Why Poland’s Nationalists Got Punished

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is facing its most difficult moment since winning the 2015 general election: The party’s dogfight with the European Union over judicial reforms appears to be making voters queasy, especially in bigger cities, and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, the nationalists’ great political hope, lacks the electoral and negotiating golden touch PiS needs despite his successful economic policies.

On Sunday, PiS won in regional elections, but by a narrower margin than polls predicted. Anything less than a 10 percentage point margin over the liberal opposition, the Civic Coalition, would have been a disappointing result, and PiS was held to an advantage of about 7 percentage points, winning less than a third of the votes and falling short of its 2015 general election result nationwide. The surprise first-round defeat of Patryk Jaki in Warsaw’s mayoral election at the hands of liberal candidate Rafal Trzaskowski, who’s already being described as a potential liberal front-runner in future elections, left an especially bitter taste. Even though PiS has improved its representation in local councils, which distribute much of the all-important EU subsidies, it doesn’t have the coalition-building potential of its only slightly weaker rivals. And it needs bigger gains if it is to reproduce the success of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party and reshape Polish politics in its own image.

The election followed a decision last Friday by the European Court of Justice, the EU’s top court, which ordered Poland to suspend a cut to the retirement age of Supreme Court judges from 70 to 65, a key part of the judiciary reform PiS is trying to push through. Its numerous opponents among Polish judges have argued that the reform amounts to a political hijacking of the country’s judiciary and a purge of judges who aren’t loyal to the ruling party. PiS officials have described the reform as an attempt to make judges more accountable and get rid of those among them who took part in the persecution of dissidents under the Communist regime. 

Morawiecki, a former investment banker who had ably run the government’s economic part, was appointed prime minister to run a charm offensive in Europe without giving up on the substance of the party’s Orban-style reforms. It hasn’t worked; the European Commission wouldn’t play along, starting a rule of law infringement procedure against Poland and, finally, going to court.

Friday’s preliminary ruling tells Poland not to retire any judges nor appoint any replacements until the ECJ makes a final ruling in the case. Though PiS officials have argued, rather weakly, that the decision has been made without anyone listening to their arguments, Poland’s Supreme Court President Malgorzata Gersdorf, herself affected by the new retirement age law, instructed the other judges sent home by the PiS — about 40 percent of the court’s members — to return to work. On Monday, the first of them did, with the government powerless to prevent it.

Poland is not just the biggest net recipient of EU funds, it’s also a country with a high level of support for EU membership. According to the latest Eurobarometer survey, 46 percent of Poles trust the EU and 41 percent don’t; at the same time, only 28 percent trust the national government while 65 percent don’t. For PiS, inability to resolve a conflict with the EU destroys the political capital it earns from a buoyant economy, on track to show 4.7 percent growth this year with record-low unemployment and robust wage growth. 

Failure to get the EU’s approval for the judiciary reform almost certainly hurt Morawiecki as the face of the party in the election campaign that ended on Sunday. So did a report that the current prime minister was secretly recorded while still working for Bank Santander, making disparaging comments about “greedy” “Americans, Jews, Germans, Anglos and Swiss” in the finance industry and at the same time describing himself as a liberal aligned with establishment figures such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

PiS faces tough choices now. Escalating its confrontation with the EU and refusing to recognize the preliminary ECJ decisions could result in hefty fines for the government at a time when it must maintain high social spending in order not to lose political momentum. As it is, reports of delayed compensation payments to farmers hit by a drought may have contributed to an unexpectedly high result of one of the opposition parties in the regional election. Pulling back from the escalation and accepting what are likely to be substantial changes to the judiciary reform would mean a major loss of face with the party’s nationalist base. Both would hurt Morawiecki’s standing as a possible successor to PiS’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Poland often has been lumped with Hungary as another front-runner of the nationalist, illiberal trend in Europe. Yet it’s a bigger country that’s more important to the EU; it has more competitive politics and a lively independent media. A political force can win ground with some populist giveaways, but Poland won’t easily be dominated by one party, even a popular and successful one. That ought to be a source of comfort to its partners in Europe.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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