Poland. The nationalist Law and Justice party is pulling economic levers to keep power, and another term could spell more trouble for the European Union, notes Bloomberg.
In Biala Piska, nestled among lakes and farms in northeast Poland, pensioner Bozena Szczekocka knows exactly what she wants to see change after the country’s election this Sunday, 15 October: Nothing!
The Polish economy has grown more than 50%, wages have almost doubled and unemployment has been halved over the past eight years under the leadership of the Law and Justice party. The 4,000 or so inhabitants of the town, which is in a region that used to be among the country’s poorest, have also benefited from government handouts for families with children, the unemployed, disabled and pensioners.
Like many of the townspeople taking part in a procession from the baroque church to give thanks to God for the harvest, Szczekocka was also keen to give the government its due. “What we have now is very good,” says the 63-year-old former waitress and cleaner. “Things have changed for the better.”
The bucolic scene is a world away from what’s arguably Poland’s most vicious and divisive election campaign since communism gave way to democracy in 1989. Biala Piska is emblematic of how, outside the big cities, the nationalist ruling party’s more Europhile, liberal opponents face significant obstacles to altering the course of a country that’s gone from the shining light of the European Union’s eastward integration to its largest renegade.
Judging from polls, the Oct. 15 vote will be tight, and the outcome could lead to weeks of jockeying as the winning party attempts to cobble together a governing coalition. What’s clear, though, is that the election promises not only to decide whether Poland diverges further from western Europe socially and politically but also whether the Continent can stand united in its support of Ukraine amid growing signs of war fatigue among electorates.
An unprecedented third-straight term for Law and Justice would cement Poland’s position as a member of the EU’s awkward squad on NATO’s eastern flank, along with Hungary and now Slovakia, where the head of the party that garnered the most votes in the Sept. 30 elections has promised to stop arms shipments to Ukraine. The risk is that the government in Warsaw will escalate its ongoing clash with the EU over issues that include the rule of law, immigration and green energy targets.
The opposition Civic Platform party is led by Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister who went on to serve two terms as president of the European Council in Brussels before returning to challenge his nemesis, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Law and Justice’s leader and Poland’s most powerful politician.
A win for Tusk would result in a “big symbolic return of Poland to the European mainstream,” says Aleks Szczerbiak, a professor of politics at the University of Sussex in England who writes a regular blog on Polish politics. If the ruling party forms another government, it “will be hoping that the political establishment of the EU will come to terms with the fact that Law and Justice is here to stay and will have to work with them.”
Polling shows Law and Justice leading Civic Platform by 4 percentage points to 7 percentage points. If unable to capture a clear majority of votes, each will need the help of smaller parties to form a government, and that could get complicated given the rise in popularity of a far-right alliance that’s said it will not play kingmaker. A repeat election is possible.
Along with Viktor Orban’s Hungary, Poland’s Kaczynski has pioneered a brand of right-wing populism that resonates with voters in other parts of Europe and as far away as in the US, where figures in former President Donald Trump’s orbit have embraced it. The two men have built up large constituencies by tapping into nativist sentiment and cultural grievances.
Law and Justice, which has styled itself as the defender of conservative Christian values, has weaponized LGBTQ rights, abortion, Ukrainian grain shipments and other concerns. Alongside the election, the government is holding a popular referendum on four issues, including an EU plan that would assign countries quotas on the number of migrants from outside the 27-member bloc they must admit.
Although Hungary often commands more attention, Poland matters more. With a gross domestic product of about $700 billion, it’s the biggest economy in the EU’s east and has absorbed more funding from the bloc on a net per-capita basis than anywhere else since it joined in 2004. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Poland also has become a key transit hub for weapons and other aid and is still sheltering about 1 million refugees.
The social divide in Poland is amplified by a decades-long rivalry between the leaders of the two parties. Kaczynski has pushed a conspiracy theory that Tusk was ultimately to blame for the death of his twin brother, Lech, in a 2010 plane crash while on an official visit to Russia. Lech was president at the time, and Tusk prime minister.
Backed by a potent state media machine, Kaczynski and his party depict Tusk as a puppet of Germany, while Tusk talks of how Poland is at a “turning point” and that the country’s “fate is being decided again.” Civic Platform’s main selling point is that it wants to mend ties with the EU and reverse the government’s policies on things such as abortion and LGBTQ rights, though it’s pledged to leave social programs untouched.
At a packed opposition rally in Warsaw on Oct. 1, the mood couldn’t have been more different from that of Biala Piska and other towns. Marchers talked of how Law and Justice had set Poland on a course to potentially crash out of the EU. They were also concerned about how Poland’s aid to Ukraine had become part of the election campaign.
“The government is dividing people and turning them against each other,” says Aleksandra Ozimek, 54, a dietitian and women’s rights activist who had traveled from the southern city of Katowice to attend the event. “We are being manipulated, told to fear others and fed this aggressive patriotism. This isn’t Europe.”
In 2020, five out of 16 Polish provinces declared themselves “free of LGBTQ ideology.” They backtracked after pressure from the EU. In early 2021, the country tightened what was already one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, despite a nationwide strike by women and the biggest anti-government rallies since the fall of communism.
Law and Justice’s takeover of public media and courts — judges who didn’t fit the desired profile were removed, and top judiciary bodies were stacked with loyalists — became a red line for the EU. For the first time, the bloc moved to tie such democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary to disbursements of EU funds.
The EU has withheld €35 billion ($37 billion) for Poland, saying it will release the money only when the government begins toeing the line. Kaczynski remains defiant, lashing out against the bloc at a rally in the city of Wroclaw last month, while condemning the opposition for being “anti-national,” notes Bloomberg.
Should Tusk’s Civic Platform prevail, forming a new government would require politicians ranging from social conservatives to radical leftists to come together, says Szczerbiak, the UK academic. Its ability to govern with a free hand might also be constrained by President Duda, who has just under two years of his term left, he says. “Anything other than a Law and Justice majority almost certainly means a period of political instability.”