2023 Polish Elections: Liberal Victory in an Extremely Polarized Society [AUDIO & VIDEO]

Cross-border Talks’ Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat explains what the results of the parliamentary elections in Poland are all about. After 8 years of Law and Justice rule, this national-conservative party again gets the biggest percentage of votes, but fails to secure a parliamentary majority. The next government, likely, would be formed by the liberal opposition: Civic Coalition (KO) with agrarian-conservative Third Way (Trzecia Droga) and social-democratic (Lewica) allies. Record turnout and extreme polarization are the two essential characteristics of these elections. In the campaign, each of the leading parties addressed their voters only and portrayed the opponent as true evil. Polish society is divided so much that ‘national conservative’ and ‘liberal European’ bloc do not even talk to each other any more.

Listen, watch or read the transcription of the interview.

Veronika Sušová-Salminen: The Polish campaign, like those in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, seemed very emotional, based on emotional themes and the mythical struggle of evil against good. How would you describe this campaign and what were the main political themes of the campaign?

Yes, the campaign was a battle between the forces of good and evil. The voters had to decide for themselves who was on the side of good, because both rival parties described their rivals as someone who did not wish Polish society well and whose coming to power would mean total failure for society.

The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) claimed that it was protecting Poland’s security, defending our sovereignty against Germany and the EU, protecting us from illegal migrants and from a Russian invasion that could happen at any time, and securing Poland’s position in international alliances. PiS also pointed to the social programmes that its government had introduced, saying that during their rule, millions of Polish families have seen their incomes rise. This is a fact. People, especially in smaller towns and villages, have felt the difference compared to the previous liberal government. Basically, the PiS message was that if you do not vote for us, the country will be flooded with illegal migrants, crime will rise and we will have no one to defend us, because our political competitors do not care about the Polish army. Finally, we will cease to serve our own interests, but rather those of the EU and Germany, which are essentially the same for them.

As for the liberal coalition – the Civic Coalition and the main opposition forces – their message was of course the opposite. They pointed to the failure of the rule of law and to the disputes between Poland and Brussels, which are linked to PiS policies. The Liberal Coalition also accused PiS of spending money on useless social programmes and on its own propaganda. In this case, they are right to a certain extent. Under PiS, we have watched the state media turn into a centre for pro-government propaganda, we have seen PiS gain control of regional media, and we have seen PiS manipulate the justice system, leading to a dispute with the EU and blocking some European money. That is a loss for a country that is recovering from a pandemic of covid.

However, the two political parties did not actually discuss the details of the policy agenda. Rather, they put political slogans at the forefront. Both parties also promised lower taxes, which has been a major theme in all Polish election campaigns for decades, and what I found particularly sad was that in recent weeks both parties have engaged in a xenophobic campaign: both parties have accused each other of bringing illegal migrants to Poland.

The Civic Coalition pointed to the visa scandal, which showed that Polish diplomats were issuing visas in a non-standard way. On the other hand, PiS accused Donald Tusk, the leader of the Civic Platform, that he would accept illegal migrants from the Mediterranean, should he become a prime minister and start to improve relations with the EU. So, in the end, both sides scared Polish society that some terrible people might come if ‘our side’ does not win. This was a real shock even for some liberal voters who are used to their parties talking about human rights and democracy, compared to PiS, for whom these attacks are nothing new.

What about other political parties like the Third Way or the New Left?

Their campaign was quite disappointing for me, because in the end we saw only two main forces in Poland. The New Left, the Social Democratic Party, said right at the start that their ambition was to restore democracy together with the Civic Platform. They did not even bother to answer the doubts of some voters as to whether the (neo)liberals were really good partners for the Social Democrats. The moderate Catholic politician Szymon Hołownia of the Third Way first tried to be an alternative force to all. The party’s name suggests this, but he ended up as an ally of Tusk, who is worried first of all about democracy in Poland. It is very significant that on the evening of election day it was Hołownia who said that if the opposition won now, the excessive spending would end. So it seems that the Third Way represents a neoliberal programme.

Finally, the so-called anti-system Confederation, whose bad results are a surprise, but I think in a good way for all those who are really interested in Polish democracy. It is a party that combines far-right slogans and an ultra-xenophobic approach. In the beginning, the party had an appeal to young male voters with slogans such as ‘zero taxes’ and ‘two cars for everyone’, but in the end they only got about seven per cent according to the preliminary results, and their own leaders call it a failure.

So we can see that as a society we are desperately polarised. It was evident during the campaign, and the results show it. Our society is so polarised that I think you could say that there were two different campaigns. PiS voters did not even try to listen to what the other side was saying, and similarly, liberal voters did not care about the feelings of their opponents’ electorate.

