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A Fateful Year

A series of political gaffes in Poland has marred the Law and Justice Party's start to 2019, and there is potentially more danger ahead in this 'super-election' year. by Martin Ehl 14 January 2019

Poland's governing Law and Justice (PiS) party had a rocky start to the New Year, staving off consumer electricity price rises only by organizing a special session of parliament. Then there was the quarrel over the government's proposal to soften the definition of domestic violence – which has been shelved, for now. And finally, the young leader of an extreme right-wing organization has joined the government as the new deputy minister of digitization – sparking a wave of blame against PiS, for including such people in government.


All of this comes at the start of a “super-election" year, in which Poles will first choose their members of the European Parliament (MEPs), in May, and then members of their own national parliament (the Sejm and Senat), most likely in October. Then it will not be long before the presidential elections, set for spring 2020.


Thirty years after the first free elections in 1989, Poland will be deciding its fate for many years to come. “It will be the most decisive year of the last three decades" was the cover line of the liberal weekly Polityka, in its first issue of 2019.


If the present governing party keeps its majority and is able to form another government, any political alternatives for Poland will struggle for a decade to come. This would see conservatives consolidate their power, while the divided opposition would become even more divided.


However, if the opposition – ranging from the left to the center-right – is able to agree on a common platform, win elections, and form a government, it would probably spell the end of PiS as we know it. It would also be a strong signal from the sixth-biggest EU country (the fifth biggest after the UK's exit – “Brexit" – in March 2019) that populist nationalists can be defeated.


If that were to happen, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who will celebrate his 70th birthday in June, will have trouble keeping cohesion in his party, which is formed of different groups that are constantly in conflict. Kaczynski lacks a clear successor, despite being in poor health. He is appearing less frequently in public, and his increasingly obvious struggles underline his lack of clear strategy.


At the start of an electoral year, all of that is good news for the opposition. Their party leaders are currently attempting talks, and we will see in the European Parliament elections whether the negotiations have succeeded.


In local elections last year, at least two opposition parties showed that cooperation was possible, when the strongest one – Civic Platform (PO) – created a common bloc with the small, liberal However, the price was high. was almost absorbed by PO, whose leader, Grzegorz Schetyna, does not have a good reputation for compromise. It would be hard, if not impossible, for him to tolerate the idea of any other prime minister in a coalition – even though a coalition is the opposition's only chance of success. Although PiS is weakening, it is still the most popular party, and has a long way to fall from its peak of over 40 percent approval about a year ago.


Schetyna brings other political risks, too. Although he chairs the strongest opposition party, he also has the most negative ratings among voters, compared to other opposition leaders.


There are two more interesting European factors in Polish politics this year.


First, the EU as a topic will be important for that half of the Polish electorate that supports the mostly pro-European opposition, and which was able to mobilize these voters in big cities for the local elections last autumn.


This year, the European and national parliamentary elections could serve as a kind of referendum for Poland's membership in the EU. The year 2019 marks 15 years in the EU (plus 20 years in NATO), and the national conversation around the topic will be crucial, even if polls end up indicating, as they do today, that about 75 percent of Poles support EU membership.


The second European factor will be European Council President Donald Tusk, who is widely expected to re-enter national politics after his European mandate finishes on 30 November. The Polish presidential elections will be the most natural arena for him, but as the most popular and unifying figurehead of liberal, pro-European Poland, he will inevitably play a public role in the two sets of parliamentary elections in 2019.


It is a rather exceptional and unique situation for a top EU politician to return home with such plans, but an exceptional year will bring forth exceptional solutions!

Martin Ehl
 is chief analyst at Hospodarske noviny, a Czech business daily.
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