European Elections in Poland: Confined party club

June 23, 2009

Maciej Gdula

Outwardly, it may be said that the European Parliament elections in Poland reflected more strongly the tendencies also present in other large EU member states. Since the right wing parties’ victories in France, Germany, Spain and Italy, it is no exception in comparison to other EU states that the conservative-liberal Platforma Obywatelska (PO, the Civic Platform) and the conservative-national Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, Law and Justice) won in Poland. But the similarity is quite superficial, as the election results in those other countries may be attributed to the partial decomposition of their previous power distribution, and the appearance of new agents in their political systems (e.g. Europe Ecologie in France and Sweden’s Pirate Party), while in Poland the elections closely reproduced the existing political system, or better, witnessed its confinement.

Election results

The elections brought a decisive victory for the governing Civic Platform with 44.43 per cent of the votes. Second place fell to the Law and Justice Party with 27.4 per cent, with the next two parties obtaining only 1/5 of all votes. Social democrats from SLD-UP (Democratic Left Alliance-Labour Union) received 12.34 per cent of the votes, while the co-governing PSL (Polish People’s Party) convinced just 7.01 per cent of the voters. The remaining six committees did not pass the 5 per cent election threshold. The best result amongst these (2.44%) was noted by CentroLewica (Centre-Left), allied with Zieloni 2004 (the Polish Green Party).

What is striking here is that the election threshold was passed exclusively by parties present in the national parliament, and thus in national politics by the agency of mass media. By voting for the well-known parties, Poles made the exact opposite of their choices from five years previously, when they elected parties to the European Parliament other than those leading the way in national politics. Apart from the four parties that dominated this year’s elections, in 2004 the Polish seats in the European Parliament were also occupied by liberals from the Unia Wolności (Freedom Union) [4 seats], representatives of Socjaldemokracja Polska (Social Democracy of Poland, a party established as a result of the secession of some activists of the then governing SLD) [3 seats], farming radicals from Samoobrona (Self-Defence) [6 seats] and fundamentalists from the Liga Polskich Rodzin (League of Polish Families) [10 seats]. In these previous elections, Poles manifested how they would like to vote if they could vote with their hearts and not their minds.

As we can see, this year’s elections did not result in a similar dissonance, and voters decided that the Civic Platform should receive half of the 50 seats assigned to Poland in the European Parliament. PiS received 15 seats, while the remaining 10 were split between SLD and PSL with 7 and 3 seats respectively. The elected candidates were mostly strongly associated with party organisations compiling election lists. Those among the 50 MEPs who are more loosely connected with political parties can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Thus the representation of Polish MEPs will be less varied and probably more dependent on party discipline.

Turnout and campaign

Total election turnout amounted to 24.53 per cent. This result is higher than in previous EP elections when only 20.87 per cent of voters turned up at the ballot boxes, but this year’s turnout can by no means be considered a success of civic involvement. Clearly lower than the average EU level, the Polish turnout indicates that the elections did not attract considerable interest and were not defined as an important political event.

The governing Civic Platform attempted to create an image of a Europe-friendly party by attracting primarily well-known politicians associated with the European Union. By enlisting Danuta Hübner, Polish Commissioner for Regional Development, and Róża Thun, head of the Representation of the European Commission in Poland, the Civic Platform successfully assumed the role of a Europe-friendly party which based its actions on people enthusiastic about European integration who are at home with European institutions. PO referred also to national sentiments and persuaded the public that its representatives would care for Polish interests. One of the main motives of PO’s campaign encouraged people to vote for Jerzy Buzek, a man who could compete for the chair of the President of the European Parliament provided that PO obtained good results throughout the country and finished with a strong position in the European People’s Party. To this end, PO’s campaign offered a mixture of technocracy and soft nationalism.

A much stronger nationalism was presented by the Law and Justice Party. Fearing leaving the right side to the Eurosceptic parties, PiS selected warnings against the German threat to Poland as its main campaign motive. Their play on national fears was undoubtedly supported by the pre-election declarations of the German Christian Democratic Union emphasising the Germans’ suffering after the Second World War and their “right to homeland”. While warning against the Germans, PiS accused PO of supporting German interests and of the latter party’s disloyalty towards the Polish nation. PiS definitely owes its fairly good result to the fact that it mobilised part of the voters leaning towards national and anti-German slogans, and simultaneously inhibited them from voting for the radical Right. 
The other parties’ campaigns suffered from low visibility and did not force their way through the disputes between PO and PiS. Their campaigns did not attract the citizenry’s attention because their leading agents did not attempt to redefine the European Union’s image in Poland. Perception of the EU is dominated by a national perspective which sees either approval of the integration because it is beneficial to Poland, or fear of the Union as an institution working in the interest of large and wealthy countries behind the scenes. Discussion of the EU’s developmental direction or its policies was replaced by disputes between PO and PiS which allowed both agents to reproduce their position in Polish politics, effectively marginalising the other parties’ efforts.

Post-election commentaries are dominated by reflections on the election results’ consequences for national politics. PO’s strong results have raised speculations as to whether it will help Donald Tusk win the presidency in next year’s elections and whether, in the long run, PO will be able to renew its governing position in future national parliament elections. As far as PiS is concerned, the party confirmed its position as the second power on the Polish political scene but, at the same time, it became clear that they could not exceed a threshold of twenty-odd per cent of social support and have a limited outlook for cooperation with other parties. Their awareness of having reached a dead end may possibly be a catalyst for changes in the party. The previous position of Jarosław Kaczyński as unchallenged leader has also recently begun to be gently undermined by some of the Law and Justice politicians, and the process of the party’s ‘decentralisation’, i.e. the appearance of several leaders competing for position within the party, may have just begun. Although the SLD as headed by Grzegorz Napieralski did not achieve a considerable result, the party increased the number of its representatives in the European Parliament from 5 to 7 thanks to the smaller number of parties that did pass the election threshold. If the SLD simply accept this result without making any changes within the party, it will mean that they are reconciled to the role of a small party on the Polish political scene. Despite losing just one seat in comparison to the 2004 elections, PSL is rather pleased with its result as it confirms their position as a small but stable player in Polish politics.

The national dimension’s dominance in the elections and post-election debate does not allow a clear view of the direction of the Polish MEPs’ actions in the forthcoming term. PiS members will probably join a new conservative faction in the Parliament, together with the British and Czech conservatives. This faction has already declared itself to be anti-federate and averse to the Lisbon Treaty. The conditions of PiS’s operations in the country may induce it to practise European politics far from the federal consensus characterising the socialist and Christian democrat cooperation in the Parliament. Postponement of the Treaty’s ratification by the president is one of the major elements of current national politics, and in the near future there is nothing to indicate that a change in stance on this matter would be favourable to PiS.
After the elections, Prime Minister Donald Tusk said that high turnout at the last national parliament elections had involved great emotions, while he preferred to spare Poles’ emotions from aggressive politics: “Let there be (…) even lower turnout, as long as there is little anger between the people.” This statement clearly reflects the spirit dominant in today’s Poland, where people are encouraged to vote for those who would free them from politics. This strategy was basically employed by all the large parties, except for PiS, that politics should be practised by professional politicians from a confined party club and not raise conflicts. The results of the European Parliament elections show that Poles approve of such a proposal – at least for now.

Maciej Gdula is a publicist and a staff editor for Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique). He holds an PhD in Sociology.