The fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe happened with barely a shot being fired. With the exception of Romania, the states conquered by Stalin after World War II used non-violent means to overthrow authoritarian rule.  

In Poland, the democratic transition of 1989 nonetheless left a difficult legacy that Poles are reckoning with to this day. That struggle is a ubiquitous backdrop as the country prepares for one of the most highly charged parliamentary elections in its democratic history, which will probably take place in mid-October.  

Law and Justice (PiS), the ruling nationalist-conservative party, hopes to become the first post-communist party in Poland to secure a third term in office. It seeks to achieve this by pitching itself as the only defender of Polish sovereignty in the face of moves toward further European integration. To rub the point home, it has introduced last-minute legislation to hold a referendum on the same day as the election asking Poles whether to accept the European Union’s (EU) plan to send developing world migrants to the country. 

Civic Platform, the liberal-centrist opposition party looking to unseat Law and Justice, has focused on attacking its record and accused it of threatening Poland’s democratic governance. Donald Tusk, Civic Platform’s leader and former president of the European Council, took aim at PiS’s uncompromising stance on the EU in his first major election rally. The former prime minister also told crowds in the southwestern city of Wrocław that “anyone who declares war on the West at this time threatens the security of our homeland.”  

The roots of this difficult political landscape can be traced back to the Round Table talks of 1989, at which the transition from communism was negotiated. As the centrally planned economy started to fracture following a wave of strikes, General Wojciech Jaruzelski of the Polish United Workers Party called for negotiations with Lech Wałęsa’s Solidarity opposition movement.  

After a lengthy discussion, both sides eventually agreed to hold free elections for the Senate. But Poland’s lower house, the Sejm, remained only partially contested, with the communists guaranteed 65% of the seats.  

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Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczynski, who co-founded Law and Justice in 2001 with his late twin brother Lech, believes Poland’s former communist elite simply adopted pro-European and pro-market positions to maintain their hold on power, and have aligned with Germany.  

Kaczynski argues that Tusk’s Civic Platform — which is closely aligned with the EU political leadership and Poland’s business elite — carries this stigma. In a speech to supporters in the town of Nysa in September, the Law and Justice leader intensified his anti-German rhetoric and claimed that an opposition victory in the upcoming elections would have serious ramifications for Poland’s development. The Law and Justice leader said, “Today we have in Poland a Polish faction — and that is us [the PiS] — and we have a German faction — and that is Civic Platform and the man [Donald Tusk] who is the personification of that path.” 

In 2015, Kaczynski’s party won an absolute majority in the parliamentary elections, giving it a mandate to enact its controversial agenda of judicial reform, which effectively increased the state’s power in the judicial arena. According to Kaczynski, the changes were necessary to protect Poland’s post-communist transition from foreign forces hostile to its Catholic values, part of a strong Christian tradition that dates back to the baptism of the founder of the first independent Polish state, Mieszko I, in 966. 

The liberal-centrist opposition and its supporters, on the other hand, see the direction Poland has taken under Law and Justice as an assault on core European values including democratic functioning and the rule of law. In a speech marking his comeback as Civic Platform leader, Tusk was unequivocal in his criticism of the Polish government, describing PiS as “evil” for its persistent undermining of the independence of the judiciary and freedom of the press.  

Civic Platform has seen a rise in support since Tusk’s return to frontline Polish politics and the party now poses a serious challenge to Law and Justice. Tusk hopes his sharp attacks on the ruling party will be enough to win back those voters who gave Law and Justice their support in the 2015 elections.   

But while PiS has suffered a fall in its polling numbers, it is far from certain that Civic Platform is on course to remove its nationalist-conservative rivals from office. Recent opinion polls put the right-wing alliance under Law and Justice at 35% (some way below its 43% vote share at the 2019 elections), compared to 31% for Civic Platform’s catch-all alliance, Civic Coalition. Those numbers have remained largely unchanged for more than a year. 

So Tusk still has a lot of work to do and many voters appear unconvinced that he is the answer. The Civic Platform leader served two terms as prime minister (2007-14) and presided over Poland after its accession to the EU, a time when many Poles became disillusioned with their political leadership after the wiretapping scandal of 2013-14. Civic Platform saw its vote share collapse to 24.1% in the 2015 elections, many low-income households viewed the centrist party as an out-of-touch elite unconcerned about the costs of social and economic change during the post-communist transition. 

If Tusk, the former European Union statesman, is to return to the Polish Chancellery in the fall, he will need to present the electorate with a positive alternative to Kaczynski’s tried-and-tested nationalist conservatism. As things stand, the only certainty appears to be that Polish politics will continue to be deeply divisive and highly charged. 

Hugo Blewett-Mundy is a commentator and consultant. He holds an MA in Russian and Post-Soviet Politics from the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies and writes about current affairs in Central and Eastern Europe.

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.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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