Poland is Eroding Russian Influence but Risks Elections
On July 28, Polish lawmakers finally voted in favor of a contentious law aimed at countering Russian influence. This law could have a significant impact on the course of parliamentary elections in Poland, scheduled for October 2023. The country is walking on thin ice. On the one hand, it resists Russia's aggressive interference in Polish affairs. On the other hand, it risks undermining the presence of opposition in the country.
The Polish Parliament approved a law proposed by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) with some modifications. On one hand, Russia has been aggressively using hybrid methods to influence Poland's political system. On the other hand, there is a risk that this law could be used against the political opposition.
But Both the ruling PiS party and its opponents, led by Donald Tusk and the "Civic Coalition," are strongly opposed to Russia and its influence in all respects.
What is this law about?
This law is specifically designed to create a parliamentary commission to verify the legitimacy of any cooperation between Polish officials and Russia during the years 2007 to 2022. Once the law on countering Russian influence finally takes effect, a powerful committee of experts will be established to investigate possible Russian meddling in Polish affairs. This committee will have the authority to name politicians who allegedly facilitate Russia's influence.
Based on the committee's findings, those implicated may be barred from holding public office. However, there are reasonable assumptions that this law could primarily target former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who currently leads the "Civic Coalition." It's worth noting that Tusk is not just an opposition politician; he also served as the Prime Minister of Poland and was the President of the European Council from 2014 to 2019.
Because of this, the law is colloquially referred to as "Tusk Lex". Both the United States and the European Commission have condemned this move. However, the negative reactions from Brussels and Washington seem to have emboldened PiS rather than persuading them to back down.
Despite the softened changes proposed by President Andrzej Duda, Tusk Lex can still be seen as a tool against the opposition. It's important to emphasize that since the tragic air crash in Smolensk in April 2010, which claimed the life of President Lech Kaczyński and ninety other Polish dignitaries, accusations of collaboration with the Kremlin have not only been extremely sensitive for Polish voters but have also become a cornerstone of PiS's political rhetoric.
In response to the May vote, the "Civic Coalition" staged a demonstration called the "March of June 4th," which commemorates the anniversary of the parliamentary elections in 1989 that marked the end of the pro-Soviet "People's Democracy" regime. Additionally, the "Civic Coalition" associates itself with the legendary Polish trade union "Solidarity," which remains a symbol of the fight for their rights among many Poles.
The government countered the opposition with the airing of a documentary series called "Reset" on the state television channel TVP. The series essentially accuses Donald Tusk and Radosław Sikorski of collaborating with Russia and alleges Tusk's support for past gas deals with Moscow.
PiS on the March
The ruling conservative party, "Law and Justice" (PiS), has been in power for 8 years. Both PiS and its opponent, the liberal "Civic Coalition," enjoy the support of about a third of the voters each.
PiS's governance has been marked by the promotion of conservative values and a prevailing skepticism towards the European Union within Polish corridors of power. Significant expansion of the Justice Ministry's powers, effectively subordinating the judiciary. A Constitutional Tribunal decision prioritizing national law over EU law, and the effective ban on abortion. All of these steps have led to mass protests in major cities (PiS's electorate is mainly concentrated in rural areas).
However, Poland has been a strong supporter of Ukraine in its confrontation with Russia and positions itself as a key European ally of the United States. Disdain for the Kremlin and the aspiration to play an independent role in Europe form the cornerstones of Polish diplomacy.
The most influential Polish politician currently is Jarosław Kaczyński, one of the leaders of PiS. He is the twin brother of the late President Lech Kaczyński, who tragically lost his life in the Smolensk plane crash. Jarosław Kaczyński has a personal score to settle with Moscow and its agents in Polish politics. Notably, he has announced Poland's intention to double the size of its army, making it the largest in Europe.
Recently, Jarosław Kaczyński returned to the government as Deputy Prime Minister in charge of security forces. No other Deputy Prime Ministers are present in the government. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is expected to lead PiS's party list, but he has not yet won major presidential elections. Much will depend on the results of the parliamentary campaign, which is set to conclude in October.
