Polish government in crisis

Poland’s right-wing government, already in a long-running conflict with the European Union over its attacks on the rule of law, is now under serious threat with the fracturing of its coalition and consequent loss of its parliamentary majority.

Jarosław Gowin, leader of the “Agreement” (or “Accord”) party, was sacked from his position as deputy prime minister on Tuesday due to persistent disagreements with the leadership of the Law & Justice party, the senior partner in the governing United Right coalition. Agreement promptly walked out of the coalition, leaving it short of the 231 seats needed for a majority in the lower house of parliament, the Sejm.

One of the issues that led to the rupture was the government’s legislation on media ownership, which would prevent companies from outside the EU holding a controlling stake in Polish media. Prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki had claimed that the intent of the proposal was to prevent control by interests from “Russia, China or the Arab countries,” so Gowin took him at his word and put forward an amendment that would expand the permitted range from the EU to the whole of the OECD.

But Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Law & Justice and the real ruler of Poland, vetoed that idea – because of course the real target of the move is the TVN network, owned by the American Discovery group, which provides one of the last major independent voices on Polish television.

Without Agreement, the government had to scramble to get enough votes in the Sejm to pass the bill. It did last night, 228 to 216: not enough to override the expected veto by the Senate, which has a non-government majority.

Whether it will be enough for Kaczyński to carry on, even without the media legislation, remains to be seen; the balance of power in the Sejm is held by a confusing range of independents and breakaway factions. An analysis at Wikipedia gives a total of 228 members supporting the government as against 232 opposition, the latter spread across six main parliamentary groups (including Agreement) and another seven detached MPs.

Clearly there is no prospect of a stable opposition majority. If Law & Justice cannot corral enough of the loose members into its camp – and the odds for now would seem to be against it – there is no alternative to an early election. Poland is not otherwise due to go to the polls until late in 2023.

If the opinion polls are to be believed, support for Law & Justice is running in the mid-30s, somewhat down from the 43.6% that United Right scored at the last election. Donald Tusk, former president of the EU, has returned to the leadership of the main opposition party, Civic Platform, and although the opposition remains fragmented (and the electoral system works against it) it is in possibly its best position yet to unseat Kaczyński.

Hungary, which we talked about the other day, probably gets more attention these days than Poland, since it has travelled further down the same road. But Poland is much the bigger prize: if it can be reclaimed for democracy, it will be a huge setback for the authoritarian cause.

Kaczyński’s toughness and resourcefulness, however, should not be underestimated. He has survived crises before, and he may yet pull a rabbit out of the hat this time. The next few weeks in Poland are going to be well worth watching.

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