“All the blood is drained out of democracy – it dies – when only half the population votes.” The words of Hunter S. Thompson which seem particularly apposite as we look forward to two elections in Poland – those to the European parliament on Sunday, and those to the Polish parliament in the autumn. In the 2014 European parliamentary election the turnout was only 23.83 per cent and in the 2015 Polish parliamentary elections 50.92 per cent; disappointing so soon after the restoration of democratic elections.
Be that as it may, it seems that this year the turnout will be greater, with the opposition parties having come together for the European parliamentary elections as the European Coalition to fight the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party. And it appears it may be a close-run result. According to a recent poll by IBRiS, PiS is backed by 37.9 per cent, with the opposition European Coalition supported by 34.7 per cent. The new Wiosna (Spring) party, spearheaded by Robert Biedroń, was at 7.6 per cent, followed by Kukiz’15, with 5.5 per cent.
According to the poll, some 39 per cent of respondents said they would vote in the elections which is some improvement, since the turnout in European parliamentary elections in Poland has never exceeded 25 per cent. The poll was carried out from May 12 to 18 on 1,000 adult Poles, using computer-assisted telephone interviews.
And since this is an election year, the PiS government has been making sure that its election promises to its core supporters have been honoured. Last week, the president signed into law the extension to the 500+ programme, to give families, from1st July, a payment of PLN 500 per month for every child under the age of 18, and not just the second and subsequent children as had been the case hitherto.
As part of the so called ‘Kaczynski Five’ programme, pensioners will also receive an additional annual payment equal to one month’s state pension. At an election rally last month, the PiS party leader, Jarosław Kaczyński also promised farmers payments for cattle and pigs, suggesting that this money would come from the EU, although the latter made it clear that this was unlikely to happen.
PiS has calculated, rightly it seems, that focussing on its core vote of families, pensioners and farmers will pay electoral dividends. And for many, particularly outside the major urban areas which have seen the greatest benefits from Poland’s economic success over the last 30 years, PiS’s programme, particularly the 500+, has a made a real difference.
This largely rural electorate, with its more limited access to sources of information than the state owned Telewizja Polska, which has become increasingly partisan since 2015, is harder for the opposition to reach. In addition, it is this electorate which is also more susceptible to the views of the Church, for whom the views of the more socially conservative PiS seem more agreeable than the those of the opposition, especially in relation to family values.
But it would be wrong to see the elections solely in those terms. The opposition has also not so far succeeded in delivering a clear message. Its support of the EU action against Poland over the rule of law concerns has enabled PiS to portray itself as the doughty defender of Polish interests against an overbearing EU, even though the EU in Poland enjoys very high levels of support, with PiS itself saying it has no plans to leave. Besides, for many, the minutiae of PiS’s judicial reforms are simply too obscure, and opposition protests about these can be made to look like so much sour grapes.
Last week, in the wake of the film, Tell No One, which dealt with paedophilia in the Church, after the PiS party leader had said it would do so, the government was quick to introduce legislation providing for offenders convicted of sex crimes against minors to serve mandatory jail terms. Under the new rules, the maximum prison term for child rape would be increased from 15 to 30 years, with the most serious offenders facing life imprisonment. The Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro had earlier appointed a team of prosecutors to investigate events depicted in the film. There is little ammunition for the opposition there either, it seems.
If the European Coalition does do well in the European parliamentary elections, and if the it continues in some form into the Polish elections in the autumn, then the opposition may mount a serious challenge to PiS but, given an economy that continues to perform well and key election promises kept, it seems, absent something dramatic, that PiS will win a second term in government. But ultimately how it turns out will depend on how they turn out.