Conservative Party Returns to Power in Poland

Many Poles felt they weren’t sharing in the prosperity the ruling liberal party had brought.

Beata Szydło, the prime ministerial candidate of the Polish Law and Justice party, takes part in an election debate, October 19
Beata Szydło, the prime ministerial candidate of the Polish Law and Justice party, takes part in an election debate, October 19 (PiS)

Poland’s conservatives unseated the ruling Civic Platform in an election on Sunday, ending eight years of liberal party rule that saw the country’s economy catch up up with the rest of Europe and its foreign policy increasingly aligned with neighboring Germany.

Despite the Civic Platform’s successful stewardship of the economy, many Poles felt they weren’t sharing in the newfound prosperity.

Poland’s economy has grown almost 50 percent since it joined the European Union in 2004. But Euroskeptic sentiment has been rising, especially since the Civic Platform let in more refugees from the war in Syria earlier this year.

Youth unemployment, at 24 percent, is especially troublesome: more than double the general jobless rate of 9 percent and well above the 15 percent rich-country average.

The right-wing Law and Justice tapped into Poles’ discontent by promising higher taxes on banks and supermarkets to pay for workers’ benefits and protect pensions. It also vowed to double the income tax threshold to help lower incomes make ends meet.

The party’s support for closer relations with the United States instead of Poland’s traditional rival Germany also resonated at a time when Russia is testing the resolve of the NATO alliance in Eastern Europe.

The last Law and Justice government, from 2005 to 2007, was blatantly anti-German. Its head, former prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński, is still the party leader. But he wisely named Beata Szydło, a previously junior lawmaker, to be the right’s prime ministerial candidate. Exit polls suggest she could now form a government without coalition partners.

The Financial Times reported on Friday that while Kaczyński is seen as a defender of conservative values and Polish independence in the mainly Catholic east of the country, “he is despised as a dangerous reactionary by much of the country’s progressive middle class that cast him as an impediment to social reform and greater alignment with western liberal values.”

Kaczyński’s backseat role in the election allowed Law and Justice to expand its regional reach but the results still likely broke down along familiar lines.

As the Atlantic Sentinel reported last month, Law and Justice tends to get most of its support from the poorer and Catholic east of the country that was ruled by Russia before the First World War. Civic Platform, by contrast, does best in the western regions that were once part of the German Empire.

Jan Cienski has argued at Politico that the reason the west is more cosmopolitan and politically centrist is that it was populated after the Second World War by refugees from Polish areas that were incorporated into the Soviet Union. In the east, by contrast, family and local ties stretch back many generations, creating a more homogenous and traditionalist society.

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