The 26 May elections is a major turning point in the 2019 politics in Poland. This is the second leg in the long march for power for the Opposition trying to restore peace and order after the populist, antagonistic and deforming rule of the Law and Justice (PiS). At least, this is the narrative.
The first leg was the local and regional elections last year. Back then, it was a clear signal that Law and Justice had a problem with the society tired with antagonistic, deforming and populist rule. What the society needs is more peace and tranquillity. Law and Justice delivers, smiles more, does not launch any new wars on sanity in 2019, and vigorously defends the core values of the nation, including the Church. In the process of protecting the values there might be victims, like demonisation of the sexual minorities, but that seems to be a minor cost for the ruling camp.
The Opposition is satisfied with the first leg (October 2018). The second leg (May 2019), however, is a major blow. -9pp behind Law and Justice. Soul searching begins on the evening of the election night. Any major changes to the format of the organisation needs to be done fast. This is race against time. The third leg in the electoral season is scheduled for October 2019. The national elections will be decisive for who rules Poland over the next four years.
Law and Justice is victorious. Immediately the star of ex-PM Beata Szydło begins to shine a neaveau, as she receives over 500,000 votes in her Kraków electoral district. Speculation goes as far as Ms Szydło becoming PiS candidate for the country presidency in 2020, or a European Commissioner maybe?
The ruling party also seams rushing the parliamentary elections a little bit. The national poll can be held as early as 13 October and this sounds like the date, even if President Duda has not taken the decision at this point.
Together or Separately?
The Opposition story is a different one.
There is no premium for being united: 38% of the vote is less than the three main parties together five years before. There is not enough mobilisation: 5.2 million against 6.2 million of PiS voters. The anti-PiS opposition seems to have lost the elections wholeheartedly. Who’s to blame?
The leader of the Opposition is the leader of the Civic Platform (PO), Grzegorz Schetyna. 27 May Mr Schetyna says: “We need to correct the course. We need more mobilisation. We need fresh ideas for October”.
The narrative is: by going alone the Opposition would be significantly weaker than by going alone. True as it may be, politics is also about managing expectations. Law and Justice did not lose in October 2018, but its expectations were higher. The European Coalition lost in May 2019 both in terms of numbers and expectations. The natural consequence: disillusionment.
The Social Democrats of SLD are happy and want to continue the joint coalition. Their moods are kept bright because the party managed to get 5 MEPs elected into the Strasbourg chamber. The result would be highly improbable if SLD was to compete alone.
The first problems are with the PSL, the agrarian EPP member. Their traditional electorate voted PiS and many in PSL are adamant they can claim back the rural votes alone better. PSL is blaming the liberal issues like gay rights, that have scarred away the traditional voters. Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz says that should the Spring join the Opposition, PSL would leave it.
Schetyna ensures there is the organising idea for the fall elections, but it needs more work.
PSL takes a step further away from the united Opposition, with or without the Spring on board. Kosiniak-Kamysz blames the PO politicians for the ideological confrontation, that he calls “unnecessary”, such as the Warsaw LGBT Declaration signed by Rafał Trzaskowski back in February. On Tusk, Kosiniak-Kamysz says: “Donald Tusk has probably motivated more PiS voters than our voters”.
Katarzyna Lubnauer, leader of .Modern is with PO and SLD on the issue of unity. The Greens are also on board, the last of the five parties.
What the leaders say is one thing. What the party members think is not exactly the same thing. What the 5.2 million voters think is probably best illustrated by the video that went viral in which one young lady accuses the European Coalition of being void of program, reactive to PiS, disengaged. Klaudia Jachira’s video is viewed by 20k people on Youtube and has 15k shares on Facebook. If you understand Polish, have a look here.
There is also a message from Brussels. Donald Tusk’s message is to stay united. He warns the Opposition, “If you were to be divided, think trice if you have an idea how to win by being divided”.
PO leading politicians send a signal to PSL: stay united with us! If not, Budapest can come to Warsaw. In Hungary Fidesz won with over 50% of the vote and the leading opposition party scored about 16%.
