Poland’s Opposition Has Nobody to Blame but Itself

After another lackluster election, Polish liberals should stop attacking the government and start taking a hard look in the mirror.

A woman holds a candle as protesters take part in a demonstration in front of the Polish Supreme Court on July 23, 2017, in Warsaw to protest against a new bill changing the judiciary system. (Janek Skarnyzski/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman holds a candle as protesters take part in a demonstration in front of the Polish Supreme Court on July 23, 2017, in Warsaw to protest against a new bill changing the judiciary system. (Janek Skarnyzski/AFP/Getty Images)

Reading only international headlines about Poland—attacks on democracy, mass street protests, conflict with the European Union—one could be forgiven for imagining that the country’s government is under siege. In actual fact, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is in a fairly comfortable position: riding high in the polls and facing little credible challenge from the opposition. Last Sunday’s local elections confirmed this picture. PiS finished well ahead in terms of overall vote share, which was up by 5 to 6 percentage points on four years ago, and significantly increased the number of provincial parliaments it controls. By contrast, the centrist opposition, a coalition of the Civic Platform (PO) and Modern parties, struggled to make an impact outside its urban power base, while the agrarian Polish People’s Party saw many rural voters defect to PiS.

Media commentators and political analysts have noted a variety of reasons to explain the phenomenon of PiS’s popularity, ranging from the party’s use of nationalist and anti-refugee rhetoric to the economic and welfare policies it has initiated. Since its electoral victory in 2015, PiS has managed to create a solid narrative of fulfilling campaign promises, keeping Poles safe, and overseeing economic growth that is not only strong but also more evenly distributed.

This has all undoubtedly contributed to the government’s popularity. But while attention has focused on PiS’s strengths, it is also important to consider the opposition’s weaknesses. One of the striking things about Poland’s political trajectory in the last three years has been the inability of the opposition to mount a credible challenge to PiS, despite periodic mass protests against the government, various scandals that tarnished the party’s reputation, and a handful of international embarrassments. It’s indisputable that a major reason for success of Polish populism is the opposition’s shortcomings.

One significant factor has been the opposition’s lack of effective leadership. Since the 2014 departure of Donald Tusk to take up his current post as president of the European Council, the centrist PO party has struggled for direction. Its then-presidential incumbent, Bronislaw Komorowski, made a complacent, lethargic run at re-election in 2015, losing to the energetic, media-savvy PiS candidate, Andrzej Duda. Duda’s campaign manager, Beata Szydlo, then led PiS to victory in parliamentary polls later in the year, defeating PO’s uninspiring prime minister, Ewa Kopacz.

After Kopacz’s resignation, there was no proper leadership contest. Instead, PO members were asked to vote on a single candidate, Grzegorz Schetyna, after his only rival pulled out of the race. Given that his election was the result of behind-the-scenes internal wrangling rather than open debate about how to learn from the party’s failings in 2015, it is unsurprising that Schetyna has offered simply more of the same. Indeed, in polling on the public’s level of trust in politicians, he consistently ranks as the most distrusted of all. The second-most-distrusted politician, PiS’s chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski, by contrast, has had the good sense to let others, such as Duda, Szydlo, and now Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, be the public face of his party.

The situation is little better elsewhere on the political spectrum. The founder and, until recently, leader of the liberal Modern party, economist Ryszard Petru, is not a natural politician and has committed regular gaffes. Even his party’s main selling point, an image of technocratic competence, was undermined when it was found to have violated campaign finance rules due to an accounting error, resulting in it losing state subsidies. A love affair between the married Petru and a party colleague was the final nail in the coffin, culminating in his ousting as leader, after which he and two other senior members of parliament left the party.

Maverick former rock star Pawel Kukiz, who leads an eponymous right-wing anti-establishment movement that is the third-largest grouping in parliament, is erratic and undisciplined. The wipeout of the political left in 2015, when it won no seats in parliament at all, has left it fragmented, with no clear leader, and out of the public eye.

It is telling that, in polls asking the public to name who is the leader of the opposition, the most popular answer has often been “Don’t know/hard to say” or “No clear leader.” In one recent survey, the top two choices were figures from outside national politics: Tusk and Robert Biedron, the outgoing mayor of Slupsk (more on him later).

