Disappointment and the Polish Parliamentary Elections
Even the winners of yesterday’s parliamentary elections in Poland can feel (at least somewhat) like losers. There are many possible scenarios for how events will unfold, and underlying tensions threaten to wreak havoc among the main parties. While there are many reasons for all parties to be satisfied, there are also many reasons why they may look to the upcoming Sejm with trepidation rather than excitement.
The biggest surprise of yesterday’s elections is that there were no surprises. A sluggish election campaign made this an obvious possibility, where the thunderous pronouncements that these were the most important elections since 1989 were not accompanied by any new bold visions of how the country should development or society be transformed.
Everything thus turned out in line with the predictions of polls and expert opinions. But because few people today believe in opinion polls and expert opinions, the general attitude was one of waiting for a shock, for some change that would shake up the existing political order.
Of course, these expectations comprised in large part the wishful thinking of politicians and supporters of certain parties, but also the feeling that the current political arrangement in Poland has run its course, that a fresh start is necessary, whatever it may be. We already know today that these hopes have not come true. This is the first disappointment! The results of the elections mean that we remain in the same deadlock we have been stuck in for at least 14 years.
But at the moment, nothing would indicate that a mature two-party system has formed; the new Sejm will include both representatives of the left wing and free-market nationalists. It is a dynamic and developing situation.
Those who were counting on stabilization of the political situation in Poland may thus find themselves disappointed.
PiS deprived of the “liberals versus patriots” cudgel
Of course, politicians and supporters of certain parties have experienced a series of disappointments. The Law and Justice party (PiS) may have won decisively, but the spontaneous reaction of Jarosław Kaczyński that “we deserved more” is telling. Indeed, after four years of wielding full power in the country, numerous social transfers, vicious propaganda in the public media, brutal pressure in culture and education, the party has essentially duplicated its result from the previous elections in terms of the number of seats.
Its parliamentary majority in the lower chamber is secure, but there is a long way to go to a majority that would allow them to amend the constitution and override presidential vetoes.
Furthermore, the new structure of the Sejm puts Law and Justice in a much more difficult situation than it was before. On the one hand, it will lose its monopoly on social issues, as these will be advanced by the left, while on the other, it will have to outbid the far-right Confederation on issues of nationalism. The comfortable division into liberals and patriots, which allowed the PiS electorate to be mobilised without difficulty, will disappear.
PO no longer leading the opposition
Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) should also be disappointed, not only with its poor results, which were in line with expectations, but also with the fact that it seems to have lost the last of its chances to lead the opposition.
A bland election campaign, incomprehensible tactical moves, the lack of a clear programme or even slogans clearly demonstrate that the party, which retains considerable potential, is flying blind, and the only way for it to remain a significant force in politics is a radical makeover of both its programme and personnel. There is, however, little time for this, because presidential elections are just around the corner…
Other parties in murky waters
The other three parties, or rather coalitions of parties, have no cause for disappointment, but their situation exhibits ambiguities as well.
“The Left”, which is essentially a federation of three different “lefts”, is a clear winner in these elections. After a spectacular failure four years ago, significant internal bloodletting and reorganization, the left side of the political spectrum has returned to the Sejm. This is obviously a success in and of itself! However, the relatively strong result achieved by the left fails to live up to expectations, even when adding together the polling results of the particular parties that comprise it.
Moreover, the differences between the various parties within the coalition, which have been so far been papered over for the good of the election campaign, will surely come to light soon, and we will certainly witness a long and painful process of reinventing the unified left.
In political terms, the situation of the agrarian PSL – toutes proportions gardées – appears similar. This party, as usual, hid its lack of a programme with a skilful tactical manoeuvre, taking under its wing the remnants of the Kukiz protest party. This was a successful gambit, generating a result that exceeded expectations. The party pulled its neck out from the noose that it was put in by the expansion of PiS into the rural electorate. So PSL has something to be happy about, managing to retain and even enhance its position. Nevertheless, this party must also reinvent itself. A strange hybrid of the remnants of a rural electorate and populism, cobbled together for the purposes of the campaign, is unsustainable in the long run.
It is most difficult to write about the relative success of the extreme-right Confederation. All those who hold the good of the country and its image abroad in their hearts will be disappointed. What is certain is that the message will make its way around the world that for the first time since the Second World Wat, the extreme and fascist-leaning right has made it into the Sejm!
Again, however, we are dealing with a programmatically unsustainable monster: on the one hand, lovers of an extreme and simplified libertarianism, a maximally weak state, and on the other hand, extreme nationalists, supporters of a strong nation-state interfering in every sphere of its citizens’ lives. Whether the desire to exist in politics and the lust for power are enough for this party to survive will be seen during this parliamentary term.
