European election campaign in Poland: test run for autumn general elections

European election campaign in Poland: test run for autumn general elections

Background

The figures speak for themselves: 15 years after joining the European community, 91 percent of Poles support EU membership, with only five percent against. According to 78 percent of those surveyed, the consequences are overwhelmingly positive. Moreover, 56 percent feel they are Europeans, an increase of around 13 percent compared to 2014.

Against this backdrop, the debate over the threat of Polexit – repeatedly arising in connection with the judicial reforms of the ruling national-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) that are questionable from the perspective of the rule of law – has become less significant. The ongoing campaign for European elections at the end of May 2019 is a good opportunity to have a closer look at the actual state of the political system and society in Poland with a view to the future of the European integration process.

Owing to the divisive politics of the Law and Justice government, Poland’s political party landscape is distinguished by an increasing number of alliances having been formed in recent years. In general, PiS and the liberal-conservative Civic Platform (PO) continue to be the main opponents. However, the latter has created a broader European Coalition (Koalicja Europejska, KE), pooling a wide and very diverse (in terms of programme) group of parties such as the Polish People’s Party (PSL), the post-communist SLD, the liberal Nowoczesna (Modern), and even the Polish Greens.

To the left of the KE, the newly founded and progressively oriented Wiosna (Spring) of the former MP and city mayor Robert Biedroń, and the RAZEM party (Together) established in 2015, both with no parliamentary mandates so far, are trying to score political points, the latter also in a coalition (Lewica Razem – The Left Together) with several ultra-left groups. On the political right, in addition to the Kukiz’15 movement, which is already present in the Sejm, a new alliance has also emerged for the purposes of the European elections: Konfederacja (Confederation), which is, at least in part, right-wing extremist. Furthermore, two other Euro-sceptic-to-hostile slates of candidates have been registered: the “True Europe – Europe Christi” movement inspired by Redemptorist priest Tadeusz Rydzyk, and Koalicja Polexit – both with little chance for success, but a potential threat to PiS.

It is striking that the programmes and strategies of the most important slates of candidates are largely concerned with purely Polish challenges that should be solved at European level but do not provide an overarching European perspective. In addition, they often address similar policy areas such as health policy, energy policy, equal opportunities and living standards for all EU citizens, regional development, and sustainable development. And yet, the differences are becoming clearly visible. At the same time, the European election campaign obviously paves the way for the campaign in autumn, when members of the Sejm and Senate – the two chambers of the Polish parliament – will be elected. For PiS, it is about cementing power, for the opposition – about reversing anti-democratic reforms. This is confirmed by the composition of PiS and KE’s slates, which contain an unusually large number of current ministers and former prime ministers, respectively.

Guided by its motto “Poland is the heart of Europe,” PiS not only wants to support Polish material interests in the EU to the largest extent possible but also, above all, would like to achieve the same quality standards all across Europe. The main aim is to combat the inequality perceived by PiS: “We will win also because nobody can continue to claim that France and Germany can take what they want and that Poland is not entitled to the same rights,” party leader Kaczyński has recently stressed at an Electoral Congress.

With the slogan “The future of Poland. The big decision,” KE is adopting a different approach. In view of the threat to the rule of law, it focuses on the irreversible and value-based anchoring of the country in the centre of Europe. Moreover, owing to its cooperation with the Greens and PSL, the Civic Platform has an unusually high number of ecological items on its agenda: clean air, clean and cheap energy, healthy food, and sustainable expansion of the transport system, especially with a view to the regions.

Wiosna’s offer follows a similar course. However, the party puts even more emphasis on the approximation of standards through European legislation, e.g. in the area of healthcare, women’s rights and the transition to renewable energy sources. Furthermore, it calls for a single European passport for all EU citizens, which would produce clear benefits for Poland as far as visa policy is concerned, e.g. with a view to the USA. On the domestic front, Wiosna is particularly interested in separating Church and state, which has not been fully achieved in Poland. RAZEM, on the other hand, wishes to make a particular effort to harmonise and strengthen workers’ rights, and calls for a European minimum wage.

On the right, Kukiz’15, strives for cooperation with the Five Star Movement in the EP, calls for equal rights for all EU citizens, and, above all, emphasises the need to decentralise the EU. The Commission’s powers are to be curtailed in favour of the Parliament and direct citizen participation through the consultation process. Konfederacja, on the other hand, aims to dissolve the EU, which allegedly inhibits national traditions and civil liberties. Furthermore, it demands security for “faith, family and ownership” and a strict ban on abortion, as well as wishing to combat the influence of the “homolobby” in the field of education.

The latest opinion polls, which should always be treated with caution in Poland, see PiS in the lead with about 42%, followed by KE (37%) and Wiosna (8%). Kukiz’15 would also have a chance to win seats (6%), while Konfederacja (4%) and Lewica Razem (3%) would not enter the EP.

It is interesting how support for the most important political competitors is distributed in society: the majority of those who vote PiS are married. Wiosna is favoured by civil partnerships of all sexes, but particularly among women. The right is disproportionately popular among single males. According to opinion polls, it is only in the case of KE that family status does not play a vital role.[2] It should also be noted that PiS and KE together would receive 85% of the votes among over-60s. The younger the respondents, the more likely they are to support one of the “new” groups.[3]

At the current stage, of 52 seats allocated to Poland, PiS could even receive over 26 owing to the local electoral law – the d’Hondt method favours the strongest list in a disproportionate way – and would thus constitute one of the most powerful national party groups in the EP. However, the future strength of the European Conservatives and Reformists, to which PiS belongs, is uncertain. After Brexit, they would lose the British Tories and thus shrink significantly. Although numerous meetings between party leader Jarosław Kaczyński and representatives of the European right (most recently with Matteo Salvini of the Italian Lega Nord), held in order to demonstrate his ability to form a coalition in the EP, have inspired media interest, he distances himself from clear opponents of Europe in the spirit of de Gaulle’s conservative tradition.

However, the debate sparked by Kaczyński over postponing introducing the euro in Poland – which is supposed to put KE under pressure and divert attention from its accusations of the PiS government having violated the rule of law – is seen with concern. It is mostly based on a well-known warning against economic turbulence, but at the same time it paints a picture of an allegedly anti-social EU: "We want European salaries, but not European prices!” Conservative commentators were also appalled that an election-driven polarisation around the core issue of European integration could have negative consequences for the social perception of the EU in Poland, but also for Poland's actual influence on central EU policy areas.


[1] According to a poll by the Public Opinion Research Centre from the first half of March 2019. https://www.tvp.info/42332078/cbos-rekordowe-poparcie-dla-czlonkostwa-polski-w-ue

 [2] Cf. the outcomes of an opinion poll by Kantar Millward Brown for the magazine Wysokie Obcasy in the period 5–11 March 2019 (oko.press, accessed on 05.2019).

 [3] Cf. Krzysztof Pacewicz: Młodzi mężczyźni są prawicowi i samotni, a młode kobiety liberalne i w związkach (wyborcza.pl, 27.04.2019).