Nathan Alan-Lee is a doctoral researcher at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies and a freelance journalist covering Poland and Central and Eastern Europe.
Jarosław Kaczyński, the long-time leader of Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS), is doubling down on his all-or-nothing position that a win for the opposition in the upcoming election would be finis poloniae — the end of Poland.
And in a nod to this stark position, the Sejm parliament passed a new law on May 26, establishing a commission to investigate “those serving Moscow’s interests.”
Under this new law, if the commission finds individuals guilty, it can dole out penalties, including a ban from public office for a decade. Thus, President Andrzej Duda’s quick ratification just days later has sparked fears that the ruling PiS may use the law to move against key opposition leaders in the run up to October’s election.
Mobilizing mass “pro-democracy” opposition, as well as drawing international backlash, this new commission is a gamble for the PiS. And with Duda conceding to criticism just days after signing the legislation, this risky move betrays the party’s nervousness ahead of the upcoming vote.
Fallout from the law’s ratification has come from all sides, winning little sympathy for the PiS at a moment when Poland is becoming an increasingly vital actor within the European Union and NATO.
The United States Department of State quickly expressed their “concern” that the new law “could be misused to interfere with Poland’s free and fair elections.”
Meanwhile, Brussels expressed similar “concern,” further indicating “immediate action” would be taken if this new commission were to move on political opponents, before announcing this week that it would be starting infringement proceedings against Poland. This tension only adds to the ongoing “rule of law” dispute, which saw the EU freeze over €35 billion in COVID-19 recovery funds, making a détente between Brussels and Warsaw appear less and less likely.
So, what is it that makes this political maneuver such a hot-button issue?
The answer to this lies in the context of Poland’s contentious elections and the skirting of constitutional due process, which has already earned the law the infamous “Lex Tusk” moniker, as the new commission is widely seen as a direct threat to Donald Tusk — the leader of the main opposition Civic Coalition (KO) party and Kaczyński’s old personal rival.
In November 2022, as rumors over a potential commission had already begun swirling, Janusz Kowalski, a deputy minister and MP for the ruling coalition, strongