Law and justice in Poland post-“Law and Justice”

Law and justice in Poland post-“Law and Justice”
Photo: EURACTIV

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

On October 17, the Electoral Commission confirmed the results of an exit poll that showed the Polish opposition leader Donald Tusk’s Civic Coalition, the Third Way and the Left blocs had a combined majority over the current ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party in the Sejm. While the parliamentary election demonstrated the highest level of turnout in Poland since the collapse of Communism in 1989, a simultaneous referendum on migration issues seemed not to have met the turnout threshold for validity.

KEY INSIGHTS

– The transition to an opposition government will likely be a drawn-out process
– Economic issues and judicial reforms will likely take precedence over key opposition campaign promises, with progress on policy changes hampered by institutional obstacles
– An opposition government in power would bolster EU economic and other ties, with the release of frozen funds remaining uncertain given the difficulty of enacting domestic reform
– Poland’s support to Ukraine is unlikely to alter during and after the formation of a government

ISSUES BEHIND THE OUTCOME

Decreased poverty under PiS has been accompanied by rising inflation, a politicized judiciary, increasing crackdowns on LGBTQIA+ issues and abortion and suspensions of European funding over rule of law disputes. The election results also come in the wake of a recent visa-selling scandal, which uncovered government involvement in the issuance of 350,000 visas to applicants from the Middle East and East Asia in exchange for bribes since 2021. Particularly in the years prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, PiS-led Poland and other member countries of the Central European Visegrad Group as a whole had been steadfast in their opposition to migration-friendly policies.

POWER SHIFTS AND POLICY IN POLAND

Although the three opposition blocs have so far remained steadfast in their intention to form a government with their new combined majority, President and PiS ally Andrzej Duda vowed before the vote to give the single party with the most votes – in this case, PiS – the first opportunity to form a government. PiS will almost certainly fail to form a government, as even a longshot coalition with the Polish People’s Party (PSL) would not give them the needed majority and there are currently no such talks underway.

Even so, this will likely delay the convening of an opposition government by several months. A loyal Supreme Court largely subsumed to PiS through years of judicial overhaul are in charge of certifying the election results, posing the potential for additional delays. This means that any changes to Poland’s domestic or foreign policy may not come into play until 2024. 

As for domestic policy, the opposition coalition members’ varying platforms and ideological affiliations may result in a compromise-heavy approach to key campaign promises. A newly elected MP from the Third Way bloc’s Poland 2050 party stated opposition to the PSL and Tusk’s Civic Platform party campaign promises of negligible to 0% mortgage rates for first-time homebuyers. The MP also cast doubt on the feasibility of Civic Platform’s promise of pay raises for teachers and increased funeral allowances without cuts to other areas of the budget. 

Meanwhile, the leader of PSL stated that the party would not support a coalition agreement that includes a key Civic Coalition pledge: legalized abortion up to 12 weeks. Given the contentiousness of some of these issues, a new opposition government will likely prioritize a focus on the economy more broadly and attempt to reverse judicial and other “reforms” of recent years that have strengthened PiS control over levers of power.

Nevertheless, the opposition will still lack the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto from Duda, who is in power for two more years. A slight softening on immigration may still be possible, although the opposition has made no public promises that it would change course on the existing approach, which Tusk has also held to in the past. At home, Polish voters will likely see only gradual, incremental policy change in the medium- to long-term under an opposition government.

ALTERED ALLIANCES?

Another key campaign promise by former European Council chief Donald Tusk touches on external policy: unblocking over 55 billion euros in frozen EU subsidies and loans. Although the EU Commissioner for Justice publicly stated that the economic union will only reassess its position on Poland in the case of actual reforms  – which will be complicated by all of the factors listed above – a new Minister of Justice could demonstrate a commitment to restoring rule of law by ending the harassment of judges who cite European law and/or have been previously subject to the controversial Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court. This route may prove sufficient justification for the release of at least some funds. 

Even if, like reforms themselves, the unfreezing of EU money for Poland is a gradual and lengthy process, diplomatic and other policy-related ties to Brussels will almost certainly improve under an opposition government in Poland. Indeed, the zloty strengthened against the euro immediately following the release of exit poll results alongside upticks in other financial indicators, indicating to some observers that anticipated improvements in relation to the EU and decreased financial uncertainty will also lead to positive domestic economic trends and inflows.

As Poland is host to over 1.7 million Ukrainian refugees and has provided over $3 billion in military aid to its war-torn neighbor, relations with Ukraine are yet another key foreign policy vector for a new government. In the leadup to the elections, PiS stated it was no longer transferring weapons to Ukraine and would only supply the amount it had previously promised.

Along with the governments of Slovakia and Hungary, it also defied the expiration of an EU ban on Ukrainian grain imports, ostensibly due to fears of the impact on Poland’s domestic agriculture market. PiS’ far-right competitor, the Confederation bloc, had openly opposed aid to Ukraine, and this rhetoric was a likely ploy to curry voters away from that alliance. However, Confederation won a mere 12 seats in parliament and has stated that it will not cooperate with either a PiS or a Civic Coalition-led government. Given this context, despite the likelihood of slow domestic policy shifts, Poland’s current level of support to Ukraine is not likely to be drawn down in the transition period to forming a new government  – nor under a new government  –  regardless of its leadership.

Any views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Internews.

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