As the summer sets in, the starting positions of the main contenders for seats in the parliament are as follows: "Law and Justice" leads with 33.9% of voters ready to support them, followed by the "Civic Coalition" with 28.7%. In third place is the ultra-liberal and provocative "Confederation," which gained 13% of support by attracting local leaders and business representatives. The "Third Way" bloc, created by the Polish Peasant Party and the "Poland-2050" party, ranks fourth with 10.4%. Closing the top five potential winners of the parliamentary elections are the representatives of the "Left" with 8.8%. It's worth noting that Polish law provides for open party lists and electoral thresholds of 5% and 8% for parties and electoral blocks, respectively.
"PolExit? Thanks, but no"
What will be the main topics of the election campaign in a country where unemployment is at its lowest since 1991, standing at only about 5%? Overall, we can talk about fierce competition. On the one hand, the government seeks to secure its positions through the use of financial assistance elements, while on the other hand, the opposition will strive to appeal to the necessity of expanding economic opportunities.
As for the topic of "PolExit," which the media speculates with fear, referring to Poland's potentially ambitious diplomacy? It's difficult to imagine election speculation surrounding "PolExit" since only 5% of Poles support leaving the EU, while 76% are against it. However, there are other equally important topics.
The Russo-Ukrainian war has significantly increased the anxiety of Polish society and forced PiS to reorient towards supporting Ukraine. Nearly one million Ukrainian refugees have found shelter in Poland, becoming a visible part of the country's socio-political landscape. The prospects of their return or assimilation will become a topic of electoral discussions, as many Poles themselves eagerly leave for other European countries in search of better opportunities.
Another episode in the relations between neighboring countries is Poland's government, led by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, advocating for a ban on the import of Ukrainian grain, because this import had negative implications for the interests of local farmers. This is despite the fact that since the beginning of 2022, the Polish Prime Minister has regularly visited Ukraine, breaking a several-year pause in visits at the head of governments.
Another significant topic of the campaign is the Volhynian Tragedy, the bloody confrontation between Poles and Ukrainians on the Ukrainian territories occupied by the Nazis during World War II. This theme will still emerge in the autumn, despite recent public attempts by Presidents Zelensky (Ukraine) and Duda (Poland) to demonstrate reconciliation on the eve of the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Volhynia, commemorated in Poland.
Regarding the position on Russian aggression, it is quite clear in the Polish political environment. Thus, relations with Russia will be a litmus test for the Polish electorate. Last spring, the government terminated the agreement with Russia on gas supplies, opting for the operation of the BalticPipe gas pipeline, which delivers hydrocarbons from the North Sea. In July 2023, the Polish government took control of 20% of the Azoty group's shares owned by the Russian oligarch Vyacheslav Kantor. This is likely a symbolic move, along with the freezing of Russian embassy accounts in Poland.
Another actively discussed topic will be Poland's official and loud demand for €1.3 trillion in reparations from Germany for the damages inflicted during World War II. Official Berlin shows no intention of entering negotiations on this matter, but Warsaw is also not willing to back down. Moreover, it is quite likely that reparations will also be claimed from Russia, which considers itself the legal successor of the Soviet Union. Do not be surprised by the increased attention to events from 80 years ago - the historical component is of great importance to Polish politics.
Informational speculations surrounding the placement of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus and the transfer of Wagner Group units under Lukashenko's wing probably aim to destabilize the situation in Poland. The Kremlin hopes to use both instruments to exert constant pressure on the Polish (and Lithuanian) authorities and make them make mistakes. One cannot forget the crisis with refugees on the borders of Belarus with Lithuania and Poland in the fall of 2021. It is worth remembering that Lukashenko is just an executor, and Putin is the one pulling the strings.
It is difficult to predict the results of the Polish parliamentary elections 75 days before the voting day. Local analysts assume the victory of "Law and Justice," which may struggle to independently form a majority in the Sejm. Thus, a prolonged political game called "Golden Share" will begin. In this game, the positions of the "Confederation" may turn out to be the most advantageous. "Confederation" could become an ally in the parliament to both PiS and the "Civic Coalition." Poland can expect significant political turbulence in the fall of 2023 - this conclusion is shared by almost everyone.