Dispatch from Poland—March 2022

Polish Politics in the Midst of the War in Ukraine

March 17, 2022
Andrzej Bobinski
Wojciech Szacki
6 min read
Photo credit: Robson90 / Shutterstock.com
Poland’s rightwing government led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party, which initially had a smooth second term in office since the 2019 elections and seemed to have a fairly clear path to another one, has been hit by a barrage of problems over the last two years.

It has faced unprecedented internal feuds, an increasing fight with Brussels over the rule of law, a multitude of scandals (not least the use of the Pegasus spyware to surveil political opponents), the coronavirus pandemic, and now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that has brought war to Poland’s borders. This is a defining moment for Jarosław Kaczyński, the past-his-prime PiS leader, Mateusz Morawiecki, the prime minister who is losing support in his party, Andrzej Duda, the president who decided to reinvent himself as a peacemaker and Atlanticist, and the opposition that lacks a plan for regaining power.

The war in Ukraine could be a cathartic moment for Poland’s political class, which has lost its bearings. If today most politicians call for unity and cooperation, few mean it. President Duda seems to be an exception. First elected as an underdog in 2015, he won a second term in 2020. He was a weak president, dubbed by his opponents a “pen” for signing every bill that the Kaczyński-dominated parliament sent his way. Paradoxically, in the meantime he managed to lose the PiS leader’s respect after vetoing a bill reforming the judiciary in 2017. Ever since, Kaczyński has downplayed Duda’s role and position.

The war in Ukraine could be a cathartic moment for Poland’s political class, which has lost its bearings.

Fast-forward to 2021. The day after Christmas, Duda vetoed a bill that was perceived by many as an attack on the free media, and more precisely as an attack on the business interests of Discovery Inc. in Poland where it owns, among other things, the TVN and TVN24 television channels. Duda established a working relationship with the Biden administration. He traveled to Brussels where he met with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and tried to smooth out the rule-of-law fight between Poland and Brussels. He sponsored a fairly conciliatory bill regarding the Supreme Court (which has yet to be debated in parliament) and vetoed a controversial education reform bill. When Russia invaded Ukraine last month, Duda became one of the leaders of the countries on NATO’s eastern flank, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s new best friend, and one of very few Polish politicians who seem to be trying to rise above political frictions in an attempt to unite a country that is afraid of an aggressive Russia and willing to help Ukraine regardless of the costs.

The Positioning of PiS Leaders

It is too early to tell if this means a U-turn for Poland back toward a West that is a community of liberal democracies. President Duda is weighing his options and looking for allies. Prime Minister Morawiecki seems to be a natural choice. He needs peace with Brussels, access to EU funds, and a political debate centered around the economy, growth, and structural reforms—areas in which he is well versed and listened to by Kaczyński. That said, Morawiecki has yet to publicly do anything that the PiS leader has not yet signed off on. A banker turned politician, he is entirely dependent on Kaczyński and needs to keep validating his rightwing credentials to shield himself from the closet anti-EU Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro and other core PiS politicians who still perceive Morawiecki as a turncoat as well as a threat to the party’s ideological purity and Kaczyński’s future legacy.

It is Kaczyński who holds the key to Poland’s return to the Western liberal democratic community. He hates being proved wrong but events might sweeten a sour choice for Kaczyński, who until recently believed in a world in which the likes of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and Victor Orbán would help build a community of nation-states opposing changes imposed by a growing liberal order. The open question remains whether Kaczyński understands that in this moment of geopolitical test the world could become practically binary, and that in such a world there will be little room for pandering to quasi-authoritarian sentiment and cherry-picking among the foundations of liberal democracies.

It is Kaczyński who holds the key to Poland’s return to the Western liberal democratic community.

The impact of the war in Ukraine on Poland’s political scene is still to be seen but there is a long list of arguments that might force Kaczyński’s hand to adopt a line closer to Duda’s—to Morawiecki’s great, if silent, relief. The obvious one is the security situation, a historic moment when the military setup of NATO’s eastern flank will be decided, and when Poland’s political capital in the United States and NATO will be in high demand. The second is the economic situation. Poland’s economy continues to grow but problems were starting to brew before the war and will accelerate, not least fast-growing inflation. Third, the humanitarian situation is, and will be, a huge problem for Poland, and it will most probably be an important issue on the political agenda in years to come. Today, Ukrainians are welcome and Polish hospitality is at its best. Tomorrow, though, the state will have to start caring and paying for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of displaced persons. The day after tomorrow, the impact of this huge migration wave will become a political problem.

If for most of the political class caring for Ukraine and Ukrainians are today an undisputed priority, it is probable that an anti-Ukrainian, anti-EU political force will start to emerge. It will likely also feed off fear, misguided pacifism and neutrality, and possibly anti-Americanism. It is improbable that Kaczyński will want to be on the anti-Western side of that divide.

The Choice Facing the Political Class

With the war in Ukraine that is possibly only in its beginning phase and changes everything, this is the perfect time to ask if Poland’s political class understands the choice it needs to make. In a way the country is back in the uncertain early 1990s. This was a time when the future was unknown but the direction in foreign and security policy for the political class was obvious. Will Kaczyński, who is nearing the end of his political career, be able to override his political legacy, his anti-Germany attitude, and his distrust of the liberal West and sign off on a change of direction that will leave no room for doubt that PiS is willing to help Poland become a cornerstone of a strong, resilient Western alliance?

For the moment, the fog of war makes answering the above question difficult. The political atmosphere is very tense and, except for a handful of Duda’s decisions, it does not look as if Poland’s governing party is ready to prove its critics wrong and steer back to the Western, liberal democratic community. What is more, PiS is highlighting how the West was wrong, how it needs Poland, and how Poland has the upper hand in security, humanitarian, and European issues. Many PiS politicians say—on and off the record—that it is for the West to make amends with Poland and not the other way around. Finally, an unending war on Poland’s border and growing insecurity could lead to a “rally around the flag” effect, accompanied by a necessary militarization of all spheres of life, that puts PiS back on course toward another term.

However, events could force Kaczyński’s hand and the unimaginable could happen. This includes PiS finding itself on the same pro-West side of the political divide as, and uncomfortably close to, Civic Platform, Poland’s other main party, which it has fought over the last two decades.

Andrzej Bobinski and Wojciech Szacki are respectively managing director and head of the political desk of Polityka Insight.