The Law and Justice government (PiS) has been in power in Poland since 2015 without interruption and, despite many impediments, is still leading the polls, with genuine prospects for a third term. The secrets to PiS’s success are its socially desirable reforms, the weakness of the opposition, the country’s economic growth, and the appreciation of provincial Poland, who had been neglected by preceding governments. These factors might suggest similarities between Poland and Hungary – between PiS and Fidesz – in the European debate. There are, nonetheless, significant differences between them. The Poland of 2021 is a country that has no party oligarchy and has a pluralist media. Contrary to opinions in liberal circles, PiS is consistently anti-Russian and pro-Ukrainian. Unlike other right-wing parties in the EU, PiS does not want to leave the EU or break it from the inside, but to reform it in a spirit of subsidiarity.
September polls of party preferences indicated that support for the main opposition centrist party, Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska), averaged 24% – a slight decrease on its results for August. It is thus clear that the return of the former Polish prime minister (2007–14) and until recently president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, to lead the Civic Platform has not brought about a breakthrough in its rivalry with PiS.
In terms of dethroning PiS, Tusk’s return was not the only factor hailed as a potential gamechanger on the Polish political scene. One year has just passed since powerful protests shook Poland. The opposition’s stance against the Constitutional Tribunal judgment of October 2020 that found it unconstitutional to consent to terminate a pregnancy in the event of a child with a prenatal defect resulted in record protests that it was thought would sweep away PiS. But they did not.
Another factor that was supposed to overwhelm PiS was the COVID-19 pandemic. The need to introduce numerous restrictions and the large numbers of additional deaths would supposedly shatter government support. However, after more than a year and a half of pandemic, according to the public opinion research centre CBOS, 52% of Poles assess the government’s actions as good or decidedly good.
Tensions in the United Right (Zjednoczona Prawica) camp aroused further hope for change. From the outset of PiS’s second term, i.e. in the autumn of 2019, there were disputes between PiS and its coalition partners from Zbigniew Ziobro’s Solidary Poland (Solidarna Polska) and Jarosław Gowin’s Agreement (Porozumienie).
Add to this the opposition’s control of the Senate, it might have seemed that government paralysis must provoke early elections. Nevertheless, that prospect is receding. The government formally lost its parliamentary majority, but pulled the vast majority of deputies who had previously worked with Gowin over to its side. After six years of PiS rule, the party still enjoys more support in Poland than any other.
What explains this? Does the quality of its rule justify this steadfast support? Every year, the Centre for Analysis of the Jagiellonian Club (CAKJ) presents a report summarising the reforms in the key public policies. The assessments are made by CAKJ experts from individual state sectors. A reading of all annual assessments provides an overview of the main successes and failures of the governments of both Beata Szydło (2016–17) and Mateusz Morawiecki (2017–). Analysing both standards of political life and reforms in individual state sectors, many of the decisions have been bittersweet. PiS’s modus operandi brought benefits in one field while incurring costs in another. The successes of PiS’s rule are very close to its failures.
The best example of this paradox is seen in how PiS itself operates. Voters like PiS’s strong determination to implement the reforms it announces. The vast majority (but not all) of the promises made after 2015 were kept, which had rarely been seen before. Those include: lowering the age of retirement (from 67 to 60 for women and to 65 for men), abolishing lower secondary schools (which meant a return to an education system of 8 years of primary school and 4 years of high school), and introducing the 500+ programme (PLN 500 per month [i.e. over USD 100] to parents for each child from birth to age of 18). And these are just a few examples from a long list of matters that were sorted.
On the other hand, the desire for quick wins led the government to take shortcuts and to show a serious disregard for procedures. This anti-institutional approach is also reflected in many ad hoc actions taken in the heat of the political moment. These opportunistic ploys reduce the value of strategic documents, because impulsive decisions very often disrupt the logic of planned actions, hindering consistent, long-term policy in many areas.
One benefit of PiS’s time in power has been an increase in pluralism in the ruling elite. Thanks to PiS, many people (especially those with conservative views) who had been outside the circles forming the Third Polish Republic had perceived a glass ceiling before 2015 and were overlooked by state structures. PiS gave them latitude to act. Unfortunately, the flip side to this story is the tendency to take revenge on unpopular elites, resulting in staffing reshuffles, including when they were unwarranted. Worse still, the limited numbers of high-quality specialists meant that new heads of public institutions were nominated on the grounds of party loyalty rather than competence.
PiS has democratised Poland. By listening to the voice of the Polish provinces, and not the elites, it became their spokesperson. The problem is that this correction, though valuable in terms of quality of democracy, was superficial. PiS’s attitude to “the people” is often paternalistic. It is hard to defend a dismissive attitude towards the entire non-governmental sector and the public consultation process. PiS listens to the people’s expectations, but wants to respond to them on its own, without leaving room for the decisions it has taken to be corrected.
