Poland Heading to the Polls: from the Wheat Crisis
to the Rise of the Far Right
Fabio Turco 8 May 2023

On the European political landscape, a very important event is looming on the horizon. In just over six months’ time Polish electors who head to the polls to choose their new Parliament will be faced with a big decision: whether to confirm for the third time in a row the government mandate of the Conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) – which would be an absolute first in the history of democratic Poland – or attempt to bring about a change by putting their trust in the liberal and progressive forces that make up the heterogenous field of the Opposition. Although it may still be too early to predict with certainty how things will turn out, what is certain is that every election that is held in the Fall is actually decided in the Spring. This means that it is more than ever important to understand the state of the art as it is at present.


The elections: PiS in the lead but with a third wheel


First of all, the rules. The Polish electoral system provides that the Sejm (the lower house of the Parliament), made up of 460 members, be chosen by universal ballot. The Senate, which has fewer powers, is elected by the majority system. The cut-off is 5 percent for the parties that come to the elections individually, and 8 percent for the coalitions.

The latest opinion polls indicate that the PiS is still the party with the greatest support, ranging from 33 percent to 36 percent of preferences. Civic Coalition (KO), the main Opposition party led by the former president of the European Council Donald Tusk, follows behind with 23.5 to 26 percent. Based on this scenario the PiS should have it easy, but we need to take into account the possibility, which is not clear at the moment, of an agreement between the different ‘souls’ of the democratic opposition. Besides the two main parties, New Left (Nowa Lewica) and Poland 2050 (Polska 2050) would also enter the Parliament. Just above the 5 percent cut-off is the Popular Party (PSL). The overall strength of these four parties is over 40 percent and Donald Tusk has pointed to the single list as the only way to be able to win the election. However, at the moment there are considerable divergences between the parties, especially between Tusk himself and the leader of Polska 2050 Szymon Hołownia.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki

The real outsider, however, risks coming from the right: Confederation (Konfederacja), a radical right-wing party, which the opinion polls say is close to 12 percent. Overwhelming growth for a party that a few months ago was languishing at around the cut-off threshold. Konfederacja is a rassemblement of three parties: New Hope (Nowa Nadzieja), National Movement (Ruch Narodowy), and Confederation of the Polish Crown (Konfederacja Korony Polskiej). Until a short time ago it also included the party of the Libertarians (Wolnościowcy), which broke away, however. In ideological terms it is situated even more to the right than the PiS, from which it differs based on its more liberal conception in the area of economics.

The growth of Konfederacja is striking, also considering the fact that it is the only party that has sided against supporting Ukraine following the Russian invasion. Some openly Russophile declarations of the older leader Janusz Korwin-Mikke had caused the consensus to collapse in the early months of the war. In recent months, however, the party has undergone a makeover, paying less attention to the figures who had caused the most embarrassment, and focusing on launching a more youthful line instead. The party is currently led by Krzysztof Bosak, already a candidate at the presidential elections in 2020, and by the 35-year-old entrepreneur Sławomir Mentzen. At the same time the political focus has been shifted onto the economy, which counters the plan of the social right-wing of the PiS. These two moves have allowed the party to become a pole of attraction for hard-line liberals, above all among the younger electorate.

The growth of Konfederacja has caused alarm bells to go off in the Opposition, recalling how Mentzen, during a party congress in 2019, had declared: “We do not want Jews, homosexuals, abortion, the European Union and taxes.” “Words taken out of context,” was his response.


