Polish parliamentary election, October 2015. Photo: Janusz Korwin-Mikke.

Election Elections in Poland Landslide victory for value conservative politicians

in October, the parliamentary elections took place and PiS got a landslide victory and a singlehanded majority in both chamber of the Polish parliament, the Lower House Sejm and the Upper House Senate. Polish and foreign press alike have been alarmed of the election results in Poland. PiS's main policy concerns are domestic and Polish politicians have long been more value conservative than society at large.

Published on balticworlds.com on november 5, 2015

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Heading up for the parliamentary elections

The year 2015 has been a year of elections. In May, Andrzej Duda from PiS (Law and Justice) was elected as a president. In September, there was a failed referendum on changing the electoral system from proportional representation to first-past-the-post constituencies. And in October, the parliamentary elections took place and PiS got a landslide victory and a singlehanded majority in both chamber of the Polish parliament, the Lower House Sejm and the Upper House Senate. These elections form a momentum that clearly shifts Polish politics to conservative, religious and nationalist direction. Yet, it seems to be equally important to recognise that such a momentum is not only towards something, but, and perhaps above all, away from what has been there.

The presidential elections in May established two facts. The first was that the then incumbent President lost the first round to a political novice of Andrzej Duda from PiS. The second fact is that a wild horse, ex-rock star Paweł Kukiz attracted over 20 per cent of the votes in the first round. These both pointed out very clearly how weak the ruling party PO (Civic Forum) had become. They also indicated in what a good shape PiS had grown into, and that there is always room for unknown forces in Polish politics. Paweł Kukiz essentially ran his presidential campaign with an anti-system rhetoric and a single issue for changing the proportional electoral system into a first-past-the-post system. In addition, he has befriended himself with more nationalist and far-right groups in Poland providing them with more political legitimacy.

The referendum on electoral law was a final groan of the losing president Komorowski who tried to attract some of the anti-systemic voices that had supported Kukiz during the first round. It was a flop with only 8 per cent turnover. It did, however, show that such anti-systemic rhetoric could even compel the established mainstream party to its cause.

The elections

The legislature in Poland is bicameral. The Lower House, Sejm does the main legislative work whilst the Upper House, Senate, has the right to suggest amendments and veto new legislation once: if the bill is returned to the Senate by the Sejm, the Senate has to pass it. This analysis will focus on the Lower House only.

The results of the elections were largely predictable: value conservative and slightly nationalist PiS received a landslide victory of 38 per cent of the vote and liberal in economic terms and rather value conservative PO experienced a dramatic drop in support, landing at 24 per cent share of the vote.

Two new parties took part in the elections. Both were launched in 2015. Kukiz’15 initially served Paweł Kukiz’s presidential campaign in spring 2015. Kukiz’15 scored almost 9 per cent of the vote. Nowoczesna (Modern) was established in May 2015. It represents free market ideas and minimal state intervention in society. In economic terms, it is close to PO and so far what its political positions are remains to be seen. Nowoczesna receive almost 8 per cent of the vote. Also the agrarian centre-part PSL exceeding the threshold and entered the parliament with 5 per cent support.

There were also two attempts to revitalise the left. A new party Razem (Together) was created as a response to the failure to create a feasible leftist campaign for the presidency in spring 2015. It represents socialist-democratic ideas and eschews hierarchical organisations for increased internal democracy. Its support in the elections was negligible. The established centre-of-left parties, SLD (Democratic Left Alliance), TR (Your Movement, previously Palikot Movement), PPS (Polish Socialist Party, UP (Labour United) and PZ (the Greens) united under a coalition ZL (United Left. As a coalition, they were faced with an 8 per cent threshold, which they did not exceed. This means that in the current Polish parliament there are no centre-of-left parties.

There are 460 seats in the Lower House, Sejm. PiS won 235 seats making it possible for them to form a government on their own. PO won 138 seats, Kukiz’15 42, Nowoczesna 28, and PSL 16. In addition, one seat is reserved for the German minority representative. This means that PiS has the absolute majority of the seats in the parliament and it does not need coalition partners to form the government.

However, in absolute numbers, under 20 per cent of all eligible Poles voted PiS; and put together, the two leading parties just over 60 per cent. If compared to previous elections fought primarily between PO and PiS this represents a decline of about 10 percentage points in 2011 and 13 percentage points in 2007. This implies that the more established parties – even if PiS now won the elections – are losing their touch with the electorate and that smaller parties and new formations have increased their share. In other words, to think of the future of Polish politics, the answer may well lie in the trends the small and new parties set rather than in PiS or PO. The really interesting question is what PiS or PO do with the small parties and the issues they represent.

