Why Poland’s illiberal ruling party is cruising toward reelection

Dominique Soguel

Since coming to power in 2015, Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party has seized state institutions, crossed swords with the European Union on issues from migration to environmental policy, and introduced controversial judiciary reforms.

And while Poland’s civil society and media landscape remain relatively diverse and resilient, several PiS policies appear to take direct inspiration from Hungary, the lighthouse for “illiberal democracy” in Europe.

Which is why many Western observers consider the PiS's rule – likely to be extended in elections this weekend – a major setback for liberal democratic values.

Inside Poland, however, PiS enjoys broad popularity – reflecting a view that the party keeps its campaign promises and truly cares for ordinary people.

Maria Żegulska, a pensioner from Gniezno, Poland’s former capital, has supported other parties in the past but is now fully convinced that PiS is the best option – even if she did have some concerns over the nature of judicial reforms.

“Life has been better since they are in power,” she says. “Young people receive money for children, pensioners will get an additional [13th month of] pension. The country is going in the right direction. ... [PiS] creates jobs here in Poland so that people don’t have to work abroad.”

Poland’s parliamentary elections Sunday could prove the most defining for the nation since the collapse of communism in 1989. Liberal critics accuse the government of amassing dictatorial powers by introducing reforms that undermine democracy and the rule of law.

But while there are concerns in Brussels and liberal circles in Warsaw over creeping authoritarianism, the reality is PiS has gained in popularity thanks to a mix of rising patriotism, economic growth, and generous social spending. The upcoming vote could determine how lasting the change to Poland’s political posture will be.

“It is a fundamentally important election in Poland because the way and direction which was chosen by [PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński] is a direction towards constructing a mono-party system with some democratic features,” says Polish sociologist Ireneusz Krzemiński, “but [also] autocratic, completely destroying division of powers in the state, and with a very important element of ideology.”

Popular and populist

In the past years, Poland – a member of NATO, Germany’s largest trading partner, and the sixth largest economy of the European Union – has in some respects gone from Europe’s poster child to its problem child.

Adam Bodnar, the Polish commissioner for human rights, says PiS has incrementally undermined democracy, starting with the 2015 constitutional court crisis and the dismantling of judicial review of legislation, and continuing with reforms to the prosecutor’s office, secret services, public media, and civil service.

“All those laws created much more possibility for the ruling party to influence things,” says Mr. Bodnar, who was appointed to his post when the opposition was in power. “To use government propaganda in public media, to control what is happening in the public prosecutor’s office, to discipline prosecutors, to degrade those who are not obeying orders.”

The government has reduced the freedom of state institutions slice by slice, he says. The fight over judicial independence is still being fought: On Thursday, the European Commission referred Poland to the European Court of Justice over its new disciplinary proceedings for Polish judges.

“Changes made by the current government were deep and had constitutional character,” says Adam Gendźwiłł, a political science professor at Warsaw University. “If the next government is about to make similar changes, and in the same atmosphere of conflict, it could seal a very deep division in Polish society, which would be difficult to overcome.”

But with a booming economy and record low unemployment, few voters share these concerns. The No. 1 issue for the average Polish voter is health care, followed by social programs and education. An independent judiciary comes fourth. Even then, a third of Poles see PiS as the best guarantor of the rule of law.

The flagship of PiS policy is the “Family 500+” program, a child subsidy, which was recently expanded. Courting voters, PiS also raised the minimum wage, introduced free medicine for those over the age of 75, and waived the income tax for young adults (under the age of 26). It has promised to pave new roads and boost entrepreneurs.

Tamara Fuszpaniak, a teacher from Gniezno, is part of the minority unmoved by such pledges. “PiS clearly violates the constitution, but for many people this is not important,” she says. “People vote for this party because it will give them money. PiS is targeting people who are waiting for state aid.”

The latest polls show that support for PiS grew from 37% in 2015 to about 46% now. That gives it a comfortable lead over its opponents but not the large majority needed to secure the legislative perks of a supermajority. The Civic Platform Coalition is projected to garner between a fifth and a quarter of the vote. Left-wing and far-right parties also have shots at entering parliament. 

Poles, divided

One’s position on PiS has become the most divisive issue in Polish society. Issues both social – among them the right to abortion and the standing of the LGBT community – and economic play into that.

Just west of Gniezno lies the city of Poznań, where PiS suffers some of its lowest popularity in the country. Michał Ruta, an entrepreneur who makes a living selling souvenirs there, does not recognize himself in any of the opposition parties. But he still refuses to vote for PiS. “I don’t like their confrontational rhetoric that divides Poles,” he says.

He notes that Poland T-shirts no longer sell as much because they come across as aggressively nationalistic, rather than patriotic. “Poland is already divided in two parts, and I don’t know who can glue it together again.”

Still, PiS is expanding its base. Its traditional area of influence is the conservative southeast, but in EU elections in May, a doubling of the turnout compared with the 2014 vote proved its capacity to mobilize voters in rural areas and snatch voters from other parties both in the north and west.

“This march of PiS to the west is very visible,” says Dr. Gendźwiłł, “In the cities, PiS has reached the glass ceiling; it is difficult for them to break through there.”

“These elections are a plebiscite for the ruling party,” says Marcin Palade, a sociologist specialized in electoral geography. “The key question is the turnout. A higher turnout should be in favor of PiS.”

Europe's appeal

One thing Poles on both sides of the PiS divide tend to agree on is the value of being part of the European Union. While the ruling party’s fight with Brussels has not been a significant political issue for voters, some Poles say they are ready to abandon the party if membership in the European Union became at risk, especially given the costs that a messy Brexit is revealing.

The EU has been a major benefactor to Poland. The northern village of Sierakowice has one of the highest birth rates in the nation and voted against joining the European Union in 2003. But EU funding has paid for better roads, sewage, playgrounds, a cultural center and – crucially – the renovation of the old wooden church steeple.

Emilia Reclaf, a retired school teacher, says EU membership brought progress. “It has been very good for my kids,” she says. “The infrastructure has improved, you can travel freely, you have access to the world. You can travel without visas and so on to the Western world.”

Still, skeptics remain. Saleswoman Dorota Kwidzińska is among those who voted against the EU. A beneficiary of the 500+ program and a devout Christian, she views the European Union through the same lens as the ruling party – a problematic champion of LGBTQ rights. PiS, on the other hand, protects the traditional family values that she holds dear. “PiS is different because it is taking care of ordinary people,” she says.

The PiS campaign slogan this round is a simple “Good time for Poland.” At the EU elections in May, PiS campaigned with the slogan “Poland, heart of Europe” – a word choice that acknowledged the pro-EU mood but also sought to reassure Euroskeptics that change is possible from within. For Poles, that’s probably as anti-Europe as the party can get.

“Law and Justice will not withdraw Poland from the EU,” says Ms. Reclaf. “They are not suicidal.”

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