“If there be no enemy there is no fight. If no fight, no victory, and if no victory there is no crown.” The words of historian Thomas Carlyle which seen apposite in the light of last week’s elections to the European parliament where enemies, real and imagined, were conjured up in a bid to seek the votes of an electorate seemingly increasingly disenchanted with the status quo. For Poland’s governing Law and Justice party (PiS) the enemy was those who would seek to undermine Poland’s cultural values, the family, and the Church.
Speaking at an election rally last month, party leader Jarosław Kaczyński hit out against this enemy, which he described as an “offensive against traditional values and common sense.” He said that PiS candidates would act as “a dam against evil that is growing in the EU and which is really threating our civilisation” rooted in Christianity. “The defence of Poland and Polish interests, but also the defence of this civilisation—that is the mission of our delegation … our Polish mission in the European Union.”
In the event, he was proved right. According to the official results as announced by the National Electoral Commission on Monday, PiS won 45.38 per cent of the votes, ahead of the European Coalition (EC) on 38.47 per cent, and Wiosna (Spring) on 6.06 per cent. The remaining parties failed to reach the minimum 5 per cent threshold. The turnout was a record 45.68 per cent.
In terms of seats in the new European parliament, PiS will have 27, the European Coalition 22, and Wiosna 3. This was a better result for PiS than exit polls had initially indicated, with their suggestion that the result would be closer and that the nationalist Confederation would achieve 6.1 per cent. In the event it received 4.55 per cent, insufficient for any seats at all. Those who might have expected the higher turn out to have translated into higher votes for the opposition were disappointed.
This election was seen by many as a key test for Poland’s political parties ahead of the parliamentary elections in the autumn. A victory for the EC would have proved the worth of having a single opposition coalition to take on the governing party. Indeed, with so much fragmentation elsewhere caused by the rise of smaller populist parties, it might have heralded an era of a more or less two-party system in Poland.
It seems, however, that those parties that made up the EC still have work to do. After Monday’s defeat, the leader of opposition Civic Platform, part of the European Coalition, said that the party needs “a good political idea” to “mobilise voters much than now.” “What is the idea?” he asks. “I think we just have to find it”. Quite.
For his part, Spring party leader Robert Biedrońsaid that “only a strong Spring is a guarantee of PiS losing power”. He said he will not join a pre-election coalition with other opposition parties. “We need strength in diversity so that people have something to vote for. Let’s give them the chance to choose.” Perhaps Spring’s progressive and anti-Church agenda may simply be too much for other members of the EC, for example the PSL party whose more conservative, rural supporters may feel more at home with PiS than in an alliance with Spring.
Be that as it may, any signs of division amongst the opposition coalition are welcome to PiS which is now in a stronger position than it expected. Among the six former Polish prime ministers who were elected is Beata Szydło who received an unprecedented 524,951 votes, the most anyone in Poland has ever won in elections to the European parliament. As Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński said on Monday of the party’s performance: “This is the best result gained by any party after 1989 in any type of elections. No one has ever gained more than 45 per cent.”
And that is not the only problem for the opposition. Without a clear message, there seems little chance that there will be sufficient appeal to voters to defeat PiS in the autumn elections. The opposition task is made all the harder when faced with PiS’s clear message, a history of election promises kept, and a strong economy. Of course, in a democracy all government is leasehold not freehold, but it seems more likely than not that PiS’s lease will be renewed this autumn, and the crown will remain in its hands for a while longer.