Ushering in Poland’s Reagan Democrats

The leaders and followers of the populist conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) consider a symbolic litmus test of international relations the previous center-left government’s egregious manhandling of the Smolensk Polish presidential plane crash in April 2010. They reject the echo-chamber consent of Warsaw’s incumbent liberal regime for Moscow’s ukaze that no foul play was involved in the plane disaster that killed Poland’s president, Lech Kaczyński. They would like an international investigation. This seems to be non-negotiable because the deceased president’s twin brother Jarosław Kaczyński is the head of PiS.


By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz | November 2, 2015

In a watershed event, Poland’s 50.9% eligible voters elected for the first time no Communists, no coalition government, and no plethora of parties. Instead, the people tapped the big tent populist-conservative Law and Justice Party (Prawo i SprawiedliwośćPiS) to secure a majority of seats and, thus, to rule alone.

This is the first time in Poland’s post-Communist history that a major political party was able to dominate the parliament (Sejm) with an absolute majority. PiS won 37.58% of the vote, which translates into 235 of 460 deputies. No coalition is necessary.

The margin is slim, though: PiS commands a majority by 5 deputies. In addition, its big tent formula renders party discipline difficult to maintain. In past parliaments, Law and Justice lost deputies who either defected to the governing party or launched their own ephemeral groups. This is a serious handicap that must be overcome by serious whipping. Further, despite its solid victory, PiS sadly lacks the supermajority needed to change the constitution, which would sever the nation’s lingering ties to the legacy of Communism. However, PiS leadership vows to look for votes outside of the party to achieve constitutional reform. The leaders will woo conservatives, populists, nationalists, and agrarians from other parties.

The runner up is the Civic Platform (Platforma ObywatelskaPO), former senior partner in the defeated center-left coalition government. It secured 138 seats (24.09% of the vote). Another big-tent outfit, PO is perceived as a corruption-ridden centrist, liberal, libertine, post-Communist, KGB-infiltrated, and crony capitalist enterprise. However, it does contain a slim conservative component. PO is the main opposition locus. It is shaken to the core by its stunning electoral defeat and awaits a time of reckoning for its misdeeds while in power.

PO can count, to an extent, on two allies: liberals and agrarians. First, its nihilist, anti-traditionalist youth clone, even more libertine and libertarian then the Civic Party mother ship, Modern (Nowoczesna) orientation scored 28 seats (7.6%). Hunted by persistent rumors of vote rigging, the post-Communist agrarians, the Polish Peasant Party (Polskie Stronnictwo LudowePSL), barely squeaked into the parliament with 16 deputies (5.13%). It was PO’s junior coalition partner but, as dialectically conditioned by its pre-1989 Communist puppet pedigree, PSL is capable of working with virtually any party in power for the right price. Its former red agrarian nomenklatura leadership is open to any deal. It may even agree to a new constitution.

The verdict is still out on the populist, ad-hoc grouping dubbed “Kukiz-15” (after its nominal head, an over the hill rock star). Almost as numerous as both Nowoczesna and PSL, it boasts 42 members of parliament (8.81%).  “Kukiz-15” is rather hard to define ideologically. It rode a wave of disgust against the PO government but its political operatives elected to the Sejm stem from all sides of the political spectrum. By some estimates circa 15 deputies are hard core Christian nationalists, perhaps 20 politicians harken from the ultra-libertine and leftist (now defunct) Palikot movement, and the rest are virtually unknown with darkly rumored Communist secret police ties. Watch “Kukiz-15” hemorrhage parliamentarians to other clubs. It will most likely be diminished by the defections mainly to PiS, which has most to offer in terms of pork.

All in all, only five parties now sit in the Sejm. This is the smallest number of parties in the post-1989 parliament ever. Usually exotic groups managed to squeeze in at the margins. Not this time.  PiS dominates, if not as comfortably as it would like to, at the moment, but PO is in retreat.

What is perhaps most notable of the present Sejm is the absence, also for the first time, of the direct successors of Poland’s Communists. This is a symbolic and final break with the post-Communist system enshrined at the so-called Round Table negotiations of Spring 1989 which culminated in the rigged elections of June 1989, where 70% of all seats were guaranteed to the Communist party and its allies, while only 30% were contested. This deal is now dead.

