Change and Continuity in the Polish Government

After two years in government, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has made some significant changes to the personnel of its government. Nevertheless, these changes are more designed to consolidate the government’s position, rather than signalling any significant alteration in its political course.

First of all Mateusz Morawiecki has replaced Beata Szydło as Prime Minister. He has then made a number of changes in his cabinet, including replacing some of its most controversial Ministers, in areas such as Defence, Foreign Affairs and the Environment.

On the surface this seems like a strange time to change the composition of the Polish government. PiS retains a strong lead in the opinion polls and the opposition is weak and divided. However, this reform signifies that the government is attempting to, at least partially, change its image from one of conflict and change to that of stability and continuity. During its first two years in office the PiS government carried out a series of radical reforms, which were essentially aimed at gaining control of different levers of the state, such as the courts and media. Concurrently, they introduced some significant social welfare reforms – such as providing a generous child benefit and raising the minimum wage – which has kept their popularity very high and (during a time when there is no left-wing party in parliament) helped to further isolate the liberal opposition.

The government has, however, faced large protests against some of its reforms. Also, the EU has opened up Article 7 charges against Poland for having ‘non-EU values’, which could in principle lead to it losing its voting rights inside the EU. The changes in government are aimed at altering the image of government, and assuring domestic and European capital that it will look after their interests. PM Morawiecki is an ex-banker and is the first Polish Prime Minister in history to speak fluent English. This is in contrast to Szydło, who appealed more to the party’s conservative and older electoral base.

Morawiecki has already begun to stave off the threat of punishment by the EU. First of all he met with his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban, who indicated that Hungary would veto any attempt by the EU to remove Poland’s voting rights. He has also held his first meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker, where the tone was more conciliatory than during previous exchanges between Brussels and Warsaw.

Despite these developments, it is extremely unlikely that the Polish government will back down from its reform of the courts or agree to take in the quota of refugees that was agreed between the EU and the previous government. Also, Morawiecki will not reverse the conservative and nationalist course of the government, stating after becoming Prime Minister that his dream is to ‘re-Christianise’ Europe. Also, social conflicts are likely to remain and even grow in Poland, with the parliament rejecting a vote on a citizens’ bill to liberalise the abortion law (mainly due to all the opposition MPs failing to vote for it), whilst a citizens’ bill to fully ban abortion will be voted on in parliament. Also, economic growth in Poland has led to some groups of workers to demand higher wages and for the government raise public spending. An example of this is the recent dispute by young doctors, calling for the government to increase health spending and raise their salaries.

The aim of Morawiecki will be to maintain Poland’s strong economic growth through to the next parliamentary elections in 2019. This should be possible, due to a continued inflow of large EU funds into the country which should allow the government to maintain a high rate of public investment. Despite the strong position of Morawiecki (he continues to hold the posts of Minister of Finance and Develeopment as well as Prime Minister); as a non-MP he has no strong independent political base and he has only recently joined PiS. The leader of PiS (Jarosław Kaczyński) remains the strongest figure in Polish politics and he retains the power to again reconstruct the government if he feels Morawiecki has too much power or if the government strays too far from his desired political course.