This is part three of a series of articles and reports looking at the political situations playing out in various European states in the light of the recent European election results. We have also reported on the elections in France and Czechia.
Much has changed in Polish politics since the last European elections. All the parties running in 2014 have by now formed new coalitions or disappeared completely. Two entirely new left-wing parties – Wiosna and Razem – have also emerged since the 2014 EU elections. The best way to understand the results might be to look at two general developments: tightening grip of conservatives on Polish politics and near-total defeat of the broad left.
Total victory of the conservative forces is perhaps the most striking feature of the current political landscape in Poland. It is seen most clearly in over 45 per cent of the votes won by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. Together with their main rival – the European Coalition (KE) who won just over 38 per cent of the vote, the two blocs are likely to dominate Polish politics in the foreseeable future. Both are essentially conservative projects. Many in Poland would dispute this, as the European Coalition consistently presented itself as a socially liberal and ‘European’ alternative to the nationalists in Law and Justice. However, the coalition was based largely on the Civic Platform (PO), whose policies in the years 2007-15 leave no illusions about their progressive nature. The party deregulated the labour market, initiated state-led cult of the anti-communist underground (1944-47) which fuels nationalism and failed to provide even most basic rights for the LGBTQ community in the form of civil partnerships. Other members of the European Coalition offer similar track record, despite the presence of nominally left-wing SLD. At the time of writing, the SLD mayor of Rzeszów decided to ban the Pride march in the city.
However, there are also glimmers of hope. PiS won the elections largely on the basis of their social policy. It presented the EU elections as a plebiscite before the parliamentary elections in Autumn and successfully argued that what is at stake is the future of their redistributive policies. This new importance of social policy in Polish politics suggests a possible opening for the left. At the same time, the European Coalition offered no concrete programme other than their opposition to PiS and fearmongering about ‘Polexit’. I would argue that this formula has a very limited lifespan, leaving space for more concrete alternatives to emerge. Finally, for as long as the two conservative parties dominate, the far right will struggle to gain a foothold. The hard-right ‘libertarian’ Janusz Korwin-Mikke and his fascist coalition partners failed to win a single seat, down from four won in 2014.
For the left to gain from the situation, it will need to put its house in order. Wiosna was the only party apart from the big two to win any mandates with 6% of the vote. However, early opinion polls gave hope for 10-12%. Furthermore, Wiosna lost much of its appeal due to controversies over mobbing of youth activists and corruption charges against one of the leading candidates. To make matters worse, Wiosna insists on neo-liberal economic policies, such as de-facto subsidies to the private healthcare sector, which are popular among middle-class voters but will prevent the party from gaining wider support. This is especially the case considering the key role played by modest advances in social security which provided PiS with resounding victory. On the other hand, Razem continues to offer a far-reaching programme that is consistently left-wing on both minority rights and wider economic policy. At the same time, Razem disappointed electorally, winning just over 1% of the vote this year, compared to 3.6% in 2015. The main reason could be seen in the overly-cautious campaign, loss of original enthusiasm and departure of activists.