Why Poland’s Populist Law and Justice Party Keeps Winning
If the Law and Justice party wins the Polish elections for parliament in October, it will be harder for observers to dismiss its success as a blip in Poland’s post-communist history. What is behind the continued appeal of a party that merges nationalism with populism in a country once seen as a model of liberal democracy?
With most of the votes counted, Jaroslaw Kaczynski took the stage and declared victory. “Today is a very important day,” he told a packed room of members of his populist Law and Justice party in Warsaw. PiS, as the party is known by its Polish acronym, had just had its strongest showing ever in an election for the European Parliament. Despite high hopes from a broad coalition of opposition parties, PiS won, with 45 percent of the vote. The opposition alliance received a combined 38 percent.
[ SPECIAL OFFER: Get your FREE copy of our in-depth report on the U.S.-China Rivalry in the Trump Era. ]
But Kaczynski, addressing party insiders at its headquarters on a Sunday night in late May, had bigger plans. “We have to remember that the decisive battle for the future of our country will take place this autumn, and we also have to win—and win by even more than now.”
PiS has governed Poland since 2015, when, after eight years in opposition, it became the first party to win an absolute majority in a Polish election since the fall of communism in 1989. Over its four years in power, the party has moved the country in an increasingly illiberal direction, championing a socially conservative vision of Poland, accompanied by anti-immigrant and homophobic rhetoric and efforts to control the judiciary. The European Commission, the European Union’s executive branch, has criticized reforms pushed by PiS to strengthen its influence over the two highest courts in the country, calling them threats to the rule of law in Poland and by extension to the EU’s core principles.
Yet despite these trends, which have raised alarms in Brussels and other European capitals, PiS remains the most popular political party in the country, as the results of the Polish elections to the European Parliament confirmed. The election was seen as a test for Poland’s parliamentary elections on Oct. 13, which polls suggest PiS will win too.
The outcome of October’s elections will have lasting implications for Poland, Europe and for democracy more broadly. For years, observers held up Poland’s peaceful political and economic transition from communism after 1989, which culminated in NATO and EU membership, as a model of liberal democracy for other post-Soviet countries, such as Ukraine and Georgia, to follow. Yet political developments in Poland over the past few years have made it clear that liberal democracy and the freedoms associated with it are no longer the only game in town.
If PiS wins again this fall, it will be more difficult for observers in Europe and the United States to dismiss its success as a blip in Poland’s post-communist history. Like the string of electoral victories in nearby Hungary by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who boasts of building an “illiberal state,” continued political dominance by PiS will further dent the image of liberal democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. But given the party’s track record and Poland’s trajectory after the fall of communism, a deeper question remains: What is really behind PiS’ rise and its continued appeal to Polish voters?
The PiS Paradox
In terms of its political agenda, PiS defies easy classification. Experts often describe the party as “right-wing” or even “far right,” due to its members’ socially conservative views and nationalist rhetoric. Indeed, its supporters consider themselves to be defending Polish values against “liberals” and “leftists,” which they deploy as derogatory terms. The party’s leaders have presented PiS as safeguarding Poland against migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa, as well as from LGBT people, among others.
At the same time, the party’s economic policy draws on ideas associated with the left, like state interventionism and high social spending. Its flagship social program, known as 500 Plus, consists of a monthly stipend for all households with children. The government has proposed replacing the economic liberalism that characterized the post-communist years in Poland with what it calls “Polish capitalism,” involving income redistribution in the form of generous social welfare benefits.
Combining nationalism and xenophobia with economic policies associated with social democrats might seem contradictory, but PiS has successfully merged them.
“Capitalism must be a social capitalism, pro-social but also creating good living conditions for entrepreneurs and companies,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told an economic conference in the southeastern city of Rzeszow in November 2017, when he was serving as the minister of economics and minister of finance.
Combining nationalism and xenophobia with the kinds of economic policies associated with social democrats might seem contradictory. But PiS has successfully merged them into an increasingly popular political program, as its continued support at the ballot box attests.
