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Aleksandr Gushchin

PhD in History, Associate Professor, Department of Post-Soviet Countries, Russian State University for the Humanities, RIAC expert

Stanislav Kuvaldin

PhD in History, independent journalist

2015 was a year of profound political change in Poland. The results of the presidential election in the spring and the parliamentary elections in the autumn brought an end to the liberal Civic Platform’s eight-year tenure in power (a record for Poland since it began holding elections in 1989) and saw the transition of full executive power to the right-leaning Law and Justice party (PiS) led by Jarosław Kaczyński. The parliamentary elections also brought about significant changes in the political balance of powers in the Sejm and the Senate, primarily in the form of leftist parties and movements losing a number of seats in parliament. Politics in Poland has taken a distinct shift towards the right.

2015 was a year of profound political change in Poland. The results of the presidential election in the spring and the parliamentary elections in the autumn brought an end to the liberal Civic Platform’s eight-year tenure in power (a record for Poland since it began holding elections in 1989) and saw the transition of full executive power to the right-leaning Law and Justice party (PiS) led by Jarosław Kaczyński. The parliamentary elections also brought about significant changes in the political balance of powers in the Sejm and the Senate, primarily in the form of leftist parties and movements losing a number of seats in parliament. Politics in Poland has taken a distinct shift towards the right.

Power in Poland is now concentrated in the hands of political powers that traditionally profess conservative views, are sceptical about European integration and underscore the special importance of strengthening NATO’s military presence in Central Europe. Of particular risk to continued political stability in Poland is the revanchist nature of the belief system held by a number of influential Law and Justice party (PiS) leaders, including Jarosław Kaczyński himself. For years, the chairman of the party and a number of people in his inner circle built their political rhetoric on the need to investigate the “crimes” (we have used quotation marks here because “crime” is a politically loaded word for PiS members) committed by the Civic Platform and the moral cleansing of Poland. In this light, Polish politics appears to be little more than a game of politicians settling scores with each other. However, in this case, much will depend on who is chosen to lead the PiS. These factors could have a serious effect on the domestic political situation in Poland, as well as on Warsaw’s foreign policy, including its relations with Russia.

Presidential Election

For the first time in the history of democratic elections in Poland, one party managed to achieve an absolute majority in parliament and thus form a single-party government.

One of the earliest signs that the political system developed by the Civic Platform was in deep crisis was the presidential election, when the incumbent Bronisław Komorowski lost out over the course of two rounds to the upstart Law and Justice candidate Andrzej Duda.

What made the presidential campaign interesting was its unpredictability, at least during the first round. Opinion polls carried out at the beginning of 2015 suggested that Bronisław Komorowski had the support of 56 per cent of voters. His re-election to the post of president seemed like a mere formality. But his support began to wane during the election campaign. By the time the first round election on May 10 was over, Komorowski had won just 33.8 per cent of the votes, a whole percentage point behind Andrzej Duda, who led with 34.8 per cent of the votes. One of the reasons why Komorowski lost so many votes during the first round of elections was the unexpected success of Paweł Kukiz, a former rock star who ran as an independent candidate behind an anti-system, right-wing populist rhetoric (he received almost 21 per cent of the votes). This astonishingly high figure is testament to the fact that the Polish people were more than ready for change. The sociological research carried out by Polish Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS) confirmed these findings. In particular, one of the main reasons that respondents cited for voting for Andrzej Duda was the fact that the new candidate would signify change (31 per cent of those who voted for Duda). A significant number of people (16 per cent) voted for him to spite the current leadership – they did not like Komorowski. Of those who voted for Komorowski, 49 per cent said that they did so because they see him as a champion of stability. This reason proved to be decisive in the elections and it was this that brought about the President’s downfall. One of the main reasons cited for voting for Paweł Kukiz was that he would certainly usher in change (27 per cent of respondents), as well as the fact that he was not part of the system (30 per cent).

