In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Andrzej Bobiński, the Managing Director of Polityka Insight. They talk about the biggest street protest in the history of Poland, what factors shape the parliamentary campaign in Poland, and what will be the outcome of the forthcoming elections.
Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): So, why did 300,000 Poles manifest on June 4, 2023, on the streets of Warsaw?
Andrzej Bobiński (AB): There are two reasons why this happened – a political and electoral one on the one hand, and a civic and civilizational one on the other hand. In terms of the latter, it was an anti-governmental march organized to show that for the last eight years people have been unhappy with what has been going on in Poland. This attitude was fueled by the event of a week before the demonstration and the signing of the document allowing for the creation of a commission for investigating Russian influence – which is undemocratic and unconstitutional. July 4 was, therefore, an occasion for many people to express their discontent in which Poland is headed.
On the other hand, the demonstration marked the actual start of the electoral campaign of the biggest anti-governmental opposition party – the Civic Platform (PO). The march was intended to give hope and mobilize its electorate, and to show that the opposition can win in Poland. Moreover, it was also supposed to scare the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and serve as a show of strength.
LJ: What are the scenarios for the upcoming elections in Poland? Will this demonstration influence the outcome?
AB: At this point, it would be a mistake to try to indicate the winners and the losers because there are still a lot of things that will happen in this campaign. We are seeing a sinusoid of emotions, support, and hope on both sides. June has been a very good month for the opposition, so there might be some euphoria – especially after the march, there is a feeling of a potential success and a sense that the opposition might win the elections. This is a sentiment that is very important for the opposition, and it is very much needed as it helps the opposition and raises its chances of winning.
However, having said that, if the march is not followed by a spike in the polls of at least 3 percentage point increase in terms of the support for the Civic Platform, which would need to be taken away from other opposition actors, then a certain feeling of deflation might appear.
In light of these events, the chances of the opposition are growing, but there is still a lot of time and events ahead of us. This is why we may see many ups and downs in the attempt to figure out who is going to win in the end. We should know more in early September, after the summer holidays, once the cards will be dealt and we will see who is going to run, what the polls show, and how the campaigns are faring.
LJ: Does the fact that the Polish opposition is not united indicate that we may still see some reconfiguration after the campaign begins? Is one list feasible? And is it beneficial for the opposition parties to run the campaign together?
AB: I do not know whether this is going to happen. Donald Tusk, the leader of the Civic Platform, will be likely monitoring the polls over the next weeks. If he sees the spike in support for his party and a chance of overtaking Law and Justice, then he will do everything in his power and use all means available to try to unite the opposition and attempt to form one electoral list. If this does not happen as quickly as they want or not at all, then they might need a sit-down and try to figure out what the next steps should be – then, might need two or three lists to pull in as many voters with different world views, backgrounds, and expectations as possible.
There is a sense of Donald Tusk and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the ruling party, are both playing for the strongest possible polarization of the Polish society. I can imagine a situation in Poland where the pendulum will swing toward the opposition. I do not know if this is going to happen, but it feels as if it is possible. Therefore, the next steps for the opposition are a matter of a decision – and one to be made fairly soon.
What the opposition could do is to follow the Czech strategy and run on three separate lists or attempt a full polarization campaign. The latter, however, would require being upfront at the beginning of the race, and for the time being the Civic Platform is not doing that.
LJ: Is there a way for having the polarization game being beneficial to the opposition in the scenario with one electoral list?
AB: There is no silver bullet. You cannot sit down and simply come up with the best possible solution to the problem because what matters more than what the opposition is going to decide at this point is how the election campaign is going to play out.
Having said that, if we look at the polls, there are 50-52% of Poles who vote for opposition parties. Approximately 35% are willing to vote for the Law and Justice, whereas 10-12% for extreme far right (the Confederation party). I do not see any good reason for PiS to rise above that 35% nor for that polarization (or event an anti-Tusk referendum) to help them go beyond that threshold. The only way I can imagine for the ruling party gathering more support than they have now would be by strongly demobilizing the opposition, which might lead to a very low turnout. This might result in the Law and Justice party suddenly getting 40-42% of votes. However, I do not see that happening now.
On the one hand, given the recent polls, it feels like the opposition is leading over PiS if we look at them as a group. I can easily imagine a scenario in which Szymon Holownia’s Poland 2050 party gets 10 percentage points, the New Left has 7 percentage points, and the Civic Platform 33%. If they decide to run separately, as they might feel capable of reaching the electoral threshold, they might lose some of their voters to PO closer to the election. However, I do not think that this is going to happen, because politicians are becoming more rational the closer the election day is.
