This Sunday Poles go to the polls. A cartoon by Bartosz Minkiewicz, depicting a drowning man desperately trying to carst a vote to the ballot box floating nearby accurately depicts the situation. The stakes are height: either Poland will turn back and slowly start crawling back to the light side – the world of european, democratic values and rule of law – or it will drift over the waterfall, go past Hungary and find itself on course to where Belarus is today. Let’s take step back from our usual chaotic description of current events known to the readers of my Absurdistan series and try to take a broader look.
After 8 years of PiS rules, the party subdued itself most of the state controlled companies and most institutions. Those, who were design to be a control institution for the government were for the most part neutralised, such as Constitutional Tribunal or the highest courts – were either turned into Kaczyński’s puppet theathres or lost all meaning after being turned into parodies of themselves.
The government had been bloated to a size unheard of both in Poland and in other European countries – there is more than a hundred of ministers and deputies, which of course resulted in skyrocketing costs. The important ministries (that for PiS means mostly those that keep control of the armed forces, police and secret services, as well as those that have most cash at their disposal) are chaired by the leading PiS politicians. Some of the “less important” ministries are led by completely random inexperienced people (like ministry of health) after people who led them previously gave up. And ministry of education is led by such an incompetent person that many Poles believe he was given this important job not only as a sign of low on the importance list of Kaczyński is education, but also as a symbol of a big middle finger shown to the nation. Not unlike when Caligula made his horse Incitatus a senator, just to show that he can do whatever he wants.
The government institutions are now encysted with a swarm of various foundations led by friends of PiS, that – along with Catholic Church – receive most of government funding destined for NGO’s. It had been well documented by independent journalist that this is clearly a mechanism designed to syphon public money into private hands of PiS’ friends and families, but with the prosecution system being under total control of Zbigniew Ziobro, there is no chance that any of this will be investigated under PiS rule.
State owned institutions, especially the ones where money can be made, are also being turned into money trees for friends and families. State forests for example, about which PiS was very adamant they don’t want them sold off into private hands, became virtually privatised and are now under total control of PiS and one of it’s smaller coalition partners. The salaries skyrocketed, some people get non-existent jobs there just to be on payroll (like Dariusz Matecki, head of PiS-run farms of internet trolls) and to fund it all, the trees are chopped at the unprecented scale – so basically the common property of all Polish citizens is being destroyed and profits are privatised. Of course State Forest are also disponent of enormous grants, which are used to sponsor their political allies, including the church.
While Poland managed to transition into market economy after 1989 with relatively few oligarchs who benefited from taking control of formerly state owned company, PiS is working to fix that mistake. The control of the most important State controlled companies – like oil giant Orlen – is given to friends of PiS who in return from being able to make millions are very generous in their help for the party that made it possible: not only with financial support – both as individual donators, but also by spending most of their marketing budget in the press supporting PiS – but also with other favours – on which I write later.
Will the election be democratic and fair?
Will the election be democratic? In a recent interview with my podcast cohosts human rights ombudsman Adam Bodnar said that yes, Poland is still a democracy. We can vote or stand in elections, and the mechanisms are still in place.
But will it be fair? I am not so sure about that. Even the previous elections weren’t fair due to an imbalance in the media, and the situation got even worse than that.
TVP, the public broadcaster, along with Polskie Radio and even the Polish Press Agency PAP were turned into pure propaganda machines, already comparable with Russian public media. As regular readers of my Absurdistan series might remember, they lie, create fake events, and use subliminal messaging.
There is, of course, no balance – as I am writing those words, there is the last political discussion before the elections (the law prevents campaigning in the last hours before polls get opened) that included one representative from three of four of the opposition parties (right-wing Konfederacja was not invited) and three representatives of PiS (or four, if we include the host) and it was preceded by an evening “news” program that lasted 90 minutes instead of usual 30 and mostly contained party propaganda from PiS.
There rest of the press market is also out of balance. The titles that don’t adhere to the PiS viewpoint are starved of advertising money from state-controlled companies, and after the majority of local press was taken over by the oil giant Orlen, it had also been coopted by the PiS propaganda machine, where the articles inconvenient for PiS are being censored. Journalists from the few still remaining independent papers are being persecuted by the police if they write about topics that are inconvenient for PiS (like the fictional employment of the prime minister’s sister in the local council offices).
There is also an issue with fair representation. The election districts should reflect the populations, but they weren’t adjusted to reflect recent population changes. In a result, a vote in big city district (where most of the young and educated people, unlikely to vote PiS live) counts less than votes in smaller towns and rural Poles, where voters tend to be older and less educated (which is a core electorate for PiS). While voting for the latter is being facilitated (by law they have to be provided with free transport to the polling stations and the elderly can vote by post), participation in elections for the Poles abroad (who tend to be the most anti-PiS voters) is being made difficult by reducing the number of the polling stations, opening them in places far away from the major centres of the Polish diaspora or depriving them of the right to postal vote. Their votes might also don’t count at all, as the new law says that if the polling station fails to count all votes in 24 hours, the votes cast there go to the bin.
What about the referendum?
As I wrote in one of my recent pieces, the referendum is just a smoke screen. The questions are not really relevant and biased, and they can be summed up as “Do you support PiS actions, or are you a traitor?”. Even if the boycott of the referendum as proposed by the opposition fails, the results will not really matter.
