• Analysis
  • Poland and the Left After the Local Elections

  • Por Gavin Rae , Czesław Kulesza | 04 Dec 18 | Posted under: Central and Eastern Europe , Poland , Elections , La Izquierda
  • The recent local elections in Poland have once again been dominated by the country’s two main right-wing parties: Law and Justice Party (PiS) and Citizens’ Platform (PO). They have also underlined the present weakness of the Polish left, which was further marginalised during these elections.

    However, the Polish local elections have revealed the limitations of both PiS and PO and point towards the potential for the development of a new united left-wing force in Polish politics.

    Right-Wing Dominance

    For nearly a decade and a half Polish politics has been monopolised by PiS and PO. After PO governed for two terms, PiS formed the first majority government in modern Polish history in 2015. The party has combined conservatism and authoritarianism, with some social welfare spending that has cemented its position as the country’s leading party. The main opposition to PiS has failed to propose any positive coherent alternative and instead they have defined themselves almost exclusively through being ‘anti-PiS’. In the run up to the local elections, PO built a new electoral coalition: Citizens’ Coalition (KO). This included the other main liberal party Nowoczesna (Modern) as well as a section of those from the left that support the prominent politician, Barbara Nowacka and her association: Inicjatywa Polska (Poland Initiative)

    The stark division between the government and opposition helped to mobilise voters in these elections. Poland historically has very low electoral turnouts, however they were significantly higher this year than in previous local elections: 55% in the first round and 49% in the second round.

    A Victory for PiS?

    Despite the claims of victory by made by representatives of KO, PiS still emerged as the largest political party from these elections.

    The table below displays the results for the main political parties and left-wing parties in the 2018 local elections, compared to the previous local elections in 2014 and parliamentary elections in 2015. As we can see, PiS increased their vote significantly in these elections compared to 2014, with their overall vote rising by nearly 8 percent, giving them an additional 80 councillors. In contrast KO did not build upon the vote of PO in 2014, with their overall vote remaining stable, although they managed to gain an additional 15 councillors. The vote for the Polish Peasants’ Party (PSL) declined by nearly a half and their number of councillors fell by 87.

    PiS were the only party to increase their vote nationally from 2014, scoring their best ever local election results. They managed to win the largest number of seats in 9 out of the 16 provincial assemblies and win overall majorities in 7 of them (up from just 1 in 2014). PiS have gained control of the majority of local councils and whilst previously PiS had held power in only one province, it now rules in around 1/3 of the provinces. 

    Local Election Results 2018 and 2014 and Parliamentary Election Results 2015

     

    PiS

    KO (PO)

    PSL

    SLD

    Kukiz

    Razem

    Greens

    Percentage 2018

    34.13

    26.97

    12.07

    6.62

    5.63

    1.57

    1.15

    Number of Seats Won 2018

    254

    194

    70

    11

    -

    -

    -

    Percentage 2014

    26.89

    26.29

    23.88

    8.79

    -

    -

    -

    Number of Seats Won 2014

    171

    179

    157

    28

    -

    -

    -

    Parliamentary Election Percentage 2015

    37.58

    24.09[1]

    5.13

    7.55

    8.81

    3.62

    -

    Between the Cities and the Countryside

    Despite this evident victory, many commentators have claimed that this was a relatively poor result for PiS. This is partly due to the fact that their vote was lower than in the 2015 parliamentary elections and below its general standing in the opinion polls. However, it is not possible to directly compare the results of local elections to parliamentary elections. For example, in local elections many people vote on local issues and for local candidates; there are many non-party candidates standing; and the PSL always traditionally gains a much higher result in local elections than in parliamentary elections.

    Yet, despite the relatively poor showing for KO at a national level, the party managed to score some significant victories in many large cities. KO won 46 percent of the vote in cities with a population of over 500,000 people, whilst it only managed to gain 23.9 percent in towns with less than 50,000 residents and 13.5 percent in the countryside. Candidates of KO (or those supported by KO) won the Mayoral elections in many of the country’s large cities such as Warsaw, Wrocław, Kraków, Poznań and Łódż. In Warsaw, for example, the KO candidate won 56.67 percent of the vote compared to the PiS candidate that received just 28.53 percent.

    It would not be correct however to state that PiS have only fared badly in the large cities. PiS only won 4 out of 107 Mayoral elections in all cities in the country, down from the 11 it won in 2014. PiS therefore suffered defeats not only in the large cities but also in the small and medium ones. This even includes defeats in city Mayoral elections in those regions where they have won a majority in the regional assemblies. The largest city in which PiS was able to win a Mayoral election was Zamość, which has a population of just 65 thousand people.  

    These results challenge the simplistic idea that PiS tends to win elections in the ‘conservative’ east and PO in the more ‘liberal’ west. Rather these elections have shown that there is a deep divide between the urban and rural electorates. Therefore, whilst PiS could increase their support nationally, they have been unable to reach out to urban voters. This presents significant challenge to the political hegemony of PiS, as its political base is now almost entirely concentrated in the villages and countryside.

    However, these defeats in the Mayoral elections for PiS did not always translate into victories for KO. Independent candidates won 65 Mayoral elections against 25 for KO (with the SLD even winning 6). There is therefore a large section of the electorate in small and medium cities who are dissatisfied with the PiS government but will not necessarily support KO/PO.

    Social Divisions

    These elections also highlighted how stark social divisions run through Polish politics currently. For example, 33.4 percent of those with a higher education voted for PO, compared to 23.1 percent that voted for PiS. In contrast 44.9 percent with a secondary education supported PiS, against just 13.5 percent that backed KO. This division can further be understood when we look at how people from different occupation groups voted in these elections (see table below). Here we can observe that PiS won significantly more votes amongst farmers, blue-collar workers and pensioners; compared to PO which won much more support amongst private business owners and directors, managers and specialists.

