Is Warsaw going to become a second Budapest?

The Polish electoral marathon is accelerating. After local government elections last autumn, and spring elections for the European Parliament, the crucial choice of representatives for the Polish Sejm and Senat (the lower and higher legislative chambers respectively) is expected to happen within six weeks. These coming elections are not only the most important of the season (which will terminate with the spring 2020 presidential elections), but they are also some of the most decisive elections of the past three decades. Why? Results in October will evaluate the sharp populist course the incumbent Law and Justice Party (PiS) government has taken, and decide whether the Polish Orbanisation process, initiated in 2015, can be further realised.

It seems that PiS can already determine the number of votes it will receive in autumn. If we assume that nothing ground-breaking happens in the interim (bearing in mind the government’s seeming immunity to scandal since 2015), PiS should expect between 30 and 40 per cent of the vote. I base this estimation on the results of three previous elections (those of 2015, 2018, and 2019) in which the outcome and advantage over the opposition were very similar, meaning that PiS succeeded in generating its own stable electorate. The crucial issue at play, however, is how autumn’s result will translate into the share of seats in Sejm. Some potential scenarios are striking: instead of maintaining the status quo (a parliamentary majority), PiS may well lose power or attain a constitutional majority. In effect, the opposition will decide whether Warsaw will become a second Budapest.

The European Parliamentary elections serve as a valuable lesson. PiS verified that their strong-handed governance, characterised by the distribution of social benefits and surprising economic prosperity, guarantees uncontested support, even when controversies including reforms subordinating the judiciary or evoking chaos in the educational system seem to cause outrage. This durability of support would not be as successful without a firm grip of the public media, where political realities are being portrayed in modes reminiscent of the past communist era. Noting the decimated opposition in Hungary, the leaders of the “pro-democratic” (or anti-PiS) sphere, including those from the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the liberal Modern (.N), the agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL) and the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) decided to unite to establish the “European Coalition”. However, since PiS had received 7% more votes, the coalition project afterwards was not assessed as a stunning success.

Indeed, such a broad alliance of varied political parties posed many challenges: ideological differences proved to be the greatest weakness of the coalition. Soon after the elections, the first to undermine the coalition project were the agrarians, who realised that sticking to the anticlerical or LGBT-friendly fantasies of the liberal wing of the alliance seemed to be too much to swallow for their rural conservative electorate. Therefore, facing the risk of agrarian votes being drained away towards PiS, the PSL left the coalition.

As a result, centrist liberals from PO and .N were left with the more left-leaning SLD, but negotiations on prolonging the alliance continued. The SLD’s tendency to deliver socially radical (in the Polish conservative context) agendas and allow pronounced left-wing figures to join coalition lists proved to be unacceptable for the other parties. The leader of PO, Grzegorz Schetyna, has consequently declared that his party will run in autumn elections alone instead of handing over the spots to unwanted personalities.

In the case that all parties run separately, a threshold of 5% could potentially be crossed solely by PO and PiS. The ruthless effects of the D’Hondt method, the transfer of the so-called “wasted votes” (cast for parties which did not manage to get more than 5%) to the winner, would be even more drastic than in 2015, when the 37% of votes that went to PiS together with 17% of votes considered “wasted” translated into 51% of seats in the Sejm. The experience in the last European elections, where PiS together with the European Coalition received 84% of votes, or in the 2018 elections for the mayor of Warsaw (with the same 84% aggregate support for PO and PiS candidates), shows that people are afraid of risking their vote for niche parties as the D’Hondt method classifies such votes as de-facto cast for PiS.

An awareness of the potentially drastic consequences has made small parties create quite unexpected coalitions. Agrarians, apparently afraid of pushing a separate run with the risk of not reaching the threshold, decided to form a so-called “Polish Coalition,” inviting the conservative populist movement of Paweł Kukiz, a former rock singer who in 2015 promised a revolution destroying the PiS-PO duopoly, afterwards turned out to become a silent supporter of PiS’s reforms. The PSL’s decision was all the more surprising as Kukiz was actually closer to building a coalition with xenophobic far right.

The other issue in the Polish electoral system that might confuse some people is an increased threshold of 8% of votes for coalitions to get to the parliament. The most painful experience of the 8% challenge was suffered in 2015 by the left. The SLD-led alliance, expecting good results, was then confronted by the new Together (Razem) party. As a consequence of the partial transfer of votes to opponents, the left coalition did not manage to reach the 8% threshold while Razem received 3.5% of support, meaning that the entire left, despite receiving an aggregate 11% of votes, remained excluded from Sejm.

A potential opportunity to end the left’s malaise has been the agreement establishing a new left coalition, which, along with SLD and Razem was also strengthened by the addition of the Wiosna (Spring) movement. A recently-created liberal-left party, Wiosna is headed by the extravagant Robert Biedroń. It is perceived as a force which not only would offer a new voting alternative, but, as with Paweł Kukiz’s movement in 2015, could lead to the end of a two-party system in Warsaw that has lasted since 2005. Despite double-digit support in February, Biedroń’s initiative barely crossed the 5% threshold in the last European elections. Even though an alliance of historically hostile political actors who became friends one month ago does not necessarily seem credible, leftist voters should be finally satisfied. Many of them had before been afraid to lose their votes, instead opting for the liberal/centrist “lesser evil”.

The last issue regards a potential power which might come to be further to the right of PiS. An exotic coalition of “Confederation” uniting all flamboyant nationalists, monarchists, anti-abortionists and anti-vaxxers, failed, receiving 4.5% of votes during the last EU elections, with the consequent dispersal of activists. Even though its fate is not clear at the moment (with members more eager to offend each other in the media than to think about joint programmes), this coalition still appears in election polls with quite decent results. This potential, especially in the case that PiS attempts to offer a milder repertoire to attract a more centrist electorate, would encourage unpredictable radicals to unite again.

For the time being anything is possible. If the three leftist, liberal, and agrarian “anti-PiS” blocs consolidated, gained credibility, and crossed thresholds, they could perhaps be capable of taking power back. In a situation ideal for Euro-enthusiasts, an opposition government of this sort would work to clean up PiS’s anti-democratic reforms and get Poland back on the “pro-European” track, promoting values of liberal democracy.

A more realistic result for the time being, however, is PiS maintaining governance as well as a parliamentary majority. Repeated electoral legitimacy of the current process of Orbanisation would lead to further irreversible reforms to subordinate private media and the judiciary. If something more shocking were to occur (such as attaining constitutional majority alone or in coalition with far right), an increasingly anti-democratic government would in practice threaten the fundaments of Polish democracy, turning it into a more serious version of Hungarian institutional façade

*The author is Jakub Stepaniuk, an intern in the European Policy Centre – CEP.