Tag Archives: Elections

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All Quiet on the Eastern Front

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In Erich Maria Remarque’s famous novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, the title is intended to be ironic. The daily slaughter of WWI trench warfare was such that if “only” a few thousand people were killed on a given day, the news would report it as uneventful. As we reach the climax of a tumultuous presidential election in Poland, I have a similar feeling. For five years I’ve been writing the same story: the governing Law and Justice party (PiS) constitutes an existential threat to constitutional democracy and the rule of law, only a minority of Poles approve of what they are doing, they will likely win yet another election anyway, and the results will be catastrophic. The war of Poland against Poland continues—all quiet on the eastern front.

At first glance, the results of the first round of the presidential elections last Sunday, June 28, appeared to be a decisive victory for the incumbent, Andrzej Duda (PiS). At second glance, one can see reason for the leading opposition candidate Rafał Trzaskowski (the center-right Civic Platform, or PO), to be hopeful. At third glance, the sense of doom returns.

Duda’s victory in round one was decisive: with 43.5% of the vote, he was far ahead of the 30.5% that Trzaskowski received. If we assume that turnout in the second round is the same as the first round, then Duda needs to get another 1,262,218 votes in order to get past 50%, while Trzaskowski would have to find more than three times as many: 3,795,391. Despite that imbalance, however, Duda might face the more difficult challenge. Nearly all of the 2,693,397 votes that went to the third-place candidate, Szymon Hołownia, will go to Trzaskowski. In fact, Hołownia has already endorsed his former rival, despite having once compared the difference between the PiS and PO candidates as “between having one’s house burn down and breaking one’s arm.” The candidate of the Left, Robert Biedroń, has also urged his supporters to vote for Trzaskowski, though this would only add a meager 432,129 people to the PO candidate’s total. Most of those who identified with the Left already cast their ballots for Trzaskowski in round one, thanks to Biedroń’s lackluster and at times inept campaign. Meanwhile, none of the eliminated candidates will endorse Duda, who has a very strong base with PiS supporters but very little beyond that. If we add up all the votes of the opposition, and all those that went to Duda, then it becomes clear that the PiS government is quite far from a majority.

But then comes our third glance. Among those who voted for losing candidates in the first round, there are almost two million whose views and values are not represented by either Duda or Trzaskowski. Władysław Kosiniak-Kamisz was the candidate of the agrarian party, PSL. The 459,365 votes he received in the first round came as a crushing blow, considering that back in April it seemed plausible (albeit unlikely) that he would make it to the second round. The PSL is bitterly opposed to PiS, since both compete for the same rural voters. On the other hand, those who vote for PSL might not feel that same rivalry. They tend to be devout Catholics, and thus unlikely to support a cosmopolitan, urban figure like Trzaskowski. During the campaign, Duda has leaned heavily into his homophobic worldview, expressing views that have elicited an outspoken denunciation from around the world. In response he said that he could not be homophobic, because “in the presidential palace I am often visited by people who have a different sexual orientation than mine. That is not the slightest problem for me.” While such lines provoke derision in Warsaw, Poznań, Wrocław, and Gdańsk, his earlier claim that LGBT rights were “worse than Bolshevism” and his description of sex ed as “experimenting on children” could earn him some support from a portion of the PSL electorate.

An even bigger wild card is the fourth-place candidate, Krzysztof Bosak, who represents a new party called Konfederacja. As the name suggests, it is an alliance of several small far-far-right movements. Bosak offers a nationalist, xenophobic, antisemitic, misogynistic, and homophobic intolerance that goes beyond what even PiS would accept. They oppose PiS because they think the current government is insufficiently resolute, but Konfederacja voters would seem to be a likely source of extra votes for Duda. However, another tone within the discordant cacophony that is Konfederacja consists of radical libertarians. They look upon PiS as fundamentally unacceptable because of the generous social welfare programs that have been introduced in the past five years. As Bosak said after the first round, “Andrzej Duda uses free-market slogans, but he has signed 30 laws that have raised taxes.” To put this in American terms, Duda is akin to Steve Bannon, while Bosak is more like Rand Paul. Aside from these ideological differences, Bosak understands that if his small party is to have a future, PiS has to lose. Only if Jarosław Kaczyński is dethroned as the leader of the right will there be space for alternative right-wing parties This helps explain why pre-election surveys found that fewer than two thirds of Bosak’s voters would support Duda in round two.

