By Jakub Jezierski
The PiS (Law and Justice) party has been ruling Poland for almost eight years. Widely recognised as an authoritarian-leaning troublemaker by the EU, the party radically changed the political and economic landscape of Poland throughout its controversial tenure. Most prominently, PiS began an overhaul of the country’s judicial system, effectively ending the independence of the Constitutional Court and hijacking Poland’s judiciary watchdog, the National Judiciary Council. It has also promoted a radically right-wing social agenda, restricting abortion access and actively campaigning against LGBT+ rights, with the support of the Catholic Church.
Yet, albeit criticised by large swaths of Polish society, these reforms could materialise primarily because of the strong support that PiS accumulated among the country’s lower and lower-middle classes. This is thanks to the generous welfare programs introduced by the party, which included child benefits, cash transfers to pensioners, and tax exemptions for the youth. Such policies effectively cemented PiS’ stable levels of support throughout most of its rule and enabled it to survive even the deepest political crises. After the party’s clear and crushing victory in the 2019 parliamentary election, and the re-election of the PiS-aligned president Duda in 2020, many pundits predicted that it might hold onto a third term in power after the next election in 2023.
However, the past two years have presented the party with unprecedented challenges that seem to be eroding its faithful support base. PiS first experienced a drop in the polling numbers in October and November 2020, largely owing to large protests against its decision to limit abortion rights and a prolonged lockdown. Even though the party recovered slightly in mid-2021, a challenge that few anticipated began to seriously undermine its popular image: a creeping economic crisis boosted by growing inflation.
Indeed, Poland has fared badly in the current economic turmoil. The country’s inflation rate is among the highest in the EU, standing at 17.2% in September 2022. A rapidly accelerating energy crisis also began to take shape, exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Poland’s limited use of renewable energy (only 18% of the country’s energy mix is derived from renewables). Experts and the media have warned of a growing risk of blackouts, prompting queues of desperate Poles trying to obtain coal to heat their homes in winter. Furthermore, Poland’s acceptance of approximately 2 million Ukrainian refugees have caused the country’s housing market to stretch to its limits, with rents and house prices skyrocketing as demand soared.
PiS does not appear to be in control of the situation — instead, the party responded to the crisis with ineffective policy decisions. Although a complex ‘Anti-Inflation Shield’ policy package of tax relief was introduced, it did little to offset the growing prices of food and other commodities. Furthermore, a widely unpopular (and PiS-appointed) head of Poland’s Central Bank, Adam Glapiński, made a series of controversial and out-of-touch comments on inflation in recent months.
Building on all this, it is to be expected that PiS will face serious obstacles on its way to winning a third term in power. But what about the opposition? What are its prospects for the 2023 election? On the one hand, it is safe to say that the chances of ousting PiS from power are higher than ever. The biggest opposition grouping, the Civic Coalition, polls comfortably at around 27-29% and has shifted towards a more left-wing economic platform to appeal to voters concerned with the looming economic downturn. Its leader, the former prime minister Donald Tusk, boasts confident rhetoric of not ‘if’ but ‘when’ PiS will fall from power.
The same goes for other opposition parties. The Poland 2050 party, led by a TV personality-turned-politician Szymon Hołownia, has aimed to appeal particularly to disgruntled PiS-voters with its Christian and socially moderate platform while advocating a pro-green and sustainable economic program. Moreover, the smaller Left coalition and the agrarian Polish People’s Party have voiced their intention to cooperate with other opposition groupings and openly talk of creating a coalition government should PiS lose the election. The talks do not include the far-right Confederation, which is being isolated by other opposition parties and has experienced a drop in support since February 2022 due to its well-known anti-Ukrainian sentiments.
Yet, one should remember that PiS still has powerful political tools at its disposal that might help it win the election. The most significant one is the public media, over which the party established full control in 2016. It has since used it as a propaganda mouthpiece to batter opposition and promote its policies. Furthermore, PiS might choose to instigate campaigns to appeal to the more nationalist-minded Poles, of which there are many, and play on various rhetorics such as anti-Germanism and anti-Semitism. Such undertakings have proven effective for the party in past elections, successfully galvanising even the less engaged voters.
Nonetheless, the year 2023 might throw even more dust into PiS’ eyes, especially with the uncertainty regarding energy prices and the difficult-to-contain inflation. Much also depends on the ability of the opposition parties to skillfully navigate through the election campaign, which appears to become one of the fiercest in Poland’s 33-year long democratic history. All in all, PiS appears far from certain in securing a third term in power, with a possibility of a radical political change in the country in less than a year.