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Far-right party may hold keys to next Polish government, sets tone in talks with Ukraine

Politician and entrepreneur Slawomir Mentzen is seen during the far-right Confederation party rally in Kielce, Poland on Aug. 18, 2023. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
by Martin Fornusek October 5, 2023 8:37 PM 10 min read
This audio is created with AI assistance

With the Polish parliamentary elections just around the corner, the country's rising far-right threaten Poland's relations with Ukraine in more ways than one.

The Confederation party, a contender for third place in the upcoming Oct. 15 elections, is a disrupting force that pushes the country's mainstream further and further to the fringe, setting the tone for Polish foreign policy.

Traditionally Kyiv’s most ardent and vocal ally, the Polish government’s relationship with Ukraine has been recently marred by diplomatic spats and trade disputes.

The ruling right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) is not only putting its foot down on Ukrainian grain imports but also chastises Kyiv for an apparent lack of gratitude for Polish support and plays on painful historical grievances.

This seemingly sudden change is not without cause – PiS is feeling the pressure of the Confederation, a far-right alliance fighting for the same voters and capitalizing on the creeping Ukraine fatigue.

At one point surging as high as 14% and, in the more recent polls, oscillating around 10%, some surveys place the "nationalist-libertarian coalition" party as potentially the third strongest candidate behind PiS's United Right coalition (≈37%) and the liberal Civic Coalition/Civic Platform (≈30%).

To halt the spilling of its voters to the more radical and hardline Confederation, PiS is forced to “up the ante” in its “Poland first” rhetoric and convince a significant part of its voter base that Law and Justice can protect their interests better than the far-right upstarts.

The ruling conservatives must also consider that the Confederation’s MPs may hold keys to the next government. With their hands likely on a strong result, the radicals may become the kingmakers of these elections, something that the current Polish government is well aware of.

Free market and chauvinism

The Confederation Liberty and Independence was formed ahead of the 2019 parliamentary elections as a coalition of nationalist, conservative, and libertarian political projects, winning around 6.8% and 11 MPs in Sejm, the lower house of the country's parliament.

The far-right group espouses hardline Euroscepticism, a tough stance on immigration, and is set to introduce reduced taxation and government spending. Its members have, however, also accumulated a substantial record of anti-semitic and racist statements.

As the Confederation is heading toward even stronger results in the October elections, its views on Ukraine raise worries regarding Warsaw and Kyiv’s future rapport.

In their program, the party stresses the primacy of Poland’s own interests when it comes to their eastern neighbors. The radicals also managed to hit the nerve on some of the most sensitive topics, including the dark legacy of the Volyhnia massacres committed by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) against the Poles during World War II.

Despite mutual efforts by both Ukrainian and Polish leaders to settle this painful chapter of the shared history, the topic of Volynhia, UPA, and its ideological leader, Stepan Bandera, keeps haunting Polish-Ukrainian relations.

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These understandable sentiments are capitalized not only by Poland’s own radical groups but also by external forces seeking to drive a wedge between the two countries.

Lukasz Adamski, a historian, political scientist, and vice director of the Juliusz Mieroszewski Centre for Dialogue, points out that the Confederation is more closely connected to the organizations of Volyhnia victims’ relatives – an influential lobby in Polish politics – than other parties.

While being made up mostly of sincere Polish patriots, these groups have also been, to some extent, infiltrated by pro-Kremlin forces, Adamski said.

For example, a July demonstration at Ukraine’s embassy in Warsaw ahead of the 80th anniversary of the Volyhnia Massacre was organized by Krzysztof Tolwinski, who preaches reconciliation with Belarus and Russia amid the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

The event was also attended by Mateusz Piskorski, a suspected Russian spy, and Leszek Sykulski, the founder of the pro-Russian Polish Anti-War Movement.

The rally's participants called for holding Ukraine responsible for “Banderism and Nazism” and urged to cut weapons supplies for Kyiv, a clear nod to Russian decades-long propaganda.

The Confederation’s own leading members are also no strangers to anti-Ukrainian or pro-Russian statements.