If we put all these numbers together we get around 9.3 million votes for Duda…and around 9.3 million votes for Trzaskowski. Ensuring that their supporters get to the polls will be crucial for both candidates, and in this regard the well-oiled party machinery of PiS gives them a distinct advantage.  On the other hand, Poland’s worsening COVID crisis will be a major problem for a party that draws its support disproportionately among older voters. If the election were just dependent on votes of people under 30, then Trzaskowski would win by almost 5%, but if only those over 60 voted, Duda would win by almost 30%.  If those with just an elementary school education picked the winner, then Duda would get over 70%, but if just those with higher education voted, his total would fall to 26%.  If we assume that those with more education are more likely to participate in the election, then Trzaskowski will have an advantage. It’s going to come down to a very small number of votes, one way or the other.


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Legitimacy

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Well, that didn’t last long.

A few days ago I expressed some cautious hope that PiS might, in fact, be defeated in the upcoming parliamentary elections, and that Poland could begin the difficult process of rebuilding democratic norms. I remain convinced that this possibility is very real, thought I admit that it is going to be very close.

But all that might be irrelevant. Jarosław Kaczyński and the various puppets he uses to rule the country are undoubtedly aware that if they lose power, they face a realistic risk of prosecution for all the illegal maneuvers they carried out since 2015. They must also recognize that they have transformed the Polish landscape by politicizing so many things that were previously rarely contested: the memory of WWII, the role of the Catholic Church in Polish life, the authority of local self-government, conservative access to the media, and more. The Church will never again be able to claim that it is above politics, and it will never again be able to expect support from any government not led by PiS. Discussions of historical patriotism will henceforth be forever tainted by association with PiS, and it will be a challenge to de-politicize a whole range of historical commemorations. The reactionary cultural politics of PiS may have played well in the countryside, but the urban youth are far less likely to genuflect before the patriotic platitudes that were taken as unpolitical and unnoteworthy even five years ago. And the media supporters of PiS who worked for propaganda outlets like TVP are going to have a very hard time holding onto their jobs in a post-PiS Poland.

By basing so many cultural touchstones—not to mention their own personal fate—on their continued political control, PiS has elevated the stakes of electoral life. This helps explain what happened a few days ago.

In the middle of the night on July 17-18 PiS pushed through the parliament a seemingly technical piece of legislation designating which specific court will be responsible for declaring the fall elections valid or invalid. Any bill passed at 2:00 a.m. without prior hearings or debate should always raise suspicions. Without going into the details, the bottom line is that the authority for deciding any accusations of electoral irregularity is now in the hands of a “judicial” body that is 100% under the control of PiS.

One member of the opposition, Jerzy Meysztowicz, who managed to be present during the parliamentary fiasco, summed it up perfectly: “If you win the elections, then the elections will be fine. If you lose the elections you will say that they were falsified…. And who will decide? The Bureau for Emergency Control and Public Affairs, the members of which you’ll nominate yourselves. What a brilliant solution.”

Over the coming months we will all continue to watch the surveys and evaluate the ups and downs of this or that party, the coalition agreements of this or that grouping. As we do so, however, let’s keep one thing in mind. There is only one decision that actually matters: will Jarosław Kaczyński decide to honor the results if they don’t go his way? And will we even be able to trust the results if they do go his way? Personally, I want to believe that there are some lines that even PiS won’t cross. I want to believe that even if they’ll violate the constitution, eliminate the independence of the judiciary, turn the media into a propaganda machine, use the most vulgar fear-mongering rhetoric about minorities and migrants—that even after all this, they would still continue to participate in electoral politics with some semblance of honesty. Sure, I knew we could expect the state TV to be deployed in full force in favor of the government, but maybe that could be counterbalanced by the fact that (for now) there are still independent media firms in Poland. [Which, by the way, is the “problem” that Kaczyński has promised to place on the top of his agenda upon reelection]. I was cheered by the fact that the local elections last Fall went badly for PiS, yet were recognized as legitimate. And though the elections for the EU parliament in May went very well for PiS, no one has identified any cause to challenge the legitimacy of those results. But the parliamentary election coming up in three months is the election that counts. Now it is clear that the supporters of democracy do not merely need to worry about winning those elections; they also have to worry about whether they will be legitimate.

The irony is that last Thursday’s maneuver has challenged the faith in democracy that is the core of the anti-PiS opposition. PiS itself has always treated politics as a blood-sport in which any method is acceptable. A pro-democratic opposition that cannot trust elections is no longer able to compete on a democratic playing field, and that changes everything.


