This Sunday, Poles in Poland and abroad, including 160,000 in Britain, are going to the polls in an election that just might decide the fate of our country for decades to come.
For the last 8 years Poland has been ruled by Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party – in Polish: Prawo i Sprawiedliwość or PiS. In 2015, the party secured an outright majority in both chambers of parliament as well as the presidential office. Although it was not enough to change the constitution, it was sufficient to quash any opposition.
Since their election, the party has seized control of most of the state institutions – from state forests through government-owned energy companies, to the prosecution service and various ombudsman institutions. Where they hadn‘t taken overall control, for example with the judicial system and the media, they actively bullied and persecuted anyone who didn’t follow the party line.
Populism and a corrupt reign
Having ensured impunity for themselves, nepotism and corruption have grown at an alarming rate. Opposition politicians and activists, are routinely harassed, prevented from attending meetings, followed and in some cases, have had their phones tapped. In 2015, the government minister, Mariusz Kaminski, responsible for the country’s secret service, was sentenced to 3 years in prison for abuse of power. He was pardoned by President Duda but in June 2023, Poland’s Supreme Court overturned the pardon.
At odds with the EU
The PiS has managed to maintain popularity through its populist message and generous social handouts (tailored to benefit their voter base). However, the government’s erosion of the rule of law has put Poland at odds with the European Union, and significant EU funds have been cut. This has contributed to a cost-of-living crisis, causing the economy to slow down and inflation creep up. The situation with the EU further deteriorated with the government’s political alliance with the Catholic church, causing changes to abortion and LGBT rights. This in turn sparked protests and politicised people who hadn’t been interested in politics before, and have come out as staunch opponents of PiS.
Can the election be fair?
While the election on Sunday is expected to be democratic, over 100 independent observers have not received visas to attend the elections. The public broadcast networks repeat government propaganda comparable to Russian state TV, as do the regional news outlets. Independent media struggles financially while state-controlled companies spend their advertising budgets solely in pro-PiS media outlets.
While the government has facilitated voting for the elderly, they’ve made it more difficult for Poles abroad. Cancelling the postal vote option in January this year means that polling stations abroad will be overcrowded, a record 608,000 overseas Poles have registered to vote in the election. In addition, a new law requires the electoral commission to count all votes within 24 hours, otherwise they have to be discarded. Meantime, older voters in Poland can vote by post or request free transport to the polling station.
And that’s not all
In addition, the PiS have organised a meaningless referendum on immigration on the day of the election. It is believed this is to circumvent the election spending limits, as there is no way of differentiating whether a billboard is part of the referendum or electoral campaign. The Opposition is calling for a total boycott of the referendum.
The main opposition
Donald Tusk has returned from European politics to head up his centre-right party, Platforma Obywatelska (PO). The PO is cooperating with two smaller coalitions (one centre-right and one left-wing). The polls predict that these three parties will end up with a majority allowing them to create a stable government, but President Andrzej Duda has already announced that the party with most votes will be the one to form the next government, which will most likely be the PiS.
A potential outcome
The PiS is unlikely to end up with a majority government, even if the extreme-right wing Konfederacja were to join them in coalition. And, even if the opposition formed the government with a landslide victory, the reality of a PiS president in the palace (with mostly obstructive powers including a right of veto) and most institutions under PiS control, change would not happen for some time.
The cartoon depicting a drowning man desperately trying to cast a vote describes the situation accurately. If he succeeds, he still has to swim back to the shore and rebuild his ship. If the Tusk coalition does win, there are years of hard work ahead for the new government rebuilding Poland’s democracy.