80-year-old Janusz Korwin-Mikke, one of the coalition’s founding members notorious for anti-semitic and misogynist statements, has a history of defending Russian President Vladimir Putin and even questioned Russia’s responsibility for the Bucha Massacre.

In 2015, Korwin-Mikke visited Russian-occupied Crimea and met with Russian occupation authorities.

Firebrand Grzegorz Braun rallies against what he calls the “Ukrainization of Poland” by Ukrainian refugees and said he wants to seek reparations from Kyiv for the Volyhnia tragedy.

While these statements are likely to grab the media headlines, it is not the face that the Confederation’s younger party leaders wish to present to the public.

Michal Lebduska, a researcher at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs, said that figures like Korwin-Mikke or Braun are being pushed to the background as their ultraconservative rhetoric does more harm than good to the party’s performance.

Instead, the Confederation focuses on younger male voters, namely entrepreneurs, using their libertarian platform and attacking PiS' “populist” spending on pensions or family benefits.

The party’s 2019 presidential candidate, 41-year-old Krzysztof Bosak, denied that the Confederation would be pro-Russian and said that the party does not “have any delusion about Russia.”

The far-right coalition criticizes the scale of Warsaw’s support for Ukraine, branding it “gullible” and “naive,” but it does not call for cutting Ukraine support completely.

"I have no doubt that helping Ukraine, also militarily in some sphere which does not lower Poland's own military capabilities, is necessary," Confederation spokesperson Anna Brylka told Reuters.

Presidential candidate for the far-right coalition party, Confederation Liberty and Independence, Krzysztof Bosak delivers a speech for locals and supporters during a rally on June 13, 2020, in Krakow, Poland. (Photo credit: Omar Marques/Getty Images)

Adamski rejects branding the Confederation as pro-Russian, explaining their hardline stance toward Ukraine rather as an attempt to set the party apart from the “mainstream” politics, represented by both PiS and the rest of the opposition, namely Donald Tusk's liberal Civic Platform (PO).

“This party (Confederation) is trying to get electorate support by using anti-mainstream political slogans and calling for transactional policy when it comes to Ukraine, and this is fundamentally different than being pro-Russian,” Adamski said.

However, it remains unclear whether this shift toward more “moderate,” rational rhetoric reflects the party’s actual policy goals or whether it is merely a play not to scare off potential voters during the campaign.

Some experts warn against underestimating the strength of the anti-Ukrainian strand among Confederation’s party members.

Wojciech Przybylski, the editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight, noted that while younger leaders of the Confederation are effective at attracting younger electorate by effective PR and libertarian rhetoric, they have little to say on the security of foreign policy.

“When it comes to foreign and security issues, Braun and Korwin-Mikke dictate the party agenda,” Przybylski said, adding that these two figures, in fact, set the "value structure and hierarchy” of the coalition.

Changing winds

In spite of the months of squabbles coming both from Polish and Ukrainian official channels, it is crucial to remember that the decisive majority of the Polish population remains supportive of Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.

Nevertheless, polls show that the initial pro-Ukrainian fever from the first months of the war is cooling down. This shift is largely driven by war and refugee fatigue common for other countries supporting Ukraine.

With the enthusiasm of the first months slowly falling off, Poland’s public is shifting attention to the 1 million Ukrainian refugees who became their new neighbors.

According to surveys, the number of Poles decisively in favor of continued support for refugees dropped from 49% to 28% between January and June.

Around 60% of respondents said Ukrainian refugees should not have access to the same social benefits as Polish citizens, and over half are against providing them with free food and accommodation.

Lebduska adds that some of the traditional issues between Poles and Ukrainians, such as the aforementioned historical grievances or Polish negative stereotypes about Ukrainian migrant workers, subsided with the start of the full-scale invasion but are now slowly resurfacing.

As this mood swing played right into the hands of the Ukraine-skeptic Confederation, PiS was forced to adopt a more hardline stance toward Kyiv as well.

“With the struggle for electoral support so intense that every one or two percentage points count, other parties are inclined to adopt certain slogans of the Confederation,” Adamski said.

