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The Future of Politics Is Coming to Poland
Promising newcomers are threatening to tear apart the country’s two-party system in every direction.
In recent years, many words have been devoted to the rise of populism and illiberalism in Poland. Often comparing the country to Hungary, commentators have been tempted to see an “Orbanization,” understood as some kind of decisive turn away from the post-1989 liberal democratic order. But more than three years into its government, the ruling Law and Justice party’s hold on power remains far from absolute.
The government it leads is a coalition including two smaller parties—a fact often omitted in coverage of Poland—elected with a vote share of just 38 percent in 2015 and polling at a similar level today. The uneasy peace between various factions within this United Right camp is only kept in place by the authority of its undisputed but aging leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
Rather than the alleged invincibility of Law and Justice, the most important aspect of current Polish politics—and the most consequential for those trying to understand political developments elsewhere in Europe—is the fact that it has long been dominated by two parties. But, just as the established political order is being challenged elsewhere, so too in Poland are new forces hoping to break up this stagnant duopoly.
Since the implosion of the post-communist left in the mid-2000s, Poland has been governed alternatively by the national-conservative Law and Justice and the centrist Civic Platform, which have finished first and second in every election during that period. Together, they currently hold some 80 percent of seats in parliament and continue to dominate in the polls, with a combined 65 percent or so support. They set the agenda, with their mutual antagonism fueling Poland’s toxic political environment, often dubbed the “Polish-Polish war.” This was especially evident in the wake of the recent murder of Gdansk Mayor Pawel Adamowicz, with initial hopes for a display of national unity quickly dashed as the two political camps began using the tragedy to attack one another.
However, there are reasons to suspect that this duopoly may be more fragile than it appears. Polls consistently show Kaczynski and Grzegorz Schetyna, the leader of Civic Platform, to be the country’s two most distrusted politicians. A poll published this week found that 71 percent thought Kaczynski should retire from politics. Just as Civic Platform lost power in 2015 having run out of ideas and energy after eight years in office (and has recovered neither since), Law and Justice, although it has governed effectively and introduced some popular policies honed during its long period in opposition, appears now to be struggling for inspiration.
Last fall’s local elections, which produced no clear winner, underlined that both parties are vulnerable. Law and Justice was unable to make serious inroads in urban areas, while Civic Platform was incapable of mounting a credible challenge in the countryside. Moreover, both parties were convincingly defeated in mayoral elections across the country, with independent candidates, including the late Adamowicz, dominating.
Now, as Poland heads into a marathon election season—with European and parliamentary polls this year and then a presidential one in 2020—some political challengers are hoping to test how brittle support for the two parties may be. While they will almost certainly not win any of the elections outright, their level of success will help determine the shape of the next government and the policies it pursues. In the longer term, it could begin reshaping a political landscape still dominated by politicians who emerged following the collapse of communism.
The most noteworthy development has been the launch, last Sunday, of a long-awaited new progressive party called Spring, led by Robert Biedron, a liberal former mayor and member of parliament. He describes Civic Platform and Law and Justice as part of the same problem, repeatedly emphasizing that he does not wish to engage in their war and saying in a recent interview that the two of them are a “corpse we will bury.” Yet it has been striking that, since announcing plans to re-enter national politics, Biedron has focused his attacks primarily on Civic Platform, despite in theory having much more in common with it than with Law and Justice. It is clear that, while he wants to remove Law and Justice from power, he sees his initial challenge as establishing a separate identity from the existing opposition and competing with it for votes. A poll in September 2018 showed that among potential voters for Biedron’s party, 61 percent would be defectors from Civic Platform, with the remainder from other centrist and left-wing parties.
This suggests that Biedron will be of little direct threat to Law and Justice. Indeed, he could be of benefit to it if, by further fragmenting the parties fighting over opposition voters, he helps push some of them below the electoral threshold required to enter parliament (which is what happened to both left-wing parties in 2015, helping hand Law and Justice its majority).
