The recent Polish elections ended in a resounding victory for the ruling national conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party. PiS won 43.6 percent of the vote for the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, and 44.6 percent of the vote for the Senate, the upper house. It won more votes than the party has ever earned in its existence and maintained its majority in the Sejm.
PiS can be happy with its four years in power. The combination of economic redistributionism and social conservatism has proved popular and at least somewhat effective. One might justly fear that the “500+” child benefits scheme could be troublesome in an economic downturn, but thus far Poland has sustained its economic growth and the benefits have contributed to both a modest rise in the Polish birth rate and an impressive decline in child poverty.
Under PiS, Poland has remained the most socially conservative of Europe's larger nations. Church attendance is far higher there than in the West. Divorce rates are lower than in most European countries. And abortion has remained prohibited in all but the rare circumstances of rape and threats to women's lives.
Nonetheless, it is not all cheering news for the ruling party. First, PiS lost its majority in the Senate. While not devastating, given that the Sejm holds more legislative power, this loss could obstruct PiS policies. Second, while the leading opposition party the Civic Coalition (KO) won a disappointing 27.4 percent of votes for the Sejm, the new left-wing, socially liberal coalition The Left (Lewica) won 12.6 percent of the vote on what was for Poland a radically progressive platform. For Polish conservatives, this win carries discomfiting implications for the nation’s cultural trajectory.
I live in Poland, but I am not Polish. Thus there are some issues—like the vexed question of what PiS calls judicial reform, and what its opponents would describe as unconstitutional meddling with the judiciary—on which I am not fit to comment. Nonetheless, I can outline several significant challenges that PiS will face over the next few years of its rule. The party must handle these challenges carefully if it wants to maintain popularity and improve the lives of Poland’s citizens.
First, it is important that welfarist policies be balanced by continued economic growth. For example, PiS has pledged to increase the Polish minimum wage from 2,250 zlotys a month to 4000 (about 1000 dollars) over the next four years. That is excellent news for Polish workers, and might encourage cheering societal developments—this may embolden young couples to start families and young people to stay in Poland rather than emigrate. Nonetheless, the government should be mindful of the effects its policies will have on businesses (especially small businesses), and the potential for non-compliance, job automation, and entrepreneurial failure. Polish growth has yet to stumble, and one hopes it will endure, but there should be no time for complacence.
Second, PiS must be aware of the culture war that is beginning to envelop Poland. Two events have radicalized the Polish progressives this year: the release of a much-discussed documentary film about child abuse within the Polish Church, and violent attacks on a “Gay Pride” march in Bialystok. As church attendance creeps down, fertility rates remain low despite modest gains, and a party advocating liberal abortion laws enters parliament, there is a small potential for the Irelandization of Polish society.
PiS must be aware of this, and therefore be smart. Its opponents tend to live in urban areas, to be more educated, and to be more middle-class. The PiS tendency toward using fiery rhetoric to energize rural supporters, while perhaps successful this year, might obscure the vastly more significant cultural influence that its opponents have. Winning urban, educated supporters will be essential, and will require, among other things, an honest approach to the failings of traditional institutions and a strategy for promoting conservatism among the academic, media, and non-government organization spheres in which progressive influence is strongest.
Third, PiS will have to grasp the nettle that is the question of nationalism. The entrance of the far more nationalistic Confederation (Konfederacja) party to parliament signals an appetite, in some quarters, for a more confident and exclusive Polish society. PiS rallied its supporters in 2015 with opposition to mass migration from North Africa into Europe, and has refused to take in significant numbers of Arabic and African immigrants. Nonetheless, in a rather subtle development, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians—as well as substantial numbers of migrants from countries like Nepal and Bangladesh—have plugged the holes in the Polish labor market. This has been a blessing for many Polish businesses, and cultural similarities between Poland and Ukraine have helped them to avoid some of the worst consequences of mass migration into European Union member states. Still, PiS should avoid the Western error of assuming that cheap foreign labor is an uncomplicated solution to a lack of native workers. Mass immigration—and of course, I am one of those immigrants—affects the cultural and political character of a nation whatever its form. While this may not be evident in Polish life today, it will be in the future, and it is worth bearing in mind.
PiS will also face other challenges. For instance, how dominant will its shadowy chairman Jarosław Kaczyński remain? Kaczyński has long been considered the driving force in Polish politics, outliving various scandals and what was alleged to be a life-threatening illness, but that kind of power is difficult to sustain, and his colleagues must hope they have enough talent elsewhere.
And how will PiS respond to the renewed Western push for environmentalism? One can empathize with its attachment to coal, which has cultural as well as economic significance for Poland, but its effects on air quality, never mind climate change, are impossible to ignore.
Poles—not immigrants like myself—should determine the future of Poland. Still, I hope the next five years will see Poland prosper as a nation of wealth, innovation, and security, and also as a nation of heritage, beauty, and reverence.
Ben Sixsmith is a writer in Poland.