PiS may articulate a steady political message, always hitting on jingoistic and euroskeptic tones, but the party is not monolithic. Yet Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the party’s chairman, remains its uncontested leader—and a polarizing figure in Poland. Kaczynski, who co-founded PiS in 2001 with his twin brother, Lech, is credited with holding the party together. That includes after Lech, who was elected president in 2005, died in a plane crash in Smolensk, Russia in 2010.
Although Kaczynski served as prime minister from 2006 to 2007 during PiS’ short first stint in power, he has chosen to govern from behind the scenes since the party’s sweeping electoral victory in 2015. On paper, he has no government function, beyond being a member of parliament and PiS party leader. For all his influence, Kaczynski is today one of Poland’s least trusted politicians; in one recent poll, 39 percent of respondents said they distrusted him.
Aware of his divisive image, Kaczynski has made sure to tap milder figures to lead the government. When PiS came to power in 2015, he made Beata Szydlo, the party’s deputy leader, prime minister. A coal-miner’s daughter in her 50s, Szydlo became the face of PiS’ generous welfare policies, which were introduced by her government. Then, when Kaczynski decided the moment was right, he replaced her in December 2017 with Morawiecki, then the finance minister and deputy prime minister—perhaps to give the government a fresh face that could potentially court moderate urban voters. Szydlo was allowed to stay on in the Cabinet, where she continued to be the mouthpiece for PiS’ economic policies until she was elected to the European Parliament this year.
The 51-year-old Morawiecki makes for a striking contrast to Kaczynski. With his smooth manner, fluent English and background as a banker, Morawiecki has a relatively unusual profile for PiS, which he didn’t even join until the spring of 2016. Yet he embodies a tension between his worldly image, which has him courting other bankers in London, and his role in the nationalist government in Warsaw.
copies of an agreement they signed in Warsaw, Poland, Sept. 2, 2019 (AP photo by Czarek Sokolowski).
On multiple occasions, for instance, Morawiecki has personally defended PiS’ overhaul of the judiciary. These reforms began with the Constitutional Tribunal shortly after PiS came to power. The PiS-led government appointed five new judges to the court, which reviews the constitutionality of laws, and claimed the sitting judges chosen by the previous government under the centrist Civic Platform party were illegitimate. It then passed a law severely curtailing the tribunal’s powers.
PiS later passed a law lowering the retirement age for judges on the Supreme Court from 70 to 65, which forced more than two dozen judges—a third of the entire court—to step down. Under pressure from the EU, PiS last fall reversed that controversial provision on judges’ retirement age. Speaking to an audience at New York University in April, Morawiecki compared the sweeping restructuring of the Polish judiciary “to the French one in the post-Vichy France,” referring to the postwar French effort to weed out anyone who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.
This unusual arrangement, in which Kaczynski runs the show from behind the scenes while figures like Morawiecki publicly defend the party’s illiberal policies, helps explain the PiS government’s ability to not only weather the criticism it has faced from Brussels, but also to emerge unscathed domestically. Kaczynski is not directly accountable for the government’s actions, and if the government needs a facelift, he can replace the prime minister with a different figure, as he did in 2017. Could that dynamic change after the Polish elections in October? Jaroslaw Gowin, a deputy prime minister, recently suggested that Kaczynski himself could become prime minister after the vote this fall.
For all its political advantages, Kaczynski’s informal hold on power also presents a danger for PiS itself, over the question of succession. As party chairman, Kaczynski has no obvious successor. According to a poll conducted in May 2018, there is no consensus as to who could potentially replace him. Just 14.4 percent of respondents named Morawiecki, followed by other senior figures in PiS. Most people—42.8 percent—responded “hard to say.” These results reflect the unique role that Kaczynski plays within the party. He has held PiS together for almost two decades. It is unclear whether Morawiecki, or anyone else, could manage to do the same.
So when the day comes, Kaczynski’s departure from politics could ultimately mean the party’s demise, exposing it to a potential split between more moderate conservatives and church-backed hard-liners, for instance. Speculation about the party’s future mounted last summer when Kaczynski temporarily vanished from politics, ostensibly to undergo knee surgery.