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Dark Clouds

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After last fall’s local and regional elections in Poland, the democratic opposition entered 2019 with great hopes. Despite receiving slightly fewer votes overall, the largest opposition group was able to win control of virtually every city in the country, and nearly all the larger towns as well. The EU elections today were supposed to be the next landmark on the road to repudiating Jarosław Kaczyński’s far-right, authoritarian, nationalist Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS). Those elections took place today (Sunday, May 26), and the results are not good. Although the distribution of Poland’s 52 seats in the EU parliament will not significantly impact the balance of power in Brussels, these elections give us some important signals about the Polish parliamentary elections that must be called before December, 2019. 

At the moment all we have are preliminary results based on exist polls, so everything I write here could change when the final count is announced. But based on those surveys, PiS came in first with 43.1% of the vote, with a large centrist alliance called “The European Coalition” (Koalicja Europejska, or KE), trailing at 38.4%. As disheartening as that might be, this is not the truly bad news: much more concerning are two additional aspects of today’s vote.

The first involves the fate of the smaller parties. There are three main groupings that have a chance of entering the Polish legislative body, the Sejm, next Fall: 1) a leftist party called “Spring” (Wiosna), led by a prominent LGBTQ-rights activist named Robert Biedroń; 2) an ally of PiS in the current Parliament led by a former rock star, Paweł Kukiz (named after its founder and the year it was formed: Kukiz 15); 3) a new coalition of neo-fascist, ultranationalist groups for whom even PiS is too moderate, called simply “The Confederation” (Konfederacja). At the time of this writing (after midnight, Polish time), Wiosna has 6.7%, Konfederacja has 6.2%, and Kukiz 15 has 3.8%. If the vote next Fall were to replicate today’s, the next Sejm would look as follows:

  • PiS: 208 seats
  • KE: 192 seats
  • Wiosna: 31 seats
  • Konfederacja: 29 seats

Kukiz 15, along with a handful of other smaller parties, would fall below the 5% barrier needed to qualify for any parliamentary seats. The arithmetic is painfully obvious: the supporters of liberal democracy would have 223 seats, and the forces of nationalism and “illiberal democracy” would have 237. Poland would have at least four more years of authoritarian rule, but this time they would be dependent on Konfederacja to govern. This would push them even further to the right—which would be quite an accomplishment. The leaders of Konfederacja are a motley assembly of fringe politicians, which might presage an unstable coalition—the only potential upside of all this. They are united by a few core commitments to antisemitism, xenophobia, and anti-feminism.

The second concerning aspect of today’s vote involves the turnout. This was, by far, the highest turnout for an EU election in Polish history: 43%, compared to figures in the 20s for the other three elections since Polish accession. But seen from another direction, this is below the figures typically seen in parliamentary elections, which tend to get about half of the eligible population. As a general rule, the smaller the electoral sample, the better represented are wealthier, more urban, more highly educated voters. In other words, elections to the EU parliament should have been an opportunity for the liberal and leftist opposition to score a relatively easy success, compared to the parliamentary elections. The fact that they did not win today suggests that their chances in the fall are even smaller. 

Is there any silver lining in today’s results for those who hope for Poland to return to the path of liberal democracy? Perhaps. In an interview last week, Kaczyński said that PiS would “definitely” not form a coalition government with Konfederacja, because he considered that party to be pro-Russian. On the other hand, he made his statement as part of an argument against “wasting” votes on any smaller right-wing parties, based on the claim that PiS could only govern if it won an absolute majority on its own. If push comes to shove in the fall, PiS could easily remain in power as a minority government, counting on the fact that an opposition divided between KE and Wiosna on the one side, and Konfederacja on the other, could never cooperate in a vote of no confidence. On nearly every issue of substance, Kaczyński would be able to count on the support of Konfederacja, much as he can rely on Kukiz 15 in the current Sejm. 

The second (very thin) silver lining is that today’s results will frighten all those who support a return to democracy, and inspire further unification. A bit more than 1% of the vote went to a small leftist party called Razem, and maybe that dismal figure could finally convince those voters that they need to hold their noses and vote for a party that is more centrist than they would prefer. The poor results will also weaken the position of the leader of KE, Grzegorz Schetyna, and that in turn might facilitate a return to national politics of his biggest intra-party rival, current European Council President Donald Tusk. Though his political skills can easily be overstated (and often are), he is undeniably a talented tactician who has a long history of electoral success. On the other hand, the disappointing showing of the coalition might lead to its breakup, which could be catastrophic if even one of the constituent parts falls below the 5% barrier in the Fall. 

Ultimately, it’s hard to be optimistic this evening. No matter how we try to spin this, the results today are a disappointment for those who are hoping that Poles will eventually repudiate the model of “illiberal democracy” that unites PiS’s Poland with Orbán’s Hungary, Erdogan’s Turkey, Trump’s USA, and Putin’s Russia. 


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