Poland will vote on October 15 in parliamentary elections that will send 460 MPs to the Sejm, the lower house of parliament.
A bitter campaign, pitching nationalist-populist forces against centrist ranks, illustrates a deeply polarised society, say analysts.
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Runners and riders
Polls suggest five entities have a good chance of crossing the threshold – 5 percent for parties, 8 percent for electoral coalitions – to enter parliament.
Currently leading with support of around 35 percent is the nationalist conservative United Right (ZP) coalition, which is dominated by Law and Justice (PiS). De facto party leader, the reclusive Jaroslaw Kaczynski hopes to win an historic third term.
Generous social benefits to families and pensioners provide PiS with a strong base, from which it has launched controversial reforms of the electoral system, courts and media. Critics accuse it of democratic backsliding, and a rule-of-law standoff with the EU has seen 100 billion euros ($105.24bn) of funds frozen, while the ruling party is also accused of abusing refugees and migrants, LGBT and women’s rights.
In the opposite corner is the centrist Civic Coalition (KO), led by Donald Tusk, former PM and president of the European Council. As the vote approached, the alliance – built, say its members, to save Poland from PiS’s increasing authoritarianism and destruction of democracy – was trailing by 5-6 percent.
The liberal-conservative Third Way coalition, left-wing Lewica coalition, and far-right Confederation are competing for third place in the polls with around 10 percent, and all could play a key role in the formation of the next government.
What are the main campaign issues?
PiS has stressed that it offers stability, noting it has steered Poland through the pandemic, Russian invasion of Ukraine, and cost of living crisis better than many of its neighbours.
Just ahead of the election, the government raised social benefits further, seeking to shore up support among its key older and rural electorate. While this cohort’s enthusiasm has slipped amid high inflation, PiS’s claim that KO would scrap this generous support and raise the retirement age leaves them with little alternative.
“Many have become dependent on this state support, so this narrative is very effective,” said Dr Jacek Kucharczyk of Warsaw-based think tank Institute of Public Affairs. “It’s essentially massive electoral bribery.”
KO’s Tusk has pledged to mend relations with Brussels, raise incomes and investment in education and healthcare, and frames the vote as crucial for minority and women’s rights.
But the positive campaign messages are in the minority.
“For PiS and KO, the campaign is not about winning new voters but mobilising their supporters and demobilising that of their rival,” suggests Ryszard Luczyn from Polish think tank Polityka Insight.
PiS seeks to paint the opposition as a threat to Poland and its traditions. In this narrative, Tusk is an agent of Germany and the EU who will sell the country’s sovereignty and use LGBT and women’s rights to topple Polish families.
“Whose flag does Tusk bear in his heart?” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki asked rhetorically at one rally.
Meanwhile, KO TV spots and leaflets put the focus on PiS scandals and offer a return to “normality”.
And as PiS has warned that Tusk and his masters want to flood Poland with migrants, the opposition party leader has joined it in the gutter, employing anti-migrant rhetoric to try to make the most of a visa-for-cash scandal that flared up in recent weeks.
Seeking to exploit the polarisation that PiS has coaxed, Tusk has promised mass antigovernment rallies he will not allow PiS to increase Poland’s isolation from Western partners but jail its leaders “for violating the law and the constitution”.
The suspicion of Western partners towards PiS has only grown as the party has fought the challenge from Confederation.
Eyeing growing war fatigue, the government has reversed its previously staunch support for Ukraine, blocking grain imports, raising historic grievances, and halting weapons supplies.
“PiS has raised its nationalist rhetoric and policy to compete with Confederation,” says Kucharczyk.
Is the election free and fair?
The ruling party is accused of using Poland’s state apparatus to tip the scales.
PiS has organised a referendum on migration and other favoured topics to run alongside the election.
“It’s a mechanism to mobilise the PiS electorate and provoke anger against the opposition,” according to lawyer and activist Krzysztof Izdebski.
The referendum allows the ruling party to use funds from Poland’s huge state companies, which are out of bounds in the official election campaign.
The launch of a commission to investigate Russian influence in politics is viewed as a direct attack on Tusk and has been challenged by Brussels for “violating democratic principles”.
Critics also point out that PiS has tilted the election system through numerous adjustments over which the European Parliament has expressed “deep concern”.
Adjustments to the electoral system have increased the voting power of rural voters, asserts Pawel Marczewski of civil society NGO Batory Foundation.
PiS’s capture of state media produces coverage heavily focused on the ruling party, critics add.
What do the polls say?
Polling trends suggest that neither PiS nor KO – sitting on 28-35 percent – will win enough votes to form a government alone.
KO’s chances of unseating PiS are likely to hinge on the Third Way and Lewica making it into the Sejm, without which it would struggle to assemble a majority. Such an anti-PiS coalition would contain some striking policy differences.
Some form of cooperation with Confederation, or some of its MPs, appears the most likely option for PiS to reach a majority, although it could still be a struggle.
“PiS-Confederation is still favourite to win most seats,” said Stanley Bill, Professor of Polish Studies at the University of Cambridge, “But what form – if any – their cooperation could take remains uncertain.”
Therefore, Poles could be set for a bout of instability, or even a return to the ballot box next spring.
“A fragile minority government or new elections remain the most likely outcomes,” suggests Andrius Tursa of Teneo Intelligence.
Why does the vote matter?
Kaczynski has pledged to double down on his “reform” of Poland’s democratic institutions, insisting that “this time, no one will stop us”. This drives concern that PiS could cement itself in power.
“If PiS wins a third term, it will press for even deeper changes in the judicial and election systems that could make it impossible to unseat them,” Kucharczyk warns.
Such plans would also further deepen the antipathy between Warsaw and Brussels, which, following the victory of Robert Fico in Slovakia’s election, will be wary that a PiS victory would cement Central Europe’s return to nationalist populism, and further complicate efforts to protect democracy and support Ukraine.
However, the union of illiberal states of which Viktor Orban dreams will remain unlikely due to the Hungarian leader’s pro-Russian approach, which is at odds with PiS’s hawkish stance.
The party denies that it would seek an exit from the EU, which is testament to the support of 90 percent of the population for membership. Warsaw would also maintain a pro-Western foreign policy and the tensions with Ukraine are likely to fade after the vote.
But PiS’s reliability as a partner, and the goodwill it’s staunch support for Kyiv has earned it across the EU and NATO, now appears questionable, say analysts.
A KO-led government would be expected to move Poland closer to Western partners and Ukraine and shore up democratic institutions. However, its bid to pull apart the system PiS has established will face opposition from beneficiaries, including senior officials at state-controlled companies and PiS’s President Andrzej Duda, whose second term runs to 2025.
Source: Al Jazeera