To enter the parliament in the Fall of 2015, as they had for 25 years, former leaders of the Polish (Communist) United Workers Party set up a broad leftist coalition – the United Left (Zjednoczona Lewica ZL). It incorporated unreformed post-Communists, greens, feminists, and other radical leftists. But it failed to capture a single seat. It is true that 7.5% of the electorate favored ZL, but it did not clear the mark since the threshold for formal coalition groups is higher than for single parties.  This was shocking only to those who believe in post-Communist and liberal-run pre-electoral polls that placed the United Left comfortably within the margin of victory. Conversely, some of the same surveys gloated that the paleo-conservative and libertarian KORWIN party would barely score 1%. Yet, it took 4.76% of the vote in fierce competition with a number of similar hard right outfits. KORWIN is an avatar of a succession of organizations that have been headed by the same enfant terrible, now septuagenarian leader and Eurodeputy Janusz Korwin Mikke.  Whereas, the far left consistently grows weaker, the hard right steadily inches forth in Poland’s electoral politics.

What can we expect from Law and Justice Governance?

Well, we can expect Law and Justice to try to please its populist conservative electorate. And its voters and followers uncannily resemble Reagan Democrats. These largely church-going folks are socially conservative not only as far as traditional morality but also the national economy. Thus, they look to the state and, to a lesser extent, nationalist-syndicalist union “Solidarity” for protection against crony capitalism which, in Poland, passes for Big Business. The PiS elites and the rank-and-file identify this kind of pathological economic “system” with post-Communist kleptocrats and their confederates, including Westerners who, pragmatically, once cozied up to the old red nomenklatura, and, later, to its liberal successors to be able to do business with Warsaw. There surely will be a readjustment. That means that Poland will look for Western businesses untainted by post-Communist ties and it will favor domestic capitalists with clean hands. The electorate demands transparency and punishment of the kleptocrats and their state bureaucratic enablers.

Further, the followers of PiS are muscular on patriotism and national defense and staunchly pro-NATO. They are less then comfortable with Brussels and its social engineering, in particular anything that targets traditional family. For historic reasons, they are worried about Berlin’s close relationship with Moscow. On the international scene, then, we are in for a more pro-American administration. Expect an unabashed return of the pro-Atlanticist option, and hence a more robust focus on NATO (and defense), closer ties with London, less kow-towing to Brussels, and a veto to Berlin’s coddling of Moscow. Admittedly, some of this will be a continuity of Warsaw’s foreign policy under the incumbent, center-left coalition government headed by the Civic Platform. But the continuity will be of essence and not form. The PO privately, if rudely vetted its frustration with Barack Obama’s “leading from behind” doctrine and Angela Merkel’s amorous calisthenics with Vladimir Putin. Publicly, the Polish government smiled shyly at all and sundry holding out its cap in a beggar’s gesture, while endeavoring to work behind the scenes to secure the state’s interests.

Now, expect no self-debasement or squeamishness at the foreign policy level. Expect no diplomatic double-speak that passes for sophistication and finesse among experts. Prepare for giving witness with tact, whenever possible. If not, prepare for the firmness which characterizes Budapest.  In fact, be ready for a Polish version of Hungary’s foreign policy. The crucial difference is that there will most likely be no realignment towards Moscow. There can’t be a reversal of alliances because the PiS is heir to the old Piłsudskite concept that Russia is a greater threat to Poland’s freedom than Germany. Further, during its earlier stint in power (2005-2007) PiS was an early, and clairvoyant, critic of Putin’s imperial ambitions. Hence the Poles pursued the so-called neo-Promethean policy of assisting nations targeted by the Kremlin, including Georgia and Ukraine.

The leaders and followers of PiS consider a symbolic litmus test of international relations the previous center-left government’s egregious manhandling of the Smolensk Polish presidential plane crash in April 2010. They reject the echo-chamber consent of Warsaw’s incumbent liberal regime for Moscow’s ukaze that no foul play was involved in the plane disaster that killed Poland’s president, Lech Kaczyński. They would like an international investigation. This seems to be non-negotiable because the president’s twin brother Jarosław Kaczyński is the head of PiS. But he is also a very pragmatic and patient veteran politician capable of much self-sacrifice and discretion, if the raison d’etat demands it. He may yet eschew triumphalism and continue working behind the scenes, keeping low profile himself and limiting public exposure of the cases that are considered controversial, even when, as the Smolensk disaster, impact him personally.

The Law and Justice victory promises that there will be law and justice. Thus, the party’s ascent is pregnant with momentous implication for the nation and the world. And it should be good for the United States.


Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he also holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is author of Intermarium: The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.

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