The Polish elections and why they matter

What you need to know

The parties:

  • Law and Justice (PiS) – a right-wing populist (although economically left), national conservative party
  • Civic Platform (PO) – a centrist, liberal-conservative, and socially liberal party
  • Polish People’s Party (PSL) – a centrist and social-democratic party
  • Spring – a centre-left, pro-Europe, socially liberal party

The candidates:

  • Andrzej Duda – PiS – incumbent President of Poland
  • Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska – PO
  • Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz – PSL
  • Robert Biedroń – Spring

It was announced last week that the Polish presidential elections will take place on the 10th May 2020. The incumbent president of the Law and Justice party (PiS; a right-wing populist party seeking to protect Polish “family values” as an element of national conservatism), Andrzej Duda, will be faced by a fragmented opposition. Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, who would be the first Polish female president if elected, is standing for Civic Platform (PO), Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz will represent the Polish People’s Party (PSL), and the first openly gay Polish politician, Robert Biedroń, is standing for his newly established party, Spring.

Each of these opposition parties represents a somewhat centrist perspective of politics, exhibiting but slight differences on the right-left political continuum with PO being liberal conservatives, PSL socially democratic, and Spring being the most left of these as a pro-Europe and socially liberal party.

The founder and leader, Robert Biedroń, has been at the forefront of LGBTQ+ activism – taking on an anticlerical stance due to PiS’ strong catholic rhetoric – and one of three leaders of a three-way political alliance of “The Left” founded to contest together in the 2019 Parliamentary Elections along with the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the Left Together (Lewica Razem) parties which went on to win 19 of the 460 seats in the lower house of parliament, the Sejm

The 2020 election, in light of the eclipse of the first term of the populist Law and Justice (PiS) government, has been described by Civic Platform’s and the Mayor of Poznan, Jacek Jaśkowiak, as “the most important election in 30 years”. However, beyond Poland’s borders, it could also prove to be an insightful measure of how a term in office affects attitudes toward these populist parties and provide some context to the impending 2020 US Presidential election.

The 2015 election saw a win for Law and Justice (PiS) as their presidential candidate, Andrzej Duda, won with 51.5% of the vote in the second round of elections against the incumbent President Bronislaw Komorowski. Komorowski, running as an independent but with the endorsement of the centrist Civic Platform, won the election in 2010 as a member of PO and was criticised following the 2015 results for his lack of a substantial campaign; clouded by the assumption that the Polish electorate would not elect PiS.

Law and Justice’s harsh criticisms of the European Union was, in reality, confronted by the fact that Poland received €17.436 billion in 2014 and €2 billion more than any other member state in 2013, yet this didn’t stop a similar scapegoating occurring in the rural areas of Poland of the EU for their economic hardships. The election of President Duda in 2015 and the win of PiS’ nationalistic rhetoric, in hindsight, was an early signal of the war on truth that would be waged in the campaigns for Brexit and Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2016. 

Currently, the PiS government is the centre of targeted criticism, both within and without the country, concerning far-reaching judicial reforms. The most recent proposals aim to stop judges from engaging in political activity but would, in reality, allow the government to dismiss judges who question the legitimacy of their policies. This thinly veiled attack on judicial sovereignty has led to yet another referral to the European Court of Justice over judicial matters, following others triggered by the lowering of the age of retirement for judges to 60 for women and 65 for men.

These policies are just the most recent iteration of PiS’ transgression against the constitution. The party’s electoral base tends to overlook such misconduct as the party’s far-right social rhetoric (denying migrants, standing for “family values” which shields their blatant sexism and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments justifying the lack of sexual education in schools) is countered by their left economic policies embodied in the “500+” programme which gives 500 zł (approx. £100) a month for each child to families.

However, there has been consistent protests under the banner of “Konstytucja” (Constitution) which seeks to counter the parties divisive rhetoric and infringements of the Constitution, whilst judges have recently joined together in strikes against this proposed “muzzle” bill after the Olsztyn judge, Paweł Juszczyszyn, was suspended last week. The resolution of these 31 judges was then ripped in two by the President of the Olsztyn District Court, Maciej Nawacki, in a poignant display of the ruling party’s attitudes towards dissent against them.

In all, the last five years of Polish politics has been plagued by scandal after scandal, from proposals of limiting the already the most strict abortion laws in Europe or calling LGBTQ+ rights an “ideology” and the “dark disease”, and to most recently granting 2 billion zł to the state-funded TVP (Television Poland) network rather than funding oncology.

The increasing influence of the government on media outlets such as TVP reflects the wider trend we’re seeing among populist and far-right governments, with Trump’s famous labelling of any opposing media cover as “fake news” to Boris Johnson excluding journalists of the Mirror, HuffPost, the Independent and others from the EU trade negotiations briefing on February 3rd, and was an inaugural issue for the PiS government whose proposals to restrict journalist access to Sejm proceedings in 2015 which led to the opposition staying in the chambers over Christmas. 

Even with all this, a recent TVN24 poll, an independent although leaning towards the opposition media network, found that in the second round where Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska (PO) and Andrzej Duda (PiS) would contend, 54% would vote for the incumbent and 42% for Kidawa-Blonska.

For now, the question remains as to the survival of Poland’s liberal democracy in light of this populist regime, growing food prices and extortionate medicine prices that affect everyday Poles. But beyond that, the survival of PiS and the likely re-election of Duda in May paint a bleak portrait for the continuation of these populist sentiments around the world, especially with the 2020 U.S. Presidential election approaching and a similarly divided field opposing Donald Trump.