It is 14 September. In a month, on 13 October, Poles will go to the polls to chose their parliament. The Sejm has 460 members and there are 100 Senators. Who will rule Poland for the next four years? What are different political actors fighting for in this elections?
The stakes could not be higher. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) fights to continue to rule alone. The party received 37.6% and a majority in the Sejm last time round. This was possible as the Left failed to meet the 8% threshold for coalitions. The last time turnout was only 51%.
Since Law and Justice took over the government the politics became highly controversial. The opposition accuses the ruling party and the President Andrzej Duda of breaking the Constitution, compromising the independence of judiciary, partisan take over of the public administration and turning the public TV into a propaganda machine propagating hate speech and smear campaigns. At the same time the quality of public education and public healthcare decreases under the PiS rule.
With the use of public money and private money of state-controlled companies the Law and Justice rules with a tactics of carrots and sticks. It introduces massive social policies like the 500 zł payment per child per month. It’s latest reform included payments for all the children, including the first ones. PiS increased the minimal wage from 1750 zł (in 2015) to 2250 zł (in 2019), which is an increase of 29%. In the same period the inflation was minimal. The minimal pension increased by 25% and in 2019 the pensioners received a 13th pension just before the EU vote.
PiS does not rule with a Marianne Williamson’s love message. Au contraire, the politicians of Law and Justice engage in smear campaigns against their opponents, be it political or societal. It is a distant memory today that the 2015 PiS scare tactics against the imaginary migrants coming to Poland was an important element of the victorious campaign. Over the years there were smear campaigns and vilifying against feminists and what PiS calls “gender ideology”, against the judges (with the latest instalment of the Piebiak affair), the handicapped persons, the teachers, the paramedics, the entire opposition, green activists, bikers, vegans and the LGBT community.
Law and Justice does not reach out to the other side. It does not have to. It has a propaganda machine (TV station), where a few days ago in one of the regional studios the PiS rule was debated. Invited guests: PiS politicians only.
PiS has its allies, most notably the Catholic bishops, some of whom have been exposed earlier this year as covering up the paedophilia cases. “The Church is under attack” and PiS is its prime defender.
Among the clergy is Tadeusz Rydzyk, who runs his small media empire based on Radio Maryja and receives major subsidies from the state.
Another ally is the legendary Solidarność trade union, which won PiS for their motion to close down shops on Sundays. Ever since this motion was adopted, Solidarność in PiS’ debt. The move, however, remains highly controversial with the general public.
PiS runs to win. It wants to maintain its 230+ seats in the Sejm. It wants to control the Senate. It dreams to reach the 2/3 majority to change the constitution, yet it’s 2015/16 taking over the Constitutional Tribunal has effectively subjected the Tribunal to the political will of the ruling party. As the constitutional majority might be desired, it is not necessary to control the “eradication of post-Communism”, to use the PiS leader’s words.
The Opposition fight for the Senate
In the process PiS win is largely expected (the party is polling 40-45%). The opposition is divided. There are three groups running parallel campaigns: the centrist Citizen Coalition (KO) is the biggest of them, the Left is on the one side of the KO, while on the other is the conservative Polish Coalition (KP) composed of mainly the farmers party PSL, as well as the remnants of anti-system Kukiz’15 and a few liberals of the ALDE member Democratic Party.
The three coalitions agreed to support a team of 99 candidates for the Senate. In the European elections earlier this year they realised that going together they were an easy target for PiS, who was able to play out the internal divisions of the opposition. Then, they hoped to run on a pro-European platform against a Euro-sceptic Law and Justice. PiS adjusted its message, put EU flags everywhere during the campaign, moved the debate to other issues divisive for the opposition and, won.
This time round KO, the Left and KP run separately. Their messages and stakes vary individually. The KO fights PiS and hopes for a majority in the new Sejm of KO-Left-KP. In this process the leader of the KO changed, surprisingly. Grzegorz Schetyna, the leader of the Civic Platform the party and the entire Coalition announced that the KO candidate for the prime ministership is not him, but Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska. The move was a surprise for PiS. The public took the decision with a relief, energising the KO campaign. Ms Kidawa-Błońska is a politician who has not been as vilified by PiS as often as others. Her message is to take a step back from hostilities in the public discourse. KO polls at 22-27%.
