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Euroviews. Are Polish elections taking place on a (grossly) uneven playing field?

A woman reads her ballot before casting during general elections in Warsaw, October 2015
A woman reads her ballot before casting during general elections in Warsaw, October 2015 Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
By Wojciech Sadurski, Professor, University of Sydney Law School, University of Warsaw
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

The ruling authoritarians have fundamentally subverted democracy, including the electoral process. For the democratic opposition to win, it will almost take a miracle, Wojciech Sadurski writes.

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While it is impossible to predict today who will win the parliamentary elections in Poland in a few weeks, one thing is sure: these will not be fair elections. 

Free, perhaps, but not fair. The right-wing populist incumbents have tilted the playing field so that the opposition is denied an equal opportunity in the electoral contest. And it’s not even close.

The elections to be held on 15 October will determine the future of Poland — and, in the process, of the European Union and Europe more broadly — for many years, perhaps decades to come. 

If the incumbent Law and Justice or PiS party is re-elected, the populist-authoritarian regime in Poland since 2015 will enter into a stage of comfortable consolidation. 

After two consecutive parliamentary and presidential elections over the last eight years, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński will be on a safe road to emulate his role model, Viktor Orbán of Hungary.

Can Pis skew the dead heat race to its own advantage?

As Kaczyński and his closest collaborators have made abundantly clear, his party needs a third consecutive mandate in order to complete its “reforms" — read: capture or disable the last remaining traces of pluralism and institutional independence, such as some recalcitrant judges or private media and NGOs critical of the ruling elite. 

Poland will radically loosen ties with the EU, perhaps all the way down to “Polexit”. 

AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
The leader of Poland's right-wing ruling Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, launches the re-election campaign of President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw, February 2020AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski

If one wants to see a blueprint for Kaczyński’s program for the third term, today’s Hungary offers a good insight into — in Kaczyński’s own words — the “Budapest in Warsaw”  scenario. It is not a pretty picture.

The election results cannot be foreseen today: it's too close to call. PiS, together with its likely government coalition partner, the extreme right-wing Konfederacja or Confederation, scores in opinion polls about the same as the three democratic opposition parties combined: the centrist Civic Coalition, the Left, and the centre-right Trzecia Droga or Third Way.

But the democratic opposition’s marginal lead may be easily wiped out by the peculiarities of the electoral system, which penalises fragmented oppositions — as the democrats in Poland, unfortunately, are. 

More importantly, it is likely to be eviscerated by how PiS has skewed the playing field to its advantage, in a big way.

A referendum amid elections?

The main dirty trick is combining parliamentary elections with a “referendum”: a propaganda hoax and a shameless money grab. 

The referendum, held at the same time and in the same locations as the elections, will have four questions — all loaded, and all based on false factual premises. 

For instance, there is a question about accepting thousands of illegal migrants as a result of “the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy”. The other three referendum questions are similarly disingenuous.

The referendum serves to amplify all the fears that PiS is exploiting in its campaign. It is not distinguishable from that campaign but is part and parcel of it.
AP Photo/Agnieszka Sadowska
Members of a group of some 30 migrants seeking asylum are seen in Bialowieza, May 2023AP Photo/Agnieszka Sadowska

None of the questions is asked in good faith, and none seek a popular response about legislation contemplated by either the government or the opposition. 

They are no one’s policies, but the referendum insinuates a stark choice between the government which condemns them and the opposition to which PiS attributes them, falsely. 

In this sense, an intimate connection exists between the electoral campaign and the referendum questions. 

The referendum serves to amplify all the fears that PiS is exploiting in its campaign. It is not distinguishable from that campaign but is part and parcel of it.

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Last-minute changes to electoral rules and overburdened diaspora ballot commissions

Yet, here’s the thing: the referendum opens up virtually unlimited campaign finances. PiS has access to greater financial assets than the opposition, having captured all the key state-owned industries. 

But there are some campaign limits, policed by the Election Committee, which apply to elections but not to referenda. 

So, under the disguise of the referendum campaign, virtually unlimited funds will go to the PiS election campaign.

