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WARSAW — The campaign language ahead of this year’s Polish general election is apocalyptic — painting it as an existential battle for the soul of the EU’s fifth most populous country — but the likeliest outcome is a chaotic stalemate.
If the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) hangs on to power for a third term there isn’t much more it can do to wreck Poland without quitting the EU — and there’s little prospect of that. If the opposition pulls off a stunner and wins it will be so hemmed in by PiS-controlled courts and institutions and by a hostile president that it won’t be able to do much more than tweak the optics rather than surgically remove the growths added by Law and Justice.
Internationally, Poland is too important to be kept in the deep freeze forever; with a fast-growing economy, a big military and a key role in supplying Ukraine, it is no Slovakia. A PiS win will mean greater efforts to find some accommodation with Warsaw; an opposition victory will dramatically improve the atmosphere, but there are limits to even an opposition-ruled Poland’s coziness on many issues that are key to the EU.
An opposition victory could weaken PiS’s institutional advantages that it’s been using to skew the playing field in its favor — potentially leading to a longer-term shift away from the right-wing party that’s dominated Polish politics for the past eight years. But it’s no quick fix.
None of this is stopping both sides from claiming that the October 15 vote is the most important in decades.
According to PiS, opposition leader Donald Tusk is a disloyal Pole who is working on behalf of both Germany and Russia to turn the country into a puppet state by letting in hundreds of thousands of migrants.
Oh, and he also wants to raise the retirement age.
Jarosław Kaczyński, the PiS chief and Poland’s real ruler, thundered to his supporters on Sunday: “Donald Tusk had to agree to make Poland subservient to Germany and therefore to Russia.”
“Stop Tusk. Only PiS can ensure Poland’s security,” trumpets an election ad.
For the opposition, led by Tusk’s Civic Coalition, another four-year term with Law and Justice at the helm means real danger for the future of Poland as a democratic country, as well as undermining the rights of women thanks to a draconian abortion law and an LGBTQ+ minority subjected to attacks by ruling party officials.
“Law and Justice is poison,” Tusk said at a campaign rally this summer. “Every day, every month they are in power is a growing threat to our security.”
Those fighting words are designed to budge the electorate; POLITICO’s Poll of Polls shows PiS at 37 percent while Civic Coalition is at 30 percent — meaning any new government is going to require cobbling together a coalition with smaller parties.
It’s not all rhetorical spin.
“There is always a tendency to say this is the most important election since 1989 [the election that ended communist rule], but this time there is a somewhat stronger case for making that argument. The level of polarization is evidence for that,” said Aleks Szczerbiak, a professor of politics at the University of Sussex in the U.K.
The outcome is going to be watched very closely, from Brussels to Kyiv.
For the European Union, the hope is that if PiS is ousted Poland will return to the ways of Tusk, who served as Polish prime minister during a remarkable era of comity with the EU and with Germany before going on to become president of the European Council. As an added sweetener, Brussels will likely quickly move to release €36 billion in loans and grants from the bloc’s pandemic recovery fund held up over worries that PiS’s court system reforms undermine judicial independence.
The EU court cases, parliamentary resolutions, infringement procedures and Article 7 effort to strip Poland of its voting rights would also likely be shelved.
The German government would also sigh with relief at seeing the back of a government that has fiercely needled Berlin at every occasion and also called for up to $1.3 trillion in compensation for the destruction caused by the Nazi occupation; although the opposition hasn’t cut itself off from that demand.
Poland has been one of Ukraine’s fiercest advocates during the war — sending tanks and jet fighters ahead of most other countries, offering diplomatic support, receiving millions of refugees who fled the early days of the war, and serving as the main transshipment point for weapons and other aid heading east.
But the election campaign has soured that relationship.
Warsaw led the charge in blocking Ukrainian grain exports, worried it would undercut Polish prices and harm farmers — a key voting bloc. When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy dared to criticize Poland at the U.N., a furious President Andrzej Duda compared Ukraine to a drowning man who poses a danger to his rescuers.
“We say to the Ukrainian authorities — do not do what goes against the interests of Polish farmers,” lectured Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who said last month that Poland would stop sending weapons to Ukraine while it rebuilt its own stocks.
Poland’s Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau skipped this week’s summit in Kyiv. Getting relations back on an even keel will take “a titanic effort,” he said.
Tusk promised a reset: “We cannot allow good Polish-Ukrainian relations to depend on the negligence and chaos created by the Polish government.”
A PiS victory will send shock waves across Europe.
Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán, Kaczyński’s closest ally, has been building his illiberal democracy for over a decade. With Rome governed by right-winger Giorgia Meloni, Slovakian populist Robert Fico scoring a victory in last week’s election, and the far-right Alternative for Germany party rising fast in the polls, the signal is that the right is gaining strength across the Continent.
That’s likely to further erode the tenuous hold on power of centrist parties in the European Parliament in next year’s election.
It will also block any chance of agreeing on a migration pact to tackle the thousands of people crossing EU borders and kill any effort to reform EU institutions ahead of an expansion to Balkan countries and Ukraine.