Inflation, wheat crisis, political crisis


For now, the growth of Konfederacja does not seem to be causing the PiS establishment too many headaches. The government led by Mateusz Morawiecki has emerged unharmed from what could have been an economically catastrophic winter owing to the energy crisis and the high rate of inflation. Gas prices are falling dramatically, making it possible to look to the future with greater confidence. In foreign policy the axis with the United States has continued to grow stronger, bolstered by the visit – the second in one year – of Joe Biden. Konfederacja aside, public opinion is transversally for supporting Ukraine, where Poland is increasingly in the front line as concerns the military, after the delivery of the Mig29 and the central role played by the Leopard 2 tanks. Inflation instead continues to represent an unknown. In February it reached 18.2 percent, the highest since 1997. The analysts say that should be the peak, but the drop to single-figure inflation will not be a fast one. The biggest unknown at the moment has to do with the grain crisis, which has witnessed weeks of protesting by Polish farmers, and has led to the resignation of the Minister of Agriculture Henryk Kowalczyk.

The problem began a year ago when, to get around the Russian naval blockade on grain and cereals destined to Africa and the Middle East, Poland, along with other countries in the region, accepted the plan to store the food products coming from Ukraine and re-export them outside of Europe. At the same time, the European Union had cut the customs duties and imports tariffs making the price of Ukrainian grain particularly convenient. The problem of overload in the country’s ports has prevented the quick re-exportation of the cereals, which have been building up in containers. The result of this was what should not have happened: the flooding the local market with Ukrainian grain.

Warsaw has tried to put the blame on the European Union, which on its part has allocated a 56 million euro refund (almost 30 million for Poland alone) for all those who were affected. Too little according to the farmers, represented by the trade union AgroUnia, who complain of losses for two billion euros. The government still ended up in the eye of the storm – the EU Commissioner for Agriculture, Janusz Wojciechowski is a member of the PiS – and the complaints forced a changeover in the Ministry of Agriculture. The government, on the initiative of the new minister, Robert Telus, has suspended grain imports until June 30, while an agreement was reached with the Ukrainian counterpart to guarantee its transit toward other countries. Although the protests have subsided for the time being, if they were to start up again it could be a big problem in view of the elections in the fall. The countryside is traditionally the biggest electorate for the PiS, and Michał Kołodziejczak, the leader of AgroUnia, has already announced that he wants to take to the elections a party that can represent the union’s demands.



The blocked funds 


In the past few weeks, the issue of the blocking of the Recovery Fund, imposed by the EU Commission on Poland owing to its failure to respect the rule of law on the subject of justice, has fallen by the wayside. This was mostly the intention of the government. The situation appeared to have been solved in January when the PiS brought the reform of the justice system to the Parliament; according to its promoters, this would have allowed the country to access the 36 billion euros it is due. The draft law, which has triggered a fully-fledged split in the Opposition, has not aroused unanimous enthusiasm, not even in the majority or among the magistrates themselves, who have expressed serious doubts about the constitutionality of a law that would have modified the powers of the Supreme Administrative Court.

The least convinced of all was President Andrzej Duda – moreover, the promotor of a previous reform deemed to be insufficient by Brussels – who, when called upon to add his signature, decided to ask for the opinion of the Constitutional Court. However, for years this body has lost its independence from the executive, and in recent years it has been at the center of some hotly debated sentences. Recently, Poland was deferred to the European Court of Justice for the one relating to the supremacy of the national Constitution over the European Treaties. Any decision by the Court thus risks being of little value in the eyes of the Commission.

The biggest problem is reaching a decision, seeing that the Court itself is going through a particularly complex phase. Some of the judges, the ones close to the Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro, no longer recognize the authority of the president Julia Przyłębska. Her mandate, they argue, expired on December 20, 2022, six years after being sworn in. Przyłębska, some of the “loyalist” judges, and the members of the government instead claim that there is no term for the president’s period in office, and that this will end when her role as the judge on the Court does, hence, at the end of 2024. In order to proceed, the minimum number of judges who must attend the hearing is 11 out of a total of 15. The rebel judges, however, refuse to attend, stating that this would be against the law, making the Court’s work very difficult. The next meeting to discuss the judicial reform law is scheduled for May 30. If a legal quorum is not reached, European funding may be stuck on a dead-end track.



Cover Photo: voters at the polls (photo by Aleksander Kalka/NurPhoto via AFP.)


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