Family and Nation
Despite slip-ups and minor scandals along the way, PiS has maintained its lead in the polls, partly because of its social programs. The 500 Plus program introduced in April 2016—which provides a 500 zloty, or $150, monthly payment to all families with more than two children, and to low-income families with any number of children—was expanded this summer. It now applies to all families with any number of children, regardless of income. PiS’ other social programs include a one-off bonus pension payment to retirees. And a new law that will exempt most workers under the age of 26 from paying income tax goes into effect this fall.
Alongside its popular welfare policies, PiS has sought other ways to mobilize voters, responding to events in Poland and abroad. Its 2015 electoral win coincided with the height of the refugee crisis in Europe. In the run-up to the vote, PiS politicians effectively stoked fear of migrants and asylum-seekers from North Africa and the Middle East, presenting them as a threat to national security, often in baldly xenophobic and racist terms. At a pre-election rally in October 2015, Kaczynski even alleged that migrants carry “parasites and protozoa.” PiS presented itself as the only party capable of protecting Poland from an influx of Muslim immigrants, a message that resonated among part of the electorate.
Anti-immigrant and homophobic rhetoric taps into the broader nationalist and traditionalist sentiment that PiS represents, which shapes the rest of its ideological project.
Four years on, PiS is using a new target to mobilize voters: the LGBT community. This past March, Warsaw’s liberal mayor signed the “LGBT+ Declaration,” which proclaimed the city’s acceptance of the LGBT community and pledged to establish shelters for LGBT teens rejected by their families, as well as anti-discrimination and sex education at schools, among other provisions. PiS presented the initiative as an attack on the family, a claim its traditional ally, the Catholic church, supported. In a statement published in March, the Polish Bishops’ Conference called non-heterosexual partnerships “completely alien to European civilization.”
PiS has successfully exploited a mistrust of the LGBT community among certain voters, especially within its core electorate outside Warsaw and other big cities. In Poland, opponents of same-sex marriage outnumber supporters, according to polls, though more than half of Poles do support civil partnerships. At the same time, according to many polls, including one most recently in July, over three-quarters of respondents oppose adoption by LGBT couples. PiS’ defense of the heterosexual family unit complements its social programs that help families in material terms.
As the Polish elections in October approaches, anti-LGBT sentiment on the Polish far right has intensified. In the lead-up to Pride month, Gazeta Polska, a pro-PiS weekly, distributed stickers with the words “LGBT-free zone” printed on them, while some local PiS leaders declared their municipalities “LGBT free.” A Pride march in the eastern city of Bialystok was violently attacked by far-right groups, who threw flash bombs, rocks and glass bottles at participants. Some PiS politicians responded to the violence by suggesting that further Pride marches should be canceled.
in the central city of Plock, Poland, Aug. 10, 2019 (AP photo by Czarek Sokolowski).
“These types of marches caused by environments trying to force non-standard sexual behaviors arouse enormous resistance,” Dariusz Piontkowski, the minister of education, said in an interview with the Polish news channel TVN24, after the violence in Bialystok. “Therefore, it is worth considering whether in the future such events should be organized.”
This anti-immigrant and homophobic rhetoric taps into the broader nationalist and traditionalist sentiment that PiS represents, which shapes the rest of its ideological project. Last year, PiS politicians reformed a law that would it make a crime to suggest any kind of Polish complicity with Nazis during World War II. In doing so, PiS was able to frame itself as the one party that would protect Poland’s reputation and legacy.
The Opposition Divided
In the struggle to govern Poland, PiS’ main challenger is the centrist Civic Platform party, known as PO in its Polish acronym. Co-founded in 2001 by Donald Tusk, the current president of the European Council, PO led the Polish government from 2007 until 2015. Although the two parties broadly agree on certain issues, such as EU and NATO membership, they differ sharply on economic policy as well as their style of politics. While PiS wants Poland in the EU, it wants an EU on its own terms, with more power for member states rather than for supranational institutions that it sees as unaccountable. While in power, PO adopted a liberal approach to the economy as well as a mild, pragmatic approach to politics. PO’s focus on gradually improving Poles’ living standards through continued economic growth—what Tusk called “warm water in the tap”—contrasts with PiS’ more ideologically driven politics.
