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Poland’s Third Way seeks to break political duopoly

As the Polish electoral campaign enters its most crucial phase, it is already clear there will be a hard fought battle for third place. While dashing any hopes of a unified opposition list against PiS, two party leaders have put their political survival on the line in order to break the Kaczyński-Tusk duopoly. The consequences of this move might not be what they intended.

July 11, 2023 - Daniel Gleichgewicht - Articles and Commentary

The launch of the Third Way by Szymon Hołownia and Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz on May 15th 2023. Photo: Tomasz Kaczor wikimedia.org

Media around the world described the recent Turkish presidential elections as the most crucial vote in 2023. Naturally, the global implications of that contest were clear for most, both investors and couch analysts alike. However, there is another election this year that is likely to reverberate around Europe and further afield. The Polish parliamentary elections planned for the second half of October will start an election cycle in the country which will also include local elections, European elections and end with a presidential election in 2025. It now also seems likely that there might be a referendum thrown into the mix as well. The results brought forth by this cycle will be a solid indication of the state of politics in the region and to what extent populists and illiberal democratic movements will continue to gnaw at the foundations of the European Union. 

Law and Justice (PiS), the party that has been in charge of Poland since 2015 as part of the United Right coalition (Zjednoczona Prawica) has certainly acknowledged the looming threat of being ousted from power. This is clear from the tone set by their tightly controlled state media and increasingly unfavourable polling. The recently announced campaign promise of raising their hallmark child support programme from 500 Polish złotys (120 US dollars) to 800 Polish złotys (195 US dollars) per child every month seems not to have had its desired effect. Polish society has been squeezed by high inflation and growing costs of living for quite some time and there has been a clear shift in attitudes towards yet more careless public spending and increased taxation. The campaign planners of the ruling party, usually accurate with their data and diagnoses, have been in clear disarray, scrambling to find another direction for the summer. They even changed their campaign manager from the MEP Tomasz Poręba to Joachim Brudziński, an associate closer to the core leadership. The chairman Jarosław Kaczyński has felt the need to step out from the shadow theatre to become the one and only deputy prime minister.

Aside from the clear disadvantage of having such an extreme vertical power structure within the party, much of the panic is down to ruling fatigue. This is similar to that experienced by their rival Civic Platform (PO) in 2015, after they had been in power for the same amount of time. The other factor is clearly the success of former Prime Minister and President of the European Council Donald Tusk in mobilising large parts of the opposition in recent months. A huge show of force took place on June 4th in Warsaw, on the anniversary of the country’s first partially-free elections in 1989. The march, which gathered everyone from trans-rights activists to teachers’ unions, became much larger than any of the political forces expected, with the Warsaw Mayoral Office claiming there were up to half a million present. This sea of red and white intermingled with the EU blue was most likely the greatest demonstration in the history of the Polish Third Republic. Although politicians from the ruling coalition tried to downplay the size and significance of the march on June 4th, it was undoubtedly a wake-up call for the elites of a party accustomed to dissent. They themselves have characterised the demonstration as a storm in a teacup brewed up by the “total opposition”.

The stakes will be high for many of the politicians of the United Right, as well as the beneficiaries of the narrow trickle-down economy that has been created through lucrative positions on the boards of powerful state entities. Even if the opposition seems to be heading towards the Sejm in separate train carriages instead of together on one plane this autumn, there is a strong consensus on holding the politicians and their cronies now in power to account. This includes accountability for the introduction of unconstitutional legal changes and the misappropriation of public funds. The political will is present and clear among most opposition voters but as modern Polish political history has shown, it might prove harder to implement. Everything hinges on the election margins and how a potential transfer of power might look like. There have been hints from both opposition politicians and former judges that PiS might pursue a tactic seen across the Atlantic in the United States and Brazil if things go wrong. More precisely, they could stoke accusations of a stolen election. Even if the accuracy of polling has been problematic in Poland in recent times (as in many other places) it is becoming clear that the United Right of Kaczyński and the Civic Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska) of Tusk will once again be neck and neck at the ballot box.

Breaking the death spiral of two Solidarity ghosts

A deadlock between the two major forces of Polish politics of the last two decades would mean that the contest for third place will be more pivotal than ever before. One of the main participants in this race will be a coalition between the centrist Szymon Hołownia of Poland 2050 and the agrarian Christian democrat Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz (PSL), which has been dubbed the Third Way. It will compete with the far-right alliance of Confederation (Konfederacja) and the New Left (Nowa Lewica). With very clear messaging and stances on central election topics such as migration, government spending and reproductive rights, the left and far right seem to be attracting voters aged between 18 and 30. According to a recent report by Adam Kądziela for the Adenauer Foundation, over 72 per cent of this group intend to vote in the elections. Some 19 per cent of these voters declare that they would cast a vote for Confederation, with 14 per cent backing the New Left. The Third Way is lagging behind with just over nine per cent. These figures add up to over 40 per cent of the young vote. This is not just because of a hope to break the Kaczyński-Tusk binary but also the simple reason that an overwhelming majority view these two politicians as “dziadersi” (boomers). Other than getting people who previously refrained from voting to the booth and mobilising their own electorates, the United Right and Civic Platform have a limited recruitment pool. Things appear to be much more fluid in the battle for third. It is here that the Third Way seems to be facing its biggest obstacle.

