Beata Sydlo
Beata Szydło, Poland’s new Prime Minister. Photo by Piotr Drabik.

In the October 25th Polish parliamentary elections, the right wing Law and Justice Party achieved the first majority seen since the end of communism in the country. A dramatic election victory, but Law and Justice will need to overcome internal divisions if they are to change Polish politics.

Law and Justice ran a campaign that targeted the Poles’ disenchantment at the current state of their country. Many feel that they have not shared in the country’s recent economic growth, and must either travel to other EU countries to take jobs far below their level of qualification, or stay in a land of limited opportunities.

The previous Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz and her party, Civic Platform, took a kicking on October 25th. Civic Platform argued it brought about stability by moving Poland into the heart of the European mainstream during the previous decade. The appointment of former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk as President of the EU Council in 2014 was seen as the crowning achievement of this policy. However, voters perceived Civic Platform as being cynically concerned with the stability of their own power, and far less with the grievances of the Polish people.

Against this background, it is unsurprising that Civic Platform’s message of stability granted them a 15% fall in vote share, to win a total of only 24.1%. On the other hand, Law and Justice increased their vote by 8% to 37.6%, and gained 235 seats out of 460 in the Sejm (the dominant lower house of parliament).

Law and Justice were previously in power in 2005-07. Their project of constitutional reform known as the ‘Fourth Republic’ was marred by in-fighting and became very unpopular. Since then, Law and Justice have drifted further right as they competed with the radical right LPR to be the party of nationalist Catholicism.

Despite this shift rightwards, during the recent election campaign Law and Justice tempered their usual messages and ran a campaign focused on bread and butter issues. They did not put forward its leader Jaroslaw Kaczyński, who is associated with both their unpopular 2005-07 government and more extreme right wing rhetoric, as their Prime Ministerial nominee, instead opting for deputy leader Beata Szydło. Kaczyński has limited his role to calling for ‘Good Change’ – and who could disagree with that?

The strategy has paid off, and has granted Law and Justice an unprecedented supremacy in Polish politics. Not only do they hold a majority in the Sejm, they are also dominant in the Senate and hold the Polish Presidency. The main opposition now consists of the discredited Civic Platform who are likely to shortly to undergo a divisive leadership election. The other parties are too small to have any impact, and no left wing parties were elected to parliament at all.

Such electoral success and political dominance would ordinarily pave the way for radical change in Poland’s domestic politics. Law and Justice are known to admire the authoritarian constitutional reforms Hungary has recently undertaken, and to desire a more assertive Poland in EU relations.

However, such policy goals will require internal divisions to be overcome. Just as in 2005-07, the party’s Prime Minister will not be the party leader. If things play out the same way again, any policy reforms Law and Justice are planning will be waylaid by competition between the Prime Minister’s and Party Leader’s offices. In 2005-07 the then Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz and was ousted by Kaczyński after less than a year, but the divisions remained to beset the government until it itself was ousted.

Such infighting may well mar the new Law and Justice government, but if it is able to overcome them, Poland is set to become a more awkward partner for the EU. If constitutional reforms are undertaken on the Hungarian model then we can expect a similar confrontation between Brussels and Warsaw as we saw between Brussels and Budapest.

Another area of potential tension is Poland’s role in the EU’s response to the refugee crisis. Although Civic Platform was hardly conciliatory over the refugee issue, it did agree to accept up to 5,000 more migrants. Law and Justice has argued against bowing to EU pressure to take more migrants, and played on fears that Polish identity and culture would be under threat from Muslim refugees. Instead it prefers taking the UK’s approach of giving aid to maintain refugee camps near the countries of origin.

A final area of tension is Law and Justice’s much tougher line on Russia. Law and Justice will likely use the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw to argue for a tougher response to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and more openness to military aid for Kiev from NATO. This will run counter to the favoured approach of the EU, particularly of France and Germany, which favours de-escalation of the crisis.

Even accounting for these differences, however, Law and Justice remains supportive of increasing EU integration, just at a slower pace to allow Poland’s economy to develop – they do not even rule out Euro membership, but do require a referendum if they are going to trade in the złoty. It should also be remembered that the 2005-07 government supported the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty. Even under Law and Justice, Poland’s assertiveness will be constrained by a desire to maintain relations with the EU, especially with Germany, Poland’s biggest single trading partner.

When we see such a strong electoral victory for a right wing party it is right that we worry for the future. Law and Justice’s victory is in no way welcome for progressives. However, as I have tried to show here, Law and Justice do not have a straightforward path to implement their authoritarian policies despite their overwhelming victory. They must manage internal divisions, and maintain relations with the EU at the same time, and that might be easier said than done.