    Votes for PiS and KO From Occupation Groups

     

    PiS

    PO

    Farmers

    42.8

    8.5

    Blue-Collar Workers

    38.8

    15.8

    Pensioners/Retirees

    41.9

    13.6

    Private Business Owners

    22.7

    36.7

    Directors, Managers, Specialists

    20.8

    35.8

    The Limits of Support for PiS and PO

    The local elections have shown that PiS and PO continue to dominate Polish politics, there is an evident limit to their support. Votes for PiS in the cities, amongst professional workers and the better educated remains low. Whilst it can numerically win the parliamentary elections by gaining the support of those from the villages and small towns, it is difficult for it to govern with such low support in the cities. The strategy of PiS was to focus its campaign on defeating PSL in the villages and small towns, running an aggressive campaign against the PSL. In effect it gave up ground to KO in the large cities and did not try to appeal to its more liberal electorate.

    Towards the end of the election campaign they ran strong anti-refugee election broadcasts that claimed that KO run local governments would endanger their populations by allowing in refugees. Such an obviously reactionary campaign failed to build the support of PiS and it will be difficult for it to expand its vote in next year’s parliamentary elections due to the unpopularity of the government amongst large sections of the population. Meanwhile, the local elections also confirmed that PO is unable to challenge PiS outside of the large cities and the more privileged sections of the electorate. Despite forming a new coalition with other liberal-left forces, the overall vote for these parties shrank compared to 2015 and their support is now almost exclusively concentrated in the major cities and wealthy/educated voters.

    What about the Left?

    The local elections were a failure for the left. The left was fragmented into different national and local initiative and part of it allying with KO. The two main left-wing electoral committees were: Coalition Committee Democratic Left Alliance-Left Together (SLD-Lewica Razem) and the Committee of Party Razem.[2] The plebiscite nature of the elections to local councils and authorities in the major cities contributed to the overall defeat of the left. People were faced with the choice of voting either for the social and national-conservative PiS or the liberal and pro-democratic opposition KO. The lack of a clear and viable alternative to these right-wing coalitions meant that the left remained generally isolated. The national vote for SLD-Lewica Razem declined by more than two percentage points compared to 2014. They won seats in only six provinces, losing 17 council seats from 2014.  Meanwhile, the Greens and Party Razem (competing in their first local elections), failed to win any council seats nationally, with both parties winning just 2.5 percent of the vote between them.

    What does this situation mean overall for the left?

    1. Local government elections in 2018 have not resulted - as some expected – in a major change to the political status quo in Poland not to any significant gains for the left. However, it was not possible to completely eliminate the left from the political scene.
    2. The left has once again paid a large price for its lack of unity. Those who associated with the traditions and values of the left stood on different electoral lists: leftist, local and liberal. In Warsaw, Piotr Guział (former SLD member and local social activist) even supported the PiS candidate for Mayor. This caused confusion within the left and demobilised their potential voters in the elections.
    3. The concept of building left-wing alliances that excluded the SLD and its coalition partners was not successful. The SLD coalition once again - despite its own relatively poor results -showed that it is the most recognisable force on the left.
    4. The poor results for the smaller left-wing parties (Razem and the Greens) has led to them announcing that they are willing to consider working with other left-wing parties, including the SLD, in next year’s European and parliamentary elections.  
    5. Some on the left continue to advocate further cooperation with PO against PiS and the far-right. This follows the actions of Inicjatywa Polska during the local elections, a strategy that has been promoted by some members of the SLD.
    6. The large Independence Day march on 11 November (organized by far-right organisations and supported by the government) shows how the threat of authoritarianism and even fascism is very real in Poland.  However, a very important question arises: should the left wing enter into close relations with the liberal politicians responsible for creating the conditions for these trends? Nobody has any doubts that there is a need to cooperate, but does it have to mean getting rid of our program and merging ourselves into the ranks of a liberal opposition movement?
    7. A new player has emerged on the left of the electoral scene, which may offer some hope or threat to the left: Robert Biedroń. Biedroń was Mayor of the city of Słupsk; former MP for the liberal anti-clerical party Nasz Ruch (Our Movement); previously an activist of the SLD and initiator of the Campaign Against Homophobia. He announced that he would be creating a new political movement through bringing together those discouraged with the major political parties and are seeking a new alternative to PO and PiS. In recent weeks he has travelled around the country, organising meetings with voters and trying to build local political structures. However, his political programme remains unclear. Apart from declarations in support of democracy, human rights,  respect and pro-Europeanism, nothing is yet known about the political shape of this new project. Amongst those supporting and leading this new initiative are both social democrats and liberals, indicating that he is trying to form a new centre-left force in Poland. At a European level he has met with both representatives of the European Socialists and Democrats and those close to French President Emmanuel Macron. It is to be seen whether this will be a new opening for the left or another attempt at building a liberal centre party in Poland.
    8. There is still little room in Polish politics for the emergence of significant political forces to the left of social democracy. New projects appearing on the left are not innovatively programmatic, and the left is not initiating new ideas, drawing lessons from the past, or breaking significantly from its previous connection to neo-liberalism and the Blairite Third Way.
    9. The defeats in these elections have opened up a new impetus for cooperation between left-wing forces and towards building a new united movement against the right. However, there is a serious threat that the left may further weaken and fragment. The left needs to develop a framework for cooperation in order to help rebuild its support during next year’s European and parliamentary elections and the Presidential elections that follow in 2020.

    [1] In these elections the party Modern stood independently winning 7.60 percent of the vote.

    [2] It should be noted that SLD-Lewica Razem has nothing to do with Party Razem, and was a coalition of the SLD with some smaller left-wing forces.


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