A new political dynamic unleashed
All of this leads to the conclusion that the elections have triggered a dynamic that will lead to a complete change in the political scene. It will be a parliament of transformation rather than of continuation.
Of course, it is difficult to predict in detail a scenario that depends on so many unpredictable factors, in particular the general global economic situation, but the trends seem clear.
The first period of the new Sejm will see a brutal acceleration of the Law and Justice party’s efforts to completely overhaul the state and society completely.
This will inevitably be the case for two reasons. Firstly, the leadership of PiS believes that if such a change is not made now, then it may soon be too late. Secondly, the threat of an economic slowdown looming over us will force them to act quickly.
Forceful changes require the support of the public, which in turn requires the maintenance and expansion of social transfer programmes, which is only possible in a situation of relative economic growth. The first wave of the attack will certainly target local governments, which remain autonomous and independent, and thus constitute a serious obstacle to PiS achieving its objectives. The battle for control over regions will therefore certainly be the first attempt at a new political arrangement.
This will be coupled with increasing pressure in the sphere of culture, as cultural institutions are at present largely dependent on local governments. Of course, the subordination of the judiciary to state authority will continue.
In short, we will see the next steps of the construction of a solidary nation-state and illiberal democracy-as—referendum, with its characteristic blurring of the lines between the executive, legislative, and judicial powers.
However, in the new Sejm, PiS will be operating in a sort of a vice, with pressure from two sides that may trigger an internal dynamic of change within the party, as it will be forced to make clear ideological declarations that it previously avoided by hiding behind a comfortable division into liberals and patriots. The necessity of such declarations always leads to splits and divisions, which we will witness. Transformations within the party may take place, for example, in the context of debate on regulations restricting the right to terminate pregnancies or laws aimed at the so-called LGBT ideology, de facto attacking sexual education and sexual minorities.
On the other hand, the social wing of Law and Justice will be under pressure from the left, which can speak competently on issues PiS has previously monopolized. This will no longer be a matter of further social transfers, but of a more comprehensive change in the socio-economic system, which, of course, must worry many prominent PiS politicians and supporters. I thus believe that internal divisions may appear within the party in this area as well.
A similar dynamic will affect Civic Platform. Its unity is also threatened by the end of the comfortable division into liberals (modernisers) and patriots (conservatives). In Polish conditions, where liberals are not liberals and conservatives have nothing to do with respect for tradition, this political division has made it possible in many cases to conceal the complete lack of ideology within the main parties. This will now become more difficult, if not impossible.
What, then, are the possible political scenarios for the incoming Sejm? In my view, there are three: two likely, and one practically impossible.
The first is largely dependent on the results of the upcoming presidential election. If the future president is not from the ruling party, he or she will be faced with intense pressure for changes, which will in consequence lead to an institutional crisis, and ultimately to early elections. This scenario can also come true in the event of the disintegration of the main political parties, particularly Law and Justice.
The second version assumes the next president will be favourably disposed to the ruling party, maintaining that party’s unity while simultaneously shepherding through its package of transformation of the state and society. In this case, we can predict a shifting of the flare points of conflict outside institutional frameworks, as the Sejm will cease to play the role of a forum for discussion over legislation. Particularly if the economic situation worsens, this can lead to a serious political crisis that comes to a head with early elections, or a greater concentration of authoritarian tendencies in the governing party and the crossing of even the most fundamental lines in a democracy.
The third, least likely option assumes that a certain consensus can be worked out, not so much as to the shape of reforms, but rather as to their limits. Such self-restraint on the part of the ruling party would allow it to avoid drastic political solutions.
*Leszek Koczanowicz – culturologist, political scientist, philosopher. Professor at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Wrocław. An expert in the cultural contexts of politics, conceptions of democracy, and ethics of politics. His interests include philosophy of culture, contemporary culture, and art. Koczanowicz has carried out studies and lectured at numerous universities around the world, including Columbia University, UC Berkley, Buffalo University, and Oxford, as well as the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (HCAS). Author of many books, including Community and Emancipation. The Conflict over Post-conventional Society [Wspólnota i emancypacje. Spór o społeczeństwo postkonwencjonalne] (2005), Politics of Time. Dynamics of Identity in Post-Communist Poland (2008), Modern Anxiety. Essays on Democracy and Its Adversaries [Lęk nowoczesny. Eseje o demokracji i jej adwersarzach] (2011), Politics of Dialogue: Non-Consensual Democracy and Critical Community (2015), and Democracy, Dialogue, Memory: Expression and Affect beyond Consensus (with Idit Alphandary, 2019).
[translated by Matthew La Fontaine]