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A year ago, Pawel Kukiz pledged to do “everything I can” to save the country from Poland’s illiberal de facto leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
But in a sign of the growing unpredictability that is gripping Polish politics, it was Kaczynski whom Kukiz saved last week. During a tumultuous parliamentary session, the grouping led by the mercurial rock star turned politician provided the crucial votes for Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party (PiS) to push through a controversial bill that could force the sale of Poland’s main independent broadcaster, TVN.
The proposed media law — widely regarded as an attempt to cow the US-owned news group, whose critical reporting has long riled PiS — has drawn criticism from both the EU and the US, adding to the multiple strains on Poland’s relations with its most important international allies.
But the fallout from the dispute over the changes — yet to be approved by Poland’s senate and president — also looks likely to usher in a period of greater domestic instability.
Just hours before the vote, Agreement, one of PiS’s two junior coalition partners, which had clashed with PiS over multiple issues including the media law, pulled out of the conservative nationalist coalition that has ruled Poland for almost six years.
Agreement’s departure deprived PiS’s remaining coalition of its formal parliamentary majority, and raises the prospect that the government will have to win over individual MPs from other groups, or independents, on a vote-by-vote basis to be able to pass legislation.
“The political arrangement we are in after [Agreement’s] departure is deeply unstable,” said Wawrzyniec Smoczynski, director of the social sciences program at SWPS University in Warsaw. “It opens up the way to an early election sooner or later. The question is what will make Kaczynski decide he can’t govern any longer and has to go to the polls.”
One big unknown is whether Kukiz will prove a durable ally for PiS. The former punk musician, who made his name in a band named “The Breasts”, entered politics as an anti-system figure, and few regard his support for PiS as a basis for stable government.
“The reason why he went into politics was to break up the current political set up. But I wouldn’t say that he has been consistent in pursuing that goal,” said Smoczynski. “The more important factor here is Kaczynski himself. Kaczynski is using Kukiz, and Kukiz is conscious that he is getting used. The question is when will he find that it is too much.”
However, PiS also has other groupings from which it can try to win votes. Confederation, an eclectic grouping of nationalists, Eurosceptics and libertarians, overlaps with PiS on some issues. PiS is also likely to try and win back as many of Agreement’s MPs as possible. Jaroslaw Gowin, Agreement’s leader, said last week that his MPs had received offers, including ministerial posts or the chance to direct funding to specific local governments, to stay in coalition with PiS. Kaczynski denied this during a parliamentary debate.
“The time when PiS could rule freely has finished. I could imagine that even for very controversial laws, they will still be capable [of building a majority] . . . They can do some with the Left, some with Confederation,” says Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist from the University of Warsaw. “But that is not efficiency”.
The key test of whether PiS can still build majorities will come in September, when the fight over the TVN bill will be resumed, and PiS will try to pass legislation for its “Polish Deal”, a set of tax and spending pledges that officials regard as crucial to its future electoral chances.
Over the past year, support for PiS has slumped by around 10 percentage points, fuelled by controversies such as the tightening of Poland’s already strict abortion laws, as well as a broader backlash against political incumbents across several countries during the pandemic. Polls suggest that if an election were held now, PiS would garner around 33 per cent of the vote. Even in coalition with Confederation, it could struggle to construct a parliamentary majority.
For this reason, most analysts think PiS would like to avoid an election this year at the very least. However, Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of politics at the UK’s University of Sussex, said that if it became clear that PiS were in a position where it was “administering but not governing”, Kaczynski could decide to risk going to the polls before they are due in 2023.
“There are two sets of votes that PiS really have to be able to win, and if they don’t, then they really are in trouble and early elections do start to come into the frame,” said Szczerbiak.
“One is the key elements of PiS’s legislative programme, the [Polish Deal] . . . The other set of votes they have to win is on personnel. If there’s a danger that they’re going to start losing votes of confidence in ministers, then it starts to become very problematic.”