That is not all. In the eleventh hour before the elections, PiS pushed through a change in electoral district rules, creating many new districts in villages and small towns. 

This is nothing short of gerrymandering: the countryside and small towns are the main reservoir of PiS political support. 

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AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda
A child peers from a depiction of Eros, the Greek god of love, by Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj downtown Krakow, November 2022AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

At the same time, PiS makes it more difficult for the Polish diaspora, especially in the UK and Western Europe, where the greatest numbers of émigré Poles live, to vote and have their votes counted. 

Ballot commissions in places such as London or Dublin will be overburdened with voters, but under the new rules, the commissions will have to proceed in a more time-consuming way — all members of the commission must look at every single ballot, one at a time — and must complete all their paperwork within 24 hours. 

Simulations prove this will be virtually impossible in some districts, especially with the added effort needed to serve the referendum. 

And yes, you guessed it: the Polish diaspora in the UK and other EU member states have voted predominantly for anti-PiS parties in recent years.

'No one will give you as much as PiS can promise'

Good old-fashioned pork-barrel policies are in full swing: PiS has been throwing gifts at its usual clients since late spring this year, and over time, the speed and the size of those presents have grown exponentially. 

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Upgrading of family subsidies, an extra monthly pension to retirees (aka the 14th pension), a ludicrous cut in interest rates by the subservient central bank, an artificially low level of petrol prices maintained against the worldwide trends by the state-controlled oil company Orlen — you name it, they’ll give it. 

The central imbalance, though, is in the media scene. Public media in Poland are “public” only in name and the source of their financing — through taxpayers’ money.
AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak during parliament vote to confirm that a government-planned referendum on migration, August 2023AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski

The long-term disastrous effects of these policies don’t count; what matters is instant gratification by the electorate. 

As the saying in Poland goes: “No one will give you as much as PiS will promise”.

The central imbalance, though, is in the media scene. Public media in Poland are “public” only in name and the source of their financing — through taxpayers’ money. 

In their contents, they are one-sided, aggressive governmental propaganda outfits addressed against the opposition.

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The vulgarity and partisanship of TVP — the state-controlled broadcaster, which has a monopoly in some areas of the country — is difficult to describe; especially in pre-election times, it becomes a non-stop electoral propaganda machine. 

'The Law to Take Out Tusk'

It airs all the PiS official events, including Kaczyński’s speeches, but never goes live for an opposition rally with the leader of the main opposition party, Donald Tusk. 

The Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reports that on a randomly chosen recent date, Tusk was shown five times in the main evening news on TVP, always in a negative light (including a historic photo with Russia's Vladimir Putin), while Kaczyński appeared eight times, always positively portrayed.

This is a long list, but “The Law to Take Out Tusk” also merits a mention: setting up a kangaroo court tasked with demonstrating that the leader of the main opposition party has been acting under the influence of Russians. 

For the democratic opposition to win, it will almost take a miracle. But perhaps it’s not hopeless.
AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
Participants join an anti-government march led by the centrist opposition party leader Donald Tusk and Lech Walesa in Warsaw, June 2023AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski

The venerable Venice Commission has already warned that the new body may become a tool to eliminate political opponents. 

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This is a tool Kaczyński may well activate any time now if the polls look bad to him. Nor have I mentioned the new chamber of the Supreme Court peopled only with judges handpicked by the ruling party, which will have the last word on the legality of election results. 

On top of that, there is also the issue of illegal use by the secret services of surveillance devices, such as Pegasus spyware, against the opposition.

Would opposition victory be a miracle?

So, whatever the outcome of the elections in Poland that you hear about on or just after 15 October, remember that the field will have been badly skewed in favour of the current rulers. 

The ruling authoritarians have fundamentally subverted democracy, including the electoral process. 

For the democratic opposition to win, it will almost take a miracle. But perhaps it’s not hopeless. 

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Miracles happen, especially in Poland.

Wojciech Sadurski is a Professor at the University of Sydney Law School and the  University of Warsaw's Center for Europe. He is the author of "A Pandemic of Populists"(Cambridge 2022).

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at view@euronews.com to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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