Are Polish Politics Turning Even More Extreme?

Prime Minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki speaks during the 30th Anniversary of Velvet Revolution at the National Museum in Prague.

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Why you should care

Poland’s leading party could feel pressured to turn even more populist.

Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, faced something new as he addressed Parliament for the first time after the country’s recent general election: attacks from left and right.

Adrian Zandberg, from the left-wing alliance Lewica, eviscerated Morawiecki’s Law and Justice party (PiS) for failing to improve public services during its first term in office. Robert Winnicki, from the far-right group Konfederacja, accused PiS of being too soft on cultural issues such as LGBTQ rights, and “capitulating … to the rainbow, leftist revolution.”

The hostility toward Morawiecki as he outlined his plans for the next four years points to a shift in Poland’s politics. During PiS’ first term the bulk of the parliamentary opposition to its agenda, which combines Catholic-tinged social conservatism with big-state economics, came from the political center.

But October’s election propelled into Parliament two groups, Lewica and Konfederacja, that will fight PiS on both those fronts, and could shake up the duopoly of PiS and its centrist rival Civic Coalition that has dominated Polish politics for the past decade.

PiS has done nothing to improve public services.

Agnieszka Dziemianowicz-Bak, Lewica MP

Lewica, an alliance of three left-wing groups that came third behind PiS and Civic Coalition, has set out to challenge PiS on its record of welfare provision. While PiS’ flagship child benefit program has been a big reason for its success, other aspects of Poland’s welfare state, such as the notoriously underfunded health service, are widely seen as underperforming.

“PiS has done nothing to improve public services. On the contrary, some of them, like the health care system, have found themselves in an even more dramatic situation under PiS,” says Agnieszka Dziemianowicz-Bak, one of Lewica’s MPs, adding that cutting the price of medicines would be one of the party’s priorities.

“The social left is a problem for PiS,” says Jacek Kucharczyk, head of the Institute of Public Affairs, a think tank, arguing that Lewica’s progressive credentials would make its social pledges harder for PiS to dismiss than those of the centrist opposition, which has oscillated between criticizing PiS and trying to outbid it on welfare spending.

Konfederacja, which came fifth in the election, poses a different challenge. One of PiS’ guiding principles has been to avoid being outflanked by the political right. But it will now have to compete with a far-right party whose members have called for the return of the death penalty, backed a near-total ban on abortion and floated anti-LGBTQ legislation.

Electoral Campaign in Gdansk

Electoral posters of the Koalicja Obywatelska (Civic Platform), Lewica (Left Alliance), Konfederacja and Prawo I Sprawiedliwosc (Law and Justice) parties are seen in Gdansk, Poland. (Photo by Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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One of Konfederacja’s leading figures this year summed up its platform as: “We don’t want Jews, homosexuals, abortion, taxes or the EU,”

Ryszard Luczyn, from Polityka Insight, says that if PiS tries to counter Konfederacja by moving sharply to the right, it risks losing voters to more moderate rivals such as the Polish People’s Party, PSL, which has rural roots but is gaining ground in cities.

“If it were only Konfederacja, PiS could … toughen up on some issues, wave the sword a bit.… But you also have PSL, which … seems to be transforming itself from an agrarian party to kind of a Christian Democratic, more [urban] party,” Luczyn explains.

“So if you have Konfederacja … threatening PiS from [the extreme right] of the political spectrum, and PSL threatening PiS from the [center-right], then obviously this will be a challenge,” he adds.

Unless the math in Poland’s Parliament changes unexpectedly, neither Lewica nor Konfederacja will be able to defeat PiS in the Parliament itself. Konfederacja doesn’t have the 15 members of Parliament necessary to put forward bills. And as long as PiS can keep its majority (currently of five), it will be able to block any proposal Lewica puts forward.

But analysts say the new parties would undoubtedly change the nature of Poland’s political debate, which could, in turn, put pressure on PiS to change some of its policies.

Some polls since the election have shown Konfederacja and Lewica gaining ground. But the first real test of how the two parties’ greater prominence is playing with voters will come in the spring when Poland holds presidential elections — the final leg of the electoral marathon that has occupied the country for the past year.

The PiS-backed incumbent, Andrzej Duda, is the favorite. But analysts say Poland’s new political constellation will make his job harder.

“Duda will have to fight off Konfederacja on the right, and at the same time it will make him less credible as a centrist, and there is already competition in the center,” says Kucharczyk. “It will not be easy for Duda to fight on all these fronts.”

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By James Shotter

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