Colors of Polish Opposition

Kancelaria Sejmu/Krzysztof Kurek via flickr // CC 2.0

Democracy is undoubtedly a greatly fragile regime. As history has taught us, it can defend itself as long as the people and politicians will actively participate in this uninterrupted and ongoing war of freedom – although it may sound a bit overdramatic, it is not.

Democracy can, and unluckily sometimes does, implode into some form of an authoritarian regime. The tragic thing is that it might take place within its own democratic procedures framework. Furthermore, it has been happening especially in recent years.

One of such battles of liberty is taking place right now within a deeply divided nation of Poland. Since the year 2005, two major parties have dominated the political scene – liberal and moderately conservative Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) and national-conservative Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS).

For 16 years now, no other party has succeeded in any election, nor taken a second place. PiS was initially in power between 2005 and 2007, together with two other parties. The coalition collapsed in the very middle of the term, and resulted in a snap election – unexpectedly won by the Civic Platform, which remained in power until 2015.

This year, the presidential election was followed by the parliamentary just a few months later. Supported by PO, president in office Bronisław Komorowski was considered a sure winner.

Out of the blue, partly as a result of Komorowski’s poorly prepared campaign, PiS candidate Andrzej Duda won the second round and became the new President of the Republic. Soon, his party gathered steam right before the parliamentary election, decisively won by PiS.

Subsequently, for the first time in the history of democratic Poland, the Sejm, the Senate, and the office of the President of the Republic came under exclusive control of one party representatives (actually, PiS was already part of the United Right [Zjednoczona Prawica, ZP] coalition, with two satellite parties, but it did not really matter back then). Obviously, there were reasons for such an electoral outcome.

Polish opposition was deeply divided, fighting against itself, therefore it ran separately. This was crucial, especially in a country with a voting system based on the D’Hondt method. In such case, parties with the biggest popular vote gain the biggest seats bonus, which then was mostly earned by PiS.

Moreover, after the 2015 election, a competition has occured between two liberal parties – Civic Platform and the new one – .Modern (.Nowoczesna) – founded, and initially led by an economist, Ryszard Petru. The left, however, was quarreling, unable to create any form of a common agreement.

Effect? Leftist parties gained no seats in the Parliament, as none of them reached an electoral threshold. Putting it very simply, this bizarre political conflict was going on between liberals, other liberals, leftists, and other leftists.

Meanwhile, considering highly ineffective opposition, and in full comfort, Law and Justice was turning Poland towards a Hungarian model of rule.

It is reasonable to skip the whole story of their first term, as it would call for an elaborate explanation to properly describe the chain of events. Suffice to say, PiS seized the judiciary, entered a conflict with the EU, took direct control over public media, and made it North Korea-like aggressive-grotesque propaganda channels – especially TVP Info.

State-founded hate speech towards immigrants, and later, an LGBT+ community, is also worth mentioning. À propos, isn’t creating an artificial internal enemy, consequently producing public fear, and then gathering scared people by their leaders’ side, a method distinctive for regimes other than democratic ones?

Within the last several months some things had happened. To put it more precise, Poland, as the whole world, went through an outbreak of SARS-CoV-2. What follows next may be uneasy to comprehense, as even in Poland it still feels kind of surrealistic.

Shall I start with ridicoulous ghost election in May 2020, strange June-July election and victory of Andrzej Duda from PiS (considered unfair by the OECD due to significant engagement of TVP in favor of one candidate), rising political tensions, some corruption scandals involving most notable officials (for instance former health minister Szumowski), severe second wave of pandemic, temporary healthcare collapse, economic recession, and most massive protests seen in decades, lasting for months, triggered by embracing near total ban on abortion.

By the way, puppeted Constitutional Tribunal was the one to rule the then-valid abortion law unconstitutional.

Moreover, while protests were on the rise, the government used social unrest as a cover and stealthily nationalized regional press, where state-owned petrol giant PKN Orlen was directly engaged. Such a procedure had been successfully applied both in Russia and Hungary before.

Besides, very recently some serious efforts have been made in order to impose a new massive tax on private media. In case it would come into effect, pro-opposition and liberal TV channels, websites, and newspapers would suffer primarily. Most probably though, ZP internal conflicts will prevent such a scenario, as one of junior coalition partners already declared voting against the proposed bill. For now.

Nowadays, Polish democracy, freedom of speech, and respecting fundamental rights are under threat like never before. Opposition seems to be somewhere on the way to consolidation – it may be the very last moment to do so. If the point of no return has been already achieved, it will be discovered too late for taking any meaningful actions.

By such “meaningful actions” one can consider establishing a wide European Coalition (Koalicja Europejska, KE) for the 2019 European Parliament election. Major political forces (excluding the new leftist Spring [Wiosna] party, which refused to join) then agreed to run together, but ultimately lost anyway.

However, both opposition lists votes summed up (KE+Spring) received a share of votes nearly the same as PiS – c. 45%.