“A PiS government will block reforms on issues like taxation and foreign policy that threaten the national veto right. There is also a different approach to migration,” warned a senior Polish government official who spoke on condition of being granted anonymity. “We have another model of the European Union.”
However, despite the rhetoric, the reality is that the election is unlikely to mean a radical worsening of relations between Warsaw and Brussels.
Kaczyński has promised that if his party wins he’ll continue the judicial system changes that have so distressed the EU, after admitting that the reforms made so far haven’t worked. He vowed: “This time it will succeed.”
But his party has already sent out peace feelers to Brussels, trying and so far failing to backtrack on some changes to top courts to get the Commission to release the blocked funds.
If Law and Justice wins a third term, EU institutions will have to decide whether they want to continue the confrontation, or else make peace with a Poland that has firmly chosen a populist course.
“It takes two to tango. Maybe there will be a will to compromise on both sides,” said the Polish government official.
Permanent ostracism is also untenable, as Hungary showed this week by playing a skillful game of getting the EU to release blocked funds to avoid Orbán vetoing aid for Ukraine.
Despite opposition charges that PiS wants to pull Poland out of the EU in a Polexit — a cry from parts of the far right — Law and Justice says it has no intention of following the U.K. out of the bloc.
“PiS’s direction has always been toward the EU,” said PiS MP Radosław Fogiel.
And an opposition-led Poland would also be no easy partner for Brussels. After the initial flush of warmth, perennial problems will return like Poland’s continued addiction to coal-fired power, its reluctance to join the euro, and a suspicion of large flows of migrants — also voiced by Tusk during the campaign.
“Even if there is a change of government, there will still be very strong public opposition to a change in migration policy,” said Jacek Czaputowicz, a former foreign minister under the PiS government, speaking at the Warsaw Security Forum.
Poland’s large and powerful farming sector will be a huge issue for Ukrainian grain exports and for future efforts to recalibrate the EU to accommodate new and poorer members.
Ukrainian politicians hope that the war of words with Warsaw will die down after the election.
“War is exhausting for Ukraine and for Poland too, so emotions are felt on both sides, in addition, the election campaign in Poland, that tends to politicize everything, even economic issues,” said Andriy Deshchytsia, former Ukrainian ambassador to Poland, adding: “However, the Russian threat is still here, just like a year ago … so we don’t have any other choice but to sit and search for a compromise.”
As bad as it gets
At home, the election is also unlikely to have the earth-shattering impact that’s being voiced during the campaign.
PiS has done a lot of damage over the last eight years, and it’s difficult to see how much more it can do while still remaining a member of the EU. The state media is a Euro-lite version of North Korea, state-controlled corporations are stuffed with party hacks, the highest courts are firmly under political control, much of the Roman Catholic Church functions as a PiS acolyte, the police don’t mind clubbing the occasional opposition protester, the prosecutor’s office has become a political plaything — dropping investigations of the well-connected while fiercely pursuing the regime’s opponents.
But expanding that control will be difficult in an economy that has a large and vibrant private sector, a strong civil society and hefty private media.
Non-government media operators are owned by foreign companies that have shown no sign of backing out of the Polish market; an earlier effort to tangle with American-owned TVN, the country’s largest private television network, was quickly slapped down by Washington.
The EU is also working on a rulebook that aims to secure media independence against political pressure and foster pluralism; Commission Vice President Věra Jourová warned it “will be a major warning signal for member states.”
An opposition win would dramatically change the optics with Brussels, and a new government would scrap further legal changes to courts. But any effort to roll back those reforms, and any other PiS legislation, will run into a significant hurdle: President Duda.
There is no poll predicting an opposition win so gigantic that it would gain a two-thirds majority of MPs needed to overturn presidential vetoes. The country’s top courts are filled with judges appointed by the current government, meaning legislation will also be caught up in endless litigation.
“Even if they win an outright majority, which doesn’t look likely at the moment, this is an internally divided opposition and they face a president who will be able to veto their legislation,” said Szczerbiak.
However, there is a chance that Duda will cooperate, as Tusk has threatened to prosecute him for violating the constitution.
“Duda is a dealmaker,” said Wawrzyniec Smoczyński, a political analyst and president of the New Community Foundation. “Tusk is a big risk for him and the way to lessen that is to strike a deal.”
If Duda doesn’t play ball, a non-PiS government could be limited to purging state companies, the government and the media of PiS loyalists.
“Overnight you will get the public media back. Everyone will be booted out of there,” Tusk pledged.
Those small steps are unlikely to satisfy opposition backers yearning for revenge against Law and Justice and a clean break with the last eight years.
“For Poland, it’s all fucked up,” said Paweł Piechowiak, taking part in last week’s massive opposition march in Warsaw while waving huge Polish and EU flags, his cheeks painted in rainbow colors. “You can’t wreck this country any more than it is.”
But those personnel changes may have longer term consequences by switching public media away from backing PiS, which could undercut that party’s base of support in rural and small-town Poland.
That could change the political dynamic, especially if the next government is short-lived and there is an early election; it could also influence the upcoming European Parliament election and Poland’s presidential election in 2025.
“The parliamentary election could be viewed as the first round of a longer campaign,” said Szczerbiak.
Veronika Melkozerova contributed reporting from Kyiv.