Migration, privatisation referenda set Poland on course for divisive election campaign

Poland will hold a parliamentary election, and a series of referenda, on October 15. Expect three months of fierce campaigning. 

It was unlikely to have been a coincidence. On August 7, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda approved government proposals that will increase a hugely popular monthly child benefit payment from 500 złoty (around 113 euros) to 800 złoty (around 181 euros). 

The increase will come into force on January 1 of next year. All families with children under 18, regardless of parental income, are eligible. According to Poland’s Family and Social Policy Minister Marlena Maląg, some seven million children will be able to claim the benefit. 

The very next day, Duda announced that Poland will hold a parliamentary election on October 15. 

In the last opinion poll to be published before the date of the election was announced, the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), together with its partners, was credited with support of 38 per cent, a healthy ten-point lead over the opposition Civic Coalition, headed by Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister and former president of the European Council. PiS has run Poland since 2015. 

However, PiS and its allies would need the support of a far-right party, Confederation, currently polling on 14 per cent, to secure a majority. Such support is not guaranteed. Confederation’s free market platform advocates reducing social security payments, and it has criticised the staunch support that PiS has offered Ukraine. 

According to Mikołaj Bronert of the German Marshall Fund, Confederation’s reputation was tarnished at the beginning of Russia’s war on Ukraine its pro-Russian and anti-European stance, and in the polls, it hovered around the five per cent threshold that would guarantee it a minimum share of seats in the coming parliamentary term.  

“However, increasing polarisation between PiS and the opposition has created a vacuum that Confederation has succeeded in filling,” he suggests

In recent months PiS has taken a harder stance towards Ukrainian grain flooding the domestic market, which it says hurts local farmers. Poland was one of five EU countries that earlier this year blocked the transit of Ukrainian grain—cheaper than domestically-produced wheat—until a deal was reached that allowed the five states—Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria—to ban domestic sales of Ukrainian wheat, maize and oilseeds while allowing transit for onward export.  

The deal runs out on September 15, one month before the election. Confederation, which already enjoys strong support in rural areas, is likely to make the issue a key part of its electoral campaign. 

PiS, which would prefer to fight the election on its own terms, has already ensured that its core issue of migration will be a feature of the campaign by announcing a referendum on the European Union’s new migration policy for the same day as the parliamentary vote. 

Poles will be asked, “Do you support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa under the forced relocation mechanism imposed by European bureaucracy?” 

It is one of four questions that Poles will have to answer on election day. Others include whether they support an increase in the retirement age, which had been lowered to 60 for women and 65 for men, and the privatisation of state-owned enterprises. 

A redundant referendum 

In June, the EU reached a consensus on key asylum and migration laws in the bloc. The agreement means member countries would either have to take in their share of asylum seekers or pay into a joint EU fund.  

Poland, along with Hungary, have rejected the EU asylum seeker proposal. PiS opposes having to take migrants under a relocation quota system given that it is already hosting a large number of Ukrainian refugees.  Since Russia’s full-invasion of Ukraine last year, Poland has welcomed around 1.3 million refugees. 

Indeed, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson has made it clear Poland would benefit under the new deal because it is already hosting so many Ukrainian refugees.   

“In accordance with the principles of the migration pact, member states that are under migratory pressure, such as Poland, will not have to participate in relocation,” said Johansson in June. “Furthermore, they can ask other countries to apply the solidarity measures described in the migration pact to them.” 

Johansson reiterated the point last week in a formal reply to a request for clarification on the issue from Robert Biedroń, a Polish opposition MEP. 

“If an assessment were to be made today, given that Poland is hosting around one million people who fled from Ukraine, it is highly probably that Poland would be considered under pressure and thus eligible for solidarity or for a full reduction of its solidarity contributions,” she wrote. 

In other words, the question that PiS will put to Poles in October is redundant: nobody will forcefully relocate migrants to Brussels. 


The other questions that will appear on the ballot paper in October are similarly designed to shore up support for PiS by focusing on issues where the ruling party believes that opposition leader Tusk is weakest. 

It was Tusk who raised the retirement age while prime minister, although he later admitted that doing so was a mistake. Tusk has also expressed support for the privatisation of Poland’s remaining state-owned assets. Ironically, Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s current prime minister, advised Tusk’s government on privatisation during his previous career as a banker. 

Last week, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński bizarrely claimed that Tusk would sell Poland’s forests, denying Poles the right to pick mushrooms.

“We have this freedom, we go mushroom picking. A huge part of Poles goes mushroom picking … it is part of our freedom and we will not let this freedom be taken away from us,” he said.

For its part, the Civic Coalition is keen that the campaign does not become bogged down over divisive issues such as migration. It would prefer to focus on inflation—coming down but still far too high at 11.5 per cent in June, the rising cost of living, and low levels of economic growth, forecast to be just 0.7 per cent in 2023 and 2.2 per cent in 2024. 

Deputy Speaker of the Polish Parliament Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, a leading member of Civic Coalition, said on August 11 that the election was not about single issues but about “everything”. 

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