The second big failing of the opposition is the failure to create a convincing political narrative—an explanation for what it hopes to accomplish. By the end of its eight years in power, PO had clearly run out of ideas. Since then, under the leadership of a former minister in that PO-led government, it has failed to come up with any new ones. It is no longer clear what PO stands for other than being anti-PiS. That position is enough to ensure a solid base of support, of around 20 to 25 percent nationally, but not enough to win over the vital floating voters whom PiS successfully appealed to in 2015 with a positive message and clear campaign promises. Even the opposition’s success last weekend in big cities appears to have been motivated largely by urban voters’ hostility towards PiS rather than enthusiasm for the alternatives.

PO’s obsessive anti-PiS attitude can also be counterproductive. By latching on to every potential government scandal—real, exaggerated or imagined—the party becomes the boy who cried wolf, undermining trust and blunting criticism of genuine government failings. (The fact that PO accumulated various scandals of its own during eight years in government also makes it harder for the party, and Schetyna in particular, to sound credible when criticizing PiS.)

Moreover, it plays directly into PiS’s hands. Kaczynski thrives off a confrontational form of politics, in which he can portray the opposition not as a legitimate political force whose views should be taken into account but as implacable enemies to be vanquished. Schetyna’s foolish decision in early 2016 to declare that PO would offer “total opposition” to PiS was an example of how he has handed gifts to Kaczynski. The term has now become a government catchphrase to portray the opposition as dangerous zealots willing to attack the state by any means.

The opposition’s lack of narrative is in part a product of PiS’s success. The ruling party has constantly managed to set the agenda, forcing the opposition to be reactive. It has introduced many policies that are popular, putting the opposition in a bind: Copy them and seem redundant? Criticize them and risk unpopularity? Outbid them and look unrealistic or irresponsible? Ignore them and appear irrelevant? The opposition has failed to answer such questions effectively, often oscillating between different positions on key issues such as Poland’s EU refugee quota (with Schetyna at various times saying he would both reject and accept it) and PiS’s popular child benefit program (which the opposition first criticized, then promised to continue or even expand).

The opposition’s failings, then, are clear. But, with vital elections—European, parliamentary and presidential—approaching in the next two years, what could change this situation? Many believe (or at least hope) that the problems of leadership and narrative can be addressed by Biedron, the liberal mayor who recently launched a new political movement. Optimistic supporters see him as the Polish Emmanuel Macron: a relative outsider who can overcome existing party divisions to redraw the political landscape.

Certainly Biedron has already made the right noises, promising to “leave what good has been done by Law and Justice,” while rolling back its anti-democratic measures, and to appeal to “those who voted for PiS and have become disillusioned”. When confronted by nationalists wearing homophobic symbols at an event, Biedron’s response was not to argue with or ignore them but to pose for a selfie and call for unity. His emergence will represent a new challenge to PiS, which has found it easy to attack its longstanding rivals PO and the Polish People’s Party (as well as the more recent Modern, which can be portrayed as PO-lite). Counteracting a new movement led by Biedron, who comes without so much political baggage and with a less confrontational style, will require a recalibration.

Yet there are reasons to be skeptical about Biedron’s prospects. Those who cite his homosexuality as an impediment are probably exaggerating. Without wishing to downplay the problem of homophobia in Poland, polling (and Biedron’s electoral success in Slupsk) indicates that it would not be a barrier for most voters. Indeed, those who would not vote for a candidate because he is gay are unlikely to vote for a secular liberal anyway. And this points to where Biedron’s greatest challenge may lie: There simply may not be enough demand for the values and ideology he offers in a political marketplace as conservative as Poland’s.

A second potential problem is that his arrival simply fragments the opposition further, poaching votes from rival centrist and liberal parties rather than PiS. It has been telling that, since Biedron announced his plans, the most bitter attacks on him have come not from PiS but from PO, which recognizes the danger he represents (one early poll suggests that 61 percent of potential Biedron voters would be defectors from PO). The danger is that PO will lumber on as a kind of zombie party, maintaining a solid core of supporters but never offering enough to attract floating voters, while also either absorbing (as has happened in the recent coalition with Modern) or undermining (as with Biedron so far) other opposition forces. This would deny Poland’s opposition the new leadership and clearer, more positive narrative that it requires if it is to challenge PiS.

Daniel Tilles is assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow and the author of British Fascist Antisemitism and Jewish Responses, 1932-40 (Bloomsbury, 2015).

Tom Junes is a historian and post-doctoral researcher focusing on protest movements in eastern Europe. He is the author of Student Politics in Communist Poland: Generations of Consent and Dissent.