Poland’s ruling conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) is on track for a remarkable re-election win this Sunday, in what many call the country’s most fateful ballot in years.
For those watching the campaign from afar, the political struggle that gripped the country in recent weeks was primarily framed as a clash between European believers and nationalist forces.
A comment Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki made on Polish Radio this week is but one of many that bear out this assessment, and it sums up Poland’s European dilemma.
“If I got a pat on the back from one of the EU leaders, I would hear warning bells. It would be a sign that I must have done something wrong,” he said.
Opinion polls suggest that PiS is sailing towards another landslide win in this parliamentary election, which is unlikely to be impacted by scandals in both the government and opposition camps, the EU’s rule of law proceedings, or the Nobel Prize for Literature for Olga Tokarczuk.
It would take a political earthquake to turn the political tables.
It’s a done deal, then? Yes and no.
Four years ago, PiS took Poland by storm and has been offering generous welfare policies ever since, such as its flagship child benefit scheme, dubbed 500+ for every second and subsequent child. It’s a lesson in social conservatism which Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the grey eminence of Polish politics and PiS leader, calls the fight for “Polish dignity”.
For many voters, keeping these policies in place is vital. Because the truth is, the bitter divide at work in Poland is not only about ‘Poland or the EU’, but primarily about inequality.
Poland has been the poster child for a successful transition after 1989 and reforms paved the way for spectacular macroeconomic success and stable economic growth.
But the country’s transition, especially in the agriculture and energy sector, has driven a growing wedge between those who profit from the economic wonder and those, particularly in rural areas and in the poorer east, who have been stuck for years.
And it is those voters who will determine the outcome of this election. If they feel supported enough by the PiS government’s social policies, they will vote for PiS and turn a blind eye to the larger political picture.
But there are a few things that go beyond Sunday’s results.
For the Polish opposition, the first act of the drama was the lost European election, the second act not learning their lessons from it.
PiS has therefore been strengthened by having a weakened competitor which squandered a lot of political capital on internal squabbles and was unable to even profit from a series of scandals that hit the conservative government.
The Civic Coalition (KO), an electoral alliance of four centre-left political parties, faces four problems: Fragmentation and internal party battles, no charismatic leader in sight, the success of the government and the polarisation of society, which has reached its peak and motivates PiS voters more than those from the Left.
And it is probably that polarisation that has played the least in their favour as they could barely hide their contempt for voters of the other camp and made no attempt to woo them with alternatives.
What’s next for the KO, one may ask? It may very well fall apart again, though not immediately. If they are smart, they can look forward to the fact that the parliamentary election will affect the presidential election and present an opportunity for the rise of a completely new candidate.
Surprisingly, the United Left could be the dark horse and may even post a better result than the Civic Coalition, if left-wing ideas on economy and public services prove popular among the young.
So far, young Poles have mostly avoided elections, but voter demography shows that many parties on both sides of the spectrum have succeeded to appeal to the young generation as well as women.
There is, however, also one positive side of the current political polarisation – predictions go towards a record turnout of around 60%.
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Views are the author’s.