EPA / PAWEL SUPERNAK / Vostock Photo
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The second round of elections saw Duda squeeze out Komorowski with the slightest of margins, receiving 51.55 per cent of the votes. The importance of the desire for a change of power clearly showed how the Polish people had had enough, psychologically, of the years of one-party rule. In any case, Poland’s economic indicators are stable; there is no reason for large-scale social unrest. But this factor continued to grow in significance during the parliamentary elections in 2015.

Elections to the Sejm

The elections to the Sejm and the Senate that took place on October 25, 2015 demonstrated that the Civic Platform was unable to cope with the new challenges. The party failed to respond to the new political trends and ended up losing power, winning just 30 per cent of the seats. By contrast, the Law and Justice party received 51.5 per cent of the seats. For the first time in the history of democratic elections in Poland, one party managed to achieve an absolute majority in parliament and thus form a single-party government. This result was made possible because of the losses suffered by the left-wing United Left coalition, which included the Democratic Left Alliance (a successor to the Polish United Workers’ Party that governed the Polish People’s Republic) and the left-wing populist Your Movement party led by Janusz Palikot. The Union failed to pass the 8 per cent threshold needed for coalitions to gain representation in the Sejm.

In the event that relations between Russia and the West deteriorate any further, we will probably see a NATO base appear in Poland.

Among other things, the United Left’s defeat created a situation whereby, for the first time ever, not a single left-wing party was represented in the Parliament of Poland – not even those parties that are associated with the socialist period of the country’s history. The situation even allowed some public figures, notably long-time Solidarity member and staunch critic of former President Lech Wałęsa, Andrzej Gwiazda, to pronounce the “end of post-Communism” in Poland. Gwiazda is thus implying that the appearance of a parliament that does not include forces with ties to the Communist past effectively closes the chapter in the country’s history that is associated with the Polish Round Table Agreement of 1989 between the anti-Communist opposition and the Communist government on partially free elections and the co-existence of political forces (radical fighters of the regime like Andrzej Gwiazda saw the agreement as a betrayal of the ideals of the Solidarity party).

The right-wing populist – and in places nationalist – movement hastily formed before the elections by Paweł Kukiz won 9 per cent of the seats in parliament. Another newcomer to parliament turned out to be the Nowoczesna (“Modern”) party founded by Ryszard Petru and professing conservative liberal views. It is telling that in both the presidential and parliamentary elections, Duda and the PiS received the majority of their votes from the eastern regions and rural areas. However, the clear boundary that once existed between the conservative east and the more progressive west in Poland, and which has played out over the course of numerous election cycles (and, incidentally, which conventionally separated the land that had been divided up following the Partition of Poland between Austria and Russia and now votes Conservative, from Prussia and the former German territories that were annexed after 1945), has now become blurred. The Law and Justice party was able to score a victory in regions where it had previously not enjoyed great support.

EPA / TOMASZ GZELL / Vostock Photo
Vadim Trukhachev:
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The current composition of parliament in Poland reflects a crisis of traditional political forces in the country. The disappearance of entire sections of the Polish political spectrum (specifically, of post-socialist left-wing forces) from the parliamentary structure is a sign of distrust in the traditional political structures (the poor performance of another long-standing party, the Polish People’s Party, which mustered just 3 per cent of the votes, is further proof of this). At the same time, parties that have built their rhetoric primarily around non-participation in the political system (such as Paweł Kukiz’s union) have enjoyed huge success. It is worth noting here that 25 per cent of the people who voted for Paweł Kukiz in 2015 voted for Janusz Palikot in 2011. This is particularly interesting because, judging by his views, Janusz Palikot has little in common with Paweł Kukiz, a left-leaning liberal. The only thing uniting these parties and their leaders is the tendency towards scandalous behaviour and their anti-system stance. This means that a part of the Polish electorate (both Kukiz in 2015 and Palikot in 2011 relied on the youth vote) is prepared to cast their vote as a vote of protest, as they are dissatisfied with the state of Polish politics in principle and are ready to support any party that offers a clear alternative.

