Poland’s uncertain election could end with an outcome that pleases nobody

There is no guarantee that Poland’s parliamentary election will result in a working coalition. At a time when the economy needs political stability more than ever, the prospect of a second election pleases nobody. But it is an outcome that looks a real possibility.

It would be an understatement to suggest that for Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), the campaign ahead of a crucial parliamentary election on October 15 has not gone according to plan. 

When scheduling a series of referenda for election day, focusing on its erstwhile core topics of migration, the European Union and pensions, PiS had hoped to frame the election as a clear choice between preserving Poland’s current social contract—generous welfare payments combined with conservative values, underwritten by a solid economy—and a return to what it likes to portray as the chaos that preceded its election victory in 2015. 

That the tactic has failed—PiS has seen its polling lead all but wiped out over the past few weeks—owes much to a scandal surrounding the issuance of work visas for non-EU nationals. 

According to Eurostat data, Poland issued almost one million residence visas to non-EU nationals in 2021, a third of all those issued in the bloc. In 2022, it issued just over 700,000. Many of these were to people from Islamic countries, a demographic PiS has often demonised., a fact-checking organisation, says that in 2022 almost 185,000 people from Muslim-majority countries entered Poland while only 1,746 were denied entry. 

Media reports in late August meanwhile suggested that Poland’s consular sections have issued some 350,000 visas to migrants from Asia and Africa in ways that “may raise suspicions”.  

Asians and Africans have claimed that they even are given instructions to speed up the process, with work visas issued in as little as six hours. Videos published on YouTube allegedly showed would-be migrants, or agents, opening envelopes containing pre-stamped and approved Polish visa applications that merely need to be completed with the applicant’s details.  

The country’s former deputy foreign minister, Piotr Wawrzyk, who was sacked on August 31, the same day that Poland’s Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA) carried out a search of the foreign ministry, is accused by the opposition of playing a central role in the visa scheme, implicating the PiS government. 

The main opposition group, Civic Coalition, led by Donald Tusk (pictured above, campaigning), a former prime minister and European Council president, has played up the scandal, claiming that despite its rhetoric, PiS cannot be trusted on migration. 

In a lively, if at times farcical television debate between party leaders on October 9, Tusk directly accused the current PM, Mateusz Morawiecki, of being unable to ensure Poland’s security (PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland’s de facto ruler, refused to take part in the debate).  

As if to illustrate the point, two of Poland’s top military commanders resigned the next day. No reason was given, but Tusk lost no time in claiming that the resignations were further proof that PiS could not be trusted with national security matters. 

It’s the economy 

Despite its solid foundations, Poland’s economy has endured numerous shocks over the last year and a half as fallout from Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine—notably inflation and a mass influx of Ukrainian refugees.   

GDP fell in both the first and second quarters of 2023, 0.3 per cent year-on-year in Q1 and 0.5 per cent in Q2. 

The outlook for the Polish economy for the remainder of the year is equally gloomy: it will probably avoid recession, but only just. ING, a bank, last month downgraded its growth forecast for 2023 from an already modest one per cent to just 0.4 per cent.   

It is resilience in exports and fixed investment, and a drop in imports, that will likely stave off recession. Poland’s EU-funded National Recovery and Resilience Plan is expected to support public investment, but any further delays in disbursements represent a downside risk, warns the World Bank.  

The EU is currently withholding 36 billion euros in grants and loans in post-Covid-19 recovery funding, mainly over rule of law concerns. Tusk has promised to ensure that these funds are unfrozen “the same day we take office”. 

On August 7, one day before announcing that the parliamentary election would be held on October 15, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda approved government proposals to increase a hugely popular monthly child benefit payment, first introduced by PiS, 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.  

In another handout, all children starting fourth grade this month have been given vouchers worth 2,500 złoty to buy laptops from a list of government-approved vendors. 

Tusk has made a point of promising not to remove any of the benefits. Indeed, he has suggested that the increase in family benefits should be implemented sooner. 

In search of a coalition 

Neither PiS, polling on around 34 per cent, nor the Civic Coalition, on 31 per cent, will be able to govern alone. For PiS, the most likely coalition partner is the far-right Confederation party, which shares its conservative social values but prefers a more free-market and less dirigisme approach to economics. It is also staunchly opposed to offering more assistance to Ukraine.  

PiS has mimicked this throughout the campaign, announcing that generous support for Ukrainian refugees would end next year and banning the import of Ukrainian grain to protect Polish farmers.  

While Confederation, which commands nine per cent of the vote, has yet to commit to forming an alliance with PiS, Civic Coalition’s path to power appears equally fraught. It would need to bring together the centrist Third Way party with the Left party, each polling on around 10 per cent. 

As such, there is no guarantee that Sunday’s election will result in a working coalition. At a time when Poland’s economy needs political stability more than ever, the prospect of a second election pleases nobody. But it is an outcome that looks a distinct possibility.

Photo: Donald Tusk at a campaign rally. (Donald Tusk official Facebook page).

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