31 October 2019

Parliamentary elections in Poland. Optimistic perspectives for the Poles and the US partnership, headaches for the European Union

Cristian Eremia

For almost quarter of a century, the Euro-Atlantic political circles have claimed Poland was one of the most beautiful successful story in terms of the transition from liberal democracy to authentic economy. In comparison, no other big country in the former communist bloc, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, was capable of establishing such healthy democratic institutions, an effective business environment and, broadly, a flourishing society. Warsaw has chosen, its future geopolitical options, in such a short period, Polish realities suggesting that Poland has reached Italy or Canada’s democracy levels. As for Poland, irreversibility was, and it probably continues to be, despite pessimistic or malevolent labels, a perfectly predictable matter.

Image source: Mediafax

Almost all Western estimations and reports praising the Polish state have started to go down, both with dissatisfaction and amazement within EU, after 2015, when the Justice and League Party (PiS), a conservative and rightist patriotic part, with nationalist, populist and extreme right ideologies came to power. It seems that the leader of this party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has produced an illiberal revolution and an assault on democracy, has undermined the rule of law and reduces powers’ independency within the state. He did all of this through bad reforms in terms of justice and other key public institutions- like public mass-media or the sabotage of anti-corruption fight. Therefore, no one was surprised that after this month’s general parliamentary elections, many voices have claimed, when finding out who the winner was, that “After Poland, no other democracy is safe” or that “In populism’s era, certainty about the political future is a dangerous illusion”.

2019 general elections, crucial moment for Poland

The Polish electorate had a totally different perspective, although it is aware of all EU and other influent European political, analytical and media circles critics against the “gray” Kaczynski regime. Thus, the PiS government party won the October 13th parliamentary elections with 44% of Poles’ votes, recording a greater electoral performance than 2015, when they got only 37,5%. PiS got the majority in Parliament’s inferior chamber, Sejm (235 positions of 460). The only bad thing for PiS was that it lost the majority in the Senate, the superior chamber, where it only got 48 of the total 100 senator positions. All in all, it is an uncontested victory, which allow which will allow this party to continue with their leadership, according to conservative ideological concepts and programs. And that is, indeed, a great important moment for the Poles given the current complex European political and security circumstance.

The liberal opposition, the Civic Coalition (KO, led between 2007-2015 by European Council’s president, Donald Tusk) has capitalized almost 26% of the suffrages, and continues to complain about the fact that, through illiberal policies, PiS will put Poland’s democracy in danger. Other parties which have overcame the 5% electoral limit are the Left Alliance, which got 12% of the votes, the Polish Coalition (popular), with 8,5% and the Polish Confederation (extremist rightist tendencies), with 7% of the votes.

Most of the European observers think that the main reasons why PiS got electorate’s trust are the economic performances, respectively wealth’s increase. Indeed, Poland had, for the past 15 years, an ascendant economic increase rate. In 2017, the economic increase was 4,5%, in 2018 it was 5,1% and this year’s EU prognosis are estimating a 4,4% increase. During all this time, Poles’ net earnings got doubled and the unemployment rate reduced permanently, reaching 3,5%. The standard of living, as well as the stimulants to develop their own business, have increased a lot.

However, Europeans’ opposition and critics are revealing that PiS does not actually have concrete things to show off with, but it is only taking advantage of the economic results of many Polish hard-working politicians, who have managed transition’s shock economic therapy in the 90’s. The elite does not support PiS because of the justice policies and media’s freedom of expression.  Alternatively, PiS’s social policies are getting the support of the medium and inferior class, the vulnerable social groups and the young people, who are concerned with their future. Therefore, PiS got again many votes and it almost did not matter the other 2 million Poles, who chose to have a better living in the West after the state entered EU, back in 2004.

After the victory, the PiS leader, Morawiecki, has stated that the new government will continue to build, nationally, a prosperous society, promising new state funding, up to 7-10 billion euro per year. According to Kaczynski, one of PiS’s tasks will be the elimination of the inferiority complex of the Poles, emerged due to the idea that the standard of living in Poland is smaller than in Western Europe.

European Union’s headaches after Poland’s elections

Therefore, PiS’s victory shows an uncontested fact: the Polish society is mainly agreeing and supporting their state’s internal and foreign course, which was implement by the PiS prime-minister, Mateusz Morawiecki. Poland became the seven European economic power (with a GDP worth of 524 billion euro and an annual income of 13,5 thousands euro per inhabitant), and the society is enjoying this performance. All in all, however, PiS’s policies have troubled EU, particularly the European Commission and the European Parliament.  

The main issue EU calls on is that the PiS regime has created, and it seems it will continue doing so, illiberal policies. They are also claiming that the Polish governor did not accumulate or invest national funds for different economic development projects or a performant business environment. They are giving as example the fact that Poland is using around 160 bullion euro for the construction of an infrastructure with European funds allocated for the 2014-2020 period. EU’s greatest concerns in terms of Poland are mostly based on the fact that PiS’s policies are not matching Brussels’ ones. The Polish conservatives are Euro-skeptics (moderated, though), but are trying to block EU’s institutions interferences, especially CE’s, in member state’s internal policies businesses.

