Will Poland follow the authoritarian path?

After winning the national elections with 43.59% of the vote and an independent majority in the Sejm (the lower house of Polish parliament), Poland’s right-wing ruling party Law and Justice proclaimed the continuation of ‘good change’—the slogan summarizing all of the supposed benefits made on its initiative. These include centralizing control over the judicial system, academia, publicly financed cultural institutions, and NGOs. The ruling party seems determined to monopolize the state and to marginalize any voices in the public sphere that don’t share its nationalist, Catholic and authoritarian vision of the Polish past and future. The leaders of the party also promised new social programs in order to continue what they call the “Polish route to the welfare state”.

The united conservative-liberal opposition that ruled Poland between 2007 and 2015 received 27.40% of the vote, which is a bit less than what the parties comprising it received in the last elections. Donald Tusk, the longtime leader of the biggest party in the coalition and the longest-serving prime minister of the Third Polish Republic, resigned from running for the presidency in 2020. His decision to become the leader of the European Peoples Party put an end to the conservative – liberal opposition’s hopes that he would return to save Poland from the threat of authoritarianism and ongoing undermining of the rule of law by Law and Justice, which has led the state to the margins of the European Union. Subsequently, the conservative-liberal coalition seems a bit lost—oscillating between criticizing the ruling party from free-market positions and standing for the rule of law and stronger ties with the European Union while remaining generally unable to clearly criticize the government’s Catholic and nationalist ideas. The leader of the biggest party in the coalition (who was known for being more of an organizer than generating ideas) has resigned; whoever takes his place will have to re-invent the whole formula of opposition if the coalition wants to save its position as the main force opposing Law and Justice.

The third political force in the new parliament with 12.56 % of votes is the united left, which was not present in the Parliament for the last four years due to the split of votes in 2015 between the new left and post-communist social democrats. These two parties, together with a center-left party led by Robert Biedroń, a LGBTQ+ activist and member of the European Parliament, formed a new leftist coalition that openly stands for equal rights for all and for the welfare state as a clear alternative to the current government in the future. The left is in the best position to criticize the government because it presents a more holistic concept of the welfare state, while also being more engaged in the fight for the rule of law as well as women’s rights, reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights.

The fourth party elected to the Polish Parliament with 8.55 % of votes is the Polish People’s Party, which ran in the elections as the coalition of the old conservative farmers’ party (represented in every term of Parliament) and a populist right-wing movement formed by Paweł Kukiz, a former rock musician who fights for introducing more referendums and single-member voting districts. During his political career he has used hate speech openly in his arguments against accepting refugees; in the last parliamentary term, some far-right and fascist politicians were elected from his movement. Though in the past he referred ironically to the Polish People’s Party, stressing its roots in the communist political scene, he didn’t have a problem with joining a coalition that aimed to represent conservative values beyond the political conflict between Law and Justice and the liberal-conservative opposition. The coalition gained fewer votes than the party and movement received in the last elections and doesn’t seem to bring any new ideas or visions to Polish politics.

The last group elected to the parliament with 6.81 % of votes is called the Confederation. The party is a loose coalition of various far-right and neoliberal groups, represented by people who support such ideas as introducing monarchy, overthrowing the republic of the round table (a term for the political system formed from a consensus between the communists and the opposition in 1989 that led to democratic changes in Poland), strengthening the Catholic Church’s role in the public sphere, imposing an absolute ban on abortion and emergency contraception, using hate speech against Muslims, Jews, and the LGBTQ+ community, criticizing the European Union and any ideas of wealth redistribution, and introducing special laws against LGBTQ+ activism and NGOs that receive foreign funding (an initiative modelled on laws introduced in Russia a few years ago). With these ideas the members of the Confederation seek to take votes from Law and Justice and pressure the ruling party from the right. So far they haven’t played any role in the new parliament, and only make fools of themselves.

In practical terms, not a lot has changed, although the ruling party has lost control over the Senate (the Upper House of the Polish Parliament) to a conservative-liberal opposition coalition, the leftist coalition, the Polish People’s Party, and independent senators. The Senate elected a speaker from the conservative-liberal opposition named Tomasz Grodzki, who before entering politics was a surgeon and professor of medicine in Szczecin. Since he criticizes many authoritarian steps taken by Law and Justice and doesn’t allow the abuse of legislative procedures, which often occurred with new problematic laws in the last term, public television started a campaign trying to discredit him as a corrupt doctor. The campaign was not stopped even when some of his former patients stated in public that they were offered money to accuse him of taking bribes. Although none of the charges have been verified, public television, which has not been so propagandistic since 1989, continued the campaign of lies. It did so not only to discredit the speaker, but also to draw public attention away from the scandal surrounding the President of the Supreme Audit Office, who was nominated by the ruling party last year. After an investigation by the Central Anticorruption Bureau for false declarations of financial interests, hiding his financial standing and undocumented sources of income, the Bureau passed the case to the prosecutor.

The situation could change if President Andrzej Duda (of Law and Justice) loses the upcoming elections, but half a year remains until then. His opponent from the conservative-liberal opposition will be Malgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, who is more liberal-conservative than the other way around. In the past she was the spokesperson for Donald Tusk’s government and for a short time was also speaker of the Sejm; she is also a direct descendant of two very important politicians of the interwar period from opposing political camps (a socialist president and a right-wing minister who reformed the economy). Duda’s opponent from the left will be Biedroń, a charismatic LGBTQ+ activist who was the first openly gay mayor of a major Polish city, which he saved from a financial crisis. A Catholic journalist and host of a popular talent show will be running as an independent candidate, as will the leader of the Polish People’s Party. The Confederation candidate is still unknown due to a very complicated internal electoral system. Duda is ahead in the polls but has a much less significant lead than the previous president did at the end of the first term before losing the election. Also, most polls are conducted for the first round, but the elections will likely be determined in the second round. If Duda lost with the upper house controlled by the opposition, most of the laws leading Poland down an authoritarian path could be stopped.

Text: Tadeusz Koczanowicz