Polish Elections [PODCAST]

In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Paul Hilder, CEO of Datapraxis, Co-Founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees, and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at Change.org, Avaaz, and Oxfam, and was a candidate for the general secretary of the Labor party in the UK. They talk about the forthcoming Polish parliamentary and senate elections, polls, the ongoing campaign, voter mobilization, and the path to victory for both sides.

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): What do polls say about the forthcoming Polish elections? Who is going to win?

Paul Hilder

Paul Hilder (PH): The current situation is, honestly, quite uncertain, with the polls telling different stories. The polling average tells us that things are quite close, but that the opposition has some kind of an edge. Some of the polls – particularly those conducted by the Kantar – places the Civic Platform (the leading opposition party) very close to the ruling Law and Justice party. However, I do not take that very seriously, although the Kantar will be the one smiling on the election day if they are right. At the same time, there are government-aligned pollsters, who show quite wide arrays.

I have been doing some research in Poland over the last year or so, really trying to get under the skin of the electorate and to understand what is going on (including the people who are less interested in politics or in rural areas). It seems that the Law and Justice government is much stronger than a lot of the public polling is giving it credit for in terms of the current support and the potential reservoir of support. At the same time, the opposition is mounting much more of a serious challenge than they had at any point in the last several years – possibly, apart from the presidential race in 2020.

I do think that the race is finally in the balance. What people do within the next few days will be determinative.

LJ: Can we expect free and fair elections in Poland?

PH: The most serious observers would say that what we are going to see in Poland on October 15 is a free election (in which people will be able to cast their votes for the most part freely – with some question marks in the rural areas) but not a fair one. The reason for that is the fact that the government has rigged the playing field in a number of important respects – in terms of how the state broadcasting has become a propaganda machine, the role of state enterprises in heavily financing the government-initiated referendum (which is a device for driving up turnout on the right wing), and a number of other ways which will not make it fair.

I do think that Poland is still a democracy, but the playing field is titled.

LJ: People on the outside might think that the Polish society is really divided. What are the characteristics of the opposition voters, the ruling party voters, and those of the Confederation party?

PH: When it comes to the Law and Justice electorate, it is an electorate that is, overall, older (although not exclusively, as there are some younger people who vote for this party, particularly in the rural areas), rural, lower education, more conservative, and relatively poor. It consists of a lot of people for whom the so-called ‘500+’ child benefits are important – younger families, particularly in rural areas. Then, there are also the winners from the PiS system – the insiders – as well as the people who are ideologically on the right.

Turning to the opposition, there are three main opposition parties. There is the Civic Coalition, which was a center-right grouping, but now it is a more liberal-center party in terms of its central gravity. Its electorate is quite diverse – it tends to be more high education, urban, interested in politics, and socially increasingly liberal (which is one of the reasons why Donald Tusk has moved toward more liberal positions on issues like abortion and even the separation of the Church and the state).

Then, there is Lewica (the Left), whose electorate is very much concentrated in larger cities, with a core base described as ‘cosmopolitan liberals’, who are more intently left wing (in a way that the left parties are sometimes in Western Europe), but are socially liberal, as well as some of the post-Communist electorate in the provinces.

Finally, there is the Third Way, which is an alliance of Szymon Holownia (a former TV host and a presidential candidate) and his Poland 2050 party and the traditional Polish Peasants’ Party (PSL) in the rural areas, which has a more socially conservative base. They are going for more of a centrist positioning and more swing voters.

Moreover, there is the Confederation – the traditional, hard-right, national, conservative, and libertarian wing. They have recently relaunched themselves with two young leaders – including Slawomir Mentzen, an economist and businessman, who was a former presidential candidate. They are very big on TikTok, trying to present themselves as the champions of the economic freedom. They are also primarily anti-European, among many other aspects. They appeal primarily to young men. A lot of them live outside of the major urban centers and are people who are doing reasonably well economically, but who are pissed of for one reason or another – they are strongly anti-system.

LJ: What are the main issues covered by the election campaign?

PH: One of the questions we have been asking in our closing research (including focus groups and surveys) was about what would the worst outcome be – the reelection of the PiS government or the return of Donald Tusk as the prime minister? It is no coincidence that the central theme in the final days before the election of each of those groups is that the Coalition will be saying that we cannot let PiS come back, they are evil and need to be destroyed and rooted out, whereas Law and Justice will be saying that we need to stop Donald Tusk from coming back, that he has done terrible things before and that he will do them again (which are direct quotes from advertisements on social media from last week). Clearly, there is a very negative character to those campaigns.

