In Depth

Polish election: is democracy at stake?

Surging GDP and sweeping welfare investment mask concerns over government's authoritarian streak

Poles head to the polls on Sunday, where they face a complex political choice that seems to pit prosperity and traditional values against democracy, press freedom, and minority rights.

The incumbent Law and Justice (PiS) party, founded and led by 70-year-old conservative populist eurosceptic Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has risen to popularity with a heady cocktail of progressive investment in the state, blended with arch-conservative social policies embedded in traditional Catholic teaching. 

Since winning a slim parliamentary majority in 2015, the party has violated the constitution to pack the courts with sympathetic judges, and has taken over state broadcaster, Telewizja Polska, replacing the management and removing independent journalists, converting it to a purveyor of state propaganda.

Critics say the party is increasingly authoritarian, and that another term in office would threaten the future of democracy in Poland. 

“The 2019 legislative elections and their aftermath will be crucial to determining whether Poland remains a democracy in more than name,” writes Annabelle Chapman for Freedom House. So what is at stake?

Prosperity and moral identity

Supporters of PiS say that generous welfare polices over the last four years of party rule have noticeably improved the day-to-day lives of ordinary Poles. One flagship policy, the Family 500+ programme, grants families 500 zlotys (£103) per child every month - for larger families, the equivalent of an additional income.

“The first 500+ programme obviously had an element of [providing] financial means, of material goods. But it also had an extremely important element related to dignity... to the redistribution of social respect by the state,” said Ludwik Dorn, once one of Kaczynski’s closest allies.

The PiS also maintains close ties to the Catholic Church, in a country where 86% of the population identifies as Catholic. “The church was a vital and beloved bastion of resistance to the communist regime in Poland, which eventually fell in 1989,” reports The Guardian. “The country’s identity is still bound up with its Catholicism, even as much of the rest of Europe secularises at pace.”

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LGBT+ rights

Of particular focus in this election campaign has been the rights of the LGBT+ community, particularly with regard to the issues of homosexual marriage and gay adoption, both currently illegal.

“Mr Kaczynski likes to identify threats to Polish society - during the election campaign four years ago, he said Middle Eastern migrants might bring ‘parasites and protozoa’ to Poland,” reports the BBC. “This time around, according to Mr Kaczynski, the threat comes from LGBT+ people and from Europe, where families can have ‘two mummies or two daddies’, he said.”

“These ideologies, philosophies, all of this is imported, these are not internal Polish mechanisms,” said Kaczynski at a conference in April. “They are a threat to Polish identity, to our nation, to its existence and thus to the Polish state.”

As Kaczynski ramps up the rhetoric, however, he provokes a counter-reaction from social liberals. “There are more and more equality marches” in Poland, reports the BBC, “32 this year compared to 13 last year.” This summer, at least 20 cities across Poland held Pride parades.

Who will win?

On Sunday, Poles “are expected to re-elect the national conservative Law and Justice… for a second term with an absolute majority”, reports The Irish Times. Opinion polls suggest a lead of more than 15 points for PiS over its closest rival, the centrist Civic Platform.

That said, “Poland’s electoral system means that, depending on how many parties make it into parliament, it [PiS] could still end up short of a majority,” reports The Financial Times. “This leaves a faint possibility that a broad - though probably unstable - coalition of opposition parties could club together to try and form a government.”

However, the opposition in Poland lacks a charismatic leader, or a coherent set of shared values to unite around.

“The biggest problem the left has really got in Poland is that its coalition is squeezed: the less well-off, economically leftist Poles vote for right-wing parties like Law and Justice because they deliver leftist economic policies and social conservatism,” said Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of politics and contemporary European studies at the University of Sussex.

“The social liberals, a lot of them vote for liberal parties because they don’t want economic intervention – they want lower taxes, lower public spending, that kind of thing.”

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