Sunday

16th May 2021

Opinion

Polish election: analysing why PiS won

  • Jarosław Kaczyński faces a divided country, where citizens in favour of more democracy and the protection of civic space will continue to take to the streets to defend their rights (Photo: Piotr Drabik)

Sunday's election in Poland saw a clear win for the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, with results likely to give the rightwing party led by Jarosław Kaczyński an overall majority in the parliament for the next four years.

The election solidifies the party's rule, allowing it to continue its controversial and illiberal attacks on the justice system, media and cultural institutions.

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However, while the outcome confirms the party's success in making its messages resonate with a large number of Poles, Kaczyński faces a divided country, where citizens in favour of more democracy and the protection of civic space will continue to take to the streets to defend their rights.

While it is important to understand what drives PiS supporters to respond to the party's nationalistic and conservative stance, we should also acknowledge the high degree of consistent, civil activism in Poland which is calling for more democracy and pluralism.

PiS' dominant position in the political spectrum can be explained by the Poles affinity for some of the core themes that the party employs in its political agenda and discourse, like support for traditional values, national pride and patriotism.

Ahead of May's European elections, we conducted opinion polls and research in 13 EU member states to explore drivers of democratic and undemocratic behaviours across the European Union.

Among EU member states, Poland shows one of the highest percentages of citizens that are very proud of their nationality (48 percent), with only Estonia beating that number.

Over two thirds of Poles (73 percent) strongly believe that it is important to live in a country where people respect the country's traditions.

With more than half believing that civil life and society has deteriorated in Poland, 80 percent of Poles see the need for more unity in their country.

In this context, the highly polarised political discourse, often mired with hate speech which has led to violence, is seen by many in Poland as a serious internal threat – 40 percent see the rise of hate speech as an issue of concern.

At the same time, there is a strong feeling of disempowerment in Poland with only 11 percent of citizens believing that they can make a difference in their government.

Moreover, support for democracy was particularly low in Poland with only 19 percent consistently supporting democracy; only Hungary (16 percent) and Bulgaria (15 percent) scored lower.

Furthermore, trust in the country's parliament is low compared to other states, between three and four on a scale of 1 to 10. Only Bulgaria has a lower score whereas Danes have the highest level of support for their parliament.

Despite the above, nearly 70 percent agree that Poles we 'must defend the independence of local governments and institutions.

Nearly half agree that "rights of Poles to freely assembly and question government is at risk", nearly half disagree with the statement that the "rule of law in Poland is strong" and nearly half disagree with the statement that the "Polish judiciary is still independent".

These figures explain the strong and constant mobilisation of citizens that have been taking to the streets to defend their civic space and rights, calling for defending democracy and demanding a political shift away from illiberalism.

In the past, the PiS government has also targeted women's rights groups through raids and denial of funding, calling out activists supporting women's rights and labelling their work as dangerous to families and traditional values.

Our polling has shown that among EU member states, Poland has one of the highest percentages of hostile sexism, with 1-in-five Poles holding sexist views towards women.

Attacks on minority groups and the use of identity politics has also been a feature of PiS rhetoric and has fuelled their stance in the migration crisis.

Our research found that around half of Poles see Islam as a threat and believe the gap between the Muslim and non-Muslim community cannot be bridged, with 30 percent holding very negative stereotypes of Muslims.

EU scapegoat

Another feature in the PiS discourse has been their desire to portray Poland as a country that is being unfairly attacked by the EU.

However, the majority of Poles appear to have a relatively positive view of the EU.

Scoring highest among EU member states, Polish citizens are in fact most likely to look at the EU as being democratic, effective and important for their country's future, rather than seeing it as a threat to their country or seeing the EU as being intrusive and remote.

This positive attitude towards the EU felt by Poles is at odds with the government's confrontational stance in its dealings with EU institutions but explain the fact that PiS has not advocated leaving the EU.

Interestingly, when it comes to trust in institutions, Poles tend to trust the European Parliament more that their national parliament.

All the above support the state of division we were already viewing in the run-up to the elections.

Anti-government and pro-EU, pro-civil rights protests and civic campaigns have been taking place in Poland for months, with protesters taking to the streets in favour of women's rights, free media and the independence of the judiciary.

There is no doubt that Poland's election result will have a big impact on the country's future, reaching far beyond the next government term and with political effects likely to be felt beyond its borders.

While we should be prepared for further attempts by the government to limit civil liberties and to increase its influence over the judiciary, media, education and civil service, we must also understand the attitudes that guide Polish citizens in their political views.

More importantly, civil society, foundations and political organisations at local, national and EU level need to support Poland's active citizens, who are mobilised and ready to stand up for more democracy and demand a pluralistic government.

Author bio

Petros Fassoulas is secretary general of the European Movement International.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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