Alternatively, however, Biedron has the potential to energize nonvoters, those who are opposed to Law and Justice but, until now, have been unimpressed by the alternatives. Given Poland’s consistently low turnout (around 50 percent in the last three parliamentary elections), this creates great potential for disruption.
Previous parties have shown that new challengers can do well, initially at least. In 2015, Kukiz’15, Modern (Nowoczesna), and Together (Razem) took a combined 20 percent of the vote despite having been formed just months before the election. In 2011, Palikot’s Movement had similar success. All subsequently failed to build on this initial momentum, although Biedron appears to have learned from their mistakes, putting in place a better nationwide organizational structure.
Another, perhaps even greater, danger for Law and Justice is that Biedron’s arrival pushes it further to the right on socio-cultural issues, diminishing its appeal to the more moderate voters it needs to win re-election. There were signs of this in the immediate wake of his party’s launch on Sunday. One deputy minister responded by warning that “this year’s elections will be a clash of civilizations” between the “civilization of death” promoted by Biedron and the “European civilization” represented by Law and Justice. Another promised that the government would “defend Poland against the ‘fashions’ from the West” that Biedron was trying to import to Poland, such as the “brutal fight against the church, abortion on demand, and avoiding patriotism.” A Law and Justice MP claimed that Biedron wanted to “annihilate the Polish nation.” This is precisely the kind of talk that will put off many floating voters and comes soon after reports suggested that Kaczynski was seeking to tone down that type of language ahead of this year’s elections.
Complicating matters further for Law and Justice is that it faces challengers of its own, both external and internal. The party’s success has come from absorbing or squeezing out rivals, seeking to make itself the only realistic option for voters from the mainstream right to the ultraconservative fringe. This balancing act will be tested by a recently formed alliance of far-right anti-European Union forces. Like Biedron, these nationalists attempt to portray Civic Platform and Law and Justice as two sides of the same coin, part of a political establishment that should be swept away. They were recently joined by Poland’s most prominent anti-abortion activist, an indication of how some religious conservatives have lost patience with Law and Justice over its failure to tighten the abortion law despite repeatedly claiming it intends to do so. For similar reasons, there have also been constant rumors—though as yet no concrete evidence—of an important Law and Justice ally, Tadeusz Rydzyk, throwing his weight behind a new religious-conservative party along with sidelined figures from Law and Justice’s right wing.
It is clear that Poland is not the only country in which the traditional political power structure is being challenged in this way. In several EU countries, longtime established parties have been bleeding votes, leading to increased fragmentation of the political spectrum, as in Germany, or a collapse of the traditional center, as in France. During this process, much attention has focused on the rise of the populist right and to the challenge it poses to the supposedly embattled EU. This includes recent talk of a new continental Euroskeptic bloc, including Law and Justice and Italy’s Lega, whose leaders recently met in Warsaw. However, few concrete details have emerged, and it appears as much a publicity stunt to boost Kaczynski and Matteo Salvini’s standing as a genuine attempt to unite.
An equally interesting but much less remarked on trend has been the rise of the Greens in places such as Germany and the Benelux countries. While Biedron has often been described as a “Polish Macron,” in fact he has much more in common with these Green parties in terms of policy, worldview, and support base. His progressive stance on socio-cultural issues (such as civic partnerships, women’s rights, and the secularization of the state), his focus on the environment (including calling for an end to the use of coal and cleaning up Poland’s air quality), and his economic welfare policies (such as accessible health care and higher pensions) resonate similarly with that part of the middle class that is Western-minded and pro-EU but favors a more socially distributive and inclusive society.
Should Biedron’s party enjoy similar success to theirs—and the early signs look positive, with 14 percent support in the first poll since launching his party—it could signal not just a shake-up of Poland’s stagnant political scene but also symbolize the strengthening of a democratic trend reverberating elsewhere in the EU. While there is understandable concern about a “populist threat,” not all political change is potentially destabilizing. Right-wing populism feeds on nativist and economic resentment, but Biedron’s Spring and the Greens are offering a nonpopulist, positive alternative to the traditional parties of power.