It is interesting that the Czech media now claim that the weaker results of PiS are related to the fact that the game of constructing an enemy did not work. You are now explaining to us that the image of the enemy was as much a part of the rhetoric of the liberal opposition as of the ruling party. We already know the partial results and we know the exit polls, but we have to be careful here. So far, though, it looks like a weaker PiS. This election saw a record high voter turnout, the highest since 1989 and at a time when neoliberal policies have led to voter alienation and non-participation. What does this tell us about society in Poland today?

The record turnout is something to take note of. The turnout was so large that polling stations did not close when they were officially supposed to, and people waited in queues into the night to vote. Even where I vote, I have never seen such a mass of people before.

There are two reasons for the record turnout. You mentioned that neoliberal politics in the region has left many people disillusioned and disinterested in the elections, feeling that their opinion is worthless. PiS managed to convince a lot of people that their opinion is very important and that the government is interested in their positions, and that there is no shame in making these positions – sovereign, patriotic and even anti-European positions – known. Both parties have tried very hard to encourage voters to participate.

Both parties mobilised voters by claiming that this was an existential struggle. And voters of both parties seemed to believe that their participation was meaningful and would have a direct impact on their lives. Indeed, it is important to know that a lot of PiS voters were genuinely worried that if Tusk and Civic Platform won, they would once again struggle with low wages, a lack of jobs, and a lack of development for Poland outside the metropolitan areas.

On the other hand, many liberal voters were convinced that if we didn’t stop PiS now, we would become a dictatorship, that opposition parties could be dissolved, and that people with views different from the government’s would be declared enemies, deported or imprisoned. It is true that PiS has given us some indication that it might consider such a scenario. If we recall the Russian Agents Act this summer, PiS suggested that anyone who might have some ill-defined ties to Russia could be removed from public life. It could even apply to Donald Tusk, who was prime minister and was trying to have better relations with Russia in a very different international context.

The voters of both parties were very motivated to vote, and I must also emphasize the work of the NGOs, which did a lot to explain to people that even one vote matters, because in past elections in certain regions it was a few hundred or a thousand votes that decided who would be elected and who would not. The mobilisation campaign was very effective.

What do these results say about our campaign? Here I would turn my attention not to the percentages, but to the exact numbers of votes. At any given moment (47% of the votes counted at the time of the interview) we see that proportionally it is close to the exit polls. Right now we see 4 million votes for PiS and 4 million votes for the opposition parties, plus 600,000 votes for the Confederation. If we decide that PiS and Confederation are two shades of the same political right, then the difference between them and the opposition is very small. There are still people who did not vote at all and those who decided at the last minute. No one can claim to have the upper hand in Poland. Each of the parties can count on having mobilised new voters and convinced them of the historical importance of these elections. What we seem to have here, however, are two Polands, two societies that meet, intersect, but do not like each other.

This is the story of our entire region, unfortunately. If we see the exit polls and the preliminary results, it seems that the Liberal opposition will have a certain lead and a majority in the Sejm, which is important for forming a government. What do you think about the possible scenarios? If I understand, President Andrzej Duda (as an ally of PiS) has already said that he will give the opportunity to form a government to M. Morawiecki of PiS as the strongest party. What are the other options?

I am sure that the President of Poland Andrzej Duda will first entrust Morawiecki with the formation of the government. And rest assured that PiS will try hard to form a coalition government. The PiS people are determined to stay in power, to have their people in state or semi-state companies and not to lose the whole structure they have built over 8 years. One can expect them to try to reach out to the people of the Third Way, who represent moderate conservatives and Catholics, so there is a lot of common ground. The main differences are that Hołownia declares his love of democracy and European standards, but I think there’s more they agree on than they disagree on.

Then there is the question of Confederation, the results of which will be very important. The Confederation now says it is not prepared to enter any coalition government, but that can only be a good bargaining position. The Confederation people are mainly business people, they want to make money and be relevant, which will bring them participation in government rather than in opposition, even if it is a risk for a party that sees itself as anti-system. I am sure that PiS will try hard and that we will not have a government quickly.

Can the current opposition, divided into three different parties, work together in government and offer Poland a positive political programme?

Those are actually two different questions. The answer to the first part of the question is “yes”, but the answer to the second part is “no”. What Tusk proposed as a positive programme in the campaign is essentially a programme for business, a programme that only business owners can be happy with. He proposed to cut taxes even more, and I will remind you that PiS has already cut taxes. He promises more gifts for business. Although he did not dare to say that PiS social programmes would be abolished, there are many of his advisers and supporters who are very open about it: if we govern, no money will go to ‘these lazy, boozing people’ who do not even know how to spend it – this is their rhetoric, very hateful rhetoric, which shows prejudice against those who are not rich businessmen or middle class from big cities.

The question is whether Tusk will become prime minister. If someone from the Civic Platform is invited to form a government, it will be him.

Tusk did not come back to Poland to sit in the second row. He wants power for himself. In that case, he will be able to give something to the coalition partners, but I do not think he will have any problem pushing through his own ideas.

