European Union

In Poland, it’s back to base-ics

Crude election tactics have seen the right-wing government shun Ukraine—and other key issues—in pursuit of power

October 12, 2023
Protestors in support of Civic Platform, the party of Donald Tusk. Image: Jake Ratz / Alamy
Protestors in support of Civic Platform, the party of Donald Tusk. Image: Jake Ratz / Alamy

On two occasions this year, hundreds of thousands of people have gathered in Warsaw, the capital of Poland, in a show of support for the country’s beleaguered opposition. At both demonstrations, Donald Tusk, the leader of opposition group Civic Coalition and a former prime minister, told the crowds that ousting the ruling Law and Justice party in upcoming parliamentary elections would be possible. “I feel that a turning point in the history of our homeland is approaching,” he said at the latest gathering, in early October.

He’s right that Poland’s vote on the 15th October will be historic. Should the nationalist-conservative Law and Justice party win an unprecedented third term in office and continue to undermine the judiciary, control state media and manipulate public funds, the democracy of the European Union’s sixth largest economy will continue to backslide. Not only that, Poland’s standing as a regional power will also be diminished as Law and Justice advances its spat with the European Union over the rule of law, and questions support for its eastern neighbour, Ukraine.   

In what has been a virulent election, with neither side on course to win an outright majority, and around 15 per cent of voters still undecided, the ruling party has promoted a number of divisive issues in an attempt to hold on to power. Poland’s support for Ukraine has topped the political agenda. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Poland became one of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s greatest champions. Warsaw sent everything from tanks to fighter jets to Kyiv and rallied for western partners to do the same.

But as the war has ground on, parts of Polish society have become frustrated with sustained military support for Ukraine, and when Ukrainian grain transiting Poland ended up in the Polish market this year, driving prices down, the dam broke. Seeing voters moving towards the right-wing anti-Ukraine Confederation party, Law and Justice quickly changed its position on Ukraine, announcing in September that Poland would no longer supply the country with arms. “We are no longer transferring weapons to Ukraine because we are now arming Poland with more modern weapons,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said.

The opposition has struggled to counter this nationalist narrative—reminding voters that security in the region can only be achieved with a Ukrainian victory is a less seductive message than a “Poland first” line. “This election is about whether Poland will grow its influence in Europe or if it will slowly degrade into isolationism, as the current government is representing,” Wojciech Przybylski, the president of the Polish thinktank Res Publica Foundation, says. 

Poland’s fraught historical relationship with Germany is being used, too. Polish state media has presented the 66-year-old Tusk as a German “embed”, with the leader of Law and Justice Jarosław Kaczyński calling him the “personification of pure evil”. A common campaign tactic of Law and Justice has been to manifest a threat to Polish society that only the party can counter. In the last election, in 2019, LGTBQ+ and reproductive rights were presented as an assault on so-called Polish values. Now both the memory of Poland’s painful history with Germany and anxiety around external threats have been used to score political points.   

Last September, Poland formalised its demand for €1.3 trillion in German war reparations, fuelling a belief that Poland is being disrespected by its western neighbour, which refuses to pay. It’s an issue that has strained relations with one of Poland’s largest trading partners and allowed the Law and Justice party to frame itself as Poland’s moral defender. “This position on Germany is a decoy,” says Marta Prochwicz-Jazowska, programme manager at the German Marshall Fund in Warsaw. “Polling shows that the grievances towards Germany were not there until Law and Justice came to power in 2015.”

While discussions around Ukraine and Germany have led the election narrative, other important themes are being forgotten. The most striking is the lack of a climate dialogue. In 2022, Poland was the largest producer of hard coal in the EU; overall, coal generates around 70 per cent of its energy mix. But despite public support for renewables being strong across the country—Poland suffers from annual smog problems and cities such as Krakow often register among the most polluted in the world—pressure from miners has stunted the country’s energy transition.

This appears to have shaped the Law and Justice party’s electoral tactics. “The Polish government does not have a clear energy transition strategy,” Szymon Kardaś, a senior policy fellow on energy at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says. “One of the reasons why climate is not of special importance for the government is that they’re aware it’s not a topic that can boost support for them in the way other issues can.” Mining communities in Poland’s rural heartlands are among Law and Justice’s base, while the opposition’s climate agenda, which falls into line with the European Union’s climate programme, can often be wrapped up by the government into its potent anti-EU dialogue.

The Law and Justice party is currently ahead in the polls. But this is not an election of only two parties, and whoever comes first will need to form a coalition. The far-right Confederation has been hoovering up support from frustrated youth, staunch nationalists and anti-establishment advocates, and could become an influential player. On the other side, the Polish Left party has gained support from voters tired of traditional party politics. Whatever political marriage is made in Poland after this election, it won’t be an easy one, and it’s possible the country could return to the polls in 2024. Should that occur, its likely policies of great importance like climate and dedication to regional security would once again be sacrificed for short-term political gain.