Szymon Hołownia is a former TV personality from the opposition friendly TVN (part of the US-owned Discovery/Warner Brothers Group) and an author of several books on faith. He made his mark in the 2020 presidential election, receiving close to 14 per cent in the first round. His movement Poland 2050, however, has many times been forecast to be swallowed whole (like Ryszard Petru’s Nowoczesna [Modern]) by the Civic Coalition. According to political commentators, the party is not unique enough and simply targets the same liberal voters. Hołownia has been known to shy away from distinct messages. For example, he preferred a referendum on abortion, while Tusk’s party has declared its stance. His 2050 group also agrees with the Civic Coalition and the left regarding PiS’s revolutionary approach to the judiciary and its efforts to capture segments of the state. At the same time, it has been very careful to guard its strategic independence, so it may be viewed as an option untainted by the duopoly. An example of this position was evident as Hołownia participated in Tusk’s march on June 4th. However, he refrained from speaking to the crowd. To fight off the threat of being incorporated into the Civic Coalition, he has joined forces with another struggling party with a stronger pedigree on the Polish political scene than his own – the Polish People’s Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe). Its leader, Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, is fully aware of the fact that this coalition will most likely be his last attempt at improving the previously dismal results of his movement, which traces its roots all the way back to the late 19th century. It seems logical for both leaders to risk their political futures at this point in time, as Hołownia needs to prove that he can get his people into parliament, while Kosiniak-Kamysz must show his loyalists that the previous failed Polish Coalition with former rock musician turned fallen politician Paweł Kukiz was just a misadventure.

Questions still remain if these reasons are enough for voters to back the Third Way. Both partners have centre-right values in common that they could rally around. A strong relationship with the church would not entail the same as it would for PiS for instance. Another interesting factor is the convergence of two demographics that have mostly been divided by the United Right and the Civic Coalition. These are namely those in the countryside and larger cities. PSL has been hurting ever since PiS lured away their traditional voter base in farming villages and small towns in 2015. It has struggled to regain it ever since. Meanwhile, Poland 2050 has been popular in the same larger cities as Civic Platform, creating challenges that stem from being the younger sibling. It is difficult not to come under the impression that the Third Way is waiting for a political development in the coming months that it could make its own, as its centrist approach is being overshadowed by Tusk’s mobilisation efforts and his experienced handling of Kaczyński’s political game.

With the New Left weakened by infighting, its competing leaders will focus on capitalising on the grassroots Women’s Strike movement. This group has received much support since the previous abortion consensus was challenged by the problematic Constitutional Tribunal. According to recent polls, this topic might not be enough for the New Left. However, with migration returning to the centre of the debate, there might be a chance to gather those voters upset with so many political actors instrumentalising migration in the campaign. The left, haunted by the spectacular disaster of not passing the threshold to enter the Sejm in 2015, seems to be focused on avoiding just that.

However, it is not the left side of the political spectrum that is the main challenge for the Third Way. Indeed, the greatest threat comes from the far right. Confederation has long been seen as a marriage of convenience between nationalists, libertarians and even monarchists. The rise of new leaders, a clear message in direct opposition to PiS’s social spending and a combative attitude towards progressive ideas coming from the West, has opened up a fast lane into third place in the polls. With the rest of the political scene bound together by an unspoken consensus on Poland’s war-time attitude towards Ukraine and Ukrainians, Confederation has found a way it can score easy points. The question that appears now is how likely is a coalition between the United Right and Confederation? In terms of economic and fiscal policies it would be quite a stretch. On the other hand, a confrontational approach towards Brussels and the proliferation of xenophobic attitudes would offer a clear match. A great indicator will be how the government intends to handle this week’s 80th anniversary commemorations of the massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia. One of Confederation’s leaders, Sławomir Mentzen, has brought a new face to the far right, travelling across Poland and meeting his growing voter base for an informal beer. Little has been seen from his previous five-point programme from 2019, when he wanted a Poland without Jews, gays, abortion, taxes and the EU.

Whoever finishes third place in the upcoming parliamentary election will have a great position in any negotiations with the winner. But truth be told, the party may have an even better position in the following contests. Considering that President Andrzej Duda will remain in office for another one and a half years after the 2023 election, a snap election will not be off the table. The democratic opposition might find enough strength to ward off the United Right. However, it might struggle in this regard if Confederation grows too strong. As Kaczyński and his protégé Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki gear up to prepare a referendum on migration, similar to that of Viktor Orbán in 2016, it might turn out to be a power play not only against Brussels but also their rival on the right. Instead of a Third Way, Poland might end up with a third term.

Daniel Gleichgewicht is an editor with New Eastern Europe.

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