European Parliament elections must wait

Poland focuses on local elections

From the parliamentary elections held in October 2023, to the upcoming local elections taking place next April and the presidential polls expected in 2025: Poland is now facing an intense time for politics.

Given this electoral marathon, the European Parliament renewal must wait as politicians are focusing all their efforts on influencing the future composition of the Polish political scene.

An electoral marathon has been underway in Poland since October 2023, set to culminate in the presidential elections in mid-2025. In 2023 (autumn), parliamentary elections were held, followed by local elections scheduled for April 7, 2024, European Parliament elections less than two months later, and in mid-2025 – elections for the President of the Republic of Poland. However, despite the anticipation and preparations surrounding the European Parliament elections across Europe, the eyes of Polish politicians and the public are currently focused on the imminent local elections. These elections are deemed crucial as they will significantly shape the future trajectory of the country’s politics. The campaign for the European Parliament must wait.

Polish political context

The October parliamentary elections of 2023 led to a subversion of the Polish political landscape. The populist right-wing bloc government, led by the Law and Justice party, relinquished power after an eight-year tenure. This electoral outcome was heavily influenced by the remarkable mobilization of citizens.

In 2019, 8,051,935 voters supported right-wing parties running on the Law and Justice list, while in 2023, 7,640,854 voters cast their votes for the same list. It can therefore be inferred that support for the right-wing bloc has remained relatively stable. Conversely, the parties comprising the current government coalition (the Civic Coalition, the Polish People’s Party, and the Left) garnered 8,958,824 votes in 2019. Yet, in 2023, the same parties (Civic Coalition, Polish People’s Party – Third Way and Left) secured a total of 11,662,090 votes – an increase of 2,703,266 votes from the previous (lost) election. Importantly, this wasn’t due to a change in voting preferences, but rather in the activation of previously passive voters from 2019 elections, or who had been unable to participate due to age restrictions (Article 63 of the Constitution of the Republic of Poland stipulated the active right to vote from the age of 18). This mass mobilization resulted in a voter turnout reaching 74.38% in 2023, compared to 61.74% in 2019, showing the significant demand for political change among a group that had previously been disengaged from parliamentary elections.

‘The 15th October Coalition’

In mid-December 2023, a new coalition Council of Ministers was formed. The diverse program background of the parties forming the coalition might suggest the conflicting, chaotic, unpredictable, and unstable nature of the government. Despite the parties running separately in the parliamentary elections, it was evident to the voters supporting them that they would unite (if they secured a majority in parliament) to form a joint government coalition – hence the coalition came to be known as the ’15 October coalition’.

However, it appears that the foundations of the core political goals, clearly defined during the collective efforts in opposition and throughout the election campaign, will serve as sufficient adhesive. This is the strategy of strengthening (immunizing) state institutions and steering the country toward the rule of law (reform and repair of the judicial system). The government coalition stands united on fundamental foreign policy assumptions and in many aspects of domestic policy, including:

  • unequivocal pro-European direction. Action in the European Union geared to cooperation and co-creation rather than confrontation,
  • an unequivocal direction towards rebuilding bilateral relations with Germany and France,
  • unequivocal support for Ukraine in its defence against Russia,
  • unequivocal emphasis on the need to strengthen NATO,
  • unequivocal emphasis on strengthening Euro-Atlantic relations,
  • unequivocal direction for the development of renewable energies,
  • the necessity to reform the education system,
  • strategic action to advance women’s rights,
  • enhancement of the role of local authorities,
  • strategic action to safeguard LGBTQ+ minority rights.

Differences between the coalition parties emerge on worldview issues, such as the reduction or elimination of religious teaching in schools or the final provisions of regulations on civil partnerships and same-sex marriage.

Difficult cohabitation

A challenge for the government coalition lies in the cohabitation of the Council of Ministers with the President, who originates from the right-wing camp. In Poland’s parliamentary-cabinet system, the President, as the head of state elected by universal suffrage, possesses a range of prerogatives that can effectively impede the smooth legislative process of new bills. The President holds the authority to veto any bill or refer it to the Constitutional Tribunal (art. 122 of the Constitution of the Republic of Poland), a move that could impede or even paralyze the effective adoption of new bills.

