After close to a decade in power, Poland’s elections on Oct 15 are shaping up to be a critical test for the ruling right-wing, nationalist Law and Justice Party. Under Law and Justice, Poland has become a nation of paradoxes: Euroskeptic and combative with Brussels as it engages in rule of law debates, while simultaneously demonstrating a commitment to European strategic autonomy and burden-sharing within the NATO alliance. Law and Justice can be nationalist to its core when its political survival is at stake, advocating for rural voters losing income to Ukrainian grain and calling Ukraine’s fight for survival like a ‘drowning person’ pulling its rescuers, including Poland, underwater. Yet the party can also be unabashedly internationalist in its praise for the role the United States has played in the defense of Europe since World War II, as President Andrzej Duda noted in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
Given Law and Justice is unlikely to win an outright majority in next month’s vote, it may be forced into a coalition government with the far-right Confederation Party. Since 2019, Law and Justice’s support has dropped from 43.6% to 38% as of early September, and the Confederation Party is currently polling at 11%. Voters are naturally starting to explore alternate options despite Law and Justice still retaining a considerable base of support. In order to win an outright majority and gain even more votes, Law and Justice is targeting its rhetoric to Confederation Party supporters who are on average more nationalist and more critical of aid for Ukraine. The opposition pro-EU Civic Coalition led by former Prime Minister and European Council President Donald Tusk has accused Law and Justice of ‘stabbing Ukraine in the back politically’ in order to gain votes, framing it as part of a pattern of anti-democratic tendencies. Tusk and his Civic Coalition is fond of saying Polish democracy is at stake in the upcoming election, framing it as a civilizational and ideological struggle for the future of Poland. While they are not entirely wrong, the reality is far more nuanced. Polish democracy has not been weakened nearly as severely as it has been in Hungary under Viktor Orban or even Slovakia under the prior government of Robert Fico, at risk of returning in elections later this month.
Civic Coalition will continue to focus its campaign on issues of corruption and government competency, including ensuring that funds frozen by Brussels in relation to rule of law disputes are released. The recent ‘cash for visas’ scandal is also a prime example of how the Civic Coalition can work to reclaim the moral high ground and speak to the importance of restoring cordial relations with Berlin. Tapping into German resentment may be appealing at times for older, rural voters who make up a core constituency for Law and Justice. It is much less appealing for Poland’s youth who have grown up during a time of unfettered opportunities to live, study, and travel across the border, building meaningful connections that symbolize the unifying power of the European project.
Law and Justice is fond of portraying Germany as a threat to Polish sovereignty, including on domestic policy matters such as the referendum to raise the retirement age, also on the ballot in October. The issue of German war reparations is also something Law and Justice repeatedly evokes during elections, confirming that its agenda remains grievance-based and historically minded to the detriment of building new coalitions of support. Any coalition that welcomes opposition to traditional Polish values, in the eyes of Law and Justice, must therefore be in support of liberal, cosmopolitan values that will inherently clash with Poland’s national interest.
While undoubtedly Euroskeptic, Law and Justice is less antagonistic and obstructionist than Hungary in its defense of European values, which similarly to Hungary, as viewed by Law and Justice remain the promotion of a Europe that is White and Christian. Law and Justice remains committed to fighting for Europe as it is, not for a more diverse and tolerant Europe that opens its doors to asylum seekers and preaches the values of multiculturalism. Civic Coalition is determined to bring Poland back in line with the EU’s values, something Law and Justice views as increasingly antithetical to Poland’s European values that exist and thrive in perpetual opposition to Brussels. As in most EU member states, the battle between the supranational and the national is a lingering presence in Poland that will only increase as Brussels seeks to enlarge even further in the coming decade.
Law and Justice’s tilt to the hard right has resulted in domestic policies that remain exclusionary for many members of society, particularly the young and the LGBTQ community. Like most conservative parties, Law and Justice believes in order and stability, moving Poland forward while remaining rooted in the family and not succumbing to the latest liberal impulses that threaten to break from tradition. The main challenge for the next government is to ensure that all Poles move forward with it, and to not let historical grievances with states like Germany begin to fester as Poland starts to command a more dominant position in Europe’s military affairs.
As a result of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Poland is emerging as a stronger military power in Europe than Germany despite Chancellor Scholz’s declaration of Zeitenwende or a ‘turning point’ in Germany’s defence posture. A formal commitment from Berlin to annually spend 2% of its GDP on defense is unlikely to materialize, while Warsaw will spend 4% of its GDP on defense in 2023, and will continue at that same level in 2024. Like the Baltic states, Warsaw now views the 2% threshold as a floor, not a ceiling, making the states on NATO’s eastern flank some of the most security-minded and battle-ready members of the transatlantic alliance.
As voters prepare to head to the polls, it’s evident that Law and Justice has reshaped Polish politics and Poland’s position in Europe during the nearly decade-long period it has been in power. Poland’s dynamism and strength over the past decades has undoubtedly come as a result of its membership in both the EU and NATO, something Law and Justice would acknowledge despite its healthy commitment to Euroskepticism in the defense of Polish interests. History is never far from the surface in Central and Eastern Europe, and Poland, like most nations, abhors domination from external powers that are to the detriment of a distinct, local Polish identity and culture. The EU, and Germany in particular, are easy scapegoats for Poland, and not even close ally Ukraine is immune from Law and Justice’s criticism as a defining election looms.
As the EU enters the next phase of potential enlargement to Ukraine, Moldova, and several Balkan states, it would be wise to keep Poland close and to view its Euroskepticism as a healthy contribution to the European project. When the gun and drone strikes fall silent upon neighbouring Ukraine, Warsaw will continue to be one of the EU’s most prominent member states in finally bringing Kyiv formally into the European community. Poland will exist as either an irritant or an inspiration depending on one’s perspective, and despite its tendency towards acrimony, Law and Justice has shown its commitment to Europe. Poland’s opposition may have a different definition of what that commitment entails and the European values that are required to get there. Regardless of the outcome, Poland’s place in Europe is assured, and as long as a healthy dose of Euroskepticism can move Poland forward rather than fester as part of an unsavory mixture of grievances, all of Europe will benefit.
[Photo by Mikolaj Filip Formella, via Wikimedia Commons]
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Alexander Brotman is a geopolitical risk and intelligence analyst based in Washington DC. He graduated from The University of Edinburgh with an MSc in International Relations and has previously written for leading political risk publications including Foreign Brief and Global Risk Insights.