INCUMBENCY STILL has its advantages, at least in a country where the economy is booming. Poland’s GDP grew by 5.1% last year, faster than any other country in the EU except tiny Malta and Ireland. Weakness in the rest of the continent will dent that by a point or more in 2019, but the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has money to splash around. On February 23rd it announced an expansion of its popular “Family 500+” programme, under which families are given 500 zlotys ($132) a month for each child after their first. In future, the first child will also be eligible—an extra handout to which previously only the poorest families were entitled. A 1,100 zloty bonus for state pensioners and cuts in taxes, especially for young people, are also part of the package, which is worth up to 40bn zlotys ($10.5bn), almost 2% of this year’s projected GDP.
That is pretty blatant stuff, especially when you take into account the fact that the new child payments will go into effect in July, just three months before the expected date of the next general election. Some worry that the new promises are unaffordable. Ruling-party strategists scoff that the opposition said the same thing when the 500+ scheme was first introduced in 2016; but last year the budget was close to balance. Debt is 50% of GDP, and falling. The universal benefit, which will disproportionately help those on lower incomes, is good for consumption. A bit more stimulus might be just what is needed if business is dragged down by weakness in Germany, the neighbour with which Poland’s economy is tightly enmeshed. The 500+ plan has proved so popular, in fact, that the main opposition party, Civic Platform (PO), says it has no plans to scrap it.
The move presages a tight election in October. Civic Platform is pinning its hopes on a good performance in the European Parliament elections in May to create momentum, following local elections last year, at which it did well in Poland’s larger cities while failing to make a dent in PiS’s superiority in the countryside. Turnout is pitiful at European elections in Poland: last time it was just 24%. Civic Platform’s hope is that it can get more of its better-educated urban supporters to vote. It has also succeeded in drawing five smaller parties into its European Coalition, an electoral alliance for the euro-vote. A similar attempt last time failed, but the coalition is level-pegging Law and Justice in the polls. Hence, critics say, the sudden handouts.
The picture is further complicated by a man some hope could be the Polish Emmanuel Macron: Robert Biedron, the 42-year-old former mayor of the small city of Slupsk. Running Slupsk is hardly a high-profile or arduous job. It has only 100,000 inhabitants. Being in the western half of the country, and so accessible to Germany, it has prospering footwear and lorry factories. However, Mr Biedron is, unusually for conservative Poland, an openly gay politician, the first ever elected to the Sejm, parliament’s lower house.
He is likely to filch voters from Civic Platform which, despite its urban roots and its popularity in liberal circles in western Europe, favours neither gay marriage nor legalising abortion on demand. He currently refuses to join the opposition coalition, denouncing both of Poland’s main parties in equally harsh terms. Still, the hope among Civic Platform’s leaders is that once he has established himself in the European election, he may help them form a government in the autumn. His party, which is called Wiosna (“Spring” in Polish), might have lost a little of its bloom by then. But Mr Biedron sees himself as a future prime minister, and may have little appetite for making up the numbers unless (and it is a long shot) he is offered the top job.
The other big question-mark is over Poland’s problems with the rule of law. In December 2017 the European Commission in Brussels triggered “Article 7” proceedings against Poland, a procedure never before invoked, citing a raft of threats to the independence of the judiciary arising from what the government calls reforms of its courts. Critics say the government has neutered Poland’s constitutional court, which is now packed with its appointees.
However, an attempt to alter the balance of the Supreme Court by sacking all judges aged 65 or over failed after the government backed down following an injunction from the European Court of Justice. The commission’s move against Poland has run into the sand, since any attempt actually to sanction Poland under Article 7 requires the unanimous agreement of the other EU governments, which will not be forthcoming. Diplomatic efforts by Poland’s urbane prime minister may have blunted the charge that Law and Justice has made Poland a pariah, depriving Civic Platform of a crucial weapon. Pro-opposition newspapers have made complex allegations of corruption in the ruling party, but voters have paid little heed. Law and Justice won an unexpected majority in 2015; it still hopes to scrape another one.