Local elections in Poland: a setback for Donald Tusk’s ‘smiling coalition’

Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat answers Vladimir Mitev’s questions about recent Polish regional elections. After the democratic parties led by Donald Tusk took over the power last autumn, it is Law and Justice, their populist, nationalist & conservative rival that comes first again. No good news for Donald Tusk: his voting base is not growing, and the electoral result his party and its allies had roghly corresponds with the number of hardcore anti-Law and Justice voters who are absolutely determined not to allow the populist to rule again. Neither side, however, is able to win over doubtful or disappointed voters. Law and Justice, having lost power and thus also the access to state media which it used as a powerful propaganda tool, proves to be, nevertheless, the party with greatest mobilization capacities and gets a stronger position before the European elections. Its domination outside of big cities is visible, just like the cities firmly choose more liberal options. Polarization in Poland, therefore, has not only political, but also territorial and even identitarian dimension. And it is not going anywhere – it is worse and worse to grow in Polish politics as a ‘third option’, as the social-democrats’ record-bad result proves.

A full transcription of the audio recording is available below.

Vladimir Mitev: Welcome to another cross-border talk dedicated to the situation in Poland where we just had the local elections, which take place just a short time before the European elections. We saw again that Law and Justice is the most popular party in Poland. But on the other hand, the party of Donald Tusk, Civic Platform gets support in important cities. We are now joined by Cross-border Talks’ co-founder Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat, who will comment for us on the general situation after these elections and then what they mean. What are the results? What do they show?

Hello, Vladimir. Hello, everybody. Thank you for having me. What do the results show?

Well, the results show that basically nothing changed since the last elections. We had the elections in October last year, which brought Donald Tusk and his party, the Civic Platform, to power, but at the same time showed that Tusk is unable to rule on his own. And he needs some coalition partners to go against Law and Justice successfully. Because Law and Justice, or PiS in Polish short version, is still the largest single party able to mobilize the biggest percentage of voters. The results say 34% for PiS and for Tusk’s party, the Civic Platform, together with Tusk’s partners, we get about 50% for the so-called broad democratic camp. And there is also 7% for Confederation – the far right party.

But what the results show is that being in power for the last few months, Donald Tusk did nothing that could help him win new voters. These 30% that voted Civic Platform (without coalition partners counted) are the hardcore Tusk fans. These voters will always vote for him, because they believe he is the leader that Poland needs for the moment. No matter what Tusk will have in his program, these people will follow him. These people will also vote for people that Tusk suggests to be elected in different locations in Poland. This was particularly seen in cities like Warsaw, where the mayors or the presidents of the city, how we say in Poland, got reelected even though their previous term was not really impressive, they didn’t achieve anything really significant. They also haven’t failed spectacularly, but I’m very doubtful if they deserve to be reelected in a landslide victory. But again, Tusk support helped them.

On the other hand, we also see how Law and Justice, despite having lost the last election, despite having lost power and despite not having any more the public media on their disposal, the public media, which served as a powerful propaganda tool when PiS was in power, is still the party which can engage the highest percentage of voters and still is absolutely the party number one in at least 4 or 5 regions of Poland. If you have a look at the result map, you see how all the Western regional authorities in Poland, the Western local councils went to Tusk and his allies, while the whole Eastern Poland belongs to Law and Justice. And this has not changed. And even if some of the voters of Kaczynski’s party became somehow disappointed with their actions or with the corruption that surrounded the party during the rule, they don’t switch their allegiance to another party. They simply stopped voting. In these elections, they didn’t choose any second choice party.

I think that at this point I should also point out the turnout, which was record high during the last elections in October, but no longer that impressive this time. Apparently we are much more excited in Poland by presidential and parliamentary elections, and regional politics is not something that people really think of. We don’t really expect any of the local rulers to do something really important, or something that could bring a change to our lives. Perhaps also the record high turnout in October 2023 parliamentary elections was a result of a very big mobilization of both sides that portrayed this clash of PiS and Tusk as a kind of civilization clash. And this time, the campaign was not that hot on either side, as Law and Justice was very much involved in their own internal debates about why they are no longer in power. And Tusk simply suggested that these elections will serve to stop Law and Justice once and forever. Apparently, this message was not that exciting anymore.

Okay, we see great polarization once again in Polish society. What does this polarization mean for the Polish people and the society?

Well, the polarization means, first of all, that it is more and more difficult to be any kind of third road, any kind of force that tries to pick up the best elements from both, let’s say, a sovereignist program, a social democratic program, or a neoliberal program. Basically, we are left with two biggest parties to which a voter should swear allegiance and don’t ask any questions about why they are suggesting these and not other solutions or these and not other people. All other alternatives are getting weaker and weaker. And even though a party which is actually called a Third Road or Third Way came third in these elections with over 14%, in people’s perception, it is an ally of Tusk. It is not a party that is capable of being an individual force. People generally think of this party as a junior partner of Tusk, a partner more conservative than Civic Platform, a little bit closer to the Church, but still a part of the democratic camp.

I don’t even want to speak of the social democratic left, which gained just a little bit more than 6%, which is the worst result they’ve ever had in regional elections for decades. They basically didn’t win anything significant, apart from advancing to the second round in the city of Włocławek, a middle sized city in north central Poland. Their another minor success is the 15% their candidate won in Warsaw, which is quite a good result. Still, she did not advance to the second round, so this 15% is merely a statistic at this moment.

So we see us that all our political life is still organized around the two big forces, and someone who wants to do something in politics should think which of them is closer to him or her, because making a political career, or even having one’s voice heard in public as somebody from outside this dual power becomes really, really difficult.

What follows from now on? What should we expect next to happen in Polish socio economic and political life now that we have these two major forces remaining clutched in one another?

We are having another election ahead in June. We are going to vote for the members of the European Parliament, and it is again Law and Justice, which has a better starting point after this result of 34%, which of course does not mean that they get 34% of all local councillors everywhere in Poland, because you know that the seats are divided differently in regional elections, but it shows that Law and Justice is the party which has the greatest mobilisation capacities, even though, as I said, they lost their important mobilizing tool, which were the public media, including the TV. This is definitely a step back for Tusk because his government is not winning Polish people’s hearts. He is able only to keep those supporters he already had. And for Law and Justice politicians, it is a moment of hope. They might really enter with new strength in this European campaign.

As everywhere in Europe, the European elections are also not the ones that are highly popular. Mainly the most active voters go there and again, these can play for Law and Justice. And a few months ago, liberal journalists in Poland speculated whether Law and Justice would even survive until European elections. They expected the party to collapse due to internal infighting. They expected them to get no more than 20% in this regional elections, and now everybody can see how wrong they were.

I expect no significant change to happen, because what Donald Tusk had been doing as prime minister even before this regional elections shows that the Civic Platform is again the party of business. It’s the party that cares most about people who have their own companies. Civic Platform is ready to offer them significant tax cuts or health fee cult, while the other citizens are not that interesting. Any positive changes that were announced before the parliamentary elections that were addressed at someone other than the entrepreneurs were actually not materialized. With that, Tusk is actually playing into Law and Justice hands to consolidate the voters. Now they are able to tell again, even more convincingly, that if the sovereignist camp is not in power in Poland, then most of Polish people will not be properly cared about by the government because Tusk is just a person who serves someone else’s interests.

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