Poland’s Right Turn

Poland’s domestic political scene experienced a major shake-up after the main opposition party, Law and Justice (PiS), crushed the ruling Civic Platform (PO)-led coalition in the parliamentary election on Oct. 25. According to late exit polls, PiS will gain no less than 37 percent of the vote, while PO will get just 23 percent. A victory of this magnitude will bring PiS close to securing a majority of seats in the new parliament. For the first time since democratic reforms were undertaken in 1989, Poland will have a single party that is in a position to govern alone.

PiS was created fourteen years ago by twin brothers Jarosław and Lech Kaczyński. After President Lech Kaczyński was killed in a plane crash close to the Russian city of Smolensk on April 10, 2010, his brother became the sole leader of the “patriotic bloc” of the Polish right. It took him five years to get back to power.

Kaczyński’s first success came in May when PiS nominee Andrzej Duda unexpectedly defeated incumbent Bronisław Komorowski to become the new Polish President. His second victory came in the election on Oct. 25.

Beata Szydlo, a party veteran who was put forward by Kaczyński as the party’s candidate for Prime Minister, led the PiS campaign. It is now widely expected that Szydlo will form her cabinet and become the new Prime Minister as early as mid-November. As for Kaczyński, he is expected to become the power behind the throne, controlling both the presidential office and the government, even though he will have no official duties or position.

Prior to the Oct. 25 election, the ruling PO party had been in power since 2007—a long time in Poland’s short period of democratic rule. PO seemed unbeatable under the leadership of then Prime Minister Donald Tusk. But when Tusk was nominated to chair the European Council and left Polish politics, the political situation began to change. He nominated Ewa Kopacz, a medical doctor and the former Marshall of the Polish Parliament, as his successor. Kopacz lacked Tusk’s charisma and decisiveness. Although she was an active campaigner in the final weeks leading up to the election, she had to face a harsh reality: Poles were tired of the ruling coalition and the recent wave of affairs and scandals—from corruption accusations to leaked tapes of top Ministers speaking too candidly over lavish dinners. To the average Polish voter, the overriding impression was that PO had lost touch with ordinary people and with the party’s traditionally liberal electorate.

This set the stage not only for a PiS victory, but also for the emergence of new political movements that were brought to life earlier this year. One of them, Nowoczesna (The Modern Poland), led by Ryszard Petru, an economist, placed fourth in the elections with 8 percent of the popular vote.

An anti-systemic social movement run by Paweł Kukiz, a famous Polish rock star who has been described as the Polish Beppe Grillo, surprised many in May when he came third in the presidential race. Kukiz received 9 percent of votes on Oct. 25 and may become a partner, or at least a supporter, of the ruling PiS cabinet.

What can we expect from the new government? PiS won big because it offered simple, concrete policies for those in Poland who felt untouched by the country’s impressive economic growth. It offered higher child care benefits and tax breaks for the less well-off. The electorate will now wait to see if the party can fulfil its promises.

The Szydlo government will no doubt be much more eurosceptic than the outgoing PO, and in some areas at least, it is likely to follow the course taken by Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, an ideological twin brother of Kaczyński‘s. PiS is also expected to introduce new taxes to be levied on banking assets as well as shopping malls. Additionally, despite increasing demographic pressures on the working-age population of Poland, the next cabinet plans to move the retirement age down from the current 67 years to 65 for men and 60 for women. 

Observers from the United States and European Union should not expect a major revolution in the realm of foreign policy. The outgoing Kopacz government was not eager to accept refugees, a position that will not change under PiS.

Similarly, Poland under PiS will remain a stalwart member of NATO and a close ally of the United States. PiS leaders are fully aware that the next year will be marked by a NATO Summit to be held  in Warsaw in July 2016. In August, on a visit to Tallinn, Duda indicated in a speech that PiS will likely demand that NATO agree to a permanent military presence in Eastern Europe, an issue on which Poland differs from the German, US, and British governments. Another potentially problematic issue is a strong anti-Russian sentiment among PiS leaders and supporters. Poland’s Western allies have been sending numerous signals to encourage the PiS leadership to soften its tone.

Unlike the outward-looking government under the leadership of PO, PiS has stated its desire to focus on building stronger ties with the rest of Central Europe. “The focus will be region, region, and once again region,” said Witold Waszczykowski according to a Politico report. Waszczykowski is a member of Kaczyński party elite, and has been mentioned as a top candidate for the position of Foreign or Defense Minister. 

Following the election, Poland may become a  different partner, especially for Europe and the European Union‘s institutions. It remains to be seen how the new ruling party will deal with the reality of governing.

Michał Kobosko is Director of the Atlantic Council’s Warsaw Office and Director of the Wrocław Global Forum.

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Image: Law and Justice (PiS) party‘s prime ministerial candidate, Beata Szydlo, arrived for the first party meeting in Warsaw, Poland, on Oct. 27 after her party won the parliamentary election. (Reuters/Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski)