Poland heads into a divisive election dealing with a war next door

Poland heads into a divisive election dealing with a war next door

WARSAW — Poland has become the face of Western resolve and strength in the face of Russia’s war in Ukraine, but the country’s divisive internal politics and tense relations with the European Union — and more pointedly Germany — are on full display ahead of October elections that most here say are shaping up as the most consequential since the collapse of communism in 1989.

It’s a contest pitting the ruling Law and Justice party, whose staunchly conservative government has held power since 2015, against a liberal establishment headed by former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who promises to repair Warsaw’s relations with the EU and keep the country on a path to democracy in line with the powers that be in Brussels.

The competing campaigns look like a political cage match between a nationalist right-wing government seeking an unprecedented third term in power on Europe’s post-communist periphery and a pro-EU opposition party grasping for relevance at a moment of continent-wide unease over Russian aggression and populist doubts about the dominance of the bloc’s biggest players in setting bloc policy.

Law and Justice party supporters accuse Mr. Tusk, who served as president of the EU’s executive arm after leaving the prime minister post in 2014, of being an agent of Germany bent on clipping Poland’s rise as European military and economic power.

The ruling government is banking on the notion that anti-German sentiment is strong across the Polish electorate, even if Berlin is Poland’s top economic backer, accounting for about 21% of all foreign investment in the country.

Some in the ruling party have gone so far as to stoke memories of Poland’s difficult past under German occupation in World War II by portraying Mr. Tusk as a Nazi — a characterization that dramatically underscores how divisive the political rhetoric has become here ahead of the Oct. 15 vote.

For its own part, Mr. Tusk’s Civic Platform, a center-left party that ruled Poland from 2007 to 2015 and did align closely with the then-government of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has held few punches.

Civic Platform leaders portray the Law and Justice party as xenophobic, anti-women, anti-gay and authoritarian. They’ve also highlighted the ruling party’s poor relations with the EU bureaucracy in Brussels, which is withholding billions in COVID-19 recovery aid to Poland on grounds the Law and Justice party pushed through undemocratic judicial reforms in 2019 that violate EU standards and democratic practice.

The EU’s highest court ruled in June that the reforms require Polish judges to divulge their party affiliations, a claim the Civic Platform leaders have pounced on to promote a narrative that the Law and Justice party is dragging Poland toward an authoritarian system of one-party rule. Many share the sentiment in urban centers like Warsaw, where protesters held large demonstrations against the ruling government days before the EU ruling.

Mr. Tusk has since vowed on the campaign trail to reverse the trend and free up the frozen EU aid if he regains power.

Polls give the Law and Justice party a small but steady lead over about 8 to 10 percentage points over Civic Platform, but both parties are well short of a majority and the outcome could be determined by how many seats go to smaller parties on the left and right. The socially conservative, anti-EU Confederation Freedom and Independence Party and its mercurial co-founder Slawomir Mentzen has surged to 11% support in a recent averaging of polls and could be in position to play kingmaker in the post-vote coalition negotiations.

Economy first

But it’s unclear how many voters in the predominantly Catholic country — particularly in rural communities and smaller cities where Law and Justice party support is strongest — really care about what the rigorously secular EU thinks of Poland.

What likely does matter, according to local analysts, is that the Polish economy has grown under Law and Justice party rule and Poland’s stature as a regional player has risen dramatically in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The conflict has brought a surge of international aid and military traffic through Poland, as well as special EU funding — unhindered by the ongoing judicial reform fight — to help Warsaw cover costs associated with the more than one million Ukrainian refugees who have found shelter in Poland.

The result finds the Law and Justice government enjoying an edge that extends across domestic ideological lines precisely because of the outsized role the party has embraced for Poland in response to the war and the wider threat of Russian military aggression toward Europe — aggression many Poles, regardless of their personal politics, say is not being taken seriously enough by neighboring Germany and other countries in Western Europe.

“Security is one of the key issues in the election because of the war in Ukraine,” said Pawel Pawlowski, a geopolitics expert with the Warsaw Institute think tank. “It’s causing many emotions and is very attractive for the politicians on both sides to use in their campaigns.”

Others underscore how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed Poland’s collective political mindset.

