The pivotal parliamentary elections in Poland on 15 October could be a watershed, not just for that country, but for the whole European project. In the first place, however, it is a wake-up call for Poland’s more progressive traditional political and cultural elites, who were in the forefront of the struggle for freedom during Communist rule, and whose strong pro-European, pro-Western worldview can be traced back a thousand years, to the era when Poland accepted Christianity from Rome, rather than from Byzantium.
‘Good’ and ‘bad’ Poles
This traditionally progressive section of Polish society stands in opposition to a more authoritarian, nationalist, and Catholic narrative, presented by the current government and force-fed to the people through state television, over which the government has a virtual monopoly. This is repeated from a bully pulpit in the churches. The question for Poland’s progressives is: will the Polish electorate, and in particular its rural and provincial element, stay loyal to the government and shy away further from Poland’s earlier Western orientation?
The ruling United Right Coalition leadership, headed by the Law and Justice party leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, sees the country as consisting of a breed of good Poles, who are nationalistic, family orientated and Catholic, and a breed of ‘worse’ Poles, liberal, atheist, and post-Communist, who have to be kept out of power by all means possible. Framed in this way, any measure that helps the right retain power is justified. A further motivation for members of the government is that, were they to lose power, many would face charges of corruption or breaching the constitution.
Which ‘measures’ are involved? Against the background of a subservient judiciary, they include: retaliatory steps against the remaining independent media, an economic policy based on crude handouts – such as the original 500plus (which initially stimulated the economy and then helped stagnate it), pre-election reductions in state-controlled motorway tolls, petrol prices and train tickets in a period of high inflation (9.5%), and a higher state pension – together with a constant anti-European, anti-immigrant, eco-sceptic buzz in the state media.
Tell them what they fear
Kaczyński is acutely attuned to the prejudices and fears of poorer families, which thanks to his client state media he can play unchallenged, dressing up the resulting campaign in patriotic national colours. He has rock-solid 30% to 35% electoral support, which gives him the key to power, while the opposition parties remain disunited, with smaller parties in danger of not crossing the minimum threshold to win parliamentary seats.
At the European level, it is the threat of another illiberal Central European government maintaining its hold on power and, in tandem with Hungary, working to challenge and eventually undermine the European Union, over its immigration policy, which increasingly haunts the EU. Poland has made clear that, unlike the British Brexiters, it does not want to leave the EU, but intends to undermine and change it from within.
Re-Christianisation and initial support for Ukraine
The current Polish prime minster Mateusz Morawiecki has talked of his mission to “re-Christianise Europe”. This is made worse for the EU because of the relative size of Poland, the fifth largest in the EU in terms of population, and the sixth largest economy. The war in Ukraine has further strengthened the hand of Poland’s current government. At the outbreak of the war, Poland was seen, and even admired, as Ukraine’s greatest friend in Europe, absorbing more than 1.3 million Ukrainian refugees.
It has increased its defence budget dramatically and boasted that it wants to double the size of its army in the next two years. Poland has led the European frontier states in pressing their Western colleagues to ensure military and political support for Ukraine and a promise of EU membership when the war is over. They have also supported the controversial process to allow Ukraine to join Nato, which is a provocative challenge to the Russian Federation.
This stand reflected the country’s mood and had the support of all the opposition parties, with the exception of the extreme right-wing Confederation movement. In fact, the Polish government built no camps to shelter the refugees. They did not need to, as Polish families, Polish institutions, and schools, and churches, offered that hospitality spontaneously. It was only after a few weeks that the government got round to offering benefits to Polish families accepting refugees.
Poland was the only country to keep an ambassador in place in Kyiv from the first day of the invasion. President Duda, normally a political cipher for the United Right government (his nickname was the ‘fountain pen’, as signing dubious government legislation was his regular routine), was admired in Poland for the political support he offered Ukraine in Nato capitals, for admonishing the German government for its slow response, and for regularly visiting Ukraine.
Poland’s about-turn on Ukraine – a pattern of chaotic foreign policy
So why was it that, in September, Poland was at the forefront of blocking Ukrainian grain exports and then declaring that they were sending no more arms to Ukraine? Why did President Duda accuse his ‘friend’ Volodymyr Zelenskyy, president of wartime Ukraine, of “drowning” and “clutching at straws”?
