The coronavirus pandemic has rapidly intensified the severe polarization that has gripped Poland for more than a decade. A right-wing populist party, Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość; PiS), has controlled the presidency, parliament, and increasingly the judiciary since 2015, and its majoritarian, illiberal style of governance has exacerbated divides within the country. The pandemic has only aggravated these divisions, as the PiS government has seized the opportunity to tighten its grip on power and advance a polarizing sociocultural agenda.
The coronavirus outbreak hit Poland amid a presidential campaign (with the election scheduled for May 10), and the ruling party cynically exploited the crisis to take advantage of an uneven political playing field. The government’s ban on public events has made campaigning all but impossible for the opposition presidential candidates. Meanwhile, the incumbent President Andrzej Duda, who is running for reelection, has enjoyed relative freedom to conduct public meetings and press conferences. He has also received constant, enthusiastic coverage from PiS-controlled public television and radio stations, whereas opposition candidates have struggled to win media attention. These imbalances, coupled with a crisis-driven boost in the incumbent president’s approval ratings, make Duda the almost certain winner.
Given this lopsided presidential contest, the PiS government’s refusal to delay the election until the pandemic is over has incensed the opposition. Postponing the election would level the political playing field and might also raise uncomfortable questions for the president regarding his management of the crisis. Perhaps in light of these concerns, the government repeatedly has refused to declare a state of natural disaster or state of emergency, which automatically would delay the election. Instead, it has proposed two alternatives, both unpalatable for the opposition: using exclusively postal voting (and depriving the National Electoral Commission of its oversight powers in the process) or amending the constitution to extend the incumbent president’s term by two years. The opposition has strongly criticized the government’s insistence on holding elections during a pandemic, yet internal divisions among the various opposition presidential candidates have weakened their ability to pressure the ruling party.
Efforts to pass legislation to respond to the pandemic have also been immensely polarizing. The ruling party has not only ignored the opportunity for cooperation across party lines but also antagonized the opposition parties by completely ignoring their proposals to protect public health and the economy. The government has rushed legislation through in a ruthlessly majoritarian fashion, often in nocturnal voting sessions with no room for parliamentary or public debate. It has also included controversial last-minute amendments in the legislation, such as changes to electoral laws.
What is more, the government has inflamed polarization by raising divisive sociocultural issues and goading the opposition at a time of weakness during the pandemic. In recent weeks, the ruling party has put forward a number of “frozen” legislative initiatives, including proposals to restrict access to abortion, criminalize sex education, and liberalize hunting laws. These proposals, especially the anti-abortion law, initially had been withdrawn after massive street protests, which are now prohibited by the pandemic-related restrictions. The government has used these bills to expose divisions within the opposition and score points with its conservative base.
Though the coronavirus outbreak has thus fueled polarization within Poland, it also has shown that PiS is not invulnerable to criticism from within its own ranks. The ruling party received broad pushback, for instance, after its chairman, Jarosław Kaczyński, ordered top government officials to gather in person to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Smolensk plane crash that killed president Lech Kaczyński and nearly a hundred other members of the Polish political elite. The event publicly flouted the legal constraints placed on all citizens during the pandemic, and 66 percent of Poles viewed Kaczyński’s actions unfavorably. Similarly, 78 percent of citizens rejected the idea of holding the presidential election amid a public health crisis, and some officials within PiS and state institutions have pushed for it to be postponed.
Finally, at the societal level, Poles have shown solidarity in various ways with the most vulnerable groups. Volunteers have helped the elderly with shopping, rallied behind local businesses, and collected donations to support the severely underfunded health system. But it is difficult to imagine that these acts of solidarity during the crisis will be able to overcome the trend toward intensifying political discord.
Joanna Fomina is assistant professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw.