- Hanna Bajwa
Polish elections: a new chapter?
In Poland’s most recent election, the ruling right-wing party Law and Justice (PiS) narrowly won a second term in office. The election was very close, with PiS only managing to secure 235 seats in the 460-seat assembly of the lower house, failing to increase their majority, and having completely lost control of the upper house.
During their first term in power, PiS gained a reputation for pushing through legislation at breakneck speed, with hastily called late-night sittings of the lower house, followed by quick approval from the upper house. Under PiS, Poland has emerged as an active opponent of the liberal democratic values which underpin the EU. Poland’s semi-authoritarian regime was hoped to be removed by Polish voters, as many European diplomats admitted that they had hoped the problem would be resolved and taken out of the EU’s hands. Another blow to Eastern Europe’s right-wing nationalists was the biggest electoral setback in a decade as liberal challenger Gergely Karacsony defeated Istvan Tarlós, backed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's right-wing Fidesz party.
So what does this all mean for Poland? Firstly, the upper house, which has long been ignored as significant suddenly gains importance. Although the upper house is less powerful than the lower house, it can delay and amend legislation. Although the upper house can override such actions, this will prevent obstacles PiS had not seen for the past four years.
Secondly, a stronger opposition has now formed. The centrist Civic Platform party, which ruled Poland from 2007 to 2015, is the largest opposition party, taking 27.4% of the vote for 134 seats. A new group, simply called the Left, that took 12.56% for 49 seats have also risen in popularity and have plans to challenge PiS’s right-wing policies on abortion laws, gay rights and the Roman Catholic Church, as well as pushing their own social welfare policies. Although PiS faces challenges from the left, they also face a new challenger – the Confederation, which is a group of ultra-nationalists. Although opposition from the right has long been avoided, the Confederation gained 6.81% of the vote gaining 11 seats.
PiS faces even more problems in the future. When first coming into power in 2015, it was the height of a global economic boom so they were able to generously spend their money without completely ruining the country’s budget. During this time they were able to bring in child payments of 500 zloty (£89) a month, lowered the retirement age and scrapped income tax for under 26s. However, the Polish 2020 budget is expected to be the first ever in Polish history with no deficit. This term, the party was made expensive promises such as extra pensions and a boost in health care spending however this may not be possible. One of the main goals for PiS in the next term is to maintain the current levels of EU funds, rejecting the current budget proposed by the European Commission. But, with Brexit cuts, Trump’s trade wars and possible mechanisms to link subsidies to the rule of law, increase of funding for Poland seems improbable.
As mentioned before, PiS and the EU have a few issues between them. In their previous term, PiS changed some of the Polish legal system which ended with the EU launching the Article 7 procedure against Poland for violating the bloc's democratic rules. Ahead of the most recent election, PiS had promised even deeper changes to the legal system however with their new political reality, the promised reforms prove to be more difficult to provide, furthermore it could prove beneficial to Poland by soothing relations with the EU.
Although the Polish political parties are uncertain of the direction of the country in the future due to the shift of power, there are still more complications to come. The presidential race begins in 2020 as Andrzej Duda’s term expires and both sides are preparing for the battle for top spot. Controlling the presidency was key to PiS’s radical reforms program — allowing them to take control of the judiciary and pass legislation with little fear of it getting vetoed, so losing the presidency would be detrimental for PiS. With this said, Duda will be hard to beat; in September 2018 his approval rating was 72%, due to him devoting enormous time and energy to cultivating voters in the smaller towns and villages that form the core of PiS's support.