The fight against corruption and the absence of oligarchs is undoubtedly an underestimated success for Polish democracy. While this first problem was still significant in the first two decades of the Third Polish Republic and has been significantly diminished, the second never arose. PiS, unlike Orban, does not work on “steroids” supplied by friendly businessmen, because … well, there aren’t any.
In Poland, politics and business are quite heavily separated, and in the case of PiS one might say the division is really quite radical. It is difficult to point to any businessman who owes his market position to PiS. It is also difficult to point to any entrepreneur whose financial support might be said to be fundamental to the party.
Unfortunately, while it is difficult to talk about systemic corruption, political corruption has recently become commonplace, with positions being offered to MPs from other parties in exchange for switching sides to PiS in the Sejm – and this problem has recently been unprecedented in its scale.
PiS will be remembered as the party that introduced a large-scale redistribution. Many social groups have experienced a significant improvement in conditions, with funds having been transferred directly to them – families with children, the disabled, and retirees. Unfortunately, these redistributions often fell along partisan lines, with the party’s potential electorate benefitting more. The most spectacular example of partisan activity was the fund supporting local governments suffering under the pandemic. The funds went mainly to those local governments run by PiS politicians. In places where people associated with the opposition were in power, far fewer resources were made available.
Turning to individual public policies, it is impossible not to start off with economic policy. The decisive departure from economic neoliberalism pleased voters tired of nigh-on three decades of transformation efforts that always left a shortage of funds for social policy. This new path saw a minimum-wage hike, lower taxes for those least well-off, and the introduction of ambitious social programmes – mainly involving direct transfers. Nevertheless, criticism has been levelled at the tendency to limit market competition in favour of state-owned enterprises and their “manual control” towards goals not in line with any business strategy.
These social transfers were made possible by, among other things, an effective tightening of the tax system. The radical increase in state revenues allowed for higher expenditures without a negative knock-on for public finances. Not only that, but public debt was falling as a percentage, despite the lowering of taxes. Income tax was reduced universally from 18% to 17% and to 0% for young people, while corporate income tax was reduced for small and medium-sized companies, and VAT was reduced on many products.
Nevertheless, all these measures were implemented not through a coherent tax system reform, but as a gradual succession of “patches” on an already complex system. The key reform of PiS’s second term is no different in this regard: the “New Polish Deal” significantly increases the tax-free income threshold and makes the tax system more progressive. The changes – introducing reliefs, exemptions and other measures – will make the Polish tax system extremely complicated and generate costs for both the tax authorities and businesses.
Larger budgetary funds have allowed for increased financing of public services. In recent years, salaries have been raised for many public sector workers, including healthcare professionals and teachers. In addition, further funds have been created for developing infrastructure and transport services, especially in small towns. Despite expenditure increasing, and significantly so in healthcare, this often does not visibly translate into quality. The inability to implement more complex reforms that don’t boil down to a simple transfer of funds can be seen in many state sectors.
In terms of energy policy, a success for PiS has been its effective fight for gas independence from Russia. This is happening through the implementation of the long-planned Baltic Pipe gas pipeline to Norway, the expansion of the LNG terminal in Świnoujście, the building of connections with Slovakia and Lithuania, and the fight with Gazprom that delayed Nord Stream 2. The government pursued an amendment to the EU gas directive that would remove ambiguities and subject the gas pipeline to EU law. In addition, Poland lobbied forcefully for the implementation of US sanctions against Gazprom – which were put in place in December 2019. Moreover, the state-owned utilities provider PGNiG secured a court order for USD 1.5 billion in gas bills overpaid due to price inflation.
On the other hand, energy transformation is being implemented inconsistently. Mining reform remains a challenge, the development of wind energy has been blocked, and competition in the energy and gas market has been limited to state-owned companies.
PiS invested heavily in culture by creating new institutions such as the National Freedom Institute, which effectively created a comprehensive support system for various categories of non-governmental organisation. The media market is now much more pluralistic than it was before 2015. On the other hand, PiS has transformed Telewizja Polska into a propaganda tool that supports it and attacks the opposition far more than under previous governments.
After TVP, the justice system is the second greatest symbol of negative changes. Drawn-out disputes with EU institutions over compliance with the rule of law have led to further revisions and increased chaos in the judiciary. Despite PiS’s often accurate diagnoses of the need to subject judiciary power to democratic control and to depart from a self-regulating model that was transforming into a corporate judicial rule, the changes have swung the pendulum too far towards political control, especially with regard to the Constitutional Tribunal. Moreover, they have sparked disputes over their constitutionality.
In terms of security, PiS’s greatest success has undoubtedly been the strengthening of NATO’s military presence on its eastern flank, including via the presence of American soldiers in Poland. Alongside that, bilateral military cooperation with the United States has been strengthened. This story is offset, however, by the modernisation of the Polish army. The ruling camp purchased Abrams tanks and F-35s from the Americans, which experts say should not have been bought because other priorities, such as completing air defence systems, were more salient.
Even the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to cut two ways. On the one hand, the economic results were relatively good compared to the EU as a whole. The Anti-Crisis Shield put in place was effective in preventing many companies from collapse. At the other extreme of comparisons with the EU, there have been above-average numbers of direct and indirect COVID-19 deaths, which has created the impression that the government won the economic battle but lost against the pandemic.
