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DISPATCH FROM POLAND—September 2022

Is an Infighting PiS Ready to Reinvent Itself to Boost its Electoral Chances?

September 29, 2022
by
Andrzej Bobinski
6 min read
Photo credit: Velishchuk Yevhen / Shutterstock.com
Thirty percent could be the magic number in Polish opinion polls as next year’s elections approach.

According to insiders, once the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party falls permanently below that mark, the process of its disintegration will spin out of control. Conversely, if support for the opposition Civic Platform (PO), headed by former prime minister Donald Tusk, rises above 30 percent, it will gain momentum as this will give anti-government voters hope that change is possible. They will switch to the strongest challenger, regardless of their previous sympathies.

At the moment, support for PiS is under 34 percent and that for PO is just above 26 percent. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, when it got a boost due to a “rally around the flag” effect, support for PiS has been on a slightly downward trend, while PO’s support has slowly grown. These changes may look unspectacular as the elections are 13 months away and Poland’s polarized political scene is very static. However, a quick glance at recent opinion polls is worrisome for PiS.

In one poll, 49 percent of respondents blamed government policies for high inflation (30 percent pointed to the war and 10 percent to the EU). In another, 71 percent said that Poland is not prepared for the coming energy crisis while 17 percent said it is. A third poll finds that 61 percent are unhappy with how the government has reacted in the face of the energy crisis. The level of trust in and satisfaction with President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is falling too. PiS is also losing the Internet and social media, where worries about high inflation, the lack of coal ahead of the winter, and a plethora of scandals involving rightwing politicians abound.

It feels as if PiS is losing the fight over the political narrative. Wherever one looks, uncertainty and insecurity are prevalent sentiments due to the war in Ukraine, the deteriorating economic situation, and the energy crisis. The government has already “lost” the winter before it has started.

Regardless of the mild weather, the shortages of gas and coal and the rising electricity prices are leaving people scared and unhappy. If the winter proves mild and uneventful, PiS will get a boost, but if there are shortages, blackouts, and closed schools and offices due to low temperatures, the government will take the blame along with a massive hit in the polls.

It feels as if PiS is losing the fight over the political narrative.

In addition, PiS is living up to its reputation for infighting. For the last seven years, the party’s chairman, Jarosław Kaczyński, maintained undisputed power by fueling conflicts among his coalition partners, the prime minister, various ministers, diverse factions, and influential groups. But all this comes at a cost and today the degree of resulting animosities is off the charts. This makes working together difficult and getting anything done practically impossible for the governing camp. It also makes keeping narrative discipline unmanageable. In the past, internal crises and scandals often did not come to the attention of PiS voters who were cocooned in the safe space created by a highly propaganda-focused operation in the public media and online. These times are long gone now.

The impeding energy crisis is a perfect example of the situation. Party insiders blame Minister for Energy and Climate Anna Moskwa for her complacency in the face of adversity while the prime minister gets blamed for his subordinate. Solidarna Polska, PiS’ coalition partner, blames the EU for high energy prices but seldom misses the opportunity to attack Morawiecki for not vetoing the EU’s climate regulation. The prime minister retaliates by blaming the head of Solidarna Polska, Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro, for obstruction and fueling the fight with Brussels, which effectively makes it impossible to access money from the EU recovery fund. Morawiecki then blames Deputy Prime Minister Jacek Sasin, who oversees the state-owned companies earning big money on high energy prices. This is an unexaggerated day in the life of PiS.

Meanwhile, the opposition is focused and mobilized. Tusk has given opposition voters hope after seven years of defeats. The change in atmosphere is palpable. Optimism in opposition circles is growing, business leaders are increasingly willing to criticize the government, and experts who were unwilling to associate with the opposition are now eager to take the stage with anti-government politicians and discuss solutions and remedies.

Even if it is still leading in the polls, none in the last months has given PiS a clear-cut majority. In fact, the prevailing question is whether the opposition should unite so as to maximize the number of members it could have in the next parliament. The discussion of this issue is less emotional and more pragmatic than previously. Opposition leaders now meet to look for solutions, not problems.

That said, the opposition has yet to agree on anything important, other than the need to oust PiS from power. Nobody seems to have an idea of how to address the most pressing issues, such as inflation, high energy prices, a fragmented and choppy labor market (with labor deficits in key sectors and rising unemployment in less developed, poorer regions), an understaffed and underfunded health care system, and a real-estate bubble. These problems will not disappear if PiS loses the elections. What is more, there does not seem to be many opposition politicians willing to take difficult positions and stand by them no matter what.  

PiS keeps reverting to methods that worked when the going was good but today seem counterproductive.

So, what happens next? The baseline scenario is more of the same. PiS will keep fighting with the opposition, the EU, and most importantly itself. It is very difficult to find any signs of optimism for the governing party. It seems to have grown too used to doing things the way it did during the last seven years. A healthy political organism would have to undergo a huge internal transformation to navigate these times of political adversity and economic crisis. Yet PiS keeps reverting to methods that worked when the going was good but today seem counterproductive.

Public sentiment will continue to deteriorate and impact PiS voters who, though probably unwilling to change sides, will become demobilized and increasingly frustrated. The opposition will continue on its difficult path to a common electoral platform and will try to draw up one sometime in December. This is when the electoral campaign will start, which will speed up the current political processes.

An alternative scenario is conceivable. A revolution within PiS feels like the only possible way out of its mess. If Kaczyński shares the above diagnosis of the political situation, he does not have much time to change things. This would most probably involve a deep reshuffle involving the prime minister, closing PiS ranks and possibly doing away with the partnership with Solidarna Polska, making up with President Duda, passing a new electoral law, and rolling out a well-prepared economic recovery plan. The latter item would aim to slow down inflation and give PiS voters the feeling that the economic situation is under control and that the people at the country’s helm know what they are doing. But such a reinvention of PiS seems unlikely and it could even backfire—if today’s key players were to be abruptly sidelined, they could revolt and cause the government to fall before the elections.


Andrzej Bobinski is the managing director of Polityka Insight.