Local elections versus elections at European level

With the European Parliament elections looming, the political landscape in Poland is determined by the earlier (April) local elections. All parties are directing their attention primarily towards the upcoming local elections, which will significantly influence the standing of individual political parties and potentially cement the further composition of the Polish political arena. Consequently, there is a noticeable lack of active preparation for the European elections, as they take a backseat to the prominence of the local elections.

In April 2024, authorities will be elected at three levels of local government: municipality or city, county, and voivodeship. For the current government coalition, the principle of subsidiarity and the empowerment of local authorities are overarching goals of implementing the country’s internal policy. Therefore, these elections hold significant importance for shaping local political activities and for driving local economic activities and strategies.

Coming shortly after the parliamentary elections in October, it is anticipated that the parties forming the government coalition will also be successful in these local elections. However, the voter turnout will play a pivotal role in determining the outcome. In the last local elections in 2018, turnout was recorded at 54.9 percent. If the upcoming elections witness significantly lower turnout than the parliamentary elections, the results could be strongly linked to the mobilization of voters of each party. Although this is a local vote, candidates and political parties will convey strong political messages.

Only after the local elections in April will we see what concrete ideas the different sides of the Polish political landscape have for the European-level elections.

European Parliament elections

The European Parliament elections will take place a few weeks after the local elections. They are the least popular in Poland, with a turnout of 45.68% in 2019 and only 23.83% in the 2014 elections. However, this upward trend suggests a likelihood of higher turnout in the upcoming election compared to previous ones.

While the European Parliament elections will not have a direct impact on domestic politics, they serve as important igniter of public debate regarding the European Union. In this area, we expect a heightened rhetoric from right-wing parties and a staunchly anti-European stance from the far-right parties, including the largest among them, the Confederation. Issues such as agriculture and the agreement between the European Union and Ukraine on facilitating economic exchanges may prove to be difficult topics to lead during the campaign. Although the current agreement is set to expire in June 2024, the European Commission has already proposed an extension. Trade facilitation measures are most disliked by farmers and representatives of the transport industry. This situation will cause many politicians to use this negative sentiment for political campaigning purposes.

The specific nature of the European Union means that the outcome of the European Parliament elections does not singularly dictate the functioning of the Union. However, the composition of the future European Commission certainly is largely dependent on the prevailing parties in the Parliamentary elections. Member States, through the Council, also wield significant power and influence in decision-making processes. Therefore, this serves as a reminder that the outcome of the upcoming Parliamentary elections will give us important insights into the wider picture, but not reveal it fully.

Current challenges

PROTESTS: The current problem for the new government in Poland is the tense situation among farmers. The open borders with Ukraine and the lack of control and thoughtful strategy by the Law and Justice government (in power until December 13, 2023) regarding the transit of Ukrainian grain (audit conclusions from the Supreme Chamber of Control presented at a meeting of the Sejm Committee on Agriculture in December 2023) has resulted in an excess of grain flowing into Poland. This situation affected the ability of Polish farmers to sell their produce and resulted in a significant drop in prices. The importation of other crops had only added to these frustrations.

Farmers are demanding immediate actions. Protests are escalating, including burning tires and sacking the European Parliament’s representation in Poland. While this issue is a legacy of the previous government, the current coalition must swiftly find a solution, as it risks becoming a prominent theme in the two upcoming election campaigns.

In addition to farmers, dissatisfaction with the agreement between the European Union and Ukraine is also voiced by representatives of the road transport sector. While they have now halted their protest, which involved a complete blockade of border crossings, they are awaiting decisions regarding support and measures to ensure fair conditions with Ukrainian hauliers.

INVESTMENT/FUNDS: In 2022, the investment-to-GDP rate in Poland stood at 16.8%, marking one of the weakest results among all EU member state economies. Indeed, only Greece had a lower investment rate (13.7%). Raising investment levels thus emerges as one of the new government’s biggest economic challenges. To address this issue, politicians within the government coalition are counting on the unlocking of EU funds from the National Reconstruction Plan and the EU Cohesion Fund.

 

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