The results of the elections to the European Parliament in Poland are confusing at first glance. In spite of the overwhelmingly positive attitude towards Europe amongst Poles – according to the latest opinion poll, 89 percent approve of the EU – the outcome of the election held a few surprises. From a standing start, the new, extreme right-wing anti-European party set up by Janusz Korwin-Mikke in 2010 won 7 percent of the vote, and with that 4 seats in the European Parliament. At the same time, the pro-European electoral alliance ‘Europa Plus-Twój Ruch’ (‘Europe Plus-Your Movement’), which at one point had stood at 9 percent in the opinion polls, plunged to only 3.5 percent and thus failed to clear the five percent threshold. Janusz Palikot and Aleksander Kwasniewski, who together with others had launched the alliance, announced that they will take the necessary consequences: Palikot has invited a debate on his leadership credentials, Kwasniewski wants to retire from politics for good.
The results for the two big parties were less surprising. The lead of almost ten percentage points which the conservative PiS party of former President Kaczynski, the biggest opposition party, held at one point over the ruling PO (Civic Platform) party had steadily narrowed over the last few months and in the end was even turned around, thanks to a high turnout in the big cities, leaving the ruling party as winners of the election with 32.8 percent, a one percent lead over the PiS. This did not alter the distribution of seats in the European Parliament, with both parties sending 19 delegates. Other seats went to the left of centre SLD party (5) and the agrarian PSL party (4). The Polish Green Party, ‘Partia Zieloni’, achieved a modest 0.32 percent of the Polish vote, albeit standing in only five of thirteen electoral districts.
A shift to the right, or an anti-politics protest vote?
A better understanding of the results can be gained through a closer look at the party political landscape in Poland and at the party manifestos. The ‘New Right’ in Poland is an openly radical right-wing protest party, and much more radical than the right-wing populist parties in England and France which won the elections there to widespread surprise. It views itself as an enemy of the system, so it is not looking to align itself with anyone in Europe. This image is reflected in its programme, which can be summarised as consisting of the dissolution of the EU, the abolition of female suffrage and denial of the Holocaust. The ‘New Right’ probably also owes its great success in the elections to the Polish media, which in its search for headlines provided disproportionate coverage of Korwin-Mikke’s scandalous election campaign. It is shocking that it was predominantly young people who gave their votes to this protest party – 70 percent of their voters are (young men) between 18-39. At the same time, around 30 percent of all voters between 18 and 24 chose the ‘New Right’ – that is, one in three.
And there is an explanation for the poor performance of the pro-European electoral alliance ‘Europe Plus-Your Movement’ as well. For one thing, the alliance, which was composed of very different groups, failed to present the voters with a coherent programme. For another, its decidedly pro-European programme, including a demand for the introduction of the Euro in Poland and for the integration of the Polish armed forces into a common European army under the control of the OSCE, became increasingly unpopular in the face of the crisis of the Euro, the conflict over the crisis in Ukraine and the Russian military intervention.
The Ukrainian factor
The continuing crisis in neighbouring Ukraine and the Russian response served to put security issues at the forefront of the national debate. The impressive performance of the governing party in wiping out its polling deficit and winning the election at the last are closely linked to the course of the Ukraine crisis. It enabled the PO, principally in the persons of Donald Tusk and his foreign minister Sikorski, to project themselves as engaged European statesmen and as working for Polish national interests, for example during their joint mission to Kiev with the German and French foreign ministers and in Tusk’s proposal for a European energy union and the tour of EU capitals that accompanied the proposal.
Electoral turnout: not good enough
A second contradictory element within the fundamentally pro-European attitude of the Poles can be seen in the turnout for the elections. As in the last few election years, it remained at an extremely low level. At only 23.3 percent, half of the rate for national elections, it put Poland in fourth-last place, ahead of only Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic. The reason for the continuing low rate of participation in elections may lie in the low levels of knowledge about European institutions among the Polish population (for example, 79.4 percent of Poles cannot name a Polish MEP) or else in their historically-founded mistrust of political elites. At the same time, the majority of Poles believe that their interests within the EU are better represented by their government than by the European Parliament. A further explanation is that the election was used – especially by politicians of the PiS, but also by those of the ruling PO party – to gauge the signs for the forthcoming parliamentary elections in 2015; that is, as a test run for the national elections. Most of the electorate, disenchanted with politics, did not want to take part in this internal political game and test of strength.
The paradoxical results of the European elections in Poland can perhaps be explained by a time factor. The general attitude of the Poles towards Europe has not changed and remains positive; however, the election came to be seen as being principally about the issue of current national security, which in turn is dominated by concerns over the direction of Russian policy. It was this focus which worked in favour of the ruling party and which, because of the low turnout, bolstered the extreme right. But this also means that untapped potential, which can and must be built upon in the future, remains dormant.