The Polish election on 13 October resulted, as expected, in a victory for of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS).
But despite again securing a slim majority in parliament, it has not been wholly a triumph for PiS. And though there continue to be concerns about the party’s authoritarian tendencies, the election has illuminated some important nuances to its support and appeal, which hold lessons for politics across Europe.
Even though some opinion polls had suggested PiS were close to winning a supermajority in parliament that would have allowed it to pursue constitutional changes, the party fell short of that target, while it lost its majority in the Senate. Thus, while PiS may well renew its efforts to consolidate its control over the state apparatus and the media or meddle with the justice system, it becomes much more difficult with the opposition controlling the Senate and being able to scrutinize laws or have a say in the appointment of public officials.
Most importantly, the election result has shown that while Polish citizens were willing to reward a party that delivered on promises of economic growth and redistribution, they were not ready to hand a blank cheque for full-blown institutional realignment to PiS. Tellingly, many moderate candidates in PiS lists performed quite well among the party’s voters.
Even though they rewarded a party that at times employed harsh rhetoric against Brussels, Polish voters have long expressed some of the strongest rates of support for EU membership, according to Eurobarometer surveys. The government has also faced massive protests against its most radical initiatives, such as reform of the judicial system and a law to almost completely ban abortion that was ultimately scrapped. It is therefore more likely that the party’s radicalism kept it from increasing its share, rather than helping it to secure victory.
This is not to say that the threat of illiberalism does not remain alive in Poland. But it shows that the degree of PiS dominance in Poland has never been comparable to that of Fidesz in Hungary, with which it is often compared.
This was reflected in the party’s own rhetoric. In the election campaign the government mostly focused on its economic record, recognizing that much of its support is conditional on conventional measures of political success like voter welfare. PiS may not give up on its ambition to establish a ‘new Polish republic’, but the elections have made it clear that economic stability rather than political radicalism will ensure its longevity in power – with the latter perhaps even being a liability as the party experiences fatigue in office.
Similarly, despite the government’s antagonistic stance towards the EU on various issues, PiS never entertained ideas of withdrawing from the EU, as some of its critics feared earlier in its term. With the Polish economy deeply entwined with the European market and Poland expecting – probably for the last time – to receive substantial subsidies from the next EU budget, EU membership is a necessary precondition for the economic success for which PiS is claiming credit.
With the pro-European left returning to parliament but also an extreme party of the right winning representation, the next government will have a difficult balancing act as it tries to draw on the benefits of EU membership while maintaining its defiant image towards Brussels.
Ultimately, beneath the rhetoric and the posturing, PiS is a party that has shrewdly combined popular policies from the left and right, fulfilling promises of both cultural sovereignty and economic redistribution. Its reelection should not come as a surprise given that it fulfilled its electoral pledges by delivering some of the things that many voters in western Europe also crave but that mainstream parties there have largely failed to provide.