Alex Duval Smith, The Guardian, October 26, 2015
Poland has consolidated its rightwing shift after exit polls showed voters had handed an absolute majority in its parliamentary election to Law and Justice, a Eurosceptic party that is against immigration, wants family-focused welfare spending and has threatened to ban abortion and in-vitro fertilisation.
The current ruling party, Civic Platform, conceded defeat following the first exit poll, published by Ipsos moments after polling stations closed at 9pm (8pm GMT) on Sunday, which gave the national conservative Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice party) 39.1% of the vote, putting it far ahead of Civic Platform on 23.4%. On Monday morning, the latest Ipsos poll gave the Law and Justice party 37.7% and Civic Platform 23.6%.
Jarosław Kaczyński, Law and Justice’s chairman and the twin brother of Poland’s late president Lech, immediately declared victory. Speaking to supporters at his party headquarters in central Warsaw, a triumphant Kaczynski said: “We will not kick those who have fallen… We need to show that Polish public life can be different.”
If the latest polling is confirmed, the result would give Law and Justice 232 seats in the 460-member lower house of parliament, meaning the party could govern alone and that its lead candidate, 52-year-old Beata Szydło, is likely to be appointed prime minister.
Distrustful of Germany and the EU, Law and Justice wants more sovereign control and believes a strong Nato hand is required to deal with Russia. The party promises more welfare spending, a lower retirement age and new taxes on foreign banks.
Szydło has also campaigned against the EU forcing member states to accept a set number of refugees from the Middle East and north Africa.
The British prime minister, David Cameron, has in the past expressed support for Law and Justice and has included his Conservative party in the same European parliamentary grouping, but the Polish shift to the right may not necessarily be supportive of his efforts to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU.
Two million Poles working abroad–including an estimated 700,000 in Britain–depend on the freedom of movement the EU allows. Polish Euroscepticism is also different from the British variety. It feeds to some degree on frustrations over sovereign influence and the economic dominance of neighbouring Germany, but for the large part it is linked to the country’s conservative family values and worry over gender politics and perceived secularist trends that are seen as undermining the influence of the Catholic church.
One Warsaw voter, Małgorzata Cyganik, a 37-year-old translator, said she was afraid the election would lead to individual freedoms being curtailed. “The ideology that is coming into Polish politics [with Law and Justice] is frightening,” she said.
“People are voting to protect what they see as the things that are special about Poland and that are threatened by the outside, but with that may come a big step backwards.”
Lucas Miszczyk, a 48-year-old sound technician, took the opposite view, saying he felt Law and Justice was the only party that has Polish interests at heart. “If you look at Warsaw, you see only foreign shops, banks and brands–C&A, Bank Millennium, H&M, Carrefour. Where have all the Polish businesses gone? We have opened our doors too much and we have lost control of our own economy. We must say stop.”
Poland’s economy is expected to grow by 3.5% this year and next, and unemployment recently fell below 10%. Voters, however, have responded favourably to introspective rhetoric and claims that secular and gender politics in the EU, and the multi-ethnicity of western Europe, are a threat to traditional Catholic values and national sovereignty.
The governing Civic Platform has never recovered from a 2014 eavesdropping scandal that discredited high-profile government ministers.
The Polish electorate is also faced with a left wing that has failed to rebuild itself since the end of communism. It remains a messy mix of greens, socialists, radicals and post-communists who fell short of the 8% of the vote needed to enter parliament.
After voting in the Saska Kępa district of Warsaw, the United Left leader, Barbara Nowacka, said she hoped the election would mark a breakthrough for small parties such as hers. “It looks like Law and Justice will win, but what is even clearer to me is that voters in Poland want change. You see this because of the way voters are capable of moving from one small party to another. They are looking for a credible system change.”
Law and Justice said Szydło would be its prime minister if it formed a government, but the party is also strongly associated with the controversial former prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński.
He won political capital during the campaign by playing up fears linked to Europe’s migration crisis. He claimed refugees were bringing “cholera to the Greek islands, dysentery to Vienna, various types of parasites”. Civic Platform has fought to keep Poland’s refugee quota down, finally agreeing to take just short of 7,000 refugees.
Law and Justice last held power from 2005 to 2007, when Kaczyński governed in tandem with his twin brother, the late president Lech Kaczyński, who died in a plane crash in Smolensk, western Russia, in 2010.
Their time in power was marked by internal political turmoil triggered by their combative style and international tensions brought about by their anti-German and anti-Russian views. Since his brother’s death, Kaczyński has hinted several times that he believes the plane crash was Russia’s work.
“If Law and Justice end up governing alone with an allied president, Poland will become another Hungary,” said Prof Radosław Markowski of the Polish Academy of Sciences, a reference to the extremist rightwing views of the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán.