Ok, public opinion is not irrelevant – that’s a clickbait headline. But it really is the case that public opinion is not going to be the key factor in determining the outcome of the regional and local elections that will be held in Poland in late October or early November.
Calling these “regional and local elections” is misleading. Yes, the offices up for grabs include the governors and the provincial assemblies for Poland’s 16 województwa, along with the mayors and town councils for every municipality in the country (from the smallest village to the largest cities). Parliamentary and presidential elections won’t come until 2019, and in the past those have been the elections that mattered. This time, however, the local has been nationalized. I think every politician in the country realizes by now that the results of this year’s vote will be crucial on a number of levels.
First, the democratic opposition desperately needs to demonstrate that PiS can be stopped. Since Jarosław Kaczyński took power in 2015, he has shown that he can violate Poland’s constitution with impunity and seize control of nearly every lever of power in the country. He and his lieutenants have violated both norms and laws without compunction, daring anyone to stop them. No one, neither within Poland nor in Brussels, has figured out how to do so. Since the supporters of liberal constitutional democracy believe in following legal procedures, there is little they can do when faced with an opponent who has no such compunctions. This fall we will see the first elections since 2015, and if the anti-PiS forces are defeated at the ballot box on top of everything else, it is hard to see a path forward that will restore constitutional rule and liberal democracy in Poland.
Aside from the issue of morale and symbolism, there is real power at stake. Poland is not, yet, an entirely centralized country. Independent local and regional self-government was established after the fall of communism precisely to serve as a bulwark against the sort of authoritarianism Kaczyński is trying to impose. Since the województwa and the cities have their own autonomous budgets, they have been able to blunt some of the force of the PiS takeover. This is mainly because most of them are still controlled by PiS opponents. In the last elections, PiS was only able to come out on top in five provincial assemblies (out of 16). Even there, they were short of majorities, and in four out of the five they were unable to find coalition partners. In other words, they currently control the government of only one województwa (Podkarpacie, in the southeast tip of the country). Meanwhile, the cities have never been friendly territory for PiS, and they occupy the mayor’s office in a mere 11 out of 107 municipalities (the largest being Nowy Sącz, with just under 85,000 people).
Since PiS is so weak at the local and regional level, they are almost certain to improve their situation—there’s nowhere for them to go but up. Given that all the public Polish TV and radio channels have been converted into partisan mouthpieces for the regime, and considering the relatively strong economy, they should certainly be able to gain more votes than they did in 2014. Nationally, they have hovered around 38%, precisely the percentage they won in the 2015 parliamentary elections. They haven’t lost any support, nor have they had any lasting gains. But that support is not evenly distributed. In a few województwa (according to a recent survey by IBRIS) they are more popular than they were at the time of the last local and regional elections, while in several others they have fallen. Nowhere—not even Podkarpacie—does PiS enjoy the support of a majority, and in only two provinces do they top 40%. This general picture is not likely to change between now and October. PiS will be short of a majority everywhere, so everything depends on how the remaining political parties behave.
The two large liberal parties in Poland, Civic Platform and Nowoczesna, have already established an electoral alliance for the regional and local elections. That will not be enough. The vagaries of local elections are extremely complex, with polling that can never be as reliable as national polling. But just playing with the numbers IBRIS has given us, this alliance will likely be able to govern in only four województwa. Meanwhile, PiS should be able to govern in 10, assuming they can build coalitions with a smaller right-wing party. The two remaining provinces are too close to call.
But here’s the real news: if the PO/Nowoczesna alliance were expanded to include the agrarian party (Polskie Partia Ludowa, or PSL) and the social democrats (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, or SLD), such a coalition would form a government in 15 out of 16 województwa.
Averaging across the country, the aforementioned IBRIS survey shows PiS at 34%, PO/N at 26%, SDL at 10%, and PSL at 12%. This should not be surprising. It roughly reflects the balance of forces that has existed for the past several years. Unlike Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary, Kaczyński’s PiS does not have, and is unlikely to ever have, the support of the majority of Poles. On the other hand, neither are they likely to ever fall much below a third of the electorate. So the choice for everyone else is stark: will they set aside their (very real and substantive) differences in order to defend democracy, establishing a wall of isolation around PiS? Or will they stick to the old norms of politics and maneuver to maximize their own party’s position? Neither SLD nor PSL are likely to overtake the liberal PO/Nowoczesna coalition, but the latter alliance on its own cannot defeat PiS. Everything depends on how the politicians deal with this reality—because they aren’t going to substantially change it.
In 2015, PiS did not win because they convinced a majority of the electorate to support their vision for anti-liberal authoritarianism and nationalism. They conducted an overtly misleading moderate campaign, and even then they only got 38% of the vote. Their majority rests on the electoral rules that eliminates all parties earning fewer than 5%, then distributing their votes among the large parties. This transformed that 38% into 51% of the parliamentary delegates. The gap between overall voter preference and the actual results was cavernous.
The same thing could easily happen again this Fall. If the smaller parties strive to go it alone, the electoral system will swallow them up and PiS might end up winning in most of the województwa. Even if those parties don’t end up below the 5% mark, they may or may not agree to an anti-PiS coalition. But if they do, they’ll govern in 15/16 provinces. Either of the maps below is possible under exactly the same distribution of the popular vote.
In other words, Poland’s fate is only partially in the hands of the voters. Much more depends on the political choices—and compromises—that the politicians offer them.