Poland is a divided country in many respects. One central division in politics runs from PO dominated northwest and west to PiS controlled southeast and east. This division is still partially visible in that PO won only in two voivodships – the main regional administrative unit in Poland – in the north west; in all other voivodships PiS gathered the majority of the votes. What is telling about the situation is that PiS won also in bigger cities in the central part of Poland such as Warsaw and Cracow, whilst PO gained the upper hand only in Łódź, Wrocław and Poznań and in the north in Tricity of Gdańsk, Sopot and Gdynia. This points out the perseverance of regional and cultural values that the economic transformation, or modernisation, in bigger cities has been unable to penetrate and revamp.

In terms of levels of education, it is worth pointing out that PiS was most popular among all educational cohorts – secondary school (56 %), vocational school (53 %), high-school (3,9 %), and university (30 %). The new neoliberal party Nowoczesna was the third most popular party (12 per cent) among those holding a university degree. Similarly, the support for PO as well as for the ZL increases with levels of education. The overall picture that emerges is that among the lower levels and vocational diploma holders PiS alone commands great support, but the support base becomes increasingly fragmented with the well-educated electorate.

In terms of age, the support for PiS is overwhelming in all age cohorts and it increases with age. Support for PO remains almost the same in all age groups (around 25 per cent) with one big exception: PO is only the fourth largest party among the youngest age cohort from 18 to 29 years. Among the youngest voters, Kukiz’15 (21 %) and Korwin (17 %) – a party formed around an outspoken right-wing libertarian and nationalist and value-conservative politician Janusz Korwin-Mikke who did not make it to the parliament – were ahead of PO (14 %). This reveals the distance between the established parties and the younger generation in Poland. One could add here that also ZL fares well only among the oldest age cohort, those over 60 years of age.

In this constellation, it seems likely that Polish politics in the nearest future will continue to be waged between the two dominant parties, but their ability to open up for coalition work with other parties become increasingly more important. The problem here is that of the small parties only PSL has a positive record of coalition cooperation. The political preferences of the Poles lie clearly towards the right and it is there that the coalition partners need to be found. The development of the neoliberal Nowoczesna, the nationalist-conservative and anti-establishment Kukiz’15 and the fate of Korwin-Mikke’s radical libertarian and value-conservative movement can turn out to be much more significant in the future than their present day position would indicate.

On the other hand, if the old Polish political wisdom holds, most people vote their party not because they support it, but because it represents the lesser evil. The odds that PO becomes the lesser evil once PiS has assumed the government and Kukiz’15 have entered the parliament is also a likely outcome.

Reasons behind the shift in power

In general, there are two ways to start interpreting the reasons behind such a radical shift in power. Many supporters of PO argue that the election campaign was a failure. Some accuse the party leader and previous Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz for being an unexciting face for the party in comparison to the previous leader Donald Tusk. Tusk also had that political sense to pull out the right words at the right time. This line of reasoning carries some truth, but it is detrimental for the party, for in foresees no need to revision what the party stands for.

The other reasons are to be found in the substance of politics, the issues that were debated. In this respect, the elections campaigns, the presidential and the parliamentary alike, were surprisingly similar. PO argued for the continuity of what they had been doing the past eight years whilst PiS argued for change. What ”continuity” and ”change” would entail in practice was left with much less scrutiny.

One big issue where concrete suggestions appeared concerned the pension reform. PO introduced a pension reform and raised the retirement age from 60 for women and 65 for men to 67. PiS’s vocal election pledge was to revert the bill.

In economics, PO pointed out how they had steered the country amidst the European and global economic recession with a steady growth levels. They promised to carry on as always before. The problem with this is that even if the economy goes up for some, there are also those who have not benefited from PO’s economic policy that favours private, often also foreign, big companies and fulfilling the criteria for entering the single currency Euro. There are currently an estimated over 2 million Poles working abroad testifying to the fact that Polish economy is not open to all. The birth rate in the country is one of the lowest in Europe indicating that young people do not feel the economic security to make babies. And finally the gap between the big cities and countryside and smaller towns is widening. These are issues that economic policy should also address.

PiS, on the other hand, has had the initiative in many areas. They have proposed a 500-zloty (125 EUR) monthly child allowance. First it was proposed for every child, then only for the second and more and then limited to only the poorest families. But still, this is a direct attempt to make babies look also financially attractive in Poland. Second, they have proposed to enable the National Bank of Poland to provide commercial banks with access to reserve funds that could in turn be used to provide cheap loans for investment in key areas such as housing, research and education and infrastructure, which in their turn can generate more income. In addition, their programme include some elements of protectionism, such as a suggestion to prefer local firms in public procurement that certainly appeal to the voters, but might be blocked by the European Union.