Spring’s Robert Biedroń says his party will not join the Opposition and will go alone. This could be an invitation to PSL, as its leader is saying openly: it is us or Biedroń, not both.
One of the outstanding questions is about feasibility to win with PiS. Tusk alluded the day before that working day and night is absolutely crucial, “to be among the people”. Did the EC do everything it could?
Bartosz Arłukowicz, a newly elected first time MEP, says: “don’t worry. Talk to people. Campaign until October”. He is a face that a win is possible with hard work. Other credited hard working candidates include Elżbieta Łukacijewska, who says what is key in the elections: “respect for people of other political views”.
Gazeta Wyborcza writes that the European Coalition campaign was a disaster. The newspaper concludes, “they were asking to be defeated” and reveals lack of coordination, information, local engagement, wrong messages and savings on the campaign. The criticism begins to grow beyond newspapers. Łukacijewska is critical of the PO structures in her region. Julia Pitera, a former MEP (2014-19) is very critical of the engagement of Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz, who was EC leader in Warsaw and SLD candidate.
PSL will take its decision about the future participation in the united Opposition by second half of June. The Spring says it will go solo. The ranks of the Civic Platform are cranking about its party leadership. The Greens are disillusioned as they received only half of the votes the party got last October in local elections – it is unclear if the party continues in the Coalition.
“United or Divided” seems to be the internal question for the Opposition. But there is also the external reality of the day: PiS is reading itself for the governmental re-shuffeling. There is an upcoming celebrations of 30 years of the partially free elections of 1989 in Gdańsk with the participation of Donald Tusk. A renewed high expectations from the President of the European Council – could he step in more directly into the leadership position of the divided Opposition? Seems impossible today, will it in 3 days?
The morning news is that a small liberal party .Modern is supposed to cease to exist. It is expected to be merged fully with the Civic Platform. Its MPs shall join the PO parliamentary club in the Sejm. The very name should disappear. The party has financial difficulties. The final decision is expected next week.
There seems to be a conflict of opinion within the PSL: “We would have sh*t, no seats, without the European Coalition”, is one strong voice within the party (incognito, as quoted by Gazeta.pl).
It seems that a large coalition block is possible in the elections for the Senate, where there are 100 electoral districts and one senator is elected from each of the districts with the principle “the winner takes it all”. The Senate coalition should include the Spring.
PSL already decides. Did not wait until mid-June. It shall start its own, new Polish Coalition ahead of the parliamentary elections in October, Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz announces.
It is a tough choice. Clearly the liberal values were problematic for the PSL voters to stay with the coalition. PSL and the EC were cornered on the antagonising liberal issues, such as the LGBT rights. But, would they be alright on their own? Law and Justice was able to marginalise the party last year in the countryside when PSL was running alone. Tough choice for PSL.
Without PSL .Modern is about to cease to exist and the support for it has been marginal for months. The Greens are tiny and largely unconvincing, dominated by the stronger and progressive Spring.
The only credible partner left is SLD. Yet this one might be the one least desired by the PO. When Włodzimierz Czarzasty was elected as chairman of SLD in 2016 a number of party activists left the party. Without PSL and with the smaller partners either disintegrated or irrelevant, the PO would not necessarily have a clout of an unifier within the renewed Opposition Coalition.
The core problem is PO. What does the party stand for? What are its core values? Is this an economic reformist party it once was? Or is it just a party defending the interests of those who vote for it, like the farmers and PSL, or the social benefactors and PiS? How does it plan to modernise the pension system? The health system? What to do with the education? How about the decarbonisation?
It is telling that in recent years first .Modern, and now the Spring want to serve as a motivator or energiser for the PO. As if the centrist PO was too lazy, too cautious, not ambitious enough.
After 2015 elections Poland has changed. PiS has an understanding of what Poland is. PiS has a narrative about what kind of Poland it wants. PiS has a strategy how to achieve this. PiS has been listening and campaigning properly ever since their lost elections in 2007. PiS is the force to respect. It is not enough to be anti-PiS.