Right now, it is difficult to judge with any certainty the extent to which the transfer of power into the hands of the PiS will incite further conflict within Poland’s domestic politics (which is what happened the last time the party had executive power in 2005–2007). However, the current crisis surrounding the Constitutional Tribunal of Poland instigated by the Law and Justice Party [1] demonstrates that the party is prepared to weather serious conflicts in order to get what it wants. It should be noted that Jarosław Kaczyński, who does not occupy a post in the current government, retains control over the party structures. Having said that, it is unlikely that President Andrzej Duda, who is far more inclined to search for compromise, will be heavily dependent on Kaczyński. This gives both President Duda and Prime Minister Beata Szydło a chance to show a new face of the party, a face that the people voted for in the presidential and parliamentary elections.

Poland’s Foreign Policy Following the Changes at Home

Despite all of the contradictions, Poland is not going to follow an overtly anti-European course and stray too far into a “special position”, although relations between Warsaw and Brussels will be far from rosy.

The results of the presidential and parliamentary elections in Poland will without a doubt change the course of the country’s foreign policy, which until now had been characterized by relatively moderate approaches to interaction with Moscow and a definite pro-European stance.

With the Law and Justice Party coming to power, Europe and the West can expect Germany’s influence on Poland’s foreign policy to wane somewhat. Obviously, it will not disappear completely, as German business has a significant presence in Poland, and political ties between Berlin and Warsaw have traditionally been very close. But it will not be as strong as it was under the previous governments.

Relations with the European Union will clearly cool as well, a consequence of the systemic Euroscepticism within the Law and Justice Party, the fact that Poland rejected the quotas put forward by the European Union for receiving migrants from Asia and Africa, the country’s negative attitude towards the Eurozone and, finally, because of the personal differences between the Law and Justice Party’s leader Jarosław Kaczyński and President of the European Council Donald Tusk. This last factor should not be overestimated, however. And the extent of Kaczyński’s influence over Poland’s foreign policy is yet to be seen.

Relations with Russia under the new administration will be even colder.

The Law and Justice Party has promised to change the retirement age from 67 to 65, increase social benefits and payments, raise taxes on foreign businesses, transfer foreign currency mortgages to the zloty and introduce protectionist measures for Polish companies, which has caused concern in Brussels. However, despite all of the contradictions, Poland is not going to follow an overtly anti-European course and stray too far into a “special position”, although relations between Warsaw and Brussels will be far from rosy.

Poland is likely to pursue a more active policy of cooperation with NATO. In the event that relations between Russia and the West deteriorate any further, we will probably see a NATO base appear in Poland. Warsaw will do everything in its power to increase its role in terms of providing informational support to NATO and acting as an instrument of deterrence to Moscow. Poland, like Romania, is likely to become home to a missile defence base. On the other hand, it will be almost impossible to place nuclear weapons in Poland without altering the landscape of the current confrontation between Russia and the West in the short and medium term.

REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski/Pixstream
Igor Zhukovsky:
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The strategic partnership between Poland and the United States will only intensify, regardless of who emerges victorious – Republican or Democrat – in the upcoming presidential elections. Under the patronage of the United States, Poland will play an increasingly significant role as a factor to offset the influence of Germany and France in Central Europe. At the same time, Poland will try to play the role of integrator in the region. This could come in the form of attempts on the part of Poland to intensify cooperation within the Visegrad Group, including in the military sphere (for example, through more frequent military exercises), and actively promoting the development of cross-border interregional and European projects, which could also include Ukraine.

In addition, Poland will likely try to foster a closer relationship with Romania, a country that could neutralize a possible Fronde among Poland’s partners in the Visegrad Group, and which has strained relations with Moscow. This scenario is extremely likely, even taking into account the fact that the current President of Romania Klaus Iohannis, who is of German descent, maintains close ties with Berlin. What is more, the Romania factor will probably serve as a tool for making Ukraine more pliable, considering the contradictions that exist between Romania and Ukraine. Poland is also likely to step up its “soft power” in the region. Warsaw has demonstrated considerable success in this area in recent years. It has been particularly evident in Poland–Ukraine humanitarian cooperation and interaction among non-governmental organizations.

