Are the Polish elections taking place on a (highly) unequal playing field?

Adriana Lima
By Adriana Lima 13 Min Read
origin 1A woman reads her ballot paper before voting during the general elections in Warsaw, October 2015 ©AP Photo/RockedBuzz via Euronews

Although it is impossible today to predict who will win the parliamentary elections in Poland in a few weeks, one thing is certain: they will not be fair elections.

Free, perhaps, but not fair. The right-wing populists in power have tipped the playing field in such a way as to deny the opposition equal opportunities in electoral competition. And it’s not even close.

The elections to be held on October 15 will determine the future of Poland – and, by extension, the European Union and Europe more generally – for many years, perhaps decades to come.

If the incumbent Law and Justice or PiS party is re-elected, the populist-authoritarian regime in Poland since 2015 will enter a phase of comfortable consolidation.

After two consecutive parliamentary and presidential elections in the last eight years, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński will be on a safe path to emulate his role model, Viktor Orbán of Hungary.

Will Pis be able to distort the race for a draw to its advantage?

As Kaczyński and his closest aides have made abundantly clear, his party needs a third consecutive term to complete its “reforms” – read: capture or deactivate the last remaining vestiges of pluralism and institutional independence, such as a few recalcitrant judges or media private individuals and NGOs critical of the ruling elite.

Poland will radically loosen ties with the EU, perhaps to the point of “Polexit”.

origin 1The leader of the Polish right-wing Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, launches the campaign for the re-election of President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw, February 2020AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski

If you want to see a blueprint for Kaczyński’s program for a third term, today’s Hungary offers a good vision of – in Kaczyński’s words – the “Budapest to Warsaw” scenario. It’s not a pretty picture.

The election results cannot be predicted today: it is too close to predict. PiS, together with its likely governing coalition partner, the far-right Konfederacja or Confederation, scores roughly the same in opinion polls as the three democratic opposition parties combined: the centrist Civic Coalition, the Left, and the centre-right Trzecia Droga or Terza Via.

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But the marginal advantage of the democratic opposition can easily be canceled out by the peculiarities of the electoral system, which penalizes fragmented oppositions – as unfortunately the democrats are in Poland.

More importantly, it is likely to be eviscerated by the way PiS has skewed the playing field to its advantage, in a big way.

A referendum in the middle of the elections?

The main dirty trick is to combine parliamentary elections with a “referendum” – a propaganda hoax and a shameless money grab.

The referendum, which will be held at the same time and in the same places as the elections, will have four questions, all loaded and all based on false factual premises.

For example, there is the issue of accepting thousands of illegal migrants as a result of the “forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy”. The other three referendum questions are also equally false.

The referendum serves to amplify all the fears that PiS is exploiting in its election campaign. It is indistinguishable from that campaign but is an integral part of it.

origin 1Members of a group of around 30 asylum-seeking migrants seen in Bialowieza, May 2023AP Photo/Agnieszka Sadowska

None of the questions are asked in good faith and none seeks a popular response on legislation contemplated by the government or the opposition.

They are no one’s policies, but the referendum insinuates a clear choice between the government which condemns them and the opposition to which PiS falsely attributes them.

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In this sense there is an intimate link between the electoral campaign and the referendum questions.

The referendum serves to amplify all the fears that PiS is exploiting in its election campaign. It is indistinguishable from that campaign but is an integral part of it.

Last minute changes to electoral rules and overburdened diaspora electoral commissions

Yet the point is this: the referendum opens up virtually unlimited campaign funding. PiS has access to greater financial resources than the opposition, having captured all major state industries.

But there are some campaign limits, controlled by the election board, that apply to elections but not referendums.

So, under the guise of the referendum campaign, practically unlimited funds will go to the PiS election campaign.

But that is not all. In the eleventh hour before the elections, PiS pushed through a change in constituency rules, creating many new districts in villages and small towns.