Finally, in terms of the European Union and foreign relations Poland’s close ties with Germany and EU ”mainstreaming” have proved to be contentious issues. PO’s strategy, which they also promised to continue, had been to align Poland with the mainstream in the EU. In practice, this has often meant alignment with Germany. However, Germany has at the same time been one of the most reluctant countries to act hard on Russia with economic sanctions. This has lent questionable light upon Germany among many Poles, who have very definitive opinions about Russia and the war in Ukraine. And to top the cake, the refugee situation has also entered Polish politics. Poland has the tradition of emigration making it ethnically and culturally extremely homogenous country. Catholic church is strong and historically the alliance between the Polish state and the Catholic Church in fighting against the Muslim Ottomans and in defending Christian European values is strong. PO agreed on EU-proposed quotas to help with the refugee situation. Their only argument for the decision was that Poland has to show solidarity with the EU – and Germany – in this respect. This was a weak argument in the face of Germany’s decision to build the North Stream pipeline circumventing Poland and leaving Poland essentially dependent on Russian gas whilst liberating Germany from the uncertainty of gas transfer via Ukraine. Where was European solidarity in this question PiS was quick to point out? Secondly, the fear of the unknown has proven to be strong in Poland. De facto leader of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński told the Polish parliament in September that immigrants will bring parasites and epidemic disease and that like in parts in Sweden Sharia-law will be introduced. Such argument may sound far fetched, but they land well in current Polish political rhetoric.

What will change?

Polish and foreign press alike have been alarmed of the election results in Poland. Many still remember the mid-2000s when Kaczyński brothers were in power. That was right after Poland joined the EU. Many things are now different. Poland has been a EU member for over 10 years and developed close civil servant co-operation with the EU institutions. Moreover, Poland significantly benefits from EU’s structural and agricultural funds making the EU membership very positively received fact. There is, however, much more uncertainty as to Poland’s membership in the Euro – and this might be pushed away from the agenda with the change of the government. Another potential area of change concerns EU the form of EU co-operation. PO has favoured a technocratic form of co-operation and they have downplayed any political stance taking in the EU or with regard to the EU. PiS, on the other hand, is likely to have a more political stance to the EU and this can create friction in Brussels. Finally, Poland is nor likely to harden its line towards Russia and it will pressure the EU in this respect more than PO did.

On the other hand, Poland is one the countries where foreign policy tends to be more continuation of domestic politics than an independent policy issue. PiS’s main policy concerns are domestic and many of them concern values, such as those of family, marriage, partnership, and in vitro fertilization. It is here, however, that they have to stay mindful of the fact that their absolute majority in the Sejm does not in fact represent the situation outside the parliament. Polish politicians have long been more value conservative than society at large.

All statistical data comes from Państwowa komisja wyborcza PKW (National Election Board) and IPSOS exit-poll survey.

  • Antoni Wrega

    Just now the Communism in Poland at once supposed to
    be going out! There is the main feeling of most Poles in the time when a new
    government is going to be formed in a few days. The main reasons for the PiS
    (Law & Justice Party) winning the last elections, both presidential and
    parliamentary are overwhelming corruption scandals in last 70 or at least 25
    years period. First it was the disastrous WWII, then came Communists on their
    tanks, backed among the others by lavish Roosevelt aid programmes, then
    so-called post-Communists (children and grandchildren of the previous ones),
    colored mostly as the ‘Liberals’ and ‘pro-Western’ guys, took the power. And
    now the nowadays Communism disguised in the human rights clothes seems to be
    over, probably — there is the Poles’ dream! – forever, and ever! Young Poles in
    Poland are in almost 50% unemployed, the rest of them working on part-time
    short-time contracts for wages comparable to that of the first part of 19th
    Century. What is more important the demographic catastrophe is coming to Poland
    very soon. Three millions Poles, mostly young, the most productive emigrated
    during Donald Tusk’s infamous – in their opinion — pro-German and pro-Russia
    comprador-style governance. So the West has to understand Poland’s electoral
    choice. For Poland’s brave people no matter Putin, Merkel, Hollande and even
    cohorts of the experts from Another Planet! And their fantastic opinions and
    advices. Over is over, dear banksters and pro-Putin totalitarians. Howgh!

  • Election coverage

    Baltic Worlds is commenting on the parliamentary and presidential elections taking place in countries around the Baltic Sea region and in Eastern Europe. The comments and analyses present the parties, the candidates and the main issues of the election, as well as analyze the implications of the results.

    Sofie Bedford, member of the scientific advisory board, is since 2015 arranging the election coverage.

    Contact: sofie.bedford@ucrs.uu.se