Furthermore, Poland is accused for undermining the European cohesion, acting without considering the EU procedures and standards in important files. Thus, CE has criticized the law on judges’ retirement age decrease, accusing that this will allow the government to eliminate uncomfortable judges to assign others politically and affect the independence of the justice system. The Polish government authorities are being accused for the systematic decrease of journalists’ freedom of expression and the disestablishment of the public mad media institution, which started to bother the political power. PiS is also harshly criticized for their refusal to implement CE’s decision to relocate the Muslim refugees and receive them on the Polish state (conservative politicians think that these refuges gave “contagious diseases” and they would also help Islamic extremist get in the country). Moreover, Poland joined PACE’s boycott, at the 70th anniversary of this organization. Not least, PiS is firmly opposing the tolerance to different sexual orientation, thinking that the “new European values” in terms of such things are completely different from Poles’ traditional lifestyle.


Thus, PiS leaders, especially Kaczynski and Morawiecki, have created great headaches for EC President, President Macron and Chancellor Merkel with their unpredictable measures that have had a negative impact on the rule of law, independence of justice and journalists’ freedom of expression. Poland has become even more uncomfortable for EU since it has been noted as a regional leader capable of influencing and supporting other member states that have entered into political disagreements with EU, deviating from Union’s policies on more or less similar matters. Morawiecki's government did not give in to pressures from EU, France and Germany even after the initiation of EU’s sanctioning procedure in Poland in 2018. On the contrary, PiS acted bravely in response to Chancellor Merkel's criticisms of "breach of democracy", calling on Berlin for "reparations" for the German occupation of Poland during World War II.

Therefore, it is no surprise that keeping PiS in power is not likely to produce optimistic expectations for EU. Germany and France - which offered Poland special treatment in the Weimar Trilateral, would have been much more comfortable if the Liberal opposition had won the elections. Especially since the European Council’s President, Donald Tusk, who promoted the European test of confidence, would have had chances to become prime minister or even president of Poland, after the mandate in Brussels.

Even in terms of EU’s defence and security issues, PiS has had its own political views, preferring the trans-Atlantic cooperation in the detriment of accessing new military capabilities from the European defence industry. PiS speculated that EU will undergo significant structural changes and argues that EU should act along NATO. Another essential element supported by the conservatives for Poland’s security was and will be the strengthening of regional military cooperation, especially in the Baltic Sea, with the Visegrad Group, Romania and other states on the eastern flank of NATO. This is why the new PiS government is expected to continue active political involvement in regional policy initiatives (such as "Bucharest 9" and "Three Seas") and to ease closer military cooperation in Eastern Europe along the northern-south axis.

Unpreceded consolidation of the relation with US

In opposition to the deterioration of relations with EU vector, the PiS government has created extremely strong links with US. Poland has long been known as a strong NATO supporter of trans-Atlantic links. But the deeper political dissensions of Warsaw with Brussels and the unfortunate events of recent years that have affected the European cohesion, pushed PiS to move to extremely close relations with the USA. And not just in terms of national defence and security, the deployment of US troops on Polish territory in NATO and bilateral format, or in the area of ​​major contracts for major military equipment procurement in the US.

US political leaders, and President Trump himself, have been extremely serious about the Polish conservatives in PiS who have turned Poland into a very special and long-term US partner, of course strategic in Central and Eastern Europe. This is also due to the fact that in the months leading up to the Polish parliamentary elections, the US offered Poland two unique gestures for an Eastern European state: Poland was nominated for Poland's inclusion in the Visa Wavier program of visa-free travel; the US president has decided to displace a thousand US military personnel in Poland from US military bases in other European states, to meet the Polish insistence on US to open a military base in Poland.

In return and given the more delicate context of the new US-EU relations, PiS will make Poland continue to be a supporter of the Trump administration and will use the remarkable relations with the US as a political tool in dissent with EU.

But Warsaw's relationship with Washington is not limited to the above. Trump, Kaczynski and Morawiecki oppose illegal migration of Muslims to their countries and accuses Germany of complicating Western policies in this highly sensitive issue. The US criticizes Germany for participating in the project of the new Nord Stream 2 project, which contradicts the logic of the sanctions policy imposed on Moscow. The PiS government is aligned with Washington policy, opposes the Nord Stream 2 project and is working to increase exports of American liquefied natural gas to Poland and to European states in general.

PiS ahead of four more years of governance and Zelensky’s Kiev

As for Ukraine, the results of the recent parliamentary elections in Poland are … mixed. On one hand, the PiS government upheld Ukraine's territorial integrity and pleaded with EU and NATO as a genuine and vocal "advocate" of Kiev for the West to pursue policies condemning and sanctioning Russia's aggressive behavior.

