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Poland goes to the polls this Sunday. Will the controversial Law and Justice party stay in power?

And why has it remained so popular?

- October 8, 2019

On Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019, Poland will elect a new Parliament. Over the past four years, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has made international headlines for policies that undermine democracy. Despite this, the party is on track to remain the strongest faction in the lower house of Parliament, the Sejm. However, it’s not clear that the party will win the majority of seats.

In the 2015 election, PiS won 235 of 460 Sejm seats with only 37.58 percent of the vote. That’s because more than 16 percent of votes were cast for parties that failed to clear the minimum national electoral threshold to be seated in Parliament.

Once in office, PiS quickly adopted controversial regulations denounced by its critics as authoritarian. A particularly heated debate emerged around increasing political control of the judiciary, which prompted mass protests in Poland. The European Union launched legal action, known as an infringement procedure, to protect Polish judges. In August, the conflict escalated again after evidence suggested that Justice Ministry officials were involved in a harassment campaign directed toward judges critical of the government.

Despite these controversial actions, PiS continues to lead in the polls. In October 2018, the party won the regional elections with 34 percent of the vote compared with 27 percent won by the Civic Coalition (KO), a centrist alliance led by the main opposition party, the Civic Platform (PO). Then in May 2019, PiS won the European parliamentary elections with 45 percent of the vote, while 38 percent went to a coalition of the KO, the leftist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the conservative Polish People’s Party (PSL).

Why has PiS stayed popular?

PiS’s popularity stems in no small part from the party’s economic policy. After taking over in 2015, PiS pushed an unprecedented expansion of the welfare state by introducing a universal child benefit, increasing the minimum wage and reducing the retirement age.

The Polish economy has continued to grow, and unemployment dropped to 3 percent in July 2019. That unemployment rate ranks as the third-lowest in the E.U., behind only the Czech Republic and Germany. As a result, after years of mass Polish emigration to Western Europe, Poland has recently become an attractive destination — especially for economic migrants from Ukraine, who are desperately needed by Poland’s booming agriculture and industry sectors.

Will PiS hold on to its majority?

Some polls over the past two months suggest PiS could be the largest party in the Sejm while failing to secure an outright majority — which would prevent it from continuing to rule as a single-party government.

Some voters are worried about the party’s authoritarian tendencies and the erosion of the rule of law. Others are unhappy about problems plaguing the health-care system and the schools. Furthermore, voters are beginning to worry about the environment and climate change, topics that until now have been irrelevant in Polish politics.

After being defeated in the May European Parliament elections, the opposition parties abandoned their alliance and broke into three blocs. The largest, centrist bloc, the KO, consists of the moderate PO, liberal Modern, leftist Initiative Poland (IP) and the Green Party. The Left bloc includes the reformed communist successor party, the SLD, the left-liberal Spring and the far-left Together parties. Finally, the PSL began cooperating with the populist Kukiz’15 movement to broaden its base beyond the rural electorate.

By contesting the election as three blocs, the opposition parties hope to appeal to voters who did not turn out for the broad and politically diverse alliance. However, because of the split, they will lose an electoral bonus in the votes-to-seats formula used to distribute parliamentary seats among parties. The three opposition blocs continue to campaign together for the upper house of Parliament, the Senate.

The figure below shows the number of seats that parties would win based on the latest polling data, computed using the approach developed by Jaroslaw Flis and co-authors. Since mid-July, most polls have suggested PiS would win at least 231 seats, while a few dip just below the majority threshold. Only two polls suggest its seat share may exceed the three-fifths (or 276) required to reject a presidential veto. None gives the ruling party the two-thirds majority (307) necessary to change the constitution.

The second-most-likely scenario is that PiS narrowly fails to win a majority. It could then attempt to form a coalition government with Confederation (Konfed. in the figure), a party founded by an alliance of far-right movements. However, polls suggest Confederation may not pass the national electoral threshold of 5 percent to secure representation in the Sejm.

If PiS loses the majority and Confederation fails to enter parliament, then the three opposition blocs — the KO, the Left and the PSL — are expected to form a government, since they all reject a coalition with PiS. But PiS may attempt to secure power by persuading individual opposition members of Parliament to switch sides, a strategy it used in the Silesian Regional Assembly after failing to win an outright majority in 2018. Some observers speculate that the conservative PSL may be willing to switch sides, but its leaders strongly deny that.

Even if PiS wins a majority in the Sejm, it may have difficulty passing legislation — because the Senate election is virtually a toss-up. If the opposition were to win the Senate, it could slow down policies proposed by the government.

Kamil Marcinkiewicz (@kamil_marc) is a lecturer of political science and research methods at the University of Hamburg. His research focuses on voting behavior, elections and legislative politics.

Mary Stegmaier (@MaryStegmaier) is the interim vice provost for international programs and an associate professor in the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri. Her research focuses on voting behavior, elections, forecasting and political representation.