The real reason for organizing the referendum was to circumvent campaign spending limits. Because how do you prove that a PiS politician scaremongering about migrants is doing that as part of his electoral campaign, and not as a part of his duties to provide information to the public about oncoming referendum? If the referendum questions happen to be strictly aligned with the PiS program, then how do you prevent people seeing billboards related to this from taking them into consideration when choosing who to vote for?
How is PiS preparing for the elections?
Some nervousness can be seen. They haven’t had a good time recently, with all those scandals emerging. Apart from the visa scandal, it had also for example emerged recently that during his visit to Ukraine, a motorcade of Mateusz Morawiecki smashed into a car driven by a citizen of Ukraine who was badly injured as a result, and the whole thing was swiped under the carpet. I guess we can call it a successful export of a Polish speciality…
They tried to attack, but their attempts to portray Tusk as a traitor and German agents are so ridiculous, that they won’t convince anybody who is not already a totally brainwashed PiS hardcore fan. Some of their attempts backfired, like when they disclosed a secret plan of anti-Russian defence prepared by the previous government, thus giving Russia invaluable intelligence. They claim they would not give an inch of the Polish land, even despite the fact that recent war games turned out to be a total disaster and in the simulated invasion the Polish defence was virtually destroyed in days. And to make things worse, it turned out that this military plan was approved by then head of the army, President Lech Kaczyński…
PiS challenged Donald Tusk to take part in a debate on TVP. They hoped he would refuse, but he accepted, which made Kaczyński panic and chicken away. The debate took place with Morawiecki standing in, but it was a farce not worth mentioning. It’s worth mentioning that Kaczyński also decided to stand up in Kielce, which is a much safer seat for him than his usual Warsaw.
Another disaster was their attempt to bribe Poles by ordering Orlen to drastically lower fuel prices. This led to a disaster as after they artificially dropped the price to just under 6 zł (some experts suspect it was possible only if they dipped into emergency reserves) everyone – including a deputy minister – started to buy like crazy, filling all the jerry cans they can find, as everyone knows it could not last forever. It was so cheap, that even city buses were using publicly available garages, so it soon led to widespread fuel shortages, which Orlen tried to cover up by displaying information about pump failures.
What is the opposition doing?
The opposition can be divided into three groups:
– Platforma Obywatelska (Citizen Platform), Lewica (The Left) and coalition Trzecia Droga (Third Road) containing of Szymon Hołownia’s party (he was one of the most successful independent candidates during the last presidential election) and farmer’s party PSL. They made a pact for the Senate part of the election where they agreed to put forward only one candidate in each district (each district elects one senator with a first-past-the-post system). They go separately for the lower chamber and while Platforma Obywatelska tries to tell everyone that only voting for them can beat PiS, the other two parties argue that it will be better if the opposition vote is spread.
The extreme right wing Konfederacja had a very active campaign where during his tour around Poland its new, young leader Sławomir Mentzen was portraying his party as a party of reason, ready to break the duopol of PO and PiS. They were polling pretty high until they announced their candidate list, full of right-wing extremists and a bunch of total tin-foil-hat conspiracy theorists, including flat earthers, 5G opponents and anti-vaxxers. And then their Nestor, Janusz Korwin-Mikke began defending paedophiles, traditionally delivering a huge blow to their ratings.
There is one more force – Bezpartyjni Samorządowcy, “non-partisan local government activists” which is led by a man I personally know: he was a major character in my first investigative journalism piece I wrote for a local student press about 20 years ago, when he was an active member of a shady organisation that tried to syphon public money from the university funds for student culture. I since observed his career and it went exactly as you could predict.
Bezpartyjni Samorządowcy were quite successful in the recent local elections, after which they instantly made a good deal with PiS in many places – so much, so that they are nicknamed “non-partisan PiS supporters”. They were late-starters when it comes to those elections and some sources claim they are supported by PiS (which would explain how they were able to gather the required number of signatures so quickly or why some of their advertisements are allegedly paid by PiS).
What are the predictions?
The polls are not clear. The most likely outcome is that PiS will come out first, but it will be unable to create a majority government even if it would create a coalition with Konfederacja (that openly denies that would be ever an option for them). As Bezpartyjni Samorządowcy are unlikely to get any significant representation in parliament (although they might help to burn some votes, as due to the d’Hondt method, votes for the parties that fail to reach the threshold are proportionally distributed, so will mostly strengthen the victors), it will be most likely, that majority will be held by Platforma-Lewica-Trzecia Droga coalition.
President Duda however already announced he will entrust the premiership to the party that scores the most votes, so if that will be PiS, we are not out of the woods yet, as for the next months we can expect an attempt to create a minority government. But even if PO comes first and will get to power, it will be a rocky road for the new government, as not only president in Poland has mostly disruptive powers (he has a very strong veto right) but also other of the state institutions – including the constitutional tribunal and most of the justice system – will still be under PiS control.
It has also to be mentioned, that just days before elections, two of three of the chief generals of the Polish army quit their jobs and there are some sources that claim they did it in response to PiS plans to “contain the situation” in case the elections won’t go their way. Some years ago I would reject such a possibility as extremely unlikely, but after 8 years of PiS rule, I saw enough to make me consider it as perhaps unlikely, but still quite realistic possibility.
To sum it up: those might really be the most important elections in Poland since 1989. If PiS wins, Poland will tumble into the dark for a long time. But if PiS is defeated, it is not the time to celebrate yet: undoing the damage done over the last 8 years might take decades too.