Poland has lobbied for US and EU to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine, precisely because the Ukrainian military is facing conflict with the separatists and the Russians in Donbas. It has allocated over one million dollars for humanitarian aid in Donbas. Two years ago, the Polish defense industry delivered to Ukraine about 200 Soviet-built infantry fighting vehicles under Soviet license and upgraded before delivery. Poland is one of the main trade-economic partners of Ukraine, and in 2018 the bilateral trade reached 7 billion euros. In order to make up for the shortage in the Polish labor market, the PiS government has allowed over 2.5 million Ukrainians to work annually in Poland.

In the last two years, however, the popular and political sympathy, as well as a certain kind of solidarity of the Poles with the Ukrainian neighbors after the Crimea 2014 moment, have been extremely diluted (if not even shattered) by the powerful emotional revitalization of extremely historical harsh disputes[1], which went from simple citizens to the top of the political pyramid. As such, Warsaw's attitude may continue, but not necessarily as "lawyer of Ukraine", but rather through its national interest in countering Moscow's foreign and military policy actions on Eastern Europe.

The new relationship with Poland remains quite uncertain for Ukraine, and the re-election of the PiS to the government suggests that the increasing conflictual situation based on reopening old wounds will be likely to seriously affect the Warsaw-Kiev dialogue. President Zelensky tried to cut the thorny historical problems with Polish President Andrej Duda, but the position of the latter does not give much optimism for the future. However, reopening serious historical problems and using them as a tool for nationalist-extremist propaganda invariably generates negative and unpredictable consequences on the reconciliation of their relations.

The Polish foreign policy on Moscow will not change

Unlike politicians in other European states, Polish conservatives in PiS are really serious about the threats Putin’s Russia pose to European security and the Polish state. Hereof, PiS made a strategic defense review ("Strategic Defense Review 2016") and adopted, in 2017, the document "Concept of Defense of the Republic of Poland 2017". Polish governors have changed the risk and threat paradigm assessment, meaning that the risk of military conflict in and around Poland is no longer considered a "marginal risk" - as has been the case in recent decades. Russia has been identified as the main risk factor, posing a major threat to Poland's security. It is estimated that Russia will be, by 2032, the main source of instability in NATO's eastern neighborhood, where Russia could even cause regional separatist conflicts in NATO states. There was an asymmetry of military capabilities on the eastern flank between Russia and NATO, which was the main reason why Poland launched a complex and costly program for 15 years[2] to strengthen defense capabilities.

On the other hand, PiS is not that naïve to think that raising the sanction will actually transform Moscow into a great partner that will withdraw its forces from Donbas (Crimea’s restoration is not even questioned here). The new PiS government will see Russia as a historical enemy, which is a possible threat for its stability and statehood. Warsaw is no longer accepting the idea that it could enter, again, under Moscow’s influence zone. Therefore, a conservative governance will permanently maintain both inside EU and the bilateral relation with US, the enlargement of sanctions against Russia.

Translated by Andreea Soare

[1] Polish conservatives recalled the 1943 Volyn massacre - "the genocide of the Polish people" (in fact an inter-ethnic conflict, wherein tens of thousands of people were killed) caused by the Ukrainian nationalists at that time. The Polish parliament called for the exhumation of some Poles in Ukraine, amended the law on the "National Remembrance Institution" and imposed new sanctions (including imprisonment for up to three years) for the adherence to actions of the current Ukrainian extremist nationalists, especially targeting the UPA organization. Polish right-wing extremists have destroyed Ukrainian monuments in Poland, and former President Poroshenko has responded by escalating the conflict with Poland, decreeing Ukraine's Armed Forces Day (October 14) and the day of setting up UPA. Zelensky's Ukraine allowed Poland to continue to exhume the remains of the Poles, with the Ukrainians expecting reciprocity from the Polish side, in particular the repeal of the aforementioned Polish law and the restoration of vandalized Ukrainian monuments in Poland.

[2] The possibility for the Polish Armed Forces (FAP) to be involved in military confrontations in a strategic interest area for Poland is boldly restored to the military planners' chart. Key areas have been established for large investments to equip the Polish army in the years to come, assuming that future confrontations in Eastern Europe will be carried out with the help of high-tech military equipment, but not necessarily very expensive and complex. The highest potential is held by laser equipment, energy-guided weapons, rockets and state-of-the-art aircraft, ISR research drones, anti-radar and anti-laser "kamikaze" drones, and small, undetectable radar smart drones to allow the penetration of the enemy space and the accomplishment of missions in "machine-to-machine conversation" regime. According to the projection, in 2032, the FAP will be some of the most modern and numerous in Europe, with five categories of army forces: Army Forces, Naval Forces, Air Forces, Special Operations Forces and Territorial Defense Forces. Polish conservatives’ central political idea was that the false dilemma of choosing between quality and quantity of capabilities must be eliminated, these characteristics being regarded as absolutely necessary for the construction of FAP.