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In May, Lukasz Jasina, a spokesperson for the Polish Foreign Ministry, said that Kyiv had not done enough to accept responsibility for the Volyhnia Massacre, sparking outrage in Ukraine.

Polish Secretary of State and Head of the International Policy Bureau Marcin Przydacz sparked another diplomatic conflict in the summer when he said Ukraine should show more gratitude for Poland’s aid.

The tensions reached new heights following Warsaw’s decision to extend the ban on Ukrainian grain imports past Sept. 15, after which Ukraine said it will sue Poland at the World Trade Organization and threatened its own embargo against Polish products.

This strategy may have brought some fruit. In July, the Confederation peaked in the polls at 14%, and PiS’s United Right polled at 35%. The more recent numbers show the far-right alliance dropping to around 10% and the ruling party slightly rising to 37%.

Even so, PiS is most likely still looking at a notably lower result than in the 2019 parliament elections (43.6%) and will need another party’s support to secure a majority in the Sejm.

Given the convergence between the ruling conservatives and the Confederation on issues such as the EU or social issues, the far-right party appears to be the most logical choice for post-election negotiations.

As Ukraine-skeptic populists grain ground both in Europe and the U.S., there are concerns that the Confederation might drive Poland to join this trend, especially if PiS tries to accept the far-right as potential coalition partners.

Friends today, rivals tomorrow?

It remains to be seen what will be the result of the October vote, but despite the vitriol in the air, there is little prospect of a new right-to-far-right government spelling a sudden end to Ukraine's military aid.

Both PiS and Confederation have previously spoken against a joint coalition.

While politicians’ statements often count for little once the last ballot is cast, there are reasons to believe that the Confederation will not seek to enter into the government with PiS.

“I don’t see Confederation having an appetite… to enter (into coalition with PiS),” Przybylski said.

The smaller of the parties would be too weak in such a potential coalition and likely “devoured” by its larger partner, the expert believes.

Lebduska pointed out that the radical coalition has been building an image of a fresh alternative to the stale duo of PiS’ Jaroslaw Kaczynski and PO’s Tusk.

Becoming a coalition member in a government led by either of the two could take away much of the Confederation’s appeal as an anti-system party.

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Should PiS receive a chance to build a government, they are more likely to try and poach some of the Confederation’s lawmakers or negotiate some kind of conditional, silent support in the Sejm.

And even if such an improbable – but not impossible – scenario came to pass, the support for Ukraine, including military supplies, is unlikely to dry out.

“Poland will remain an important ally of Ukraine, at the least in the military area,” Lebduska said, pointing out that there is a broad consensus on this subject in much of the Polish society.

As the decisively anti-Ukrainian and pro-Russian segment of the Polish population remains in a clear minority, even the Confederation would be forced to respect the majority's opinion.

Poland’s historical experience with Russian occupation and Moscow’s military presence in the neighborhood make Ukraine’s survival a vital security interest for Warsaw and the Polish people.

However, both Przybylski and Adamski said that the shift in PiS’ rhetoric, driven by the far-right challenge, would likely leave scars on long-term Polish-Ukrainian relations if the Law and Justice holds on to power.

“Whatever result PiS gets, some of it will be based on nationalist votes that are skeptical of Ukraine,” Przybylski said.

The party knowingly decided to build its strategy on "capturing nationalist sentiments" and will be under pressure to keep their promises, he added.

“Neighborhood of two agrarian countries would naturally generate some conflicts, but this conflict has been solved through emotions,” Adamski said, pointing out that Kyiv is also to blame for the escalation.

President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered scathing remarks against Poland at the UN General Assembly, hinting that their grain embargo is aiding Russia.

In response, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called on the Ukrainian president to never insult the Poles again.

Gathering nationalist voters, a new PiS government might be obliged, with or without the Confederation’s political support, to take a more protectionist stance toward Ukraine.

As Kyiv seeks to enter the European Union, its aspirations may encounter hurdles laid by Warsaw’s economic interests and historical grievances.

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