Approaching a fork in the illiberal path?

Poland before the EP elections

2019 is a critical year for Polish democracy, with a new national parliament to be elected no more than five months after the European elections. The latter will therefore be a significant test for the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has seen its support slip slightly since the beginning of the year. Led by Jarosław Kaczyński, PiS understands that if it does not top the polls in May, then it will face an uphill battle in the autumn.

Bearing this in mind, PiS announced a series of new social programmes only two months prior to the EP election, aimed at drumming up support among its electorate. The effort has five new focus points, now referred to as ‘Kaczyński’s Five’: financial support for families, pensioners and young professionals; middle class tax cuts; and cheaper public transport. PiS has also announced that their lead candidates for the European election are to include leading politicians and ministers from the present government, including former prime minister Beata Szydło, the current minister of education and the current minister of interior. The campaign clearly has a distinctly domestic framework. Meanwhile, little is said about Europe beyond the catchphrase ‘Poland is the Heart of Europe’.

Opposition unites

To challenge PiS in May, a so-called the ‘European Coalition’ has been created. It brings together the centre-right and centre-left opposition parties, led by Civic Platform, the Polish People’s Party, the Democratic Left Alliance, the Modern Party and the Green Party. The coalition has not yet officially presented its list of candidates but it has announced plans to head up the list with some well-known figures. These include former presidents and prime ministers such as Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz, Leszek Miller, Ewa Kopacz and Bronisław Komorowski. Recent polling data suggest that the European Coalition has a chance of winning the lion’s share of the vote, which would deal a significant blow to PiS.

In addition, a new political force has emerged by the name of Wiosna (Spring), led by a former mayor of the city of Słupsk, Robert Biedroń. Wiosna is more oriented toward the Left of the political spectrum and is pro-European. The party has announced that it will not join the European Coalition, thus attracting the interest of Polish voters looking for a new political approach. Current polling data forecast that Wiosna could take around 10 percent of the vote in May. A strong showing would provide the party with the momentum to become a serious challenger in the Polish general election.

Turnout is the key

For all the political forces at play, the degree to which the electorate can be mobilized will be the decisive factor in the EP elections. All major contestants are topping their list with high profile names, as the stakes are very high – probably the highest since Poland joined the European Union in 2004. The last two EP elections had a turnout of around 24 percent, well below the EU average of nearly 43 percent.

However, considering the domestic tone in these elections, we should expect a much higher turnout this time around. There has been very little debate so far about the current state of the EU, how to improve European structures and policies, or what the role of Brussels should be in the future. Despite the fact that PiS already cooperates with other eurosceptic parties across Europe, we should not expect there to be much debate about how a PiS victory could affect EU policies more broadly. The latest media debates have focussed heavily on issues such as LGBT+ rights and education.

But though these campaigns scarcely touch upon European issues, the result of both of sets of elections in Poland will certainly have a far-reaching effect on the future of Europe. If PiS wins both and maintains its majority, the party will feel emboldened to continue its accumulation of power and take Poland further down the illiberal path – promising further clashes with Brussels.

Should the opposition prevail, it remains to be seen whether new pro-EU policies will follow, or if this can reset Polish politics to overcome the legal havoc created during the last four years. The wild card is the new Wiosna party, as it is still unclear how this unknown entity will poll and what it might do with any mandate it receives to reshape the Polish political scene.

First published on 29 March 2019 at Eurozine.

This text is protected by copyright: © Adam Reichardt / Eurozine. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Warsaw, Poland. Photo: © iStock / Marcus Lindstrom

Mood of the Union

The series Mood of the Union collects articles on all 28 EU member states. The series is supported by ERSTE Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy.

In the Mood of the Union, partner editors of Eurozine from across the continent, together with further journalists and analysts, will be reporting on attitudes towards the elections and what is at stake at the national level. The aim is to provide a more detailed glimpse than one would usually catch from the bird’s-eye view of national media. The series is curated by Agnieszka Rosner and edited by contributing editor Ben Tendler.

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