It is no coincidence that Andrzej Duda has started talking about reviving the Baltic–Black Sea Union. In the long term, despite the obvious grumbles it would cause in Berlin and Paris – and the fact that there are mixed feelings in the Baltic and Black Sea countries with regard to the idea – Poland’s attempt to carry out the project, even in an structurally flexible format, is far from utopian. Again, much will depend on how tense relations with Russia are. This is seen as an external factor of instability. Ukraine would play the role of “little brother” within this format, rather than a fully fledged partner. And part of the Ukrainian expert community is aware of this.

Relations with Russia under the new administration will be even colder. This is because Poland’s current leadership sees it as the role of the country, within the framework of NATO, to contain Russia, as well as to play a more active part in Central European and Ukrainian affairs. This will further complicate humanitarian projects and links between Poland and Russia, which have practically ground to a halt anyway, and the Polish authorities will continue to talk about the plane crash near Smolensk that happened over five years ago. Warsaw’s traditional politics will thus begin to exert an even greater influence on Poland–Russia relations.

The extent to which Russia–Poland relations will deteriorate will largely depend on how relations between Moscow and the West continue to develop. However, the hopes of some Russian experts that relations between Moscow and Warsaw will remain as they were – because they can hardly get any worse – are unfounded, as the two countries have a whole host of issues, old and new, that could potentially lead to conflict situations. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the current Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland Witold Waszczykowski told the Russian media that Poland has adopted a wait-and-see approach to its direct relations with Russia and perhaps expects positive steps from Moscow with regard to resolving contentious issues.

Poland–Ukraine relations will also undergo a number of changes. On the one hand, the Law and Justice Party’s coming to power should bring the two sides closer. Warsaw wants to be a much more significant leader in the region than it has been in the past. It sees Ukraine as a factor for containing Russia and will thus pursue a more active policy with regard to that country. However, the radicalization of the domestic political agenda and the growth of nationalism in Ukraine – the glorification of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), as well as such figures as Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych – are of serious concern to sections of the ruling elite in Poland.

Despite the general pro-Ukrainian sentiment within the political leadership of the Law and Justice Party, there is no shortage of people who are highly distrustful, and scathingly critical, of these processes. This was particularly evident after the decommunization laws were passed in Ukraine in the spring of 2015. The people of South-East Poland were particularly vocal in this respect. This part of the political elite earns most of its political points from such rhetoric. But the fact that it was used once again demonstrates that this is an important issue for the Polish people. The Volhynia massacres of 1943 and other atrocities are still fresh in their minds.

There have also been instances where Polish people have rejected Ukrainians and the Ukrainian culture, which have drawn negative reactions in Ukraine. There is no reason to believe that these trends will not continue. They are an important element of relations between the two peoples and, as such, they will have a negative, but not determining influence on Poland–Ukraine ties. Much will depend in this context on the extent to which radical rhetoric falls into the background in Ukraine, and the extent to which nationalism will continue to be glorified. It is quite clear that if these trends persist (we are not saying that Ukraine will get rid of them completely), it could have a negative effect on relations between Warsaw and Kiev. On the whole, however, given the importance of Ukraine for Poland and the efforts to build a non-political dialogue between the two countries (including through seemingly ideological structures such as the Institute of National Remembrance), these trends are likely to remain part of public discourse, rather than at the official intergovernmental level, although this does not actually eliminate the problem.

***

The domestic and foreign policy of the new Polish leadership is just beginning to take shape. The conflict surrounding the Constitutional Tribunal of Poland, together with a number of less significant crisis situations, has demonstrated that the government is busy strengthening its positions at home. However, once these sources of internal tension are dealt with, we can expect Poland to set about strengthening its roles within NATO and Central Europe, as well as to follow an independent and more active policy in the regions to the east of its borders, including Ukraine. The success and effects of these efforts (especially in matters that concern NATO) will largely depend on the willingness of other western countries to support Poland’s plans. Right now, it does not look like they do. There is a slim hope that Russia and Poland will try to avoid steps that could lead to an even more serious deterioration of relations between the two countries.

1. PiS is not willing to accept five of the Court’s judges selected by the previous Sejm shortly before the elections, as it wishes to install more conservative candidates.

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