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Law and Justice Wins in Poland

In Poland’s paraliamentary elections, the governing Law and Justice party (PiS) has swept the polls again and will govern alone. It needs no coalition partners. Yet, its victory is less than overwhelming.

An unprecedented 61.74% of the electorate cast the vote: 18,678,457 people. That is an improvement of almost 11% from the previous parliamentary poll. Only in 1989 did more citizens cast the ballot. Center-right Law and Justice took 43.59% of the vote. 8,051,935 voters gave the PiS 235 mandates in the parliament. Out of 41 electoral districts, the winner failed to take five only. Some of the largest cities (including Warsaw, Gdańsk, Poznań, Łódź, and Szczecin) went for the opposition, but others voted for the government. Medium and small towns, as well as the countryside, overwhelmingly chose the Law and Justice party. The support for PiS was solid in 14 out of 16 provinces (województwa). Traditionally, it was overwhelming in the conservative south-east, east, and center of the nation.

The center-left Civic Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska — KO), anchored on the opposition liberal Civic Platform, is definitely the biggest loser of the latest round of voting. Its 5,060,355 votes (27.4%) translate into 130 parliamentary seats. Pre-election polls did not augur well for them, but the liberals deluded themselves that the PiS would lose enough of the vote for the KO to form a coalition government with other groups.

The most likely candidate for the Civic Coalition was the center-left Polish Peasant Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe – PSL), which teamed up in the current election with the populist Kukiz ’15 movement to score 30 seats (1,578,523 votes, or 8.55%). There was even talk of the KO possibly considering a power-sharing deal with the Alliance of the Democratic Left (SLD), an electoral hybrid uniting post-Stalinists, neo-Trotskites and neo-Guevarrists, as well as LGBT enthusiasts. The leftist alliance will send 49 activists to the Sejm (2,319,946 votes, or 12.56%). However, obviously, there will be no coalition regime deal between the KO and the SLD, but they will definitely collaborate closely against the PiS.

In any event, the SLD considers itself a winner, as the far leftist orientation has returned to the parliament after a hiatus of four years.  On the other hand, the maverick Confederacy Freedom and Independence (Konfederacja Wolność i Niepodległość — KWiN) has made it into the Sejm for the first time ever. It attracted 1,256,953 ballots (6.81%) for the total of 11 parliamentary slots. It is an eclectic coalition of assorted rightists: libertarians, conservatives, Christian nationalists, and divine rights monarchists, as well as everyone in between. They are hard right and promise to take Law and Justice to task for its moderate politics. Nonetheless, the KWiN hopes to be approached by the PiS for coalition talks. This is highly unlikely at the moment, though. The government party is sore at losing voters to the Konfederacja, blaming it for failing to win more decisively.

All is not rosy for the governing party.  With 235 deputies, it maintains its preponderance in the lower house, the Sejm. Thus, as mentioned, it will be able to form the government by itself. However, Law and Justice has just barely lost its grip on the upper house, the Senate, where 49 senators harken from the PiS, and 51 from other orientations. By no means are the latter united, or even uniformly in opposition to the ruling party. A few can undoubtedly be co-opted by the government.

Further, there is trouble ahead. To change Poland, one should change its constitution that was written and voted in by the post-Communists in 1997. This requires an absolute majority in the Sejm. Pre-election surveys showed clearly that PiS had no chance to score above 50%. Yet, that was the avowed goal of the ruling party. Crossing that threshold would have given it a constitutional majority necessary to alter the constitution and continue its reforms. Now it is out of the question, unless Law and Justice attracts defectors from other orientations, including the Civic Platform, or forms a coalition with the likeminded in other parties. The candidates would most likely come from the center-left Polish Peasant Party and its ally, the populist Kukiz ’15 movement. It is also feasible, though rather unlikely, that the PiS will choose to woo the maverick Konfederacja to effect constitutional reform. Who knows? In politics, virtually anything is possible.

There is also an ex-officio parliamentarian occupying the seat guaranteed constitutionally to the German minority. That politician is usually of little consequence, but if Law and Justice begins to stumble and, consequently, hemorrhage deputies, his vote may matter, either for or against the government. The same applies to a situation where the PiS waxes supreme, pushing toward a supermajority to achieve constitutional change.

Law and Justice has won because it combines strong patriotism and support for Christianity and traditional family with the largesse of the welfare state. Also, in the Polish context, Law and Justice comes across as a moderate party. The voters appreciate it. So long as Poland’s economy continues to outperform the rest of Europe, the formula will remain successful. When the happy ride ends, the PiS will have to reinvent itself. But that will be the task for the next election.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 14 October 2019