Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice (PiS) party is back in power, after receiving almost 40% of the vote in last weekend’s general election and soundly defeating the incumbent Civic Platform, which won 23.4%.
By Sławomir Sierakowski
Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice (PiS) party is back in power, after receiving almost 40% of the vote in last weekend’s general election and soundly defeating the incumbent Civic Platform, which won 23.4%.
Following Andrzej Duda’s victory in the presidential election in May, a single party will form Poland’s government for the first time since communism’s end in 1989.
Indeed, Kaczyński now controls almost all levers of power in Poland. The only hope for those who believe that he and his party’s populist nationalism represent a threat to democracy is that PiS lacks, and probably cannot marshal, the two-thirds majority in the Sejm (parliament) needed to amend the constitution.
The election result stands in stark contrast to Poland’s economic and social facts. Under Civic Platform, GDP growth outpaced that of all OECD countries, with the cumulative gain from 2008 to 2014 totaling 23.8%. Likewise, unemployment has fallen below 10% for the first time in two decades, and the budget deficit has narrowed from 8% of GDP to less than 3%.
Moreover, Poles have never been as satisfied with their quality of life as they are now. In September, Poland’s most important opinion poll indicated that 84% of Poles believed that the past year was successful for them.
Nor was it the socially marginalized and the economically vulnerable who returned PiS to power. Civic Platform lost the support of those who benefited most from its rule.
The decisive turning point was the presidential election, in which Civic Platform’s incumbent, Bronisław Komorowski, ran a dilatory campaign that reflected his certainty of victory. When he lost, no one in Poland’s political class was more shocked than Kaczyński and Duda.
Now, for the first time since 1989, the left will have no representation in the Sejm. Indeed, the vote ended the post-communist period in Poland, as the heirs to the Polish Workers’ Party, the Democratic Left Alliance, did not achieve the 8% threshold needed for electoral coalitions to gain parliamentary seats. A new left, modeled after Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos, is now being forged, but it is a long way from entering parliament, let alone government.
Kaczyński has already succeeded in eliminating all competition on PiS’s right, which is, it should be said, his great contribution to Polish democracy. Unlike in Hungary, with its Jobbik party, outright fascism has no standing in Poland.
Yet Kaczyński will not be the face, at least not yet, of the new government. Because PiS has historically been unable to win elections with Kaczyński fronting its campaign, he hid behind his party’s candidate for Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, who previously served as Duda’s campaign manager.
But Szydło has no government experience and no base of her own within the party. Like Marshall Józef Piłsudski in the interwar decades, Kaczyński will undoubtedly control both the president and the prime minister, while formally remaining out of power.
But to what end? The paradox of Kaczyński’s power is that the essential tasks of government – economic stewardship, military readiness, social policy, and the environment – do not interest him. So the government will most likely act pragmatically in these fields, with no fundamental change of course.
Duda has already shown that PiS is capable of forgetting about its lavish campaign promises the day after an election. And the party has a track record of contradicting its own electoral platform: Back in 2005, for example, after promising “Polish solidarity” with the poor, it eliminated the top tax bracket and the inheritance tax.
Kaczyński will focus on appointments to the judiciary, the security services, education, and culture. He has always believed that “repairing the state” is personal: people, not principles, are the key to success.
That is why, as in 2005, Poland can expect a purge of executives in the public media and state-owned companies. While Kaczyński rules out settling scores, he always adds that there will be no amnesty. The guilty must be punished. And the fact that Kaczyński’s team criticizes the political independence of the prosecutors, the courts, and the security services suggests that PiS intends to play an active role here.
Control of educational and cultural institutions also plays a very important role in mobilizing PiS voters. As a result, Poland under Kaczyński will persist in policies – exemplified by the lack of sex education in schools or the absence of civil unions – that are an anomaly in modern Europe. The country might even regress: PiS politicians want to prohibit abortion entirely, even when the health of the woman is endangered.
Somewhere at the intersection of pragmatism and ideology lies foreign policy. The government will make noise here, but ultimately it will not risk the suspension of European funding and international isolation by rebelling against the European Union.
Equally important, unlike Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, no Kaczyński-directed government will seek support from Russia. At the same time Kaczyński cannot be more vocal in seeking support for Ukraine, because he knows that Poles have become less resolute about this issue.
It remains far less clear where Kaczyński’s pragmatism will guide him in addressing the great question of refugees now roiling Poland and Europe. Kaczyński is no fanatic; but he is a cynic. Preventing Poland from accepting any refugees may have been good campaign posturing, but doing so in power would lead to the confrontation with the EU that he seeks to avoid.
Instead, PiS may use the refugee question as the basis of a new political creed. Doing so may not be as effective in mobilizing voters as uncovering the “Smolensk conspiracy” – that is, accusing Russia and Civic Platform of assassinating Kaczyński’s twin brother, former President Lech Kaczyński, who died in a plane crash near Smolensk in April 2010 – but it would push similar nativist buttons. It would also render PiS a typical extreme right European party – an ironic conclusion to the process of Poland’s integration with the West.
The writer is founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement and the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw
The return of Jarosław Kaczyński