Poland votes: a country torn several ways as it asserts itself in a new uncertain Europe

Poland’s opposition Law and Justice ( Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS)), a right-wing party with populist and Eurosceptic leanings, looks set to win general elections on Oct. 25. It is the favourite to form a new government that is expected to increase the state’s role in the economy, strengthen the position of the Roman Catholic Church and deepen divisions in the European Union over issues such as migrants and climate.

Recent public opinion polls put PiS support at 33-40 per cent, an about 10-15 percentage point lead over the right-centre Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO), which has ruled Poland over the last eight years, winning international praise for avoiding recession during the financial crisis and for its constructive approach to most EU policies. Former PO leader and prime minister Donald Tusk was picked as the president of the European Council last year in recognition of his political skills.

But, despite a 20 per cent increase in gross domestic product per capita since 2007, Poles are eager for change as many complain that the expanding economy has not translated into higher standards of living. They say inequalities are on the rise, the public health system is in tatters and efforts to fight corruption are inadequate. PiS has led the opinion polls ever since its candidate Andrzej Duda was elected its president in May.

PiS has promised to boost welfare spending, notably by lowering the recently increased retirement age and boosting benefits for children. To secure funds for that, it plans to introduce a tax on banks and supermarkets as well as curbing tax evasion.

Polls show that, despite PO’s good economic credentials, voters are fed up with the party for a perceived lack of vision and policy drift. Ruling politicians are seen as complacent and cynical. Such a perception was partly created by publications last year of secretly recorded tapes in which top government officials — some of whom have resigned — were heard talking with contempt about people with low earnings.

Some analysts say the PiS government could take Poland close to an economic and political model introduced in Hungary by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, known for his populism, Euroscepticism and illiberal tendencies. But the scale of any PiS victory is certain to be smaller than that of Orban’s party, and, with the Polish opposition being stronger than in Hungary, the government is unlikely to push ahead with any sweeping constitutional reforms.

In fact, some opinion polls show that, even with an electoral victory, PiS could end up in opposition if all other parties unite to form a coalition government. PiS may fail to get enough votes to form a government alone, forcing it look for a junior coalition partner, most likely a newly created populist party led by rock singer Paweł Kukiz, a phenomenon similar to Beppe Grillo, the Italian comedian who founded the Five Star movement.

Although PiS is led by Jarosław Kaczyński, twin brother of President Lech Kaczyński who died in a plane crash near the Russian city of Smolensk in 2010, the party has proposed its energetic deputy leader Beata Szydło as its candidate for prime minister. As a result, Poland’s electoral campaign is now to a large degree a clash of women, with PO featuring Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz.

The main left-wing force, a coalition of several parties called the United Left (Zjednoczona Lewica, ZL) is also led by a woman — Barbara Nowacka. The group includes an ex-communist party of former Prime Minister Leszek Miller, Democratic Left Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, SLD) and anti-clerical Your Movement (Twój Ruch) of former businessmen Janusz Palikot.

Other parties that might make it to parliament are the conservative Polish Peasant Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe, PSL), leftist-green Together (Razem), liberal Nowoczesna.pl (Modern.pl) and KORWIN, a party of the maverick populist Janusz Korwin-Mikke.

The leftist ZL, supported by 8-14 per cent, is campaigning strongly against PiS, alleging the party will turn Poland into a de facto religious state by granting the Roman Catholic Church more privileges and toughening the already strict anti-abortion law. ZL and others fear PiS is seeking to pack state television and other media with its supporters and to politicise the work of the police and prosecutors, the practice for which the party was known, according to critics, when it was last in power in 2005-2007. PiS denies any such allegations.

The PiS-led government is likely to be a much tougher partner for the EU than the current administration. Kaczynski’s party staunchly opposed mandatory quotas of migrants for each EU member state, to which the current government reluctantly agreed. Kaczynski raised many eyebrows in Poland and abroad when he said recently that migrants might carry with them dangerous diseases and parasites. He also harshly criticised the current government for what he portrayed as a betrayal of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, other countries of the Visegrad group, which opposed to the migrant quote at a recent EU summit.

Migrant policy might therefore become a major source of conflict after elections between Poland and the EU as well as between Warsaw and Berlin. PiS – that promises a more independent foreign policy – accuses the PO government of pursuing policies “on bended knees” before Berlin concerning migrants and other issues. On the other hand, it might not want to risk a diplomatic spat with Berlin shortly after taking power and could agree to migrant quotas if offered some face-saving compromise.

EU climate policies look likely to be another bone of contention between a PiS-led government and the EU as the party has vowed to defend Poland’s large, loss-making coal mining industry and the country’s coal-fired power plants, its main source of electricity. Despite a deal to lower emissions of greenhouse gases, PiS is not known to be keen on introducing renewable energy.

If, however, PiS remains in opposition, the PO-led coalition government is likely to clash with PiS-rooted President Duda over foreign policy and other issues.

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