The conservative PiS (Law and Justice) party has won a second consecutive term of office in a landslide victory, winning 43.6% of votes in the Diet*, a significant increase on its previous win in 2015 (37.6%). Its main opponent, Civic Coalition (KO), garnered 27.4% of the vote following a poor election campaign and a fairly limited manifesto. However, PiS lost its Senate majority in the election, which is not without implications for the government’s room for manoeuvre: the Senate is allowed to ask questions about proposed bills, which can significantly slow the legislative process. Furthermore, the government’s inability to command a majority means the hitherto oft-used option of issuing emergency decrees will be virtually impossible to use apart from in exceptional cases.
The first interesting thing about the Polish election is voter turnout, which came out at over 61% – almost a record for a country which, since the collapse of its communist regime, had gradually been losing interest in politics, with fewer and fewer people turning out to vote. As paradoxical as it may seem, Polish people’s renewed enthusiasm for politics is largely attributable to PiS, both as a cause and as a consequence of the party’s policies but also as a result of its ideology, widely disseminated in the media.
The electoral discourse of PiS, which is very nationalistic in its vision and protective of Christian values in its form, places special emphasis on the idea of external threats. Muslim migrants were held up as a threat in the 2015 campaign; in 2019, it was the LGBT community’s turn. The target might change, but it is always described the same way: an outside danger that is threatening Poland’s Christian values. These are the ingredients needed to revive nationalist sentiment and justify a raft of institutional reforms aimed at restricting the independence and room for manoeuvre of institutions and the media. Polish public opinion has thus polarised sharply. On the one hand, this is harmful to the democratic circulation of ideas; on the other hand, it is a fairly strong driver of renewed political engagement among the populace. The current government is riding the wave of this dichotomy which, while it undermines checks and balances, is one of the keys to PiS’s success.
From a purely economic perspective, Poland has largely succeeded in making the switch to a market economy, and its economic climate is enough to make many European countries envious: GDP is growing at 4.4% and inflation and unemployment are both under control. However, this rate of growth has also led to large wealth disparities between urban and rural areas, and even within cities. A privileged intellectual elite has been born, and the implementation of an open, competitive and highly liberal development model (based on the US model) has gradually widened disparities in living standards. PiS’s arrival in power in 2015 was thus also helped by the economy, accompanied as it was by a fairly broad policy of redistribution in response to a real need and a popular appetite for rebalancing. This policy had the effect of boosting the lowest incomes, which was immediately reflected in higher consumer spending, in turn supporting overall GDP growth.
However, this policy was only possible because of two key factors:
• The economic upturn and the healthy public finances inherited from the previous government.
• The inflow of European Union structural development funding, which enabled – and continue to enable – infrastructure development and agricultural modernisation.
Faced with such a popular economic policy, it is very hard for the opposition to propose a competitive programme. The entirely valid argument of combating restrictions on media freedom and the deterioration of the rule of law struggles to gain a hearing among the electorate. Voters’ preferences were for the immediate beneficial effects of increased purchasing power. Pragmatism is not restricted to politics; citizens are pragmatic too. However, this policy has at least two implications.
First, the social contract between the government and the people is founded on the redistribution of social benefits, and this must continue or even intensify if widespread discontent is to be avoided. But the economy is cyclical and, in spite of strong economic momentum, the cyclical peak is behind us.
Second, the government is going to have to be very careful not to push its authoritarianism and its desire to concentrate powers beyond what people will tolerate. Poland has a great tradition of mobilising civil society and demonstrating. Most Poles are pro-European in the sense that they place great importance on freedom, as demonstrated many times during the last parliamentary term.
Lastly, unfortunately almost no thought is being given to Poland’s long-term economic potential. Yet the challenge of thinking about how to transform the country’s economic model is no small matter. The low-cost production model, which made Poland competitive and helped its economy catch up fairly successfully, has almost run its course.
To break through to the next level of development and catch up in income terms, new drivers of attractiveness must be found. Poland’s demographic context is, frankly, not favourable, and the shortage of private investment means Poland is not one of the countries offering high levels of technological potential. While there are no obvious answers to this long-term problem, neither the ruling party nor the opposition are giving it any serious thought. Yet it is over this very issue that the government’s credibility could be at stake when the wind changes.
* The lower chamber of the Polish parliament.
Ada Zan - firstname.lastname@example.org