Key election could be a pivotal moment for Poland and Europe

Key election could be a pivotal moment for Poland and Europe

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Politicians often describe upcoming elections as “the most important in a generation, if not ever,” but that tag could actually be accurate in Poland, the EU’s fifth-most-populous nation, this weekend.

In what may prove to be an era-defining vote — which opposition leader Donald Tusk has billed as the country’s “most important since 1989 and the fall of communism” — a populist, right-wing United Right coalition, led by the Law and Justice party, known as PiS, is seeking a third term in office, unprecedented in Poland in the post-Cold War era. PiS is being challenged by an opposition coalition led by Tusk, the former prime minister of Poland and president of the European Council, one of the top two EU jobs in Brussels.

Poland is the most powerful nation in Eastern and Central Europe, a bloc of nations that has become more influential in recent years. The strategic importance of Poland and its neighbors has grown because they are on the front line of the Ukraine crisis, with EU and NATO partners pumping in money and military support. This has accentuated a two-decade-long process whereby eastern states have become more important in Europe, including because of their economic convergence with the West.

The strategic importance of Poland and its neighbors has grown because they are on the front line of the Ukraine crisis

Andrew Hammond

The election is also being closely watched around the world as it will provide the latest indication of the political weather in the continent. There are growing signals that the right is gaining strength, as illustrated by Slovakian populist Robert Fico’s victory last month and the far-right Alternative for Germany’s spike in the polls.

And the Polish ballot is being viewed closely for another reason. The result will influence the coming pan-EU debates on issues from a potential European migration pact to the reform of EU institutions ahead of any future expansion of membership to Ukraine, the Balkan countries and possibly Turkiye too.

Opinion polls have consistently shown PiS will probably win the most votes, albeit potentially by a small margin. Indeed, after an intensely bitter campaign, the gap between the right and center appears to have narrowed for both the Sejm (the lower house of parliament) and the Senate.

One indication of the bitterness of the campaign is the personal attacks. PiS leader and Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki have accused Tusk of following orders from Brussels and Berlin, particularly on Poland taking in migrants.

The outcome is likely to rest on the performance and preferences of several smaller parties, which will help influence who forms a coalition. Tusk’s centrist Civic Coalition has so far been unable to unite with two other moderate parties, the Third Way and The Left, making his pathway to power challenging.

Meanwhile, although PiS is ahead in the polls, it may struggle to secure the coalition partners needed to win an outright majority given the controversies surrounding it. The party has been accused of diluting democratic norms during its eight years in power, curtailing reproductive health rights, plus bringing public media under political control.

If there is a pathway back to power for PiS, the far-right Confederation party could play a crucial role in getting it enough seats. However, this may come with a significant price: Confederation is, for instance, the only Polish party to oppose Ukrainian immigration and it has criticized the government’s decision to award refugees benefits.

In this context, many EU officials would welcome the PiS losing power, not least because when Tusk was prime minister there was much warmth with Brussels and key nations like Germany, which fueled his pathway to becoming president of the European Council. Under a new Tusk prime ministership, it is likely that the EU would move quickly to release €36 billion ($38.2 billion) in loans and grants from the bloc’s pandemic recovery fund that has been frozen over concerns about PiS’ judicial reforms.

However, even if Tusk can pull off a surprise win, there has been no opinion poll to date that predicts a combined opposition win so big that it would gain the three-fifths majority of MPs needed to overturn presidential vetoes. The country’s leading courts are also filled with judges appointed by PiS, meaning some key legislation may be caught up in long-running litigation.

Although PiS is ahead in the polls, it may struggle to secure the coalition partners needed to win an outright majority

Andrew Hammond

This will limit the scope of policy change that a Tusk government could bring. Nonetheless, there are clear political dividing lines between the two blocs.

Migration has perhaps become the most contentious issue in the campaign. PiS has ratcheted up the anti-migrant rhetoric, claiming that the EU and Tusk want to force Muslim migrants on an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country. Morawiecki has said “we are not afraid of diktats ... from Berlin and Brussels” and PiS has refused to take in asylum seekers who enter the EU via other countries.

The bitter campaign has also seen Poland’s previously staunch support for Ukraine undercut. Warsaw had been a staunch supporter of Ukraine since Moscow’s invasion, providing Kyiv with more than €3 billion in arms and welcoming more than a million Ukrainian refugees. However, tensions have grown over Ukraine’s grain exports, which are undercutting Polish-grown produce and alienating farmers, a key voting group. Morawiecki said last month his government would no longer supply weapons and was instead focusing on rebuilding its own depleted stocks. President Andrzej Duda even compared Ukraine to a drowning person dragging a rescuer (Poland) down.

Poland is therefore at a pivotal moment in its post-communist history. A PiS victory would intensify the nation’s discord with Brussels, while an opposition triumph may also disappoint Tusk supporters, given that his coalition will not get the three-fifths majority needed to overturn presidential vetoes and will face challenges from judicial politicization.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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