WARSAW — Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party wants to accomplish something this year that’s never been done in the country’s democratic history — win a third term in office.
But even party leader Jarosław Kaczyński admits that winning this fall’s parliamentary election is going to be a slog, saying recently that it’s “tougher” than when the party won in 2015 and 2019.
PiS faces some pretty significant hurdles, but the party is a political bare-knuckles fighter with a track record of winning tight elections.
Rule of law and EU cash
Warsaw has been at loggerheads with Brussels for seven years over the nationalist government’s effort to bring the judicial system under tighter political control. That’s been denounced by EU authorities as an attack on the bloc’s democratic values.
After years of ineffectual efforts to force a change of policy, the EU is hitting Poland where it hurts — in the wallet.
Warsaw was penalized with a daily fine of €1 million in October 2021 (it now owes €436 million) by the Court of Justice of the EU for not complying with an EU court order to suspend the country’s controversial disciplinary mechanism for judges.
The European Commission also isn’t paying out €35 billion in loans and grants from its pandemic recovery fund until Warsaw meets agreed milestones in rolling back changes to the judicial system and reinstating dismissed judges.
With inflation at 17.5 percent — one of the highest levels in the EU — and government spending under pressure, the ruling party desperately needs that cash ahead of the election.
“If the funds do not arrive, that will mobilize the opposition,” said Norbert Maliszewski, the head of the government’s analysis center.
But to get the money, Warsaw needs to pass legislation amending the system for disciplining judges, and that’s set off a cat fight within the ruling coalition, where PiS is the largest member but needs the parliamentary backing of the much smaller far-right and Euroskeptic United Poland party to stay in power.
While there is broad agreement within PiS on the need to backtrack on judicial reforms to get the recovery funds, United Poland, led by Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, is adamantly opposed.
That’s led to a series of efforts to break the deadlock by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki — so far without success.
“There is a certain amount of disagreement about issues related to the law which opens up avenues for [EU] funding,” government spokesperson Piotr Müller said on Wednesday.
United Poland party members are also taking the opportunity to hammer Morawiecki, a rival of Ziobro’s for leadership of the political right.
One of his lieutenants, European parliamentarian Beata Kempa, lashed out at “small banksters” — an oblique reference to Morawiecki, who was chief executive of a large bank before becoming a politician. Kempa claimed such “banksters” want to “change the red-and-white flag for a rainbow one,” an attack on a New Year’s Eve concert run by state television where the pop group Black Eyed Peas sported rainbow armbands.
“Will you win elections with that electorate? I’m certain that no,” Kempa added.
Those very public divisions are undermining support for the ruling coalition, said Maliszewski.
“One of the worst issues is the internal conflict. It’s badly seen,” he said, pointing out that PiS now has the support of about 37 percent of voters, some 6 percentage points less than before the 2019 election it won handily.
A revived opposition
PiS is showing signs of running out of ideas, and Poles are showing signs of running out of patience with the party, which has been hit with huge numbers of scandals thanks to stuffing its members (and their friends and relatives) into jobs in state companies, institutions, funds, and just about everywhere else that there’s an easy buck to be made.
“We have scandals morning, noon and night,” said Jacek Kucharczyk, president of the Institute of Public Affairs, a Warsaw-based think tank. While “no single one of them is a game-changer,” Kucharczyk said the cumulative effect is eroding support for the party.
PiS is still Poland’s most popular party, with 37 percent in POLITICO’s poll of polls, but the opposition is steadily gaining ground. Under most scenarios, the four mainstream opposition parties would be able to cobble together a majority government, albeit one with deep ideological divisions, after the election.
The big factor here has been the return of former Prime Minister and European Council President Donald Tusk to national politics in 2021 as chief of Civic Platform, the largest opposition party.
Tusk has been able to galvanize the opposition and give it a sense of hope that PiS can be beaten, Kucharczyk said.
“PiS has a much more difficult starting position than in 2019, when the economy was strong and they were able to frighten voters with gays,” he said.
Losing focuses the mind
But PiS does have some factors in its favor.
One is the war in neighboring Ukraine, where the government is an enthusiastic advocate of Kyiv, sending vast amounts of weapons and other aid in the fight against Russia. Its active engagement has repaired some of the government’s international standing.
Morawiecki is playing on that as the campaign gathers steam.
“It is the choice of Law and Justice that guarantees peace and stability,” he said this week.
Then there are the consequences of losing.
If the opposition wins, then all those thousands of PiS supporters with cozy sinecures will very quickly lose their jobs. Top PiS politicians also face the prospect of being investigated and possibly prosecuted for decisions made over the past seven years.
“Democracy and the rule of law must protect citizens from a state ruled by oligarchy. The era of the crony state will end,” warned Grzegorz Schetyna, a senior Civic Platform politician.
PiS is also trying to bolster its support among its core electorate — older voters and those in smaller towns and villages — with financial promises and appeals to traditional values. There it’s being helped by state television — which has been turned into a propaganda arm of the ruling party — as it hammers home the message that the opposition are traitors to Poland led by Tusk, whose real loyalties lie in Berlin, not Warsaw.
“PiS’s situation is difficult but not impossible,” said Kucharczyk.