The Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS) government has a new prime minister: Mateusz Morawiecki. In a particularly Polish political twist, the government of Beata Szydło survived a vote of no confidence on the morning of Dec. 7 — only to have Szydło summarily resign later that day.
So what happened, and what does it mean?
Here are five things you need to know.
1. The change in prime minister is mainly symbolic
Mateusz Morawiecki, the new prime minister, is considered the younger, sophisticated and worldly face of the PiS government. Morawiecki was chosen because he appears more credible to the international financial and political community. Unlike his predecessor, the 49-year-old banker is fluent in German and English, and more importantly, does not have a reputation as a euroskeptic. He is relatively new to PiS, having joined the party in March 2016, six months before the elections. The son of a well-known anti-communist activist, Kornel Morawiecki, he was even active in the anti-communist opposition as an adolescent in the 1980s. He has served as deputy prime minister and finance minister in Szydlo’s cabinet.
2. The party’s leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, is still calling the shots
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the party’s chair, remains firmly in control. He named Szydlo as prime minister in the first place — and then summarily replaced her with Morawiecki. His grip on the party, and his disregard for consultation and deliberation, has earned him comparisons with Col. Jozef Pilsudski, who led Poland between the world wars and grew increasingly autocratic — and who had a habit of nominating and recalling prime ministers.
The PiS leader plays an outsize role for the party’s politicians, as illustrated by the fact that, instead of handing her resignation to Poland’s president, as the Polish Constitution requires, Szydlo first announced her resignation to Kaczynski in front of the PiS political committee. And party elites and activists remain loyal. Even President Andrzej Duda, who vetoed two out of three controversial laws on the judiciary in the summer, has faithfully followed the party line since.
Nor is Morawiecki likely to gain any more power within the party than Szydlo had. He is unlikely to be able to name his own government ministers, and he has to contend with adversaries within PiS, such as the ambitious Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro.
Kaczynski will continue to call the shots in the party. He has indicated that he may further humiliate Szydlo by now demoting her to the position of the deputy prime minister, Morawiecki’s old job.
Kaczynski does not shy away from controversy. He denounced party critics as treasonous, “the worst sort of Poles.” He has also attacked the judiciary as “the bastion of everything in Poland that is bad” since, supposedly because of the courts, “all our actions could be questioned for whatever reason.”
3. The ruling party’s illiberal policies will not change
The party’s controversial policies and its conservative ideological line will not change. PiS remains an illiberal populist party, much like its governing counterpart Fidesz in Hungary. It has consistently targeted independence of the judiciary, constrained the freedom of the press and attacked civil society, despite popular protest and international outcry.
Nor does Morawiecki’s relative youth and cosmopolitanism signal a departure from the party’s conservative cultural and religious outlook. He has sought to reassure the PiS base by declaring (in an interview ostensibly about coal production) that the party seeks to “re-Christanize Europe, that is my dream, because in many places Christmas carols are not sung, churches are empty, and they are transformed into museums. This is a great sorrow.”
Although Morawiecki is seen as less of a euroskeptic than Szydlo, the party will continue to oppose what it sees as the European Union’s attacks on its sovereignty, whether the E.U.’s imposition of refugee quotas or the commission’s criticisms of the erosion of democracy in Poland.
4. The ruling party remains far more popular than any other party in Poland
PiS remains popular. The party won the 2015 elections with 38 percent of the vote. About 38 to 40 percent of the electorate continues to back the party without wavering.
The opposition is fragmented and unable to mount a coherent challenge. Civic Platform (PO), the main opposition party, commands 18 percent support in public opinion polls, with two other parties getting 11 percent and 7 percent. In the most recent parliamentary elections, stalwarts of the Polish political scene such as the Peasants’ Party or the reinvented communist successor SLD (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, or the Democratic Left Alliance) received less than 5 percent of the vote, the threshold for parliamentary representation. As I have written elsewhere, SLD’s decline is largely self-inflicted, and not recent — but it leaves a gap on the center-left. As a result, the Polish political spectrum tilts heavily toward right-wing parties.
5. Yet Poles say they are still committed to democracy
Despite all this, Poles remain committed to democracy. In recent polls, more than 70 percent of Poles declared that democracy is the best form of government, even if 40 percent are unhappy with the way democracy is functioning in Poland. Since 1992, more than 60 percent of Poles have consistently supported democracy over other forms of government, with only 20 percent disagreeing.
The party’s critics, meanwhile, continue to call for a “democratic opposition” to monitor and censure the party and its erosion of liberal democracy in Poland, much as they did under previous single-party rule — that of the authoritarian Communist Party that ruled until 1989.
Anna Grzymala-Busse is the Kevin and Michelle Douglas professor in the department of political science at Stanford University.