European Elections – The Polish Perspective
Aleksandra Garlinska (European Parliament)
From 23 to 26 May 2019 across 28 EU countries, the second-biggest democratic vote in the world took place. 427 million voters have elected 751 representatives to the European Parliament, our Member of the European Parliament (MEPs).
While in theory, European citizens decide on who represents them in the European Parliament, in practice the election could be seen as an informal vote of confidence for governments and leaders across the bloc.
In Greece, for instance, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras immediately called for a snap election after his leftist Syriza party suffered a blow in the European elections. Poland is an example of the opposite.
After Brexit, Poland will send 52 MEPs to Brussels, where the governing populist party Law and Justice (PiS) scored a decisive victory. PiS won 45% of the vote compared to 32% five years ago – their best election result yet. They have defeated the opposition coalition of pro-EU parties that were only able to garner 38% of the vote. This, in practical terms, pegs 27 Polish populist MEPs against 22 opposition MEPs. Remaining three MEPs come from the left-wing ‘spring’ party (Wiosna) with 6% of the votes. Meanwhile the far-far-right, Konfederacja – a grouping of far-right parties – did not pass the 5% threshold and is left without a seat.
Many lessons can be learned from these election results.
Let’s start with the most obvious one – the high turnout. More than half of eligible voters across Europe have cast their ballots which in tactical terms means that for the very first time turnout has risen. It is a huge success partly due to the “This time I’m voting” campaign organized by the European Parliament to mobilize voters, and partly due to the visible global tensions as well as the Brexit negotiations. These issues have all made the EU more visible to the ordinary citizen. Since 1979 turnout has been steadily dropping, from almost 62% in that year, down to a historic low of 42.6% in 2014. At 50.5% the projected turnout this year is the highest since 20 years ago. From the institutional point of view, this is excellent news, providing a needed boost to EU legitimacy.
In Poland, voter turnout reached 45.42%. This is the largest turnout in the history of elections to the European Parliament in Poland. In previous years, it did not even exceed 30%: In the first election, 20.87% of citizens participated, in 2009 24.53% of eligible voters voted, and in 2014 23.83%.
The results in Poland and Hungary, unfortunately, prove that governments backtracking on the rule of law can be successful in winning the EU elections, even in a member state with high levels of support for EU. Paradoxically the mobilization of voters did not help the opposition grouping of the European Coalition (EC).
If we would translate the outcomes of the 2014 European elections for this coalition, in 2014 PO + SLD + PSL + Zieloni received as much as 48.7 %. Now, their share of the vote is 38.47%. In 2014, the parties forming the current European Coalition individually won – 28 mandates: PO – 19%; SLD – 5%; PSL – 4%. Now, they have altogether a mere 22 seats. While PiS who had 19 seats in the European Parliament elections of 2014, it now has 27 seats.
Mobilization of the people in the rural areas – It is true that Poland is divided. It is divided into 380 counties. In 25 of them, PiS recorded at least 70% support. In 174 counties, more than half of the votes were cast for the PiS candidates.
The European Coalition has more than half of the support in only 30 counties. Traditionally, the east and southeast of the country are bastions of PiS. Big cities and the west support the European Coalition. The record support was achieved in the tri-city area. In Sopot, the European Coalition got 61.3% votes, and 60.3% in Gdansk. In Warsaw, half of the votes went to EC candidates.
One could ask the question whether the farmers under the PiS government are so good off that they endorsed the ruling party? Or maybe, in the end, the elections are not just a matter of economic interest, they also have a dignity dimension that we often forget about? PiS governments appreciated the people and the village, and its message appreciates the prevailing styles of living in the countryside and participation in culture. So it’s not just about the mythical 500+, but also about those elements that are so easy to make fun of like village fairs with a firefighter’s orchestra.
Many opposition campaigners blame the role of media in the rural areas, where the citizens have access only to the state-run public television, which only features favorable coverage of the government. Especially as intuitively, this European election seemed easier to win for the opposition parties, that for years have had a more pro-European, more open and liberal narrative.
Against all fears, the populists did not take over the EP. Contrary to predictions, there has been no continent-wide shift to far-right or anti-European parties. Although in the end, Poland will send the highest proportion of Eurosceptics to Brussels, throughout Europe we can observe a mobilization of pro-European forces, resulting in a huge surge in turnout and in support for Green and Liberal parties. In the end, pro-EU parties will hold onto two-thirds of the seats in the European Parliament, though nationalist opponents have also had a solid result. This might lead to increased fragmentation, as for the first time in 40 years the center-right and the center-left would no longer control a majority. Both lost ground, with centrist Liberals, Greens and the populists all gaining.
Business as usual is not an option – The composition of the new Parliament will be weighed in favor of pro-Europeans, but it does not mean that they have a mandate for ‘more of the same’. Taken together, the results indicated that the struggle over the future direction of the bloc – more integration among European countries, or less – would only intensify.
Poland – What might happen next?
The European election campaign paves the way for the campaign in autumn when members of the Sejm and Senate – the two chambers of the Polish parliament – will be elected. The narrow result directly puts the two camps on a collision course for the national polls in autumn.
Shortly after the results were announced, Grzegorz Schetyna, who united five opposition parties into the European Coalition aiming to beat Law and Justice, praised the idea of the European Coalition. “We united the opposition, but we know that it’s only the beginning of our path…We showed that we can and we must be together. That’s the key to victory in October.” But will this be enough?
Aleksandra Garlinska is Senior Policy Advisor at the European Parliament. The views expressed in this blog reflect the views of the author solely.