Approaching the EP election, Poland stands out among other EU member states for at least two reasons. While the domestic implications of the European vote are often said to be more important for voters than its impact on the composition of the EP, the stakes in Poland are in this respect particularly high. It is not only because 26 May is seen mainly as a test for the political parties ahead of the national parliamentary election in October 2019. What makes the Polish situation special is the role of this national vote, hailed by many observers as the most important one after the end of communism in 1989. Since 2015, under the national-populist government of Law and Justice (PiS) Poland has witnessed a dramatic backsliding in democracy and rule of law standards, which has put it at loggerheads with the EU Commission and Court of Justice of the EU. Many Poles fear that another PiS victory in the Autumn 2019 would rubber-stamp the country’s shift towards an illiberal or semi-authoritarian system – just 30 years after the beginning of the democratic transition.
''The cleavage between the ruling party PiS and the opposition (the liberal Civic Platform and its allies) is so deep that neither of them can even hope of drawing voters from the other side.''
The second reason for Poland being an outlier in the EU is the country’s dramatic political polarization. As the recent ECFR opinion poll showed, it is a myth that all European countries are deeply divided along the open society vs closed society axis and replicate the U.S. and British political landscapes. But while in most European countries electorates have become extremely volatile, Poland alone represents a different category. The cleavage between the ruling party PiS and the opposition (the liberal Civic Platform and its allies) is so deep that neither of them can even hope of drawing voters from the other side. Gertrude Himmelfarb’s notion of ‘one country, two nations’ is thus a very close to accurate description of the Polish political reality.
This context helps understand the strategies and positioning of both political camps. The key rule is that the battle will be about mobilizing one’s own voters and not about reaching out to other constituencies. Here the liberal opposition may hope for an advantage: their voters come mainly from big and medium-size cities where the turnout at the EU election is usually higher than in the strongholds of PiS in the rural areas and small towns. Only 25 percent of Poles voted in 2014, but this year the turnout could be twice as high.
In March 2019 the main left and liberal pro-European and democratic opposition parties led by the Civic Platform formed a broad bloc called European Coalition – a major achievement given that these kinds of efforts failed in the past in countries like Hungary or Italy. Its candidates will run on joint lists in the European election. If the result is positive (a victory would give the opposition a boost ahead of the national election), the coalition may run against the PiS again in the autumn. Any predictions are extremely difficult: it will be a tight election as both blocs are running head-to-head in the polls with the support of around 35 percent of the population. If a liberal, pro-European majority wins, it may depend on the newly established left party Wiosna (The Spring), which can hope for 5-10 percent of votes. But the fringe far-right Konfederacja (Confederation) may also land above the threshold of 5 percent – and offer itself as a coalition partner of the PiS in the future.
''For the opposition it will be a vote “for” or “against” PiS and this is also how its European manifesto is framed. According to the European Coalition, the choice for Poland is between East and West, between backsliding into the position of a “new Belarus” or returning to the EU’s mainstream.''
The heavy load of the domestic political polarization leaves only little space for a real debate about Europe’s future and Poland’s place in it. For the opposition it will be a vote “for” or “against” PiS and this is also how its European manifesto is framed. According to the European Coalition, the choice for Poland is between East and West, between backsliding into the position of a “new Belarus” or returning to the EU’s mainstream. The liberals warn of a Polexit if PiS wins and retains power, which is a symbolic warning against the government’s policy putting Poland at odds with EU regulations (conflict about the rule of law and judiciary reform in Poland) rather than a credible alarm. According to the newest CBOS poll, more than 90 percent of Poles support EU membership and PiS has never questioned their choice despite its criticism about Germany’s hegemony, West European protectionism, EU climate policy or alleged democratic deficits. PiS’ EU agenda is also rather general: the party is skeptical about political integration, stresses the need for a better protection of national sovereignty, wants the completion of the single market and its full openness and wants to defend Transatlanticism against the chimera of Europe’s ‘strategic autonomy’. However, it is rather new and generous social and fiscal policy promises (pensions, children allowances, tax reductions) which form the backbone of the PiS electoral strategy (and threaten to raise the public deficit to above 3 percent of GDP next year), rather than ideas for an “union of nations 2.0,” as the PiS vision is called.
Against this background – a status-quo oriented European Coalition and ‘back-to-the-roots’ approach of PiS – the new party Wiosna wants to be seen as veritable pro-European revolutionaries. It is an advocate of an ambitious social policy agenda at the EU level which would address the real needs of the people with a Europe-wide housing programs, equal health service standards for all EU citizens and a coordinated fight against cancer.
There is no doubt that the EP election will play a key role in shaping the Polish party system ahead of the autumn national election. And it will be then that the actual choice about Poland’s future trajectory in the EU will be determined.