Election preview: Poland

Poles go the polls (sorry!) tomorrow, Sunday, to pass judgement for the first time on prime minister Ewa Kopacz, who took over the job mid-term after her predecessor, Donald Tusk, was appointed last year to the presidency of the European Council.

At the last election, in 2011, Tusk became the first prime minister in democratic Poland to be re-elected, so his and Kopacz’s party, Civic Platform, is now seeking a third term in office. That’s never easy, especially in troubled economic times, but there are features of the Polish political scene that make it a particularly interesting challenge.

The distinctive feature of Poland in the last decade is that its two major parties are both, broadly speaking, centre-right. Civic Platform leans more to the centre; it’s pro-European, socially liberal and appeals to young, urban voters. Its rival, Law & Justice, is more to the right, nationalistic and socially conservative; it sits in the European parliament with the British Conservative Party in the European Conservatives and Reformists group.

Think a Malcolm Turnbull party facing off against a Tony Abbott party and you won’t be far wrong.

In 2005, the two together comprehensively defeated the then-incumbent social democrats. But instead of forming a coalition they fell out, and Law & Justice governed (first as a minority government and then in coalition with two minor parties) for two years. When that government fell apart, Tusk led Civic Platform to victory in early elections in 2007, and was re-elected four years later. Civic Platform governs in coalition with the Polish People’s Party (PSL), a rural-based outfit not unlike our National Party.

Civic Platform and PSL between them won 47.5% of the vote last time and 235 of the 460 seats in the lower house, or Sejm. (There is also a less powerful Senate, elected from single-member districts.) The rest were divided among Law & Justice (29.9% and 157 seats), the remnant centre-left, called the Democratic Left Alliance (8.2% and 27), and a new populist liberal party called Palikot’s Movement (10.0% and 40).

This already confusing party system becomes even more so – and the vacuum on the left even more pronounced – from looking at last year’s Polish election to the European Parliament. Civic Platform still led, but only narrowly, with 32.1% to Law & Justice’s 31.8%. The centre-left managed third with 9.4% and the PSL had 6.8%. Between them was a new hard right party, the Congress of the New Right, with 7.2%, while Palikot’s Movement, now renamed Your Movement, dropped below the 5% threshold.

Then just last May came the presidential election, which (in contrast to what the opinion polls had predicted) saw a narrow victory for Law & Justice’s Andrzej Duda, who led with 34.8% in the first round and beat the Civic Platform incumbent with 51.5%. It’s consistent with the general swing back to the right that’s been apparent in much of Europe for the last year or two.

So Law & Justice enters tomorrow’s election as favorite. Opinion polls have consistently put it in the mid to high 30s, between ten and 15 points ahead of Civic Platform. Voting is proportional (D’Hondt) within each of 41 multi-member constituencies, not across the country as a whole, so a party can win a majority with noticeably less than 50%; even so, Law & Justice looks unlikely to make it in its own right.

In that case, its search for allies will be interesting. The centre-left, running jointly with Your Movement, are jostling for third place in the polls with another new populist force, Kukiz’15, named for the rock star who came third in the presidential election. Just behind them is Modern, a new liberal party, and the PSL, just holding above the 5% threshold for representation. Further to the right the Coalition for the Renewal of the Republic, which has replaced the Congress of the New Right, could be a seventh party in parliament.

There’ll be some hard bargaining ahead among that lot, but unless the polls are drastically wrong again, its hard to see how any sort of majority coalition could be formed against Law & Justice. Most likely its new leader, Beata Szydlo, will be the new prime minister, with a mandate – albeit a confused one – to take Poland in a more conservative direction.

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