And yet in the elections of Oct. 25, the ruling coalition of the centrist Civic Platform (PO) and the agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL), in power since 2007, suffered a resounding defeat. The new government will be formed by an electoral alliance headed by the right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS), the first since 1989 to win the majority of seats in the lower chamber of parliament. PiS also won 61 of the 100 seats in the Senate. And its candidate, Andrzej Duda, won the presidency this year.
PiS is critical of Poland’s current liberal-democratic model of government and its 2010 draft of a new constitution envisions changes that would strengthen the presidency, erode checks and balances (including ability of the Constitutional Tribunal to declare laws unconstitutional), weaken independence of the judiciary and the central bank, and introduce various populist, plebiscitarian elements (e.g., president-initiated referendums that could be used to strike down legislation passed by parliament).
So does this mean that the Poles are turning away from liberal democracy?
Nonetheless, these results call for an explanation. Political science theory suggests that favorable economic conditions ought to benefit incumbents and make backsliding from democracy highly unlikely.
1) Kick out those losers and try someone new. Again.
In almost all elections since the fall of Communism (in 1993, 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2007) Polish voters have voted against incumbents. They finally brought themselves to re-elect a government in 2011 — but that seems to have made them all the more determined to boot it out in 2015.
This tendency to vote against incumbents, no matter how well or poorly they govern, has also been observed in other post-communist countries. It persists because the region’s political parties still aren’t very good at representing their constituents’ interests. Indeed, in Poland and neighboring countries, parties remain at the very bottom of rankings of institutions in which the public has confidence. This tendency also suggests that voters in this part of the world find it difficult to hold governments accountable by objectively assessing their accomplishments and failures.
2). Some Poles are thriving. Many are not.
While Poland’s overall economic health is strong, some groups and some parts of the country are suffering. Youth unemployment is twice the national average. Good jobs are scarce in small towns and rural regions, especially in eastern Poland. Many people are working under short-term contracts that carry few protections or benefits. And although Poland was the only country in the E.U. to avoid a recession after the post-2008 global crisis, that came at a cost: The government imposed austerity measures (including pay freezes for some public employees), while private businesses often imposed pay cuts while simultaneously demanding higher productivity.
That’s why, in these elections, the incumbent PO party lost support even among younger, well-educated, urban voters who pushed it to its first victory back in 2007. It’s also why PiS was able to garner so much support beyond its religious, socially conservative strongholds in small towns and rural areas of eastern Poland, winning the plurality of votes in almost all regions and demographic categories.
And it’s also why almost 9 percent of all votes (41 percent of which came from those under 30) went to a new protest party, Kukiz’15, led by a rock singer who earlier this year ran for president and came in third, winning an amazing 20.8 percent of votes.
3) Promises, promises
To respond to the widely felt hardships and anxieties, PiS ran a campaign that called for vastly expanded public spending. It promised to increase the minimum wage and the personal income tax exemption; to offer new child support payments, housing subsidies, and free prescription drugs for seniors; and to lower the retirement age from the current 67 to 65 for men and 60 for women.
In so doing — positioning itself as a culturally rightist but economically leftist party — PiS was able to attract voters who in the past may well have voted for the left. In this election the United Left (the latest incarnation of the former communists and assorted allies), failed to win any seats in parliament.
PiS backed its economic promises by a radical critique of the status quo: Rather than simply poking a few holes in the positive economic statistics, it went with the hyperbolic message of “Poland in ruins,” through which it achieved its main goal of demobilizing the ruling parties’ supporters, leading many of them to stay home on election day.
4) Fear the strangers at the border
PiS also exploited the European migrant crisis. While the government dithered, PiS argued adamantly against the EU proposal for a quota system that would deliver a certain percentage of migrants to each country. PiS stoked fears that the refugees and migrants would threaten Poland’s national security, religious and cultural identity, economic well-being and even public health.
After World War II, the Holocaust and post-war border changes, Poland became one of Europe’s most ethnically and religiously homogeneous countries (87.5 percent of Poles identify themselves as Roman Catholic), which has meant that it has not had to confront the challenges of multiculturalism — although it did receive nearly 100,000 war refugees from Chechnya and, more recently, nearly half a million economic migrants from Ukraine with hardly anyone noticing.
But the refugee crisis has dominated the news for much of the summer. It’s true that the refugees have been visible only on television; they have not actually been coming into Poland. Nevertheless, conditions were ripe for xenophobic appeals.
5) Muddling the message
The incumbents ran a lackluster campaign that lacked a coherent message. The PO was started back in 2001 to appeal to the newly-emerging middle class. By 2015, the party has become a broadly centrist “party of power” worn out by eight years in government. Its longtime leader, Donald Tusk, left for a top job in Brussels, leaving it weakened.
It has been further weakened by a steady trickle of secret recordings of senior politicians dining at pricy restaurants, which — while falling short of revealing actual criminality — had a damaging undertone of sleaze and arrogance.
Last but not least, the PO was not able to articulate effectively what it stood for and what it would do if reelected — except by promising to continue with necessary but mundane infrastructure improvements: building more roads and so forth.
In the end, on election day many PO supporters stayed home and others — especially those in upper education and income brackets — opted for a new, more clearly market-liberal oriented party called Nowoczesna (“Modern”), which won 7.6 percent of votes. According to exit polls, a huge 71 percent of Nowoczesna’s support came from those who had voted for PO in 2011.
So what do these elections mean for democracy in Poland? Political science has long held that rising prosperity would inoculate countries against the risk of authoritarian backsliding. But in its draft constitution and various other pronouncements PiS has made it clear that its ambition is to transform Poland’s political institutions in ways similar in their illiberal spirit to those seen recently in Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Although PiS did not get the 2/3 parliamentary majority required for it to make constitutional changes, it has won majorities in both chambers of parliament. With the presidency also in hand, PiS may be able to put many of its proposals into effect through a combination of ordinary legislation and determined political practice. A version of the Hungarian scenario is therefore possible.
Going by the results of these elections, we cannot yet tell whether Poland is experiencing illiberal backlash. At this point we can only suggest that Polish voters are reexamining the two fundamental democratic values: freedom and equality. Since the fall of Communism a quarter-century ago, the Poles have enjoyed an unprecedented expansion of liberties, not only of the political kind but also in social mores and lifestyles. Indeed, for the more traditionally inclined, the pace of cultural change has become threatening.
At the same time the demand for economic equality hasn’t been met. PiS achieved its victory by responding to this combination of fears and needs with promises to both increase economic redistribution toward the less well-off and protect traditional cultural values.
Hubert Tworzecki is associate professor of political Science at Emory University in Atlanta. His work focuses on political parties and electoral behavior in Central and Eastern Europe. Radosław Markowski is professor of political science at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw. He directs the Center for the Study of Democracy and is the principal investigator of the Polish National Election Study.