With the fall elections approaching, the PiS-PO rivalry continues to define Polish politics. Despite various changes over the past four years, PO has managed to remain the leading party in the anti-PiS opposition. In the European Parliament elections in May, PO led a broad anti-PiS alliance, known as the European Coalition, which comprised the rural agrarian Polish People’s Party, PO’s junior coalition partner in government between 2007 and 2014; and the center-left Democratic Left Alliance, along with other smaller parties. Despite this joint effort, the PiS still managed to win. Although the results were relatively close, liberal observers still deemed the European Coalition’s result disappointing.
PO’s strong pro-European credentials generally give it something of an advantage over PiS in the Polish elections for the European Parliament, given PiS’ strained relationship with the EU and the voter base outside Poland’s major cities. That made PiS’ electoral win in May even more symbolically significant.
After the European Coalition defeat, several weeks of soul-searching ensued, as opposition parties considered whether they should run again in a coalition or on their own. Their dilemma reflected tensions within the anti-PiS opposition, including on matters such as LGBT rights, which have been at the forefront of the political debate in recent months. Ultimately, the Polish People’s Party decided to run separately from PO to appeal directly to rural, more conservative voters, a constituency that it competes for with PiS. This means that the opposition will run against PiS in three main blocs: a PO-led centrist one; a much smaller, more rural-focused one led by the Polish People’s Party; and a third bloc made up of left-wing parties.
PiS’ endurance challenges the idea of 1989 as “the end of history” in Central and Eastern Europe.
On the opposite side of the political spectrum, PiS has faced some pressure from extreme far-right groups, but not enough to threaten its position. In the European Parliament elections, far-right groups and leaders ran together as an anti-immigration and euroskeptic alliance called the Confederation. Among other things, it strongly opposes the payment of restitution for Jewish property seized during or after World War II. The Confederation failed to gain mass appeal, though, finishing with less than 5 percent of the vote in the European elections, below the threshold for a seat in the European Parliament. The result suggests that it is unlikely to be a major force in the elections this fall, though its existence still represents a troubling stream in Polish politics.
What to Expect
Barring a major surprise, it appears likely that PiS can count on reelection. In scheduling the election for Oct. 13, Andrzej Duda, the PiS-allied president, chose the earliest date possible, which suggests that PiS wants to keep the electoral campaign short, giving the opposition less time to mount an offensive.
From its relatively comfortable position, PiS will likely emphasize the popular, less controversial aspects of its four years in power, such as its recently expanded 500 Plus program and other social welfare benefits. At the same time, it will continue to present itself as the only party capable of protecting Poles from purported threats, whether that means Middle Eastern refugees or LGBT people.
If PiS does win again, it will have longer-term implications, and not only in Poland. Domestically, it will mean that the party has found a successful formula for staying in power, blending nationalist and traditionalist elements with generous welfare policies—as long as it has the money to fund them. Kaczynski will continue to steer politics, most likely from the party’s headquarters in Warsaw. Within Europe, the PiS government will no doubt continue to challenge Brussels on matters such as judicial independence. This ongoing dispute, which has been dragging on for several years now, exposes the EU’s limited ability to protect the rule of law in its member states. From a broader democratic perspective, PiS’ endurance further challenges the idea of 1989 as “the end of history” in Central and Eastern Europe, forcing political scientists and practitioners to update their paradigms to understand the current situation.
But PiS is not infallible. It will keep facing internal tensions, between its political and economic agenda, and among its most hard-line members and more moderate conservatives. Whenever Kaczynski is no longer party chairman, a potential leadership contest over succession looms. How the party handles these challenges will determine its ability to continue winning over voters, with lasting consequences in Poland and beyond.
Annabelle Chapman is a Warsaw-based journalist. Her articles have been published in The Economist, Politico Europe, Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, Foreign Policy, Quartz, Monocle and the Financial Times, among other publications. She holds a doctorate on communist-era Poland from the University of Oxford.
[ SPECIAL OFFER: Get your FREE copy of our in-depth report on the U.S.-China Rivalry in the Trump Era. ]