When Donald Tusk returned to the Polish political scene, he was trying to subjugate his other opposition partners. Now, with the election day approaching, he needs those votes. He has close allies in Wlodzimierz Czarzasty of the New Left, Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz of the Polish People’s Party. They will likely have a sit-down about the strategy for winning the election by the opposition. I expect them to make rational decisions.
Unless something strange happens, at the moment, the opposition still has a big advantage over PiS if they are treated as a group. If they avoid making huge mistakes in the midst of the campaign, they have a real chance of winning.
LJ: Despite extensive campaign, the support for Civic Platform is not increasing in the polls, why is that the case?
AB: The main reason is the fact that Donald Tusk has a very strong negative electorate. There are many people who do not like him. This is why for many people it is difficult to declare that they are going to vote for the Civic Platform at this point. However, the atmosphere is changing. When the election comes, regardless of the reasons they do not like Tusk, when faced with the choice between voting for Tusk or Kaczynski, they will likely vote in favor of the former.
The election campaign has only just started. Indeed, there has been a lot of activity in the Civic Platform camp (and especially from Donald Tusk), which did not necessarily translate into a success in the polls. This fact did cause a lot of stress and tension inside the party. However, PO has less money than PiS and it is only now gaining more speed. We shall see how it plays out over the next month and then we will see if they can be successful.
So far, the campaign of the Civic Platform seems fairly professional and is run pretty well. There may still be a rise in support for this party, but it remains to be seen how significant it is. There is clearly a ceiling to the support for Donald Tusk. If he decides to have a separate list, it might be very difficult road for his party to go beyond 30-35%. Still, I think that this dynamics will change.
LJ: What kinds of processes are shaping the outcome of the upcoming election?
AB: First of all, the society is tired of the people in the government. This may not necessarily be about the PiS or PO parties, but rather a general trend. Since 1989, we saw a change in the government every four years – with the exception of two terms for the Civic Platform (2007-2011 and 2011-2014). Now, the Law and Justice party has been in power for two terms, hence eight years already.
Meanwhile, Poles in general do not like the people in power because they basically feel that they are stealing and giving jobs to friends and family. This is a sentiment that – even though it is not reflected in the polls – it tends to make governments lose support.
On the other hand, when the pollster comes, it is very difficult for people to say who they are going to vote for. If you voted for PiS in the past elections, it may be hard to tell anyone that you plan on voting for the Civic Platform instead – or any party other than Law and Justice. Still, there is a feeling that the government has been in power for too long.
The second thing is the economic situation, which could work in favor of the government. The economic situation is not good – the inflation has been very high. I have spoken to people who have been conducting polls for pretty much all political parties and this aspect is being brought up by everybody. There is a strong feeling that everything is more expensive than it used to. At the end of the day, no matter what PiS did or did not do, it really does not matter because people blame the government for the current situation.
The third process that will influence the result of the election – still an important but a slightly weaker one – is a civilizational change that is now happening in Poland. It is not happening as fast as some people would wish, but this is also a question of demography – and, at some point, it will accelerate. A lot of the elderly voters are dying – COVID-19 has also changed the demography to some extent. Then, there are younger voters coming in, who have started their adult lives marching against changing the abortion laws, with huge protests that gave energy to the young Poles.
Clearly, world-view issues are now playing a very different role than they did in the previous two campaigns. This is also visible in the narrative of the Law and Justice – they are not talking about the LGBTQI+ community nor about abortion that much. The atmosphere is changing.
The Catholic Church is also a big problem in Poland, for a number of reasons. There are less christenings and close to no one is willing to become a priest anymore.
LJ: Is there a possibility that any undemocratic steps (taken by either the ruling party or the opposition) will influence the outcome of the election?
AB: If there is a big margin for one or the other party, then there will be no space for tampering with the election results. In this scenario, if it is the opposition that wins, PiS will likely not try to do anything undemocratic; if Law and Justice wins, there will probably be protests from the opposition but that will not change the outcome anyway. Still, we will probably have a conversation if the election as such will have been free and fair, but the result itself should not be strongly contested – or, at least, it will not be changed.
If the race will be a close one, that is a different story. Until recently, I thought that nothing would disrupt the process. I expected that President Andrzej Duda, who has very close relations with our American allies and listens to what the outside world is saying, is, in a way, a safeguard of the democratic process. However, the fact that he signed the state commission for investigating Russian influence into law so fast, started me thinking. This was one of the reasons why I got scared about where this is heading because I felt that in terms of being a guardian of the democratic norms, Andrzej Duda comes across as somebody who might not necessarily play the role that he should in a normal democratic process.
At this point, I would not say that this is going to happen, but my level of stress has recently been raised. Previously, I was pretty certain that everything is going to be okay, whereas now I have started wondering where this is heading.
The podcast was recorded on June 5, 2023.
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.