Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party looks set to lose power after eight years despite instrumentalizing a national referendum to mobilize its voters and misusing public funds in the election campaign. How was Poland’s case different from the similar one in the 2022 elections in Hungary, and why did the referendum not help PiS to win more votes?
October 19, 2023
Since the Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power in Poland in 2015, there has been growing evidence that autocratic-minded leaders try to copy each other’s playbook. After the PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski declared his aim was to “have Budapest in Warsaw”, the government copied various authoritarian measures that have been used by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary. In the recent elections, the PiS government introduced a controversial referendum with four questions that were closely tied to its populist narrative. The government argued that the referendum would empower Poles to give a binding answer to crucial questions, including if they wanted the EU to force thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa onto Poland, or if they wanted to sell off state assets to foreign entities, leading to the loss of national control over strategic sectors of the economy. The referendum was indirectly centered around the “threat” posed by the leader of the opposition, former prime minister Donald Tusk.
“Governing With the People” and its Populist Misuse
This resembled what happened in Hungary’s parliamentary elections in 2022 when the government also held a four-question referendum. This asked the public if they supported the “promotion” of content related to the sexual orientation to children, hinting at children being exposed to homosexual propaganda in schools and the media. Right-wing populists usually claim that they are “governing with the people”, but the otherwise democratic tool of referenda is often misused in practice. Similarly to the Fidesz one, PiS’s referendum was underpinned by tremendous amounts of disinformation, given that the EU does not want to force illegal immigrants onto Poland. The four questions were not designed to offer genuine policy choices but to support the government’s attacks on the opposition. The PiS narrative was that Tusk would undermine Polish sovereignty, sell the country to Germany, and jeopardize national security that is protected by PiS only. To put more emphasis on securitization, the government erected a fence at the Belarus border where President Alexander Lukashenka has been waging a hybrid warfare on Europe by pushing refugees across the border since 2020, and then further strengthened its protection.
An Instrument of Panic-Mongering and Financial Boost
Also similarly to the case of the Fidesz precedent, the referendum was meant to achieve three main goals for PiS: to manipulate public opinion by stoking identity-based and existential fears, to mobilize and cement the party’s base as well as to reach out to the far-right electorate, and to consolidate power over state and society. It also opened a window to misuse public funds to tilt the electoral field. There are different rules for a referendum information campaign than for an election one, which offered a way of circumventing campaign finance regulations. Such a campaign also gave pro-government civil society organizations the right to airtime in state media. Foundations associated with state-controlled companies played a central role in this process. For example, the PKP railway company and Pekao Bank (which belongs to Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s sphere of influence) significantly boosted anti-immigrant messages with media ads, encouraging people to vote no to all four questions.
Boycott With Systemic Risks
It was also challenging for the opposition to campaign directly against the referendum’s four questions since no one supported such policies in the first place. Its only viable option was to call for a boycott and to encourage people to reject the referendum ballot paper at polling stations. In contrast to the Hungarian case, voters could not accept it without contributing to the validity of the process, as a turnout above 50% would make its result binding: spoiling a ballot was not an option. However, openly rejecting the ballot paper meant giving up the secrecy of people’s vote, which might have led to intimidation in small towns, especially in polling stations located next to churches. Having a significant influence within the society, the Polish Catholic Church has been playing a system-supporting and legitimizing role for the right-wing populist PiS-government for years.
PiS Lost Touch with the Society
Turnout was a record high of 74.16% in the elections, but it was only 40% in the referendum. Despite the tilted field and financial boost for PiS, the referendum therefore did not help it to mobilize voters in its electorate and beyond. One of the reasons for this is that the government lost touch with Polish society. While its campaign was centered around Orbán-style hate-mongering about illegal immigrants, only 7% of voters were concerned about migration. There was a huge gap between reality and the government’s propaganda: while PiS was claiming that Tusk would sell state assets, people could not buy gasoline at the gas stations of PKN Orlen, the state petroleum giant that has agreed to sell assets to Saudi Aramco and Hungary’s MOL under PiS’s watch.
According to the exit poll of OGB (Ogólnopolską Grupę Badawczą), most voters were concerned about either the economy (27.8%), abortion rights (16.5%), or the rule of law (16%), and said that the country is going in the wrong direction. In contrast to PiS, the opposition ran a more positive, more inclusive campaign for restoring the reproductive rights of women and extending childcare support for young mothers who need help to re-enter the labor market. As a result, it successfully mobilized the youth and women, who tipped the scale in the elections with an unprecedented turnout. Despite an exceptional increase of turnout in villages, it eventually harmed the ruling party instead of helping it as masses of local inhabitants who hadn’t voted in 2019 came out against PiS. Thanks to the effective awareness-raising of the opposition and civil society organizations, there was, as noted, a 34-point difference in turnout between the elections and referendum, and more than half of the voters abstained from the latter.
How Is Poland Different from Hungary?
The fact that Orbán won the elections in Hungary although civil society there also raised awareness successfully to undercut the anti-LGBTQ referendum indicates at least two differences with Poland. First, since 2010, Hungary has experienced not just democratic backsliding but massive autocratization. It went from liberal democracy to non-democracy, becoming an electoral autocracy or a competitive authoritarian regime. Poland was rapidly shifting in the same direction but the PiS regime could not autocratize to the same extent, thanks to the institutional guarantees of a decentralized, multilevel governance system and to a diverse media market, among other things. Second, the Polish opposition employed a different strategy than the Hungarian one did. It organized itself into three main parts, with Tusk’s conservative-liberal Civic Platform, the center-right Third Way, and New Left dividing efficiently the work of mobilizing and raising awareness about the referendum. One of the lessons learned is that one cannot fight fire with fire to undercut populism: instead of copying toxic polarization and hate-mongering, it is worth focusing on inclusive messages and policy problems that directly affect people’s life.
Edit Zgut-Przybylska is adjunct professor at IFIS PAN.
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