Tomorrow (Sunday, October 21), Poles will go the polls for local and regional elections.These are not typically viewed as high-stakes events, and turnout is usually low. This year, however, is different. Since the Law and Justice Party [Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS] came to power in 2015, they haven’t faced an electoral test, so this is the first opportunity that opposition parties have to demonstrate that PiS can be defeated.
For three years, the march of Jarosław Kaczyński to absolute power has seemed unstoppable. They have ignored mass protest demonstrations and flaunted both the Polish constitution and EU directives, seemingly with impunity. Survey data show that they remain a minority party, with support fluctuating between the high 30s and low 40s, but no other party can rival them. The left is as fragmented as always, though the center-right has created a coalition this election that will unite the two main opposition parties, Civic Platform [Platforma Obywatelska, or PO] and Modernity [Nowoczesna]. Some prominent figures on the left have also joined this coalition, in the belief that the only meaningful political battle now is between those who believe in pluralist democracy and the rule of law, and those who do not. Others are charting a separate course, unwilling to cooperate with what they consider a discredited center-right in a battle with an (equally discredited) extreme right.
Conventional political prognostication is relatively easy at this moment, at least in broad outlines. PiS will remain the largest single political party if all the votes cast in tomorrow’s elections are aggregated, but this does not mean that they will govern throughout the country. Since their votes are concentrated in a few regions, they will rack up enormous victories in some places while losing in others. It is extremely unlikely that they will win in any of Poland’s cities. Their mayoral candidates might advance to the second round, but among urban voters there is a low ceiling for PiS support that will make it almost impossible for them to win. They will probably gain control of a few more regional [województwo] assemblies than they currently have, but that’s an easy bar to clear since they only control one (out of 16) at the moment. I won’t be surprised if they end up with a majority in three or four województwa.
None of that gets us to the most important question: will these elections be a familiar battle for popular support, or will they mark a new stage in Poland’s descent into authoritarianism? Up until now, despite the government’s flagrant violation of the constitution and their open defiance of EU standards (particularly regarding judicial independence), opposition parties have been behaving as if they were engaged in a conventional political struggle, with victory or defeat determined by popular support. Most assume that PiS will be overthrown through the ballot box, and that continued party pluralism (particularly on the local level) will save Poland from the absolutism seen in Hungary, Turkey, or Russia. In this vision of the future, the key issue will be the ability of the opposition to sustain a united front, because despite PiS’s strong support, Mr. Kaczyński has only one potential coalition partner (a small, fragmented, ideologically incoherent party created by the rock star Paweł Kukiz). No other group would even consider cooperating with PiS, and if the other major parties can consolidate their votes, it is quite possible that Poland’s authoritarian slide will end after the national parliamentary elections scheduled for 2019. Nothing is certain, but PiS is a long way from the sort of overwhelming popular support enjoyed by strongmen like Hungary’s Viktor Orban.
Two signals this week confirm that comparative weakness. First, yesterday the government announced that it would honor the EU court ruling blocking the ongoing purge of the country’s judiciary. This is a dramatic change of tone regarding directives from Brussels, and it is probably aimed at soothing fears that PiS will take Poland out of the EU. A Polish party concerned at all with popular support has to be in favor of the EU, at least rhetorically, because Poles remain the most pro-European people in the Union.
The second, seemingly contradictory sign of electoral weakness came in the advertising of the last week of campaigning. PiS usually tries to put on a more moderate face during election campaigns, and the party’s most controversial figures (including most of leadership) tend to be hidden away. The assumption has always been that the party’s base will turn out regardless, because they understand that the radical core of xenophobia and authoritarianism will continue to guide PiS policies regardless of what is said during an election campaign. Yet this past week we have seen a shift in the tone of PiS ads, characterized by naked fear-mongering, conspiracy theories, and anti-immigrant paranoia. These ads only make sense if the party leadership has reason to fear that their core electorate is having second thoughts.
All this points to a relatively normal (if we can still use that word) campaign season. I understand why the opposition continues to behave as if the basic rules of electoral politics will hold. At the same time, we have to wonder why Mr. Kaczyński went to such great lengths to seize control of the judiciary, even though doing so turned Poland into a pariah within the EU and deepened the partisan divide in Poland into an impassable canyon of calumny and mistrust. He has said openly that control of the courts is not an end to itself, but a necessary first step to ensure that his broader program to transform Poland will succeed. He doesn’t want the niceties of legality to block his ambitions. The most obvious point where the rule of law might stop him would be an electoral defeat.
This is the real reason why tomorrow’s elections are so important. Poland still has a relatively good infrastructure of survey firms with high professional standards, so while the predictions I made above are far from guaranteed (particularly regarding the sporadically surveyed mayoral races in smaller cities), they aren’t likely to be wildly off. We all learned a basic (but easily forgotten) math lesson in November of 2016: when pollsters say that a particular candidate has a 66% chance of victory, the other candidate can be expected to win one out of three times. So there will be no reason to panic if PiS ends up controlling five or size województwa rather than three or four, or if they win a couple mid-sized cities in upset victories. But if we end up with PiS mayors in Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk, Poznań, or Wrocław, or if the ruling party ends up controlling a majority of the country’s regional assemblies, then we should be extremely skeptical. If that happens, there will almost certainly be charges of some sort of chicanery, but those accusations would be adjudicated in the very courts that PiS now controls. The temporary setback that paused the purges this week comes too late for this purpose: while the government doesn’t yet control all the judges, they have enough to ensure that no charges of election manipulation will be upheld.
If this happens, Poland will have taken the most dangerous turn yet. All the earlier debates about framing a strong message for the opposition, or about uniting the disparate supporters of constitutional democracy, will be pointless, because the nature of the battle will have changed. If the ballot box can’t be trusted as a means of changing the country’s leadership, then only extra-parliamentary methods remain. I think everyone is counting on the belief that it won’t come to such a dire point, that Kaczyński will not start arresting opponents, rigging elections, and banning opposition demonstrations altogether. But unfortunately, everything he has done so far has placed him in a position where such an extreme path is entirely open to him. Right now, our only real hope is that he will decide that Poland should continue to hold legitimate elections, even if the results fall short of his ultimate ambitions, and even if they threaten to remove him from power. If he decides otherwise, nothing is left to stop him.