In terms of what is going on in people’s minds, the cost of living is the pre-eminent issue – as in many European countries today. That is something that crosses the political spectrum for almost everybody. Next, there is health. The Polish healthcare system is really struggling, waiting lists are a huge problem in the country. For the most part, the population does not really believe that anyone has a credible offer on health. The opposition has not been able to present something that would cut through on that topic.

Social issues are strikingly salient – particularly for women voters and the undecided (among whom are many women). This covers women’s and abortion rights. Huge protests were organized around the tightening of the abortion rule in Poland that took place about three years ago. The central gravity of the country has been moving on that.

There are also issues around the war in Ukraine and security. There has been a growing dissatisfaction with a huge number of Ukraine refugees in Poland. This is one of the issues that the Confederation party has been trying to make hay out of. One of the reason behind the rise of this party is the challenges around the integration of Ukrainian refugees. Law and Justice have been increasingly trying to triangulate to stop Confederation from picking out voters who are pissed off with migration as well as raising the issue of migration also on other fronts (talking about the border with Belarus) and the question of the European scheme on refugee resettlement – the party has, indeed, put it at the center of the referendum that is mounting on the same day as the election.

Then, there are also such issues as the widespread frustration on the opposition side and the Confederation’s voters around the perceived waste of the money that is going to governmental hand-outs – although Civic Platform and Donald Tusk seem to have decided that they are going to match the Law and Justice’s offer on that. I am not sure that this strategy is entirely correct, but we will know more after the election.

LJ: In the end, what might be the winning issue or strategy for each side in the forthcoming election?

PH: On the Law and Justice’s side, they have a very clear strategy for firming up their support and bringing the remaining dispirited or undecided voters out to vote – one aspect of this strategy is the referendum. Here, people who are uncertain to vote are more likely to move to vote in the referendum, and when they show up they will likely vote for Law and Justice as well.

President Andrzej Duda, who was running as an independent candidate, but who was very aligned with PiS, will likely give his endorsement to PiS in the final week, which will drive up turnout. Thene, there is also a high level of unfavorability in the country toward Donald Tusk, who has been for all his virtues quite successfully toxified by the Law and Justice party over the last decade and more – that will be a mobilizing factor on the right.

When it comes to the opposition, I would not put too much store in the march. We did a lot of research around the earlier march this year, which did quite well, but it resonated primarily with the opposition base. The latest march showed presence and seriousness, it had good numbers, but ultimately, I do not think that it will decide things.

The real question on the opposition side is the salience of some of the social issues – in which the opposition really has an advantage on in a supermajority in the country (particularly around the topic of abortion, but also the separation of the Church from the state). The more such issues are salient in people’s minds, the more likely they are to come out and vote (and to vote for the opposition). The threat to relationship with Europe and the very practical question of the European money (which is currently blocked), which could be flowing into the Polish healthcare system and the Polish economy to build the future is something the opposition has not done enough with and should do more with in the final days before the election. The critique of the government on inflation and public services needs to end and it needs to be said that there will be an alternative.

Is there a real threat if Poland sees a Law and Justice and Confederation government? Will these two forces come together to rip apart people’s social rights and to polarize them on economics? That is going to be a scary prospect. There are people with frankly crazy views in both of these parties.

Another big question for voters is whether their votes will make a difference and whether there is any hope for bringing about a change in Poland. One of the key uncertainties lies in whether Szymon Holownia will be able to turn out some of the anti-system voters who are more progressive and will vote for the Third Way.

Finally, can the opposition make good use of its most popular politician – Rafal Trzaskowski, the former presidential candidate and the current mayor of Warsaw? Will his face be seen and voice be heard in the final days before the election? It is probably a critical question when it comes to voter turnout, because if people are seeing mainly Donald Tusk, whom many of the swing voters had already decided they do not like, then it could do more damage rather than helping the opposition.

LJ: If you were to make a bet, who would you say will win the election?

PH: I would bet on what we call in Britain a ‘hung parliament’, where no party or force has an overall majority. I think that the likeliest form of a hung parliament at this point in time is that the swing votes will be with Confederation. I do not think that between those three lists the opposition will have a majority together. That could be a highly unstable situation – Confederation could go with Law and Justice. It is less likely that they would briefly support the opposition to get rid of PiS.

Most likely, there would be a new election, in which everybody would justle for position. I would hope that the opposition could put a better foot forward in that kind of situation and that Confederation would not have momentum. These, however, are the question for the day after the Sunday election.

I could be wrong, I always like to be surprised. There is a real prospect of the opposition having a majority together. If enough people do enough good things before the election, then anything is possible.

This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.

European Liberal Forum