Recent disputes within the ruling coalition underscore the problems faced by the Polish government. With ongoing discord, a coalition split, minority government or fresh parliamentary elections cannot be ruled out.
A crisis emerged within Poland’s government on 17 September, after a junior coalition partner, United Poland, voted against an animal rights bill, championed by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. The law sought to curtail Poland’s fur farming industry and prohibit the ritual slaughter of animals for religious reasons. The legislation was unpalatable for the ultra-conservative factions of the right-wing nationalist coalition. Typically these parties are supportive of the Catholic church and uphold its values, particularly in rural and agricultural regions.
Tensions have been brewing between the predominant PiS party and junior coalition partner, United Poland, for several months. Disagreements erupted over a plethora of issues, including LGBT rights and the rule of law. Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, leader of United Poland, denounced the bill and has derided another proposed piece of legislation, which seeks to offer immunity to lawmakers from their decisions made during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ziobro is a firebrand of the nationalist right. He is responsible for several of Poland’s controversial policies in recent months. This includes declaring his intention to withdraw Poland from the Istanbul Convention. Recent internecine coalition disputes underscore the increasing disagreement between more moderate and radical factions within the United Right coalition.
Coalition tensions risk fresh elections
The ruling coalition’s inability to reconcile would result in a minority government in the short term, which will find it difficult to enact legislation. Remiss of support from the United Poland party would leave the PiS without an overall majority in parliament. The PiS currently holds 235 of the 460 seats in the lower house but would lose its majority without United Poland’s 17 seats. Failure to sustain the coalition heightens the possibility of the PiS calling early elections, looking to secure a parliamentary majority. Currently, parliamentary elections are not scheduled until 2023, with the last polls taking place in 2019.
However, returning to the polls presents risks to the PiS and other right-wing nationalist parties, which have suffered setbacks in recent months. Attempts to reform the judiciary, alongside comments on LGBT policies have sparked a backlash from the EU as well as from domestic opponents. Attempts to hold a presidential election in May, before postponing the vote at the eleventh hour due to COVID-19 concerns, made the government appear inept. When the election did take place in June and July, PiS-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda claimed victory by a wafer-thin margin having fought off a strong challenge from Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski. Calling fresh elections at this time, after the PiS barely achieved what was supposed to be a comfortable presidential re-election, risks political exile for at least four years.
Future of the right-wing in Poland
How this coalition crisis plays out could shape the future of the PiS and right-wing parties in Poland. Seventy-one-year-old Jarosław Kaczyński, long-time leader of the PiS, is expected to step down in the coming years and has groomed current Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki as the future leader of the party. However, Ziobro has also been touted as potentially returning into the PiS fold. Having burnished his conservative credentials, he could seek to lead the PiS away from the more moderate direction expected of the current prime minister. Therefore, Ziobro’s move to oppose the animal rights bills is seen by many as a power play to disrupt control of the PiS and its leadership structure moving forward.
Attempts to revive the coalition
In recent weeks the PiS, United Poland and Agreement parties have conducted negotiations to attempt to revive the coalition. These have resulted in a deal which was announced on 26 September. However, details on the intricacies of this new arrangement remain unclear. Reports emerging from Warsaw suggest that Kaczyński could return to the government to oversee ministries, including the justice department. Kaczyński is currently an MP, despite holding de facto control over the party as its leader. Formally returning him into the cabinet suggests that Ziobro’s manoeuvre has failed to advance the credentials of the more conservative wing of the coalition.
However, this may not end the infighting, which has engulfed the ruling coalition in recent months. The disagreements extend well beyond the animal rights bill which triggered this crisis. Kaczyński’s return to the government strengthens the succession of current prime minister Morawiecki as future PiS leader but leaves several issues to be resolved between the coalition’s parties.