The left has said repeatedly during the campaign that their ambition is to restore democracy in Poland and then they could push through some progressive changes in the government: first of all, they promise to change abortion law for women and also secure some social rights. In principle, they promised to try to persuade Tusk to maintain social programmes. However, the question is how much Tusk will listen to a party that got four times less than his party, and how much power they will have when they had such a poor campaign and such a poor election result. In the case of Hołownia and his entry into government, I do not expect him to bring any progressive content.

If Tusk becomes PM for the third time, we can expect that austerity will return, social spending will be cut and relations with the EU will improve. All the social programmes that PiS pushed through will then be gone and there will be an excuse for it. I imagine that the Liberals will claim that PiS has spent an unreasonable amount of money on social programmes and propaganda, that austerity is now necessary and that means that social spending will be cut, because that is something that the Liberal voter does not care about.

What did the referendum held in the context of the parliamentary elections tell us?

It is again a sign of the polarisation of society. The referendum asked four questions: the sale of state-owned enterprises (should we sell them), the retirement age (should it be raised), the wall on the border with Belarus (should it be demolished) and the admission of illegal migrants imposed by the European Union (should we agree to it).

The Liberal opposition urged its voters not to vote at all in the referendum, refuse to answer and abstain. PiS wanted voters to answer “no” four times. The results of the referendum show that the opposition voters listened and the referendum will probably not be valid as it will not reach the required 50% turnout. And those who took part in the referendum answered as the ruling PiS party wished.

The referendum shows even better how the two poles do not want to talk to each other. The opposition could have told its voters to vote the opposite “yes” on these issues and thus have a dialogue. Instead, it has declared that the questions were stupid and no intelligent person would even bother to start a discussion. This is partly true because the EU will sooner or later pressure Poland to accept migrants and the issue of retirement age is linked to this. Without migrants, according to the calculations of our social security office, the system will collapse. Even so, I do not think that such non-participation in the debate is really a democratic strategy. If they claim to be concerned about democracy, they should present their arguments and try to find out what people actually think about it.

What do you expect the elections to mean for relations with the EU, with Germany and in foreign policy in general? It is obvious that Tusk will probably have different foreign policy priorities than PiS.

If Tusk becomes prime minister, his priority will be to improve relations with Brussels. This is absolutely inevitable for the Liberals if they want to maintain their credibility. Their key promise was to secure European funds that have not been paid to Poland because of problems with the rule of law. It will not be easy and overnight, as they have suggested, but they will need those resources so that the crisis in the country does not deepen and play into the hands of PiS.

Improving relations with Brussels will be a major task and may mean that Poland will back down on some very key issues where it has confronted the EU. Poland may become more willing to participate in the migration pact now being discussed. The PiS government vetoed it and had a lot of concerns about the way the pact is constructed. Tusk would probably accept it.

The second thing will be the green transformation and the future of coal mining. The Turów mine is probably the best example of how PiS has approached this issue, but it is a wider issue. A few years ago, the government signed so-called social agreements with miners in Silesia. These included a calendar of mine closures. This calendar has not been adhered to, and some mines should have been closed in 2023, but they have not been.  Others were supposed to close next year, which will be impossible, because it is impossible to close a mine quickly. PiS tried to ignore the European proposals on green transformation as much as it could. It also tried to divert attention elsewhere: for example, to Polish support for Ukraine. I am sure that Tusk will follow more in the footsteps of the European position, but this may not be good news for the local communities in Silesia. Just as we need a green economy, we need to provide jobs and a fair change for people who are not to blame for the fact that the industries in which they work are also polluting nature. Tusk does not care about workers at all and has shown this many times. He has also shown in the current campaign that he does not understand that workers are very important to the economy of any country and deserve respect.

Here I am really worried that real living people will be sacrificed in the process of improving relations between Poland and Brussels.

Tusk’s reputation as a pro-German politician is not at all exaggerated and he will certainly work to improve these relations. On other international issues, Poland’s security and political alliance with the US is untouchable at the moment. In the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, no one, not even left-wing politicians who were previously sceptical about Poland’s subservience to the US and NATO, dare criticise it. I do not expect any change here in the case of the Tusk government.

It will be interesting to see what they do with Ukraine. I guess what happens in the US will be reflected in the Polish context. Then there is the question of regional policy, which PiS tried to do in the case of the Three Seas. I fear that Tusk’s policy here will be more liberal standard – to prove to the core EU, the West, that we are their best students and followers; while making deals with a dirty country like Bulgaria (or now after the elections Slovakia) is inappropriate, Poland is a reliable partner. I imagine Tusk will try to regain his position as an advocate for Belarus and Ukraine in Brussels, but that will be very difficult. Too many countries are trying to invest in Ukraine and profit from its war reconstruction.

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