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Poland: Pledges and patriotic slogans as campaign heats up

Jacek Lepiarz in Warsaw
September 12, 2023

With just over a month to go until Poland votes, the two main parties held conventions at the weekend. Right-wing populist Jaroslaw Kaczynski and liberal opposition leader Donald Tusk set out their parties' stalls.

Donald Tusk, leader of the Civic Platform (PO) party, speaks on a white, heart-shaped stage in front of a massive screen during the Civic Coalition (KO) convention, Tarnow, Poland, September 9, 2023
Donald Tusk's Civic Platform (PO) party is the largest party in the opposition Civic Coalition (KO) allianceImage: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/picture alliance

In what is shaping up to be a very closely fought election, Poland's two main political parties presented their policies at party conventions last weekend.

Five weeks out from the election on October 15, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, convened his supporters in Konskie, a town in central Poland considered to be a PiS stronghold.

Opposition leader Donald Tusk chose a very different tactic when selecting a location for his Civic Platform (PO) party's convention, opting not for a PO stronghold, but for Tarnow in southern Poland, a conservative city and, therefore, a particularly tough nut for PO to crack.

Donald Tusk, leader of the Civic Platform (PO) party, speaks in front of an image of the Polish flag on a screen during the Civic Coalition (KO) convention, Tarnow, Poland, September 9, 2023
Donald Tusk knows that to win the election, he must win over many of the estimated 5–18% of voters who have not yet made up their mindsImage: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/picture alliance

PO is by far the largest party in the liberal Civic Coalition (KO) alliance, which was founded in 2018 to fight the ruling PiS. Tusk knows that loyal PO voters in the country's liberal, large cities will not be enough to win the election. He has to win over swing voters. Pollsters estimate that 5% to 18% of voters have not yet made up their minds.

Both parties promise more social benefits

Although promises of additional social benefits featured strongly in both parties' programs, neither actually made any firm statements about how these pledges would be funded.

Tusk presented 100 measures KO would like to implement in its first 100 days in office. The list contained both economic relief for citizens and entrepreneurs and steps to restore democratic principles.

Tusk's liberal 100-policy program

To thunderous applause, Tusk announced an increase in the tax-free earnings limit from 30,000 zlotys to 60,000 zlotys ($6,950 to $13,900, €6,450 to €12,900), paid leave for the self-employed, improvements in health insurance and pay rises for teachers.

The improvement of the situation for women also played a major role in the KO program, which promised the liberalization of abortion legislation, state funding for IVF treatment and free anesthetics during birth.

Protesters carry a sign at a protest demanding abortion rights in Warsaw, Poland, October 22, 2021
There have been several protests against Poland's strict abortion laws in recent years, such this one in Warsaw in October 2021. KO has promised to liberalize abortion laws if it is electedImage: Czarek Sokolowski/AP/picture alliance

The separation of church and state was also on the list.

Tusk, the former president of the European Council (2014–2019), promised to reach a swift agreement with the European Union  to unlock €36 billion in COVID-19 recovery funds that have been withheld because of a dispute between the PiS-led Polish government and Brussels about justice and the rule of law.

Kaczynski's nationalist, Catholic alternative

Meanwhile, in Konskie, Kaczynski was presenting his party's program as the nationalist, Catholic alternative to Tusk's liberal ideas.

At the heart of the PiS program is what it calls the traditional family (with father and mother), the right to life (including that of the unborn) and Poland as a strong, sovereign nation-state.

Kaczynski also criticized the judiciary as an institution that wields huge power but is unelected. "Power must be in the hands of the nation," he insisted.

Child benefits and retirement age

Kaczynski lauded the social benefits already introduced by his government — above all child benefits, which he promised to increase from 500 zlotys to 800 zlotys next year.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski
Kaczynski's PiS has put the traditional family and the right to life (including that of the unborn child) at the heart of its election programImage: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/picture alliance

He also pledged to allow women to retire after 38 years of work and men after 43. This idea has been floated a number of times in recent years but was repeatedly rejected due to the high costs involved.

Kaczynski accused Tusk of wanting to subjugate the country to both  Germany and Russia. PiS, on the other hand, he assured voters, sought to make Poland a heavyweight. "Our enemies have tried to destroy Poland. They have failed completely," he said.

Germany features in PiS campaign ad

On Monday, PiS released a campaign ad showing Kaczynski taking a call from what is obviously supposed to be the German ambassador to Poland, forwarding instructions from Berlin to raise the retirement age.

The ad is a reference to a conversation Tusk allegedly had with Angela Merkel in 2011 when Germany's then-chancellor supposedly called on Tusk to up Poland's retirement age. In the PiS ad, Kaczynski resolutely rejects Berlin's attempt to meddle in Polish domestic politics and hangs up.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki opted for a verbal attack on Tusk, describing him as a dangerous politician who represents foreign interests. Morawiecki claimed that Tusk was planning to sell Polish property to foreigners: "He would even sell the Baltic Sea and the Tatra Mountains," Morawiecki said.

"We have to say 'No' to Tusk," the prime minister continued. "And if he doesn't understand, we'll say it again in German."

Kaczynski refuses debate with Tusk

Morawiecki will be able to make these allegations directly to Tusk's face during a television debate. There will not, however, be a debate between PiS leader Kaczynski and Tusk.

Although Tusk has suggested a debate several times, Kaczynski has declined, saying that were he to agree to one, he would debate directly with "Tusk's German boss," Manfred Weber, president of the transnational European People's Party (EPP), the largest party in the European Parliament.

Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaks into a microphone, Warsaw, August 1, 2023
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki described opposition leader Tusk as a dangerous politician who represents foreign interestsImage: Pawel Supernak/PAP/dpa/picture alliance

It is possible that Kaczynski has never gotten over the trauma of the television debate in 2007. He lost first the debate to Tusk and then the election.

Can Kaczynski maintain his lead?

Kaczynski knows that the cards would be stacked against him in a direct comparison with the polished and experienced Tusk, which is why he is not running for election in Warsaw, as Tusk is, but in Kielce in central Poland, where his election is all but guaranteed.

"The party of Donald Tusk won the duel of the parties on Saturday," Michal Szuldrzynski of the leading Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita wrote on Monday. "Now PO faces a more difficult challenge. It has to convince the people that it is credible and can keep its campaign pledges."

PiS is at present slightly ahead of KO in the polls. It is likely, however, that neither of the two main parties will be able to govern alone.

A "March of a million hearts" for women's rights, which was initiated by Tusk, is due to take place in Warsaw on October 1. Tusk hopes the march will mobilize his supporters and give his party the edge.

Adapted from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

A gray-haired man (Jacek Lepiarz) stands in front of bookcases full of books
Jacek Lepiarz Journalist for DW's Polish Service who specializes in German-Polish subjects