This year will be an eventful one in Polish politics. Politicians are already working on their campaign themes for the European Parliament elections, which will take place this May. This time it will be more than just a scramble for the sweet salaries and perks associated with being an MEP: the May election could set the tone for both the upcoming local government elections in the autumn of this year and for the all-important parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2015.
In 2013, for the first time in many years, the conservative nationalist opposition party Law and Justice (PiS) outdid the center-right ruling Civic Platform (PO) in successive voter surveys, as Poles seemed to tire of Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his often lackluster government. The internal squabbling in PO throughout last year didn’t help either.
I’m a winner. PiS, which has lost six major elections in a row to PO, is now hoping to use the EP vote in May to reverse that trend as well as lend credibility to the narrative they are trying to push, namely that all the political momentum is currently on their side.
A defeat for PO, which prides itself on being a pro-European political grouping, would be a severe blow both to party morale and to the prime minister himself.
Meanwhile, it would make the PiS leader, Jarosław Kaczyński – who has had to content himself with being a perpetual runner-up in recent years – look like a winner. This is something Kaczyński and his supporters need very badly after all the years of disappointments.
If PiS does win the European Parliament elections, as the polls suggest they well may, Kaczyński and his party are likely to receive a strong boost in voter support going into the local government elections later in the year.
In my opinion, Kaczyński’s nationalist slogans and essentially socialist economic program appeal to the natural instincts of many more Poles than those who currently declare support for his party (roughly 30 percent).
His problem up till now has been the “loser” label he has had to wear since 2007, when Tusk and PO first swept to power. Kaczyński the “winner” would be a much more dangerous rival for Donald Tusk in the parliamentary elections next year.
Tusk is of course well aware of this, and thus will fight tooth and nail to win in May. And so the campaign for the European Parliament, which seldom stirs up fierce passions in most European countries, is likely to be a heated one in Poland.
The anniversary year. Another reason why Polish politics is bound to be a particularly emotional affair in 2014 is the number of symbolic anniversaries awaiting us. This year marks the 10th anniversary of Poland joining the European Union, the 15th anniversary of it becoming a NATO member and the 25th anniversary of the country’s first partially-free elections held in 1989.
All these anniversaries will spark heated debate about where Poland currently stands.
Tusk and PO will argue that Poland today is richer and safer than it has ever been, and that it is a fully independent country, free from Soviet-style influence on its domestic affairs. They will point to the successes of the past two decades and insist that while the country still has many problems to tackle, it is in essence a success story.
Kaczyński and PiS will say that is all hogwash, and that Poland today is an unequal society where the rich and powerful enjoy all the privileges of life while ordinary Poles are increasingly being squeezed by low wages and rising prices.
They will also point to Vladimir Putin’s recent muscle-flexing, as well as the EU’s fiasco in Ukraine, as proof that while Poland may be in NATO today, the Russian bear hasn’t stepped back an inch and is still a realistic threat that Polish people need to be wary of. The Polish government needs to be “tougher” in its relations with Moscow, Kaczyński will thunder, without specifically explaining how exactly to go about that.
The question is: whose story will Poles buy? The answer to that will determine which party ends this year looking the favorites to win the parliamentary vote in 2015.