With its controversial justice reform, major disputes with the European Union, a near-total ban on abortion, increasingly pro-government media, and generous social welfare payments, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has changed Poland dramatically during its two terms in power.
Whether it is re-elected or not on October 15, Poland is a remarkably different country to the one it was in 2015, when the party won a parliamentary majority.
Generous social welfare a hit with voters
Poland's three million families with children are undoubtedly the group that has benefited the most from PiS's policies: The ruling party introduced child benefit payments for the first time in 2016. The "500 Plus" program — the promise to give parents 500 zlotys (about $115 or €109) per child per month — helped sweep PiS to victory in 2015. PiS has obviously decided not to change a winning system and has pledged to increase this to 800 zlotys a month in 2024.
The party is also wooing pensioners. PiS has increased pensions several times since 2016 and introduced additional benefits known as the "13th pension." Now it is promising to introduce a "14th pension" in 2024 if re-elected.
Although these generous social welfare payments are a major drain on public finances, they are also hugely popular. Whichever party leads the next government will have to think very carefully about whether to cut them.
PiS members in key state posts
Even state-controlled companies are currently in pre-election giveaway mode. Four weeks before the election, Daniel Obajtek, PiS member and CEO of the partially state-owned oil company Orlen, cut the price of gas to well below market level. There is now a steady stream of Czech drivers pouring across the border to fill up their cars in Poland. It is likely that gas prices will return to normal after the election.
Regardless of the election result, people like Daniel Obajtek will remain loyal to PiS — after all, they owe much to the party. Within the space of just two years, Obajtek went from mayor of a small town to CEO of the Polish oil giant.
For PiS critics, Obajtek's meteoric rise through the ranks is typical of the way several up-and-coming party members have been parachuted into important posts in the state over the past eight years. Even if PiS loses on October 15, these people could continue to steer the country's fortunes along party lines.
Judiciary under government control
One of the most prominent instances of such an appointment was that of former judge and diplomat Julia Przylebska, who was appointed president of Poland's constitutional court in 2015.
It was a controversial appointment because some of the usual steps in the procedure were skipped. Przylebska's promotion is indicative of the strategic reform of the judiciary that PiS has been pushing since 2015 to increase its influence and ensure that laws are implemented as it intended.
The judicial reform is certainly one of PiS's most far-reaching legacies. The EU is critical of the reform because it threatens the independence of the judiciary by making judges and public prosecutors subordinate to the government.
Judges or public prosecutors who criticize the reform are harassed and sidelined. One prominent example is the Warsaw judge Igor Tuleya, who was critical of the government's judicial reform and ended up being suspended for two years. Although Tuleya has since been reinstated — the European Court of Justice ruled that his suspension was illegal — judges and public prosecutors in Poland continue to face restrictions.
Indeed, the EU has launched several lawsuits against Poland, imposed fines and withheld money in the past eight years. And although PiS has attempted to downplay the fact that Poland has yet to receive money from the EU's COVID recovery fund, these missing billions could put Poland at a serious economic disadvantage in the long run.
Attack on media independence
Since its first day in power, PiS has busied itself restructuring the Polish media landscape, too.
Ever since Poland's public media came under government control directly after PiS's electoral victory in 2015, they have been propagating a consistently positive image of the ruling party and highlighting issues PiS deems important.
Independent journalists who did not want to toe this new line were either dismissed or forced to resign.
But this was not enough for PiS, which began calling for a "repolonization" of the media.
In December 2020, the oil company Orlen announced its intention to buy the media company Polska Press from the German publisher Passau. This gave Orlen editorial control over 20 local newspapers, 120 weekly newspapers and 500 online portals. Here, too, editorial teams were gradually replaced by pro-PiS journalists.
Meanwhile, journalists working for independent media such as the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza are showered with lawsuits to intimidate them. In addition, state institutions no longer place ads with media that are critical of the government, which has led to a collapse in the advertising revenue that is vital for the survival of many outlets.
After eight years of PiS rule, independent, critical journalism is much weaker than it was before.
Targeting migrants and the LGBTQ+ community
In its attempt to align public opinion with its own, PiS has agitated against two groups in particular: members of the LGBTQ+ community and migrants.
In the case of the LGBTQ+ community, President Andrzej Duda, who is close to PiS, said in 2020 that they are not people, but an ideology.
According to PiS, migrants — and liberal values from the West — pose a threat to the Catholic values and traditions of the Polish people. It was recently alleged, however, that senior civil servants sold Schengen visas to migrants from Muslim countries via third parties. Many see this as evidence of the duplicity of PiS.
PiS's repeated toying with xenophobic sentiment has above all strengthened the extreme right-wing Confederation party, which could become the third-largest party in Poland next month.
Restrictive abortion laws
Another major legacy of the PiS government is its tightening of Poland's abortion laws, which were already among the most restrictive in Europe. Despite massive protests, Poland's constitutional court ruled in October 2020 in favor of a law that only allows abortion in the case of rape and a threat to the life or health of the mother. The new law forces parents of seriously disabled children and children who have no hope of survival to carry their babies to term.
Several pregnant women have died since the law came into force because hospitals refused to carry out abortions despite the threat to the mothers' lives. The law has created uncertainty among doctors because assisting abortion is now an offence.
Tension with Ukraine
For a long time, Poland's government was proud of its support for Ukraine. Although relations between the two countries have never been easy, the threat from Russia brought solidarity and unity.
After Russia's all-out invasion of Ukraine, millions of Ukrainians fled to Poland. Today, about 970.000 still live there. Poland was also one of the first countries to provide military assistance and to appeal to NATO partners to supply weapons.
Now, however, deep rifts are developing in the neighbors' relations. Poland has unilaterally extended the EU embargo on Ukrainian grain, probably to secure votes from farmers, who organized massive protests against imports from Ukraine.
In short, PiS is risking serious discord with Ukraine for the sake of a short-term gain in votes.
These are just some of the major changes introduced by PiS since 2015. It could take years to reverse these reforms and restore a liberal democracy with a free judiciary and free media.
Many liberal Poles fear that if PiS wins on October 15, the party will continue restructuring the country along these lines.
Adapted from the German by Aingeal Flanagan
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the number of Ukrainian refugees living in Poland was 1.2 million. This figure was changed to 970,000 on Oct. 2 to reflect the latest statistics.