The Left coalition is a group of three leaders: Robert Biedroń, MEP and leader of the new party Spring, Włodzimierz Czarzasty of the traditional left-winger SLD and Adrian Zandberg of the Varoufakis-leaning party Razem (Together). Unlike 2015 this time the threshold the Left is facing is 5%. The Left’s fight is to return to the Sejm, from which they have been absent for four years. The Left polls at 11-14%.
Incidentally the next Sejm can see also first Green MPs as the Green politicians are running from the KO list.
The Polish Coalition’s stakes is survival. If PSL fails to enter the Sejm this will be the next step in PiS successful campaign to replace PSL in the Polish countryside. Kukiz’15 failed to win a seat in regional elections in 2018 and in the European elections 2019. Hence Paweł Kukiz decision to enter this coalition. The KP polls at 5-6%.
Collectively the united Opposition knows that it will be difficult to stop PiS from winning the Sejm. They know, however, that the fight for the Senate is open. As there are 100 electoral districts for the Senate and “the winner takes it all” it helps that in 99 of them there is one candidate supported by all three opposition forces. They hope for well over 50 mandates.
In some districts there are independent candidates, too, so the vote is not PiS-Opposition always.
The other opposition
The Confederacy of ex-MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke is also in the mix. Their message is anti-system and openly adversary towards minorities and foreigners. This far-right group polls at up to 6%.
PiS Electoral Offer: minimal wage at 900 Euro
Knowing that PiS carrots and sticks approach works, in this campaign the ruling party politicians demonise LGBT people, portray themselves as defenders of a traditional family, and have a new social offer.
Jarosław Kaczyński says that PiS will raise the minimal wage from the current 2250 zł to 4000 zł (equivalent of 900 Euro in today’s money) by the end of next parliamentary term. The country debates now how realistic his plans are for the state budget and for the economy, over all. Will this move force the companies to modernise? Will it mean that Poles move to the grey economy? What about inflation? Etc. The Polish average salary in 2019 is about 1,150 Euro, yet the median salary is at 980 Euro, and the dominant salary at 580 Euro (current minimal wage, 2250 zł is about 520 Euro).
The political wars are best for politicians and political commentators. The society is interested in something else.
As divided the Poles might seem between the Law and Justice and the opposition, there is a general agreement on what the Polish society next goal is. This goal is taking the society out of a transition fatigue, many argue the society was caught up with in the first half of the current decade (Tusk II government and its famous inertia). PiS divisive rule has mobilised a society on both sides of the public discourse to realise who they are and what they want.
In the process PiS kills the political inertia. Poles broke the national records in regional elections last year as well as this year’s European vote. The October 2019 turnout should be significantly higher that 51% four years ago.
So, what do Poles want?
The Poles want their welfare state. PiS is the first party to realise this dream and tries to make it happen. The PiS rule thus far was concentrated on assisting the groups underprivileged in transformation since 1989: undereducated, less mobile, workers in smaller towns, unemployed, technologically and territorially marginalised, and the farmers.
PiS might be blind, or slow to realise that the underprivileged are also the women on the labour market, the handicapped and their families, and other groups who have taken to the streets in recent years. Yet for time being the focus is on forging this new welfare state. Not for everybody, but definitely for “the Polish family”. And it works, at least at the level of public support.
This is why PiS is popular. PiS aspires to the inner dreams of Poles and tells them “it can happen”. PiS also says: “the alien, the different, the migrant, the non-believer is a threat to you, to the Church, to Poland. You are a Polish family and you are who and what we worship”.
A populist is a politician who does not recognise the power of nuance. Who says “good” and “bad” without seeing the details. As much as this can be understood in a campaign mode, it is unacceptable in governance. PiS is a populist party.
But the populist party argues the same way as the European Commission: for the ex-post legitimacy. What does it mean? “We deliver”, says PiS.
Will they deliver the 900 Euro minimal wage, 13th and 14th pension, as scheduled?
Or, will they fail to see the detail? Economy might be growing, but the inflation of daily products is noticeable in recent weeks. Education is a key for economic growth, too. Instead of improving the quality of schooling, schools are now politically indoctrinated and mid-schools operate in logistical chaos. Healthcare waits to be financed. And there is all this rule of law debacle, the issue which is minor for the elections, but a major issue to rule the country effectively in the future.