Law and Justice Party updates
Sign up to myFT Daily Digest to be the first to know about Law and Justice Party news.
The author is professor of politics at the University of Sussex
Poland’s government, led since 2015 by the rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) party, has drawn the ire of the EU, the Biden administration and much of the opinion-forming western media. The sore points are its judicial and media reforms and its conservative approach to moral-cultural issues. Just as Brussels abhors what it sees as the government’s high-handed approach to the rule of law, so Washington has criticised a PiS measure that could force a US media group to give up control of Poland’s main independent broadcaster.
PiS remains Poland’s most popular party, but it has lost support in recent months. From about 40 per cent last summer, its poll ratings now fluctuate between 30 and 35 per cent. In an election, this level of support would leave it short of a parliamentary majority.
The waning fortunes of PiS follow criticisms of its handling of the pandemic, a controversial abortion ruling by Poland’s constitutional tribunal and tensions within the governing camp that have damaged its cohesion and unity of purpose. These tensions came to a head last week when Jarosław Gowin, deputy premier and economy minister, was fired from the government. Gowin leads the liberal-conservative Agreement party, PiS’s junior coalition partner. Together with some of his closest allies, Gowin left the government camp, depriving PiS of its legislative majority.
The government now depends on the votes of a small caucus led by Pawel Kukiz, a rightwing, anti-establishment rock star-turned-politician, and various non-aligned deputies. The precarious situation of PiS is exacerbated by the opposition’s control of the Senate, Poland’s upper house. To overturn amendments passed by the Senate, the government needs an absolute majority of all parliamentarians, because abstentions count as votes against.
The next parliamentary election is scheduled for autumn 2023. At present the government appears reluctant to call an early election, partly because it is technically difficult to do so without opposition support, but also because it would almost certainly lose. PiS is instead pinning its hopes on its “Polish Deal” post-pandemic recovery plan. Partly funded by the EU, this includes a wide range of ambitious policies to boost economic growth and living standards. PiS hopes it will be a political game-changer.
So far, the “Polish Deal” has made little impact on voters. The ruling party believes that the public associates it with the increased state health insurance premiums that are required to help finance it, rather than with tax cuts and social spending measures from which the vast majority of Poles will benefit. Furthermore, PiS feels the voters’ doubts reflect criticisms of the plan’s fiscal elements by Gowin and his allies. This is why the party has decided to risk losing its formal parliamentary majority. It sees this as a lesser evil than having a prominent minister constantly undermining the plan’s main elements.
Whether the government has a reliable parliamentary majority will become clearer when parliament resumes in the autumn. In addition to securing passage of its tax reforms and other measures, a crucial test will be whether ministers and other state appointees can survive parliamentary no-confidence votes. If PiS cannot secure majorities in these votes, then it will be tempted to try and call an early election anyway, to avoid the steady erosion of support that would come from being in office but unable to govern effectively.
The party’s uncertain majority makes it unlikely that PiS will continue in office for the remainder of this legislature. If it can secure the passage of its reforms in the autumn and starts to see its polling support increase, the most likely scenario is an election next spring. On the outcome of such an early vote would hang the reshaping of Poland’s post-communist democracy since 2015, a subject that has caused so much tension between PiS and Poland’s western allies.