Source: Wikipedia

Polish Politics in 2015: All the Power to the Right

On 25th October 2015, exactly ten years and one month after its first electoral victory, Law and Justice (PiS), Poland’s main opposition party, not only regained power but its electoral committee, composed also of three other minor parties (i.e. United Poland, Poland Together, and the Right-wing of the Republic), obtained an absolute majority of parliamentary seats. This, coupled with PiS’ candidate Andrzej Duda’s victory, gave Jarosław Kaczyński’s party unprecedented power in the country.

Since then much has been said about the overnight redrawing of Poland’s political landscape, the causes of PiS’ “stunning victory” and the governing Civic Platform’s humiliation despite its incomparable economic record, as well as the implications of PiS’ victory for democracy in Poland or in Europe. Still, little has been said about the main consequences for Polish politics and its battered party
system in the long term, and earlier judgements of the development of Poland’s party system have repeatedly proved wrong.

Post-communist cleavage: an obituary

One of the first clear effects of the last parliamentary elections in Poland has been the end of the so-called “post-communist cleavage” which pitted postcommunist parties (mainly SLD and PSL) against post-solidarity parties (includingPO and PiS) and characterized Polish politics for most of its democratic history. Indeed, SLD’s failure to secure any parliamentary seats in the new parliament
constitutes the last strike to a political divide that started to fade away with the electoral and government coalition between SLD and UP in 2001, PSL’ parliamentary support to Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz’s (PiS) cabinet in 2005, and the PO and PSL coalition government in 2007.

Presidential elections: spillover effect

As has been explained elsewhere, presidential elections in Poland have always exerted an impact on legislative elections, and this time isn’t any different. Thus (as in 1990 when the Solidarity movement split between Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s and Lech Walesa’s support, in 1995 when Lech Walesa’s defeat led to the unification of the right under Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS), in 2000 when UP’s support to Aleksander Kwasniewski’s presidential-bid led to a SLD-UP cabinet in 2001 or Olechowski’s excellent results led to the formation of PO, or in 2005 when Samoobrona and LPR’s support to Lech Kaczynski’s complain led to the populist government coalition between the latter two parties and PiS one year later), Zbigniew Ziobro (United Poland) and Jarosław Gowin’s (Poland Together) support for Duda’s electoral bid have advanced a union of all major right-wing parties under PiS’ banner. Not to mention Kukiz’15, a political movement founded at the end of July following the surprising success of its founder, the controversial rock-singer Pawel Kukiz, who came third at the May presidential elections with roughly 21 percent of the votes.

Electoral turnout: total apathy

Once again, and this has become an uncontroversial feature of Polish politics (see figure below), half of Polish voters have preferred staying at home to participating in the electoral process. Thus, even though the last parliament have been the third most supported in Polish history, only 51 percent of the electorate went to the polls and cast their vote.

Source: IDEA
Source: IDEA

This makes Poland, with an average turnout of 48 percent, the most apathetic democracy not only in post-Communist Europe but in the European Union. And even if, as explained elsewhere, such low levels of electoral participation are not enough to question the legitimacy of the Polish democracy per se, it certainly confirms a tendency observed in most European countries: namely, the growing distance between citizens and their representatives. Moreover, it questions the extent to which a party system in which barely half of the citizens regularly exert their voting rights can be considered consolidated.

Historical legacies: old habits die hard

PiS’ victory in almost all regions and across different socio-demographic groups (e.g. age, place of residence, education, gender), questions another feature of Polish politics which has so far been constant: the awareness of Poland’s past. Indeed, as Tomasz Zarycki and many others have repeatedly and rightly observed, there seemed to be a clear cultural, economic and political division between the northwestern part of Poland, consisting of the territories that belonged to Germany before 1945, which were culturally more cosmopolitan, economically more developed and politically more liberal, and the south-eastern part of the country, which was culturally more traditional, but also poorer and politically conservative. Indeed, from the first presidential election in 1990 until the last presidential contest in May 2015, throughout every single electoral contest – local, legislative, for the European Parliament – social-democratic (SLD until 2001) or liberal (PO from 2005) parties received more votes in the west than in the east, more incline to support rightist (Solidarity and AWS until 1997; PiS from 2001) parties. The first map (Figure 2), representing voting patterns at the first round of the last presidential elections in May, presents a clear example. However, and as can be observed from the second map which displays electoral support for the two main parties by electoral district, the historical pattern is considerably weaker.

Map of Poland: 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections


Source: Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

Leadership turnover: down with the old

Until very recently, and despite the extremely high degree of party turnover, the history of the Polish party development could be summarized with a few names: Donald Tusk, Jarosław Kaczyński, Leszek Miller and Waldemar Pawlak. They were certainly not the only ones (e.g. Wałęsa, Kwaśniewski, etc.), but their premierships combined represent three-quarters of Polish democratic history. Not surprisingly, the four were still the leaders of the four main political parties (PO, PiS, SLD and PSL, respectively) at the end of 2012. However, and notwithstanding Kaczyński’s unclear position within PiS, none of them were appointed candidates in the last parliamentary elections. These were three women (Ewa Kopacz for PO, Beata Szydło for PiS, and Barbara Nowacka for ZL) and one man (Janusz Piechociński for PSL). However, the governing parties’ defeat led to much chaos and the replacement of former Deputy Prime Minister Piechociński by former Minister of Labour Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, and the impending replacement of former Premier Kopacz by most probably, Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna.

Parties and voters: stable instability

The last parliamentary elections have also demonstrated that forming a “successful” political party in Poland is a matter of months. Indeed, out of the eight parties that have more than 3% of the votes, half are new: the Coalition for the Renewal of the Republic-Liberty and Hope (KORWiN), Together (Razem), Modern (Nowoczesna) and Kukiz’15. These latter two obtained one-sixth of the parliamentary seats but, interestingly enough, all of them were founded between January and May this year. And even if this “party newness” is a characteristic common to all post-communist democracies, Poland is perhaps the only country where only one party (i.e. the Peasants’ Party) has managed to obtain seats in all elections since 1989.


Parallel to such organizational turnover, Polish voters continue to be some of the most volatile in the post-communist world, with roughly one third of its electorate electorate changing parties at every election (figure above). With such an unstable panorama in which political parties come and go and voters leapfrog from one party to the other, and considering not only the collapse of the “left” but also the fragmentation of the “right”, it seems difficult to predict any stabilization of what otherwise seems to be an steady institutionalizing party system.

About Fernando Casal Bertoa

Fernando Casal Bertoa

Fernando Casal Bértoa is a Nottingham Research Fellow at the School of Politics and International Relations in the University of Nottingham (United Kingdom). He is also Co-chair of the Council for European Studies’ Research Network on “Political Parties, Party Systems and Elections”, Research theme director at the Nottingham Interdisciplinary Centre for Economic and Political Research, and co-Director of the ECPR Summer School on "Political Parties". After finishing Law (University of Navarra, Spain), Political Science (University of Salamanca, Spain), as well as specializing in Central and Eastern European Studies (Jagiellonian University, Poland), he obtained his PhD in Social and Political Sciences at the European University Institute (Italy). His work has been published in Sociological Methods and Research, Party Politics, Democratization, Government and Opposition, International Political Science Review, South European Society and Politics, or East European Politics.

Fernando Casal Bertoa @

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