Emerging from the shadow

Conflicts in the ruling party, changes in the judiciary, upcoming elections – these will be the main topics of the political season.

Poland is at a crossroads. This may sound like a cliché but important questions about the future of the political ruling camp have arisen as the government approaches its mid-term review. This year, Polish political life did not break for the summer. Quite the opposite; in July President Andrzej Duda made the most important decision of his career. Vetoing the National Council of Judiciary and Supreme Court bills meant entering into a serious dispute with Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – PiS) and its president Jarosław Kaczyński. This was preceded by mass protests against the bills on the streets of Warsaw and other cities.

The president chose to veto the drafts presented by PiS for three reasons. Firstly, they were subject to serious legal defects – some laws were outright contradictions and widely criticised in legal circles, even by those sympathetic to the government. Secondly, the laws were passed through parliament at lightning speed, without due consultation. Thirdly and most importantly, in the middle of his term in office, Duda decided to break with his image as a meek notary of the ruling party, blindly signing all laws put in front of him. The president’s attempts to create an independent political position can also be seen in his changes to his inner circle – Duda recently appointed people far from the PiS mainstream, and even some in conflict with the party, like his new spokesman, former MP Krzysztof Łapiński.

Although both sides have attempted to calm the dispute, some things cannot be reversed. A fissure has appeared in the previously united ruling camp and this may gradually widen. People dissatisfied with Kaczyński’s policies will begin to gather around the president and a new power centre will be built in the ruling party. Jarosław Kaczyński, who has made most key decisions up to now, will have to acknowledge it.

The political calendar will be key

Further political developments will be imposed by the calendar. First, we will learn how the ruling party will deal with the presidential proposals on judiciary changes. The next step could be a cabinet reshuffle, timed perhaps at the end of October. If this happens, it will answer some questions surrounding certain positions in the government. It remains to be seen whether the ministers criticised by the president – Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, Minister of Health Konstanty Radziwiłł, and above all Minister of Defence Antoni Macierewicz – will survive. In the autumn, Prime Minister Beata Szydło’s political future will also be decided as she may be replaced by Mateusz Morawiecki or even Kaczyński himself.

Later, Poland’s political calendar will be dominated by the upcoming rounds of elections, held at roughly six-monthly intervals. Each has its own individual characteristics. Election season begins with local government elections in autumn 2018, which favour large, experienced parties with an apparatus and a network in the regions, cities and municipalities. The European elections in spring 2019 will test the parties’ abilities to campaign nationwide. Next come the most important elections, in autumn 2019. These are the parliamentary elections that will effectively decide who will rule Poland for the following four years. Finally, the presidential elections in spring 2020 will either be an opportunity to strengthen the position of the winning party from the parliamentary elections or to check its power.

Hard-line revolution or soft-line election mode

The ruling party enters this election season in good shape, despite the dispute between the president and the party. Many Poles appreciate the government’s social programmes, including minimum wage increases and the so-called 500+ programme, which gives monthly payments to parents with more than one child. The economy is in excellent shape: GDP growth remains at 4% and unemployment has fallen to its lowest level since 1989. All of this allows PiS to maintain high support in the polls, well above the 37.5% reached in the 2015 election.
PiS is also bolstered by the weakness of the opposition parties. The liberal centre is divided between Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska – PO) and Nowoczesna (Modern), while the left is spread between several smaller parties. Opposition parties have few ideas for shaping the public debate, tending only to react to the government’s moves. It is hard to find popular leaders in the opposition; the president, the prime minister and the populist Paweł Kukiz are far ahead in the polls. Mass protests against the changes in the judiciary simply did not translate into increased support for the opposition.

However, there are also challenges for the ruling camp, aside from the dispute between Kaczyński and the president. The realities of power over time naturally cause parties to lose steam. It is not known what effect the implementation of education and health reforms will bring about – they may mean chaos in these areas. Proposals for judicial changes or media decentralisation may trigger further protests on the streets.
The Polish government is in deep conflict with its European partners, both with the European Commission and the EU capitals. The disputes concern the rule of law in Poland, the judiciary, but also ecology and climate policy. The isolation of Poland in the European Union is deepening, which will worsen Warsaw’s position in the debate on the next financial perspective after 2020.
Poland’s political autumn and the next two years will be turbulent. The key issue is whether PiS will continue its hard line conservative revolution in the country or will switch to soft-line election mode. The results of the forthcoming elections still remain an open question.

Things to watch in politics this autumn

For PiS, the most important events of the autumn will be the completion of changes to the judiciary, the development of the relationship between the president and the party leader, and the possible cabinet reshuffle. The members of PO will select their party candidates at all levels and launch a local government campaign. Nowoczesna will also choose its candidates as the party prepares for its first convention since its foundation. Kukiz ’15 is already preparing its candidates for local elections while PSL will fight to maintain unity in the Sejm (lower house of the Polish parliament) – if it loses one MP, it will no longer be part of the parliamentary club.

Photo: President Andrzej Duda (Forum)

Łukasz Lipiński is director for analysis at Polityka Insight. He oversees the work of analysts, responsible for the planning and editing of Polityka Insight’s analysis and publications. He is an expert in European affairs, member of the InEuropa think-tank Programme Board, Marshall Memorial fellow (2004) and former member of the PAP programme board. Previously in Gazeta Wyborcza daily,where he headed the national desk (2008-2012), foreign desk (2006-2008) and economic desk (deputy head in 2001-2006).

Current polls

Political Party Popular Support
Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS) 42.2%
Platforma Obywatelska (PO) 22.4%
Nowoczesna (Modern) 9.6%
Kukiz ‘15 9.3%
Polish People’s Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe – PSL) 5.3%
Democratic Left Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej – SLD) 5.2%
Razem (Together Party) 3.3%

As on Sep 11 2017

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Written by: Łukasz Lipiński

Łukasz Lipiński is director for analysis at Polityka Insight. He oversees the work of analysts, responsible for the planning and editing of Polityka Insight’s analysis and publications. He is an expert in European affairs, member of the InEuropa think-tank Programme Board, Marshall Memorial fellow (2004) and former member of the PAP programme board. Previously in Gazeta Wyborcza daily,where he headed the national desk (2008-2012), foreign desk (2006-2008) and economic desk (deputy head in 2001-2006).