Why adopt a line that elicited joy in Moscow, leading Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov to gloat over “a split between Poland and Ukraine that will only grow”? Had the Polish government really chosen to reverse its long-established alliance with an independent Ukraine, which had been a constant factor in Poland’s foreign policy since 1991, when Poland and Ukraine first became independent?
The answer is that this was not so much a reverse in policy, but a result of Poland’s turbulent internal politics, as the government struggled to retain power in the pre-election months. To the current Polish government, foreign policy is merely an instrument in its battle for survival. In fact, Kaczyński and the initial party leadership did not know any foreign languages and were completely oblivious to public opinion abroad. The only Western leader they could identify with was Donald Trump and they were among the last to recognize the last US election results.
They have consistently challenged EU directives and European Court of Justice rulings and have kept up a negative campaign in their media against opposition leaders who share the EU’s comparatively liberal values. They have maintained a consistent negative campaign against Germany, whom they treat with almost the same hostility as Russia, equating the EU’s challenge to Poland’s judicial reforms with Germany’s bid to dominate Europe and subjugate Poland’s sovereignty. They also equate Poland’s opposition leaders, and particularly former EU statesman Donald Tusk, with German agents.
In order to embarrass the opposition, the government dug deep into Poland’s wartime trauma of German occupation, to present Germany with a £1.2tn bill for war reparations. This negated Poland’s earlier agreed settlement of war claims. The government hoped that the opposition could be manoeuvred into appearing unpatriotic by opposing the claim. (It didn’t, indeed the opposition made the strong case at the same time that war reparations should also have been claimed against Russia for the Soviet occupation). In attempting this, the government completely ignored the German reaction and its impact on the growing strength of Germany’s right-wing opposition.
Polish state enterprise’s approach to Ukraine
This issue with Ukraine actually began as a miscalculation by a Polish state enterprise, which foolishly chose to buy in cheap Ukrainian grain being shipped through Poland for third world destinations. Things quickly escalated. When the Ukrainian grain flooded their domestic market, Polish farmers demanded that these cheap grain shipments stop, in order to protect Poland’s native agricultural produce. Initially, the EU, which is responsible for all trade policies in Europe, put on a temporary ban, but after a few weeks the ban was lifted. The Polish government proudly followed its regular game of ‘patriotically’ defying EU rulings and continued the ban, along with Hungary and Slovakia.
When Ukraine complained and threatened to appeal to the World Trade Organization, Poland retaliated with a torrent of verbal accusations of Ukrainian ingratitude and a statement by Morawiecki that Poland would stop providing weapons to Ukraine and would now ‘re-arm itself’, and that benefits to families helping refugees should be withdrawn. The fact that such language from a hitherto firm ally to Ukraine would please Russia, upset Ukrainian morale, and split the allied solidarity over Ukraine, was immaterial. The government could on no account lose farmers’ support in the coming election. Nothing else mattered.
A further scandal emerged recently within the Polish foreign ministry where hundreds, if not thousands, of Polish visas had been sold illegally in precisely those third world countries whose immigrants the Polish border guards were holding back, often with great brutality, on the Belarusian border.
Polish visas give immediate access to the EU and also to Mexico, from where refugees enter the US. The US is demanding an explanation and Germany is discussing the possibility of imposing immigration controls on the Polish border, possibly undermining the Schengen open border agreement. It adds to the Polish government’s anti-German and anti-European persecution complex reflected in the election campaign.
Poland’s election looms
The Polish government’s sophisticated internal electoral machine is very much in contrast to the spasmodic infantile outbursts of its foreign policy. Yet, looking dispassionately, one can discern an agenda – of hostility to Germany and Europe; sympathy for Trump; a right-wing, illiberal pro-family social programme; and a reduction in support for Ukraine – which appears to be common both to Poland’s and Russia’s political strategy.
Certainly, Western countries are holding their breath over the coming election results, in the pious, undeclared hope that the disunited opposition parties can avoid fratricidal conflicts and topple the United Right’s majority in parliament, and so bring back sanity to Poland’s future foreign policy.
Latest opinion polls give the opposition a faint chance of success, provided each of the two minor opposition coalitions, the Third Way and the New Left, obtain enough votes to clear the 8% threshold to enter parliament and support the main Civic Platform opposition in overcoming a right-wing PiS and Confederation coalition. On such a slender margin does the future of Poland, Ukraine, and Europe lie.