3 sources of success
The simplified review of PiS’s achievements presented here is far from unambiguous. The successes constitute a list is as long as the failures. Certainly, if this balance had determined the election results, PiS would have had trouble renewing its mandate to rule in 2019, and they would certainly not have a chance in the next elections in 2023. What is it about PiS that wins the hearts of Poles, if not the achievements of the government presented here? It’s a combination of three factors.
First, the last few years have been Poland’s best period of economic growth. Between 2014 and 2021, GDP increased from 66% of the EU average to 77%. Since 2015, foreign public debt has fallen by almost 9%, and the average salary has risen by 34%. Since 2016, Poland has been recording an annual and consistently growing surplus of exports over imports every year.
The economic results have translated into measurable social indicators. Since 2015, there has been a thirty-six percent decrease in unemployment. Poland has led the EU in reducing poverty (down 57%). While the numbers of people emigrating from Poland increased by almost 400,000 between 2010 and 2015, in the 2015–19 they fell by 100,000. These results have been felt very measurably by Poles. While in 2015 fewer than half of Poles admitted to being satisfied with how they lived, at the beginning of 2020 (i.e. on the eve of the pandemic) as many as seventy percent of Polish residents were satisfied. Of course, it is disputed to what extent Poland’s economic success was down to PiS and to what extent it was influenced by other factors. But for voters this question is irrelevant.
Secondly, PiS responds very well to the cultural needs of small-town Poland, who in population terms outnumber Poland’s biggest agglomerations (led by Warsaw): there are fewer people in total in Poland’s largest cities than there are in small towns and villages. These places are moderately conservative, which results from Poland’s specific set of circumstances. Despite advancing secularism, Catholicism and its moral system are still an axiological point of reference for millions of Poles, and this distinguishes Poland from the rest of Europe. Small-town residents prefer the local – and that which is rooted in Polish tradition – over the global. Therefore, they are wary of cultural trends that do not respect their own beliefs.
They want to be in the EU, but they also value sovereignty. They want a Western European standard of living, and at the same time reject the paternalistic handling of the Western European elite, who always “know better” how democracy should function in Central and Eastern Europe.
PiS effectively serves not only the material needs of the Polish provinces through direct transfers, but also responds to needs related to dignity. PiS – in contrast to the liberal elite, which treats conservatism as barrier to development – gives millions of Poles security in their identity.
Thirdly, a major problem for the opposition is that PiS has had nobody to lose to since the Civic Platform began fighting the left for the most metropolitan electorate, leaving PiS to monopolise the provinces. The largest Polish cities are culturally and intellectually the most influential and are overrepresented in the media, but they are not the ones that decide elections.
PiS is not Fidesz; Poland is not Hungary
Socially desirable reforms, the weakness of the opposition, economic growth, and an appreciation of the provinces rather than of the largest metropolises are factors that seem to draw comparisons between Poland and Hungary, between PiS and Fidesz, in the European debate. However, it should be clearly stated that despite some similarities and Polish–Hungarian cooperation, there are significant differences between them in some places, in both domestic and foreign policy.
Domestically, it should be emphasised that in Poland the vast majority of the influential media are unfavourable to the government because they represent the progressive trend. The taking control of state government television and radio means that there are now anti-PiS, pro-PiS and neutral media alike in the public debate. While the ideal system would have all TV stations judging the government objectively without ideological prejudices and sympathies, the situation is better than before 2015, when both private and state-owned stations represented a single anti-PiS stance.
In addition, the current situation is incomparable to Hungary, where the opposition media has been pacified by Orban’s camp. Moreover, PiS does not have its own oligarchy (which is becoming dangerous in Hungary); nor is it building one. The difference between Warsaw and Budapest is that Morawiecki invests in his voters with EU money, while developing provincial Poland, whereas Orban is investing in his oligarchs, who pay him back in loyalty and support.
PiS is consistently anti-Russian and pro-Ukrainian at the same time. Long before Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the PiS community warned Europe against Moscow’s imperialism, calling on both the EU and NATO to strongly support Ukraine and offer the prospect of membership in both organisations. Since the outbreak of the war in Donbas, the party has constantly emphasised the need for sanctions to be upheld against Russia, despite many in Europe wanting them lifted and a return to “business as usual” with Putin. It is worth adding that PiS has never considered historical disputes with Ukraine as an argument for abandoning the strategic partnership with Kyiv.
In contrast to other right-wing parties in the EU, PiS does not want to leave the Union or break it from the inside, but to reform it in the spirit of greater sovereignty for member states and respect for the idea of subsidiarity, which is a treaty principle that supranational institutions are violating. It is worth emphasising that the PiS government, though accused of taking an anti-EU stance, has itself proposed new European taxes and the incurring of shared debt, and supports the eastwards expansion of the EU, despite the fact that these countries would compete with Poland for EU funds.
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