As the October 21 parliamentary elections draw near, the temperature of the Polish political scene is rising. One reason is that voting will take place two years ahead of schedule. More importantly, the outcome remains less certain than ever, as do its implications affecting Poland’s European and transatlantic relations.
The political face-off is taking place between the Law and Justice (PiS) and the Civic Platform (PO) parties, which already clashed in the 2005 elections that gave PiS a narrow victory. After over a year of a controversial coalition with smaller populist parties, prime minister and PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński decided to end it, and his twin brother Lech, the Polish president, approved the early elections.
Given the tight electoral calendar, the campaign has centered on TV ads and billboard slogans rather than substantive debate. While the most heated battles rage on domestic issues, the two leading parties disagree on some key foreign policy questions:
Poland in the EU
Both parties want European solidarity, envisioning an EU mindful of all its members, not just the largest and wealthiest ones. But while PiS declares it won’t sign the Constitutional Treaty unless its demands are met, PO may be more willing to see a compromise as a better way of maximizing the benefits of Poland’s EU membership.
Relationship with Germany
The PiS government has done plenty to alienate Poland’s western neighbor through its hawkish and often eyebrow-raising rhetoric, aggravating grievances that date back to World War II. PO, however, perceives this confrontational style as damaging to the partnership with Germany within the EU.
Introduction of the euro
PiS is dubious about joining the Eurozone any time soon and is reluctant to offer a timeline for adopting the common currency. PO proposes to create such a timeline, along with a clear strategy for adopting the euro.
Although Poland’s relationship with the US remains tainted by unresolved visa issues, missile defense is the biggest strategic concern. PiS believes that the American proposal to build elements of the shield in Poland strengthens Polish security. PO is much more skeptical about the benefits of the project.
PiS is again focusing its campaign on fighting corruption and uprooting the “układ,” the alleged post-1989 elite network of ex-Communist spies, crony businessmen and politicians. Still, it has failed to convince a majority of the public that castigating the “układ” should be the country’s top priority. PO continues to appeal to more moderate and liberal voters with a pro-business program emphasizing individual freedom and responsibility. But it has likewise failed to convince most Poles that the country’s failing welfare state must be reformed.
So despite all of the government’s blunders, it remains far from obvious that early voting will spell the end of the Kaczyński moment. On the contrary, PiS has a good chance of strengthening its mandate. According to PGB, a leading Polish pollster, PiS was ahead of PO at the end of September by a margin of 35 to 32 percent. But according to another poll from a different research institution, PBS DGA, PO managed to pull ahead of PiS by a nearly identical margin of 36 to 32 percent.
The Left and Democrats electoral alliance (LiD), led by the former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, is in third place, with popular support in the 15-17 percent range. All of the remaining parties are on the verge of the 5 percent electoral threshold.
Based on the opinion polling, predictions on who will win look about as reliable as a coin toss. Yet one outcome is relatively sure: it appears that neither PiS nor PO will muster enough public support to win over 50 percent of the vote and govern alone. And that means another turbulent period of coalition building, with little hope of clarifying Poland’s increasingly unpredictable foreign policy.
In this tense atmosphere, many outside observers have grown concerned about the health of Polish democracy. While the future of free and fair elections certainly remains secure, the values of transparency and institutional neutrality, which should underpin democratic governance and guide stable foreign policy, have come into question under the Kaczyński rule. These trends will likely continue if PiS stays in power. But a narrow plurality win of PO followed by another quarrelsome coalition is not likely to reverse them, either.
Anna Nadgrodkiewicz is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service currently residing in Washington DC.
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