The smoke had yet to be cleared after that, while parliamentary election were about to follow within just a few months. Opposition decided to abandon the coalition for the Sejm voting. The Senate was not the case though. In Poland, 100 Senators are elected in 100 single-member constituencies. Opposition decided not to put up more than one candidate in each district, so the only real opponent would be the ZP coalition candidate.

The unofficial Senate Pact surprisingly worked out. While ZP remained in power, as it maintained its slight majority of 235 deputies out of 460 seats in the Sejm, opposition took control over the Senate, now holding 51 out of 100 seats.

What’s also vital, an earlier defeat of the KE had happened in compeletely different political environment – before the pandemic, lockdowns, its economic fallout, widespread public rage against new abortion law, and against PiS itself.

Today, the ZP coalition is in a state of decay, carrying more negative electorate than ever, the whole country found itself in crisis as well. Putting it simply, there is an excellent opportunity for pro-democratic politicians to unite, and regain power in further perspective.

First initiative of the wide political bloc, since the KE, has been made by liberal Civic Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska, KO; consisting of Civic Platform, .Modern, Polish Initiative and Greens).

In February 2021, the Coalition 276 has been announced to the public by the KO – initially not as a coalition in a formal meaning, but a common platform to cooperate for political groups of all of pro-democratic parties.

Moreover, number 276 is crucial to gain full power in Poland in the current situation. The only way to override presidential veto on bills requires at least 276 deputies in the Sejm. Main goals of the proposed coalition are restoring rule of law, cracking down on state-founded propaganda and preventing such reign in the future.

The leading ideology isn’t supposed to be leftist, centrist, or rightist. Definitely not a good place or a time to look for new conflicts here. Fundamental purpose and priority is to remove PiS from power, as nothing noteworthy can be achieved without that.

However, other opposition parties perceived the proposal as an political move against them, as they weren’t officially invited to the project before the public announcement. In spite of, most of them agreed that consolidation against PiS-ZP is essential, while the leader of the Spring, Robert Biedroń, rejected close cooperation once again, arguing that it will be more effective to run separately (his own party, Spring, is merging with SLD into the New Left).

Latest Ipsos poll says otherwise – one list would even gain bigger popular support, compared to the sum of a few single lists. More importantly, because of the largest parties bonus, a bigger number of seats would be gained by an opposition, and ultimately, PiS could be defeated in a landslide.

Ipsos poll predicted 280 seats in the Sejm for an opposition, enough to rule effectively without presidents’ approval. This was the first survey comprehensively forecasting results of the recently proposed coalition. Furthermore, it is better safe than sorry, and before drawing any conclusion, it would be more prudent to patiently await other polls.

Simultaneously, the newest political party founded by a TV personality Szymon Hołownia – Poland 2050 – is gaining momentum – both in polls and in parliament. Only very recently, 3 MPs (2 deputies and 1 senator) has left the KO and joined a new movement. It is important to consider that parties resembling P2050, following an already familiar scheme, were pumped and dumped in recent years.

By “familiar scheme” I mean overestimating their popularity by polls, adopting a similar rhetoric based on “breaking the PO-PiS duopoly”, “crushing the concrete” or “ending Polish-Polish war”.

Afterwards, dumping takes place soon after the actual parliamentary election occurs, when such a party performs worse than expected. Shortly after, polls adjust to the reality, and the party is forced to join some form of a coalition in order to reach electoral threshold and avoid dropping out of politics.

Thais was the case with the Palikot Movement (founded 2011, dropped out in 2015), Kukiz’15 (founded 2015, marginalized as a significant political force soon after due to internal conflicts) and the Spring, founded in 2019, who’s bubble popped the same year. The party underperformed in its first election, gaining only 6% of votes in the EU Parliament election.

Among those mentioned, the record high result in parliamentary voting was 10%, obtained by the Palikot Movement individually in the year 2011, while the Left (SLD+Spring+Together) received 11% in 2019, thereby re-establishing leftist presence in the Sejm.

Today, however, the most important question in Warsaw is whether democratic opposition will make its way in forming an effective bloc against the PiS for the upcoming election. Public sentiments and rising social polarization, especially after the latest Women’s Strikes against stricter abortion law, are fostering such big political changes. KO’s proposal, Coalition 276, is still at a very early stage.

Due to other parties’ limited support, it is still unknown if the project will eventually succeed and lead towards victory in the next parliamentary election scheduled for 2023. Rather no surprise here, but its date also isn’t certain in any terms, as the fate of the PiS-ZP coalition is highly unsteady due to ongoing internal frictions, following one another.

The Sejm majority itself hangs in a delicate balance too. Concluding, in Poland A. D. 2021 nothing can be considered certain anymore.

What is very likely though, democracy on the Vistula River may be facing the last chance to avoid the Budapestian scenario. Then again, maybe not. Maybe that is something better not to ascertain.

Continue exploring:

Poland 2021: What Will Emerge from the Ruins?

Media Pluralism in Central Europe Under Pressure

Mikolaj B. Zommer