election success will be persuading these electors to return to the fold. However, Tusk is also a formidable political operator and not to be underestimated, particularly if PO can portray him as the victim of a PiS-initiated witch-hunt.

Socio-economic issues are still the key

The huge controversy surrounding the Russian influence commission’s formation has certainly changed the dynamics of the Polish political debate during this “pre-election campaign” period. However, by removing some of its most controversial features, Duda’s amendments may have de-fanged it somewhat as a matter of political contestation.

It is also questionable how much cut-through the commission will have as an issue that swings voters or whether media interest will shift back to socio-economic issues.

The key to PiS’s electoral successes has been delivering on its generous but costly social welfare spending programmes. It was concerns about the economic situation and falling living standards that were the main reasons why many of its erstwhile supporters became disillusioned with the party.

And it is these kind of bread-and-butter issues, rather than the constitutional questions raised by the Russian influence commission, that Poles care most about and are probably still the key to determining the election outcome.

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

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) May 14, 2023

Main image credit: Andrej Klizan/EU2016 SK (under public domain)

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

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