Will Poland come back as a regional leader?

PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski with prospective PM candidate Beata Szydlo

Official results, announced on 27 October, gave the conservative party a thin majority, with 37,58% of the vote and 235 of the 460 seats in the Polish Parliament, Sejm. The governing centre-right Civic Platform (PO), which got 24,09% (138 seats), came in second-best in the race and will become the main opposition party.

Two newly-established parties managed to get through the 5% threshold and will be represented in the Sejm. These are anti-establishment and populist movements led by the former rock star Pawel Kukiz, which will have 42 seats with 8,81% of the vote, and the liberal pro-business Modern party, which got 28 seats (7,6%). The agrarian People’s Party squeezed into the parliament with 5,13% and will have 16 seats. The German minority will have 1 seat in the Sejm as a constitutional right.

New era in Polish politics?

These elections have been labelled ‘historic’ for three reasons. First, it is the first time in the history of post-communist Poland when one party has secured an absolute majority in parliament. Second, one political power will control the government, parliament and the president’s office at the same time. Third, left-leaning political groups that emerged from the former Communist party of Poland will not be represented in the Sejm for the first time since the first democratic elections were held in 1989. Even though five left-leaning parties formed a coalition of United Left (ZL) in July 2015, they have not managed to clear the 8% threshold needed for a coalition lists.

For the last decade Poland, has been in a unique situation in its political landscape, as the main competing parties – the conservative PiS and the more liberal PO – were both right-leaning political groups. However, after the last elections the shift rightwards is even more evident: all parties except the anti-establishment Kukiz movement are situated to the right of the centre on the political spectrum.

The PiS victory terminated the eight-year rule of the liberal PO which, despite an unprecedented economic growth that coincided with its governing, has not managed to maintain the support of the society. According to Reuters, Poland’s GDP grew 46 percent over the past decade and Poland was one of the countries least affected by the global financial crisis. Yet, PiS won much support by advocating more left-leaning and socially-sensitive economic and social policies.

Victory surrounded by myths

The results of the elections were met with very different reactions, with some Polish and international observers even starting to accuse Poland of slipping deep into xenophobia, Euroscepticism or even authoritarianism.

Definitely, the PiS platform is based on social and national conservatism, including more critical approach towards some aspects of European integration. However, the rightist party managed to attract a much broader electorate than its core supporters. The map of electoral districts in Poland shows that Law and Justice won not only in the more conservative eastern part of Poland, but also in most districts in the western part.

Exit polls conducted after the elections suggest that every fourth citizen aged between 18 and 29 years supported the conservative PiS – twice more often than the liberal PO. Finally, a survey of GfK Polonia found that 84% of Poles do support EU membership, compared to 12% who oppose it. Of course, we will see more conservative policies adopted in the country and more critical attitude towards some European issues, such as the migration crisis. But arguing that “Putin is the main winner on Sunday’s elections”, as some do, is far from true. In fact, the opposite could be argued – that he is the main loser.

A comeback of regional leader?

Two foreign policy concepts are competing in Polish politics, represented by main rival parties. PO, especially during the years of PM Donald Tusk’s government, was seeking to make Poland into one of the main players in the European concert, an equal to such major powers as Germany, France or Britain. By contrast, PiS envisages Poland as the key leader in Central and Eastern Europe, with a strong focus on trans-Atlantic relations and NATO’s presence in the region.

In the context of the highest security crisis since the end of the Cold War, this is a very important change, positively affecting security situation not only for Poland, but for the Baltic states as well. A strong message was sent during the first foreign visit of conservative President Andrzej Duda who went to Estonia, one of few countries that meet the criteria of 2% GDP expenditure for national security.

With PiS controlling all governing branches – parliament, government and the president’s office – we might expect even more strategic leadership in the region from Warsaw. Next year’s NATO Summit, which will be hosted by Warsaw, might be the turning point for safer region led by Poland. However, challenges of consolidating the split Visegrad Four remains the main hurdle towards this strategic goal.

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