Poland today occupies a prominent place on the global chessboard. Its internal political developments are not just an argument (important though it is) about the rule of law, as in Hungary. The politics in Warsaw constitute an indispensable element in coordinating broad support to Ukraine, as a key fortress on NATO’s Eastern Flank, and in helping to decide the future political and economic development of the European Union (EU.)
The country is keenly aware of its changed geopolitical situation. Russia’s all-out war in Ukraine has provoked alarm. Poland is carrying out the most extensive military acquisition plan in Europe as it fast-tracks a long-awaited defense modernization program. The commitment is enormously increasing from 58bn zloty ($13.3bn) in 2022 to 98bn zloty, or 3% GDP for 2023, and supplemented by another 30-40bn zloty from the Polish Development Bank, BGK. The expansion will be aided by the EU’s €5bn ($5.25bn) European Peace Facility, which funds arms exports to Ukraine and in return is buying jets and armored vehicles from the US and South Korea.
The modernization plans will see K2 tanks, K9 howitzers, FA-50 light fighter jets from Korea and Abrams tanks, F-35s, HIMARS, and Patriots (under the Wisła II program) from the US, three British frigates and two SAAB SIGNIT intelligence ships from Sweden, as well as a huge increase in Polish military personnel to 300,000 by 2035 from 170,000 now. By the end of the plan, the country will be one of the most powerful defense forces in NATO and will perhaps begin to approach its desired status as one of Europe’s leading countries.
And yet, there is no denying that Poland suffers from a deeply polarized and contested public sphere and that this is likely to worsen throughout this year’s political campaigning.
After eight years of unbroken rule by the far-right Law and Justice (PiS) party, there are good prospects for the centrist Civic Coalition (KO) to unite oppositional parties and win the general election in the fall of 2023. None of the opinion polls over the past three months has given the governing party hope of holding enough seats to remain in power, even by sharing power.
Yet, should the opposition indeed take over, it will have to face a difficult two years of cohabitation with a potentially hostile PiS president whose legislative vetoes can be overruled only by three-fifths of MPs. Any new government will also have to deal with political resistance by current party loyalists entrenched in top-level institutions including the prosecutor’s office, the Central Bank, and the Constitutional Court.
While polls suggest a new government should have just enough power to manage those problems, it may lack full legitimacy to carry out a reform plan without major controversies and even deeper conflicts.
Either way, this year’s race will be pivotal. Its result may lead to a further descent into partisan political disputes, and further polarization over domestic and foreign policy. Such an outcome would likely generate more tensions in the core of the EU and NATO.
There are two likely outcomes in 2023. Either the opposition, led by former European Council President Donald Tusk, takes power and adopts a more emollient approach to the EU in particular, or the current government survives in some form and continues to pursue policies offensive to most of its European partners, as part of what it sees as a largely lonely battle against enemies aiming to undermine Poland’s sovereignty.
In both cases, Poland will continue to deliver assistance to Ukraine, where there is a bipartisan consensus. But it will be up to its next prime minister to harvest the political fruits of this world-defining moment of solidarity where international attention and sympathy are focused upon it. The response of the Polish people and civil society to Ukraine (with more than 9 million Ukrainians crossing its borders) led US Ambassador Mark Brzezinski to call Poland “the humanitarian superpower.”
But the US is also aware of Poland’s problems. President Biden made a subtle reference to this when he visited last year, saying: “All of us, including here in Poland, must do the hard work of democracy each and every day — my country as well.”
Poland’s friends and allies are keenly aware of the issues facing the country. The eight years of Law and Justice rule have left bruises and some scars, and they will not heal overnight. Large military procurement programs will not buy back the reputation or respect lost to an erratic foreign policy often marked by senseless battles with Germany, the EU, and in a struggle to exert government control over the judiciary.
Yet the current PiS government is squandering this moment of historic goodwill, wasting the opportunity to tone down its battles with Brussels and actually implement the reforms it agreed to receive the EU funds. The bloc is refusing to hand Poland $35bn in grants and loans because of this and Poland is currently being fined €1m ($1.07m) a day by the European Court of Justice for refusing to comply with a court order (the running total is now more than €400m.)
The PiS meanwhile faces heated internal battles on who will replace Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the PiS ruling party and described by the Financial Times as “the kingmaker”, who over the past year has been trailing his departure from active politics.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has next to no political support in the party itself and his future political career depends on whether Kaczyński considers his obvious managerial skills useful for his ends. He is therefore an easy target for Zbigniew Ziobro, the minister of justice, who has sponsored the various legislative initiatives that drove a wedge between Poland and the EU. As a leader of a minor faction in PiS camp, Ziobro is fighting not only for his political life, but also for the future leadership of the far-right.
It is precisely because of these internal dynamics within the ruling camp that Poland is unlikely to settle its rule of law disputes and see EU funds released this year, as I wrote in Visegrad Insight last fall.
Regardless of this fractious political background, Poland’s potential is on the rise. For reasons of geography and infrastructure, the country has a critical role as the main military-logistical hub for Ukraine. Its economy — robust in recent years — is already benefiting from an influx of companies fleeing Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, as well as Western investors seeing an opportunity to harvest profits from its growing economic base.
Firms like Google, Samsung, and even a global kimchi producer announced billions of dollars of investments in 2022. The reasoning is simple. A lot of Western investment — both private and EU — has been well spent on modernizing the economy and infrastructure. As a result, when most European industrial production fell this summer, Poland noted a 12-point month-to-month increase, to the astonishment of many commentators.
All the pieces are in place for a period of strong economic growth and improved relations as a flag-bearer for NATO’s Eastern Flank. A change in power would be the icing on the cake.
Wojciech Przybylski is the editor-in-chief of ‘Visegrad Insight’ and president of the board of Res Publica Foundation in Warsaw. He is also Europe’s Future Fellow at IWM – the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.