October 29, 2015 - by Dr. Ania Zbyszewska, University of Warwick, United Kingdom
Last Sunday's parliamentary election in Poland returned power to Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), the country's socially conservative right-wing party known for its nationalist and Eurosceptic sentiments, traditionalist family values, and close affinity with the Polish Catholic Church. According to official results, the party captured 37.6 percent of the votes, significantly more than the governing liberal right Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska) led by Ewa Kopacz, which won 24.1 percent of the vote. The remaining seats in Sejm, Poland's lower house of Parliament, will be split among newcomers - the right-wing, anti-establishment grouping affiliated with Paweł Kukiz, a former rock star turned politician, and the neoliberal Nowoczesna - which took 8.8 and 7.6 percent of the vote respectively. Significantly, apart for the veteran peasant party PSL (5.1%), none of the self-identified left-wing groupings in the running managed to cross the electoral threshold required for parliamentary representation.
While numerous commentators predicted the Law and Justice comeback following the May electoral victory of its presidential candidate Andrzej Duda, few anticipated the party would attain a majority. Also unexpected was the fact that, unlike in prior years, the party managed to galvanize support among all social groups, including young, educated, urban voters who had been least likely to vote for the party in the past. The outcome can be explained partially by the general disenchantment with the outgoing Civic Platform government, which ruled Poland for eight years. The latter's incessant emphasis on Poland's good economic performance and low unemployment figures over the course of the global economic crisis rang hollow with many Poles who felt they gained few material benefits from this success, but have instead faced increasing insecurity and precarious labour market conditions. Given this climate, and with a highly fragmented Left unable to offer a broadly appealing alternative, the Law and Justice's call for change, and its more social redistributive and economic interventionist (anti-neoliberal) rhetoric resonated with voters. Commentators also attributed the party's success to its adoption of a somewhat more moderate, if still socially conservative, tone, and its decision to shift attention away from the former Prime Minister and the party's official leader Jarosław Kaczyński - who is popular only with the party's core voters - by putting forth a new deputy leader, Beata Szydło, as the Prime Ministerial candidate.
What will the Law and Justice victory mean for Poland's social and employment policies?
While the party's promise of expanded state spending and support for working people and families was certainly a draw for voters, it is yet to be seen whether the party can, and will, actually deliver the change Poles craved. Opposition parties have widely called into question the financial feasibility of Law and Justice's popular reform proposals - most notably its promise to reverse the Civic Platform's recent reform raising the retirement age to 67 for women and men, its proposals for new social transfers for families, and lower VAT. Several days after the election, the party representatives already warned that the inherited budget will dictate how soon these changes can be made and that a delay may be inevitable as the new government is unlikely to draft a fresh budget until next year. While this is not the first time that Law and Justice has capitalized - and won power - on its (overstated) claims to defend Poland's working people, its track record has been very mixed in practice. The last Law and Justice coalition government, for example, took a particularly hostile stance towards striking nurses and failed to engage in meaningful dialogue with the social partners, instead focusing on more ideologically charged reforms like increasing the length of maternity leave and introducing one off payments for a birth of a child as part of its natalist policies. Crucially, although the party considers itself woman and family friendly, with many women in its ranks, it has an abysmal track record on gender issues. It is famous for its vehement opposition to abortion, in-vitro fertilization treatments, and same sex unions, but also to policies of gender equality and mainstreaming or Poland's recent ratification of the Convention on combatting violence against women, both of which it deems ideological (a leftist and liberal one) and counter to Polish traditional values.
The party's victory also raises questions about Poland's relationship with its European partners, and the country's role in the EU. The relationships between Warsaw and Berlin, and Brussels, were strained during the previous Law and Justice administrations, and whether or not the new leadership will take a more conciliatory approach or decide to revive old tensions to some extent depends on how active Kaczyński will remain behind the scenes. The animosity between Kaczyński and his former political rival Donald Tusk, who not too long ago stepped down as the Civic Platform's leader to preside over the European Council may also be decisive. At the same time, several commentators have pointed out that apart from the more obviously nationalist rhetoric and a far less polite tone, we are unlikely to see a seismic shift in Poland's foreign and EU policy. The Law and Justice's commitment to a stronger NATO involvement and cooperation with the United States is nothing new in Polish politics, and while the Civic Platform certainly focused on building closer links with Europe, and crucially Germany, it largely shared its rival's west-ward sentiments. Likewise, although the outgoing Civic Platform government worked towards Poland's Eurozone membership, the crisis in the Eurozone significantly tempered the party's appetite for prompt Euro adoption, thereby moving its position closer to that of Law and Justice, which itself never explicitly rejected membership but sought to delay it until Poland's economic standing approximates that of other EU members. Nonetheless, unlike the Civic Platform's more compliant stance on fiscal discipline and balanced budgets, the incoming government's plans for increased social spending are likely to run afoul the EU fiscal and macroeconomic rules and, if carried out, may lead to Poland's more problematic and strained relationship with European institutions. Finally, while Poland's anti-migration sentiments align the country closer with the UK and contra Germany, this is neither new nor is the party's position that dissimilar from the outgoing Civic Platform's, which only reluctantly committed to take a small share of migrants as a symbolic gesture of solidarity. In any case, while the Law and Justice government will certainly not seek to actively contribute to a more progressive European solution to the current crisis and its senior politicians' xenophobic comments on migration will probably continue to make headlines, it is also likely that the party's position will be somewhat tempered in practice given the fact that Poland itself supplies large numbers of economic migrants to other EU member states.
Dr. Ania Zbyszewska has a PhD from the University of Victoria Faculty of Law. She is a research fellow at the University of Warwick (UK). Her research focuses on the intersection of law and politics, particularly in relation to the laws regulating labour market and employment in the context of the European Union (EU) and its post-socialist members. Dr. Zbyszewska is a member of the EUCAnet expert group.