This is nothing more than gerrymandering: the countryside and small towns are the main reservoir of PiS’s political support.

origin 1A child peers out of a depiction of Eros, the Greek god of love, by Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj in central Krakow, November 2022AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

At the same time, PiS makes it more difficult for the Polish diaspora, especially in the UK and Western Europe, where the largest number of Polish emigrants live, to vote and have their votes counted.

Electoral commissions in places like London or Dublin will be overloaded with voters, but under the new rules, commissions will have to proceed in a more time-consuming manner: all members of the commission must examine every single ballot paper, one at a time. time – and must complete all paperwork within 24 hours.

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Simulations show that this will be virtually impossible in some districts, especially with the additional effort needed to serve the referendum.

And yes, you guessed it: in recent years the Polish diaspora in the UK and other EU member states has predominantly voted for anti-PiS parties.

“No one will give you what PiS can promise”

Good old “pork barrel” politics are in full swing: PiS has been throwing giveaways at its regulars since late spring of this year, and, over time, the speed and size of these giveaways have grown exponentially.

Increased family benefits, an extra monthly pension for pensioners (i.e. the 14th pension), a ridiculous interest rate cut by the subservient central bank, an artificially low level of gasoline prices maintained against global trends by the controlled oil company from Orlen State – you name it, they’ll give it to you.

The central imbalance, however, is in the media scene. Public media in Poland are “public” in name only and the source of their funding – through taxpayers’ money.

origin 1PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak during parliament’s vote to confirm a government-planned migration referendum, August 2023AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski

The disastrous long-term effects of these policies are countless; what matters is immediate gratification on the part of the electorate.

As the Polish proverb says: “No one will give you as much as PiS promises.”

The central imbalance, however, is in the media scene. Public media in Poland are “public” in name only and the source of their funding – through taxpayers’ money.

In their content they are unilateral and aggressive means of government propaganda aimed against the opposition.

The vulgarity and partisanship of TVP – the state-controlled broadcaster, which has a monopoly in some areas of the country – is difficult to describe; especially in pre-election times, it becomes a non-stop electoral propaganda machine.

“The Law to Eliminate Tusk”

It broadcasts all official PiS events, including Kaczyński’s speeches, but never broadcasts live for an opposition rally featuring the leader of the main opposition party, Donald Tusk.

Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reports that on a randomly chosen recent date, Tusk appeared five times on TVP’s main evening news, always in a negative light (including a historic photo with Russia’s Vladimir Putin), while Kaczyński appeared eight times , always represented positively.

The list is long, but “The Law to Eliminate Tusk” also deserves a mention, establishing a sham court tasked with proving that the leader of the main opposition party acted under the influence of the Russians.

For the democratic opposition to win, it will take almost a miracle. But perhaps it is not without hope.

origin 1Participants join an anti-government march led by opposition centrist party leaders Donald Tusk and Lech Walesa in Warsaw, June 2023AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski

The venerable Venice Commission has already warned that the new body could become a tool for eliminating political opponents.

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This is a tool that Kaczyński could activate at any time if the polls seemed negative to him. Nor did I mention the new Supreme Court chamber populated only with justices handpicked by the ruling party, who will have the final say on the legality of election results.

Added to this is the problem of the secret services’ illegal use of surveillance devices, such as the Pegasus spyware, against the opposition.

Would the opposition’s victory be a miracle?

So, whatever the outcome of the elections in Poland that you will hear about on October 15th or soon after, remember that the field will have been heavily skewed in favor of the current rulers.

The authoritarians in power have radically subverted democracy, including the electoral process.

For the democratic opposition to win, it will take almost a miracle. But perhaps it is not without hope.

Miracles happen, especially in Poland.

Wojciech Sadurski is a professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Sydney and at the Center for Europe at the University of Warsaw. He is the author of “A Pandemic of Populists” (Cambridge 2022).

At RockedBuzz via Euronews, we believe that all opinions matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send proposals or contributions and take part in the conversation.

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