Don’t Take Poland’s Role for Granted: A Far-Right Government May Not Support Ukraine

May 09, 2023
The Polish parliamentary elections coming up in October constitute one of the most important political moments of 2023 for Europe.

The results will determine Poland’s near future and could significantly impact transatlantic cooperation. The current political landscape in Warsaw is rather chaotic, and just six months before the elections no frontrunner has emerged. Polls show the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) leading the pack, yet current projections give them just under 200 seats in the Sejm (the lower chamber of the parliament), which is well short of the 231 seats needed to form a majority. It is highly unlikely, therefore, that PiS will have enough seats to create a government on its own. On the other side of the aisle, the democratic opposition is fragmented into four major parties (in three blocs), and their potential to form a majority coalition is limited.

Winston Churchill famously remarked that one must “never let a good crisis go to waste”. Indeed, in Warsaw, a coalition of nationalist, far-right populist parties called Konfederacja (Confederation) has managed to capitalize on the deadlock. So far, the grouping’s political performance has attracted little attention. Its reputation was tarnished at the beginning of the war by its pro-Russian and anti-European stance, and in the polls, it hovered around the 5% threshold that would guarantee it a minimum share of seats in the coming parliamentary term. However, increasing polarization between PiS and the opposition created a vacuum that Konfederacja has succeeded in filling. Most recent polls project that the coalition now has double-digit support, and that voters’ ambivalence and hesitation about other opposition actors make it the only viable partner for PiS in the next government.

Voting records show that the far-right parliamentary group votes more often with the opposition than with PiS, yet there is little real like-mindedness between Konfederacja and the rest of the opposition. When it comes to key policy directions, Konfederacja positions itself closer to the ruling coalition and its far-right wing, especially when it comes to foreign policy and policies cementing recent democratic backsliding. Konfederacja acknowledged the PiS-controlled Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling effectively banning abortion in all cases, for instance. Its nationalist wing also supported PiS’s choice of Bogdan Święczkowski as a new member of the tribunal. Święczkowski is a loyal ally of Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, a key figure in the political takeover of Poland’s justice system that led to a crisis in the country’s relations with Brussels. The party has slammed the latest government initiative to reform the functioning of the Supreme Court, saying it goes too far. In fact, the proposed measures would have done little to strengthen judicial independence and were simply an attempt to persuade the European Commission to release funds for Poland’s post-pandemic recovery. Krzysztof Bosak, one of Konfederacja’s leaders, dubbed the initiative a “Brussels-PiS bill” that would strengthen “legal and judicial dependence on the EU”. Although Konfederacja and PiS differ in terms of tolerance for reform, they share an understanding of the EU as an alien force plotting to take over Poland.

This rhetoric plays especially well with PiS’s satellite party, United Poland (Solidarna Polska), recently rebranded as Sovereign Poland (Suwerenna Polska, SP). Led by Ziobro, SP is keen to criticize Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki for his “lenient” posture vis-à-vis Brussels. Konfederacja has a dubious position on media freedom as well. Although its representatives abstained from supporting the nationalization of the US-owned TVN television company, they showed sympathy for PiS’s decision when they criticized TVN for its stance on Polish nationalist organizations and leaders. Eventually, President Andrzej Duda vetoed the “lex TVN”, but the situation cast a long shadow over Polish-US relations.

Konfederacja is even more resolute in its negative view of Polish atlanticism. Konfederacja Member of Parliament Robert Winnicki has argued that the US military presence in Poland demonstrates the country’s “vassalization”. Similarly, Konfederacja’s leaders have taken the lead in criticizing the volume of Polish military assistance to Ukraine. Winnicki has remarked that NATO’s eastern-flank countries should not be the ones to champion military support for Ukraine. Instead, allies that “are not located next to the Russian border” should play a greater role. While in principle Konfederacja’s leadership is not against military support for Ukraine, the scope of Polish support is too ambitious in their view and will lead to the “demilitarization of Poland”. Winnicki has stated that “Poland must support Ukraine without weakening its own defensive capabilities.”

Konfederacja is also staunchly anti-Ukrainian in its rhetoric. Ever since Russia annexed Crimea, politicians affiliated with the coalition have attempted to justify Russia’s actions. Janusz Korwin-Mikke, one of Konfederacja’s frontmen, argues that Poland should recognize the annexation of the peninsula. He is also not persuaded of Russia’s threat to Europe, stating that “Ukraine is Poland’s enemy, not Russia.” Last summer, Konfederacja Member of Parliament Grzegorz Braun, another popular leader, launched a campaign called “Stop the Ukrainization of Poland”. The campaign aimed to discourage Poles from supporting refugees by exaggerating the potential cultural impact of absorbing so many Ukrainians and emphasizing the historical differences between the two nations. Understandably, Konfederacja politicians are quoted regularly in Russian state-controlled media.

While Konfederacja’s chauvinism does not mirror the sentiments currently dominant within Polish society, war fatigue and economic hardships are real. Poland has one of the EU’s highest inflation rates. In February it reached 18.4%—the highest in 26 years. Public debt is also on the rise. Between 2020 and 2022 it grew by €15 billion. The costs of managing the debt increased by 26% in 2022 alone, and Poland has seen the EU’s second-steepest rise in bond yields since November 2021. The European Commission projects that Poland’s GDP will grow by only 0.4% in 2023.

The Poles, while still highly supportive of Ukraine’s war effort, are beginning to see the refugees as one of the sources of the economic crisis. Support for accepting Ukrainian refugees is decreasing (67% in February 2023 versus 79% in May 2022). More and more Poles are beginning to accept Konfederacja’s views on the preferential treatment of Ukrainians in Poland. More than 60% believe that the refugees are offered more generous social benefits than are Polish citizens (compared to October 2022, when fewer than 56% shared this view). Just over 40% are against hosting the refugees after the war ends. The predominant reasons for this include access to public services, rent prices, and competition in the job market.

The war itself also presents opportunities to challenge Poland’s support for Ukraine, as for example in November 2022, when parts from Ukrainian air defense missiles accidentally landed on Polish territory, killing two civilians. The EU’s initiative to open its borders to Ukrainian wheat also backfired when the increase in supply brought prices down, negatively impacting farmers in neighboring Poland. Polish farmers (who constitute lion’s share of PiS’s supporters) have responded with fierce protests, leading the government to hastily dismiss the agriculture minister and ban the import and transit of Ukrainian agricultural products (never mind that the EU has exclusive authority over trade policy). After the EU and Ukraine expressed dismay over PiS’s unilateral actions, the party partially backed out of the ban. Needless to say, Konfederacja capitalizes on these events, positioning itself as a protector of Polish interests. But in the larger picture, the grain crisis might serve as a prelude to the foreign policy of a future PiS-Konfederacja government—one further detached from EU policies and weaker in its support for Ukrainians.

Post-electoral scenarios are countless. It is impossible to predict the results five months before the elections, and Konfederacja is a diverse organization with numerous camps: nationalists, libertarians, and conspiracy theorists among them. As is typical for protest parties, they also struggle to maintain a consistent political position. For this reason, a scenario in which a victorious PiS manages to further divide the various fractions and pull some of Konfederacja’s representatives into the parliamentary majority is also possible. Regardless of the particular scenario, a potential PiS-Konfederacja coalition would have grave consequences for Poland and the transatlantic community, especially in the context of the war in Ukraine. Despite the politically diverse array of Poland’s governments over the past 30 years, two constants in Polish foreign policy persist: support for Ukraine and other East European countries with pro-Western aspirations, and reliance on the West, particularly the United States. Konfederacja is the first political entity with a realistic prospect of breaking this 30-year-old consensus.