“We’re one of the front line countries helping Ukraine,” said Aleksandra Rybinska, a well-known journalist who writes a column for wPolityce.pl, a conservative online Polish publication.

“If Russia is not defeated in a decisive way, meaning not only pushed out of Ukraine, but defeated in a way that it loses its economic power and is subdued in a decisive way, it will rebuild its military capacity, not in two or three years but in a decade and we’re going to have the same problem again,” said Ms. Rybinska, who is also associated with the Warsaw Institute.

“The impression we have here in Poland,” she said in an interview, “is that our Western European partners are not completely on the same page with regard to this.”

The Law and Justice party has sought to capitalize on such narratives. The party has also made international headlines by accusing traditional EU powers of lining up behind Germany in pandering to Russia, particularly in the energy sector, prior to the Ukraine invasion.

It’s a message that’s resonated through NATO eastern flank, including Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia over the past 18 months of war.

“There is great mistrust in the region toward German policy because Germany was pushing prior to the Ukraine war for cooperation with Russia,” said Mr. Pawlowski. “They were building the Nord Stream 2 [oil and gas pipeline], and they involved Russia strongly in the European energy market and other sectors, and it proved to be absolutely wrong and dangerous for the security and the economy of the European Union.”

Poland has emerged over the past two years as ground zero for a massive NATO logistics operation pumping multinational weaponry and other aid into Ukraine — a situation that finds the often-overlooked country on the EU’s eastern periphery emerging as the center of a prominent regional security force.

Poland has responded to the Ukraine war by beefing up its military. The Law and Justice government has vowed to spend nearly 4% of GDP on defense in 2023. The figure would outstrip the U.S. ratio and soar past all other NATO nations, including Germany, Canada and France, each of which has yet to meet the alliance’s benchmark of 2% of GDP by next year.

Nationalists within the ruling Law and Justice party say Poland, the fifth most populous country in the European Union, is destined to play a more robust role in an era of emerging great power competition in which Russia and China are increasingly aligned against Europe and the United States.

The party was famously close with former President Donald Trump, who paved the way for increased U.S. energy sector coordination with Poland on a visit to Warsaw in 2017. On that trip, Mr. Trump also praised Polish President and Law and Justice party stalwart Andrzej Duda for his leadership in pushing the so-called “Three Seas Initiative.”

The initiative has set out since 2016 to promote north to south energy, transportation and digital infrastructure among 12 European nations east of Germany.

Mr. Pawlowski suggested the future of such regional cohesion, and Poland’s leadership role within it, is a fundamental undercurrent of the debate here ahead of the October election.

“I don’t expect the outcome of the election, whatever it is, will drastically change Poland’s posture toward the war in Ukraine,” he said. “We will still be supporting Ukraine as we are. But in the longer perspective, how the election goes may affect regional security going forward. For example, [Civic Platform] is not a big fan of this Three Seas Initiative and regional cooperation. They think this is confusing and not good for the EU, and they want to solely focus on cooperation within the EU.”

The U.S. and the ballot

When it comes to U.S.-Poland relations and the looming vote, Mr. Pawlowski added, the Law and Justice party is “is absolutely pro-American. While [Civic Coalition] is not anti-American, they are strongly pro-German, always supporting German policy.”

Concerns rose in Poland following Mr. Trump’s defeat in 2020 that the new Biden administration would take a confrontational posture toward allegations of democratic backsliding by the Law and Justice government. But the ruling party has positively aligned with Mr. Biden behind Ukraine.

It has also moved ahead with Washington on energy deals. A recent Congressional Research Service report noted how Poland, which continues to rely on coal for more than two-thirds of its electricity generation, announced a deal with the U.S. company Westinghouse to build six nuclear reactors by the mid-2040s — a move that fits with President Biden’s goal of reducing global fossil fuel consumption to address climate change.

The World Bank, meanwhile, has described the current Polish economy as “one of the most resilient in the EU.”

Ms. Rybinska told The Washington Times that economic stability in Poland is a result of reforms pushed through by the Law and Justice government and that while the October election may be close, Poles are ultimately going to vote with their wallets.

“When people are asked here, they say they may not like the politics, but life is better than it was before Law and Justice,” she said. “Poland has a booming middle class. People are happy and satisfied. There are infrastructure projects all over the place.”