Five things to watch in the upcoming Polish elections

3 min read

The Polish general elections are maybe months away, but the knives are already all out. Not a complete surprise, given the high stakes.

Three things are worth to pay attention to in the coming months to be able to understand the events (and somewhat predict the outcome).

1. Was it a change of the tide or just a glitch?

For a very long time, it seemed that the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) Party was to lose the upcoming elections. At least, public surveys and opinion polls all showed a decline in its support. Economic issues, high inflation and unemployment rate, and some of its controversial policies led to the lowest approval rating in the last eight years, at one point during the winter even falling under 30 percent.

The last few months saw a change in the tide, or it seems so. The polls are still too close to tell in this moment, whether it was only a short term change or a complete turnaround, but the ability of the PiS to change the public perception will determine its chances to secure a third term.

In fact, the balance of power between the government and the opposition leaves much room in both directions. While the polls in the end of June predicted about 37 percent for the United Right (an alliance of PiS and several players on the conservative field), the latest poll by Estymator showed only a much lower result, 34.5 percent. It’s not a big change and it could be said that PiS’s popular support has just minimally eroded since it came to power in 2015. But it could be a chance for the current opposition.

Only, it wasn’t the Civic Platform that gained the most of those shifting votes (because it is consistently polling between 27 and 30 percent, having regained the trust of its core electorate since 2021), but the Confederation Liberty and Independence, a far-right political alliance. The Confederation is measured around 14 percent by most polling firms.

2. Efforts to influence the elections

As the current PiS-led government is at loggerheads with the EU, many hope for a change.

Just recently, the main parliamentray groups of the European Parliament (first and foremost the EPP) have already called for “full-scale observation” of the elections, because they “might not be held to the highest democratic standards”.

The groups in question have already sent a letter to the director of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), demanding that the organization sent a full-scale observation mission.

It is a safe bet to say that it will only get worse in the months to come.

Outsider opinion would likely be shared shamelessly, maybe even bordering to outsider meddling with public opinion.

Like it happened after the Polish parliament amended the electoral code in January 2023. A step aimed to boost voter turnout in times when citizens show up in ever decreasing numbers, the amendment was immediately declared to be an effort to manipulate the outcome of the elections.

Or, like it happened shortly after the law establishing the “Russian Commission” was passed. Within hours, the new law received vocal criticism from the EU and from the other side of the Atlantic, as well. Washington deemed that “the new law could be used to interfere with Poland’s free and fair elections”. Didier Reynders (EU Commissioner for Justice) expressed his “special concern” about the situation. Critics fear that the ruling PiS party would weaponize the new commission to ban opponents from running for public posts.

Without actually knowing how that commission would work, or whether it would or would not “be invoked or abused in ways that could affect the perceived legitimacy of elections”. Now, with the foundations laid, it will be easy to point at any decision of that body as an abuse of power, irrespective of the facts behind it.

Or forgetting that it was Donald Tusk (presently declared to be the main target of the new commission) who first suggested the establishing of a tool for investigating the influence of Russia on Polish authorities, citing the 2015 wiretapping scandal and a coal imports contract with Russia as reasons.

The buzzwords to look for will be “elections that will determine the country’s democratic course” or “its place in the European Union”. The election wouldn’t simply decide who is to govern Poland for the next four years to come (the “illiberal governing coalition” or the “democratic opposition”), but would also decide the “fate of illiberal democracies”, in general.

As the current government is on collision course with Brussels (especially about rule of law), there are already many voices claiming that the fate of the EU itself would also be determined, as the government would “continue its policy of undermining the rule of law in ways that run counter to European values and its constitutional basis”.

Representing a largely rural constituency (about 40 percent of Polish voters comes from rural areas), the current government is definitely against an ever deeper integration and is interested in maintaining socially conservative policies.

Contrary to what some say, the Euroscepticism of Polish voters doesn’t mean that they actively seek to demolish the EU. In fact, a vast majority of rural Poles (90 percent) and farmers (88 percent) is pro-EU. They just don’t agree with all the policies within. Those prophesizing about the destruction of the European order tend to forget that the PiS-led Polish government agreed to the conditionality mechanism, the Green Deal or the mutualisation of debt, and so on.

Definitely not without conditions, but negotiations and balancing interests makes the difference between a tyranny or a democracy, and this is also true to big multinational organizations, like the EU.

3. EU money

The fate of EU payments will be a critical factor in influencing the elections.

The longer those funds are frozen, the more the opposition can benefit from it, as it has already made it one of its main talking points.

In order to get the money, the PiS needs to convince its coalition partners, mainly United Poland and its staunchly anti-EU leader Zbigniew Ziobro that finding a workable solution to the rule of law problems between Warsaw and the EU institutions is a must for a sure victory.

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