The End of the Road: will Poland’s Law and Justice Party make it or break it in next year’s election?6 min read
Poland’s ruling nationalist-conservative party, Law and Justice (PiS), has been in power for the best part of a decade, leading a right-wing coalition government, known as the United Right. Despite the longevity of their rule, approval ratings for PiS remain consistently high, fluctuating between 10 and 14 percent above the liberal-centrist opposition party, Civic Platform (PO), in recent opinion polls. Recent tensions at home and abroad seem to have loosened PiS’s grip on power. Cracks are emerging within the governing camp, and the rule-of-law dispute with the EU is far from reaching a resolution.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that PiS is on course to lose the parliamentary election in 2023; could Law and Justice really win an unprecedented third term in office?
The Polish Deal: PiS fire starting gun for 2023 campaign
John F. Kennedy once said ‘the Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word “crisis”. One brush stroke stands for danger, the other for opportunity.’ PiS has been quick to follow the famous American president’s words. The Covid-19 pandemic has afforded PiS the chance to revitalise what propelled them in 2019 to become the first political party to win more votes than any other in Poland’s post-communist era.
Earlier in the year, the ruling coalition unveiled a new welfare benefit scheme called the “Polish Deal”. While the package is designed to help Poland recover from the pandemic, it also has the potential to cement PiS position as a party that delivers on what it promises.
At the core of PiS’s previous electoral successes is its highly popular 500+ child benefit programme. Implemented in 2016, the scheme pays families 500 Zloty (€109) a month for each child they have from the second onwards. The emphasis on the importance of family in Poland’s post-communist economic transformation appeals simultaneously to conservative voters, who cherish Poland’s traditional Catholic values, and swing voters, who approve of the economic redistribution.
What PiS seeks to do with the Polish Deal is reinforce this election-winning formula. Within the package is a plan to extend the successful child benefit scheme to include an offer of up to 12,000 Zloty (2,650 Euro) for parents towards childcare costs. Healthcare will also receive a boost in spending in an effort to reverse a decline in Polish life expectancy. The government aims to close the gap between Poland and its fellow EU member states on healthcare expenditure by increasing its current rate of 4 percent of the GDP to 7 percent in 2027.
Although critics of the package say it will be hard to pay for without putting a burden on taxpayers, the expected strong performance of the Polish economy may offset the need for severe tax rises. The latest OECD forecast puts Poland’s economic growth at 5 percent in 2021 and 2022.
Mateusz Morawiecki: the unlikely pro-European prime minister
A solid socio-economic record is not the only factor contributing to PiS’ political dominance. The party seeks to broaden its appeal by adopting an approach that reflects the mainstream pro-EU stance of the Polish population. At first, it may appear that this strategy might have cost PiS its ability to govern.
PiS holds a majority in the Sejm thanks to the support of its extremely conservative junior coalition partner, United Poland, under the leadership of Zbigniew Ziobro. The issue of how Poland should handle its dispute with the EU over its judicial reforms, however, has caused a rift between the two parties.
Ziobro, who is the justice minister in charge of the controversial changes at the heart of the fight with Brussels, has accused the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, of being too soft with the EU. In December 2020, Morawiecki made a compromise with Brussels by accepting a mechanism linking EU funds to EU member state rule-of-law compliance when the European Council summit agreed to a 1.8 trillion Euro EU budget. This brought the coalition close to collapse after Ziobro’s United Poland, voted down the ratification of EU plans to finance the country’s Coronavirus recovery package in May.
However, tensions within the governing camp over the terms of EU funding may work to PiS’s advantage come next election. The decision by United Poland to oppose the approval of the EU financing plans was the culmination of an ideological rupture within the coalition. Jarosław Kaczyński, the 72-year-old founder of PiS and Poland’s de facto leader, has hinted at stepping down and Ziobro believes he is the natural successor. The hardline justice minister sees himself as the guarantor of Poland’s conservative values and rights within the EU. He even went as far as to state that Poland should not stay in the EU “at any price”.
In contrast, the Polish prime minister holds a much more moderate position. Morawiecki sees the government’s rule of law dispute with the EU, not as an intention to withdraw Poland from the EU, but as part of a wider initiative to fundamentally change the EU itself. In a letter addressed to EU heads of government ahead of the rule of law debate in the European Parliament this year, Morawiecki spoke of Poland as “a loyal EU member” while criticising EU institutions for overstepping their competencies.
The return of founder Jarosław Kaczyński to frontline politics as deputy prime minister in September 2020 was a move designed to strengthen PiS’s credentials as a moderate pro-European political force ahead of the next election. It reinforces Morawiecki’s position while at the same time defusing Ziobro’s challenge to the coalition. Distancing itself from United Poland may allow PiS to win over new voters since the vast majority of Poles support their country’s EU membership.
Donald Tusk’s return may backfire on the opposition
The main opposition force running against PiS is the liberal-centrist PO. Donald Tusk, who co-founded PO and served as Poland’s prime minister from 2007-2014, returned as leader of the party in July. With an articulate style that holds PiS to account, Tusk has re-energised the opposition and seen his party narrow in on the gap in opinion polls.
However, there are questions over whether the former prime minister is the right man for the job. To defeat an incumbent in a national poll, the opposition needs to persuade voters why they should switch to their alternative programme. Yet it is still unclear if Tusk can offer a more attractive set of economic redistribution policies than the one currently offered by the government. So far, Tusk has focused his efforts on ridiculing PiS as “evil”, warning voters that PiS is on a path to take Poland out of the EU and riddled with corruption.
There is also the issue of whether Tusk can win back those voters who deserted PO and gave PiS a majority in the 2015 election. Although his return as a leader has given PO supporters something to rally around, Tusk is a polarising figure in Polish politics. His premiership is associated with a failure to look after those Poles – particularly from the poorer east of the country – who felt they had lost out in the post-communist economic transformation. When PiS came into government in 2015, Poland’s total social assistance spending was considerably lower than other European countries, at 2% of GDP compared to 5% in Germany.
No political party can last in government forever, and PiS fortunes will run out sooner or later. But the ascendancy the party is enjoying is thanks to its delivery on promises, and a flexible ideology that appeals to a wide voter base. Until the opposition presents a positive alternative vision for Poland, it looks likely PiS is set to win an unprecedented third term.