E.U. Elections in Poland: Society Still Divided in Half

Belweder, formerly a presidential palace, is lit up with the colors of the Polish flag.

The 2019 European Parliament elections changed the balance of power in many European countries.  In Poland, the Law and Justice Party’s victory was due to a combination of the ruling party’s skillful tactics and the opposition’s fecklessness rather than some sort of sustained right-wing turn in Polish society. 

Law and Justice Consolidated

May 26th marked a strong victory for the center-right Law and Justice Party (PiS), which won 45 percent of the votes and 26 of Poland’s 51 seats in the European Parliament. PiS outperformed even the most optimistic polls and earned both a greater percentage and number of votes relative to the 2015 national parliamentary elections in which the party came to power. For the party’s leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, the outcome lends credence to his optimism for the national elections, which will take place in October.

The largest opposition block, the European Coalition (KE), received 38 percent of votes, guaranteeing its candidates 22 votes in the European Parliament. The Coalition consists of the formerly ruling Civic Platform, Polish People’s Party, Democratic Left Alliance, and a few other smaller center-left to left-wing parties. Despite their intense activity since the beginning of PiS rule, most notably during the constitutional crisis protests, and their favorable portrayal in major national media outlets, members of the KE have lost much of their social support since the 2015 parliamentary elections. Even President of the European Council Donald Tusk’s direct endorsement of the Coalition proved insufficient.  

Higher Stakes, More Voters

Turnout, at 46 percent, was nearly double that during the 2014 election. This increase may be due to rising domestic political tensions as well as voters’ heightened awareness of the importance of having an effective delegation in Brussels. It was the way political debate was run during the campaign months, rather than a significant societal shift in political orientation, that colored the outcome. 

The European issues Poles were most concerned about between 2014 and 2019 included Brexit, migration from the Middle East to Europe, and the dispute between the European institutions and the Polish government on the rule of law in Poland. Aside from general agreement on the challenge of Brexit for the large Polish diaspora in the United Kingdom, the nation was divided on the other two issues. Voters sought strong leadership representing their positions on those difficult problems.

Domestic social issues also constitute a plausible explanation of the high turnout. In the weeks leading up to the election, there was a series of events that generated a conflict of values in the traditionally Catholic society. Among them was a speech preceding Donald Tusk’s lecture at the University of Warsaw. Leszek Jazdzewski, editor-in-chief of the Liberte! magazine, harshly criticized the Catholic Church in Poland, comparing the clergy to wizards and pigs. The words were afterwards widely considered unacceptable, and while the KE was divided with some politicians subscribing to the hate speech, the PiS expressly condemned them. 

Interweaving with the political campaign, public discussion on national values continued with an act of protest against a church in Plock involving a desecrated image of Our Lady of Czestochowa, which is one of the main symbols of Polish Catholicism, and a resulting arrest, the release of a movie on the abuse of minors by Catholic priests, and vulgar, Christianophobic gestures during the Equality March in Gdansk the day before the election. Politicians from both sides gained political capital by bringing the galvanized electorate to the ballot boxes, with the conservatives prevailing in the end. 

Post-Communism Still Relevant?

The opposition’s attitude toward communism is another, although perhaps less pronounced, issue that acted in favor of Law and Justice. Three decades of democracy have dampened  anti-communist fervor. However, Poles would rather see a settlement of the bygone era’s crimes than cushy jobs being offered to former apparatchiks.

It was paradoxical that the Civic Platform, the largest opposition power and a party founded by former anti-communist activists, easily formed a coalition with the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance, thereby guaranteeing outsized representation in the European Parliament for members of the latter. Four of its five members who loyally served in the leadership structures of the totalitarian regime under Soviet dominion will now take seats in the European Parliament.

Perhaps the absence of an ultimate settlement of communist-era crimes, which constituted a scandal for some voters, made others ignorant to the gravity of the issue. Voters in the latter category, discontented with the PiS’s rule, were encouraged by some media outlets to support a common campaign of the opposition parties while turning a blind eye to the past.

Not all, however, followed suit. For those Poles who still remember the severity of communism, the opposition crossed the line. For many of them, the PiS remained a symbolic guarantor of traditional values combined with a mission to eradicate post-Communist cabals and other corrupt networks, an image endorsed by other media outlets. They were motivated to vote lest the Coalition won, despite the fact that the PiS did not carry out on all of its promises regarding social issues.

Poland’s social security net is not as developed as in other Western European countries, a fact that the PiS has incorporated in its successful strategy, which bundles social conservatism with welfare programs. While higher values are decisive for many voters, ordinary citizens tend to care more about their day-to-day material situation.

One of its programs guarantees a subsidy of 500 zl ($130) for each child in low-income families and the second and every child after for most other families, compared to the average Pole’s monthly salary of 5000 zl ($1300). The program is very popular, and other major parties have responded with their alternatives. The PiS has recently followed up with extensions to the program, including raising the income cutoff to qualify and expanding benefits for the disabled, pensioners, and farmers.

The exceedingly expensive program has exhibited little effectiveness in achieving its goal of improving the country’s worrisome demographic situation. At the same time, though, along with other social plans, it has created an image of a government that cares for the disadvantaged. Such an image likely attracted some politically inactive individuals who added to the party’s most reliable electorate—rural, low-income, and less-educated voters. It also convinced many of those whose previously neglected or ignored expectations were eventually met by the current administration. They participated in the European elections to give the PiS a mandate that may carry over to the national elections in October. 

Poland Still Divided in Half

Therefore, despite the election’s ostensibly European focus, the results reflect Poles’ perspectives on the future of their own country rather than on the future of Europe as a whole. Against the apparent leftward turn of the opposition parties, the PiS’s firm adherence to traditional values and a clear attitude towards post-communist transition injustices drew the vote of many centrists. Moderate satisfaction with the PiS’s work, notably in the area of social welfare, and fear of the Civic Platform’s potential return to power built the PiS’s base of support among otherwise politically inactive citizens. Provided no political earthquake, today’s seven-percentage-point margin over the largest opposition group seems enough for a firm PiS victory in the fall. 

However, it is important to notice that the advantage reflects the ruling party’s skillful politics rather than a distinctly conservative societal mood—the electorate as a whole was divided roughly in half between left-leaning parties, such as Left Together, Spring, and the KE, garnering 46 percent of the vote, and right-leaning parties, such as the PiS, the Confederation, Kukiz’15, and other parties under the threshold, receiving 54 percent. Poland remains divided between two worldviews, and there appears to be little hope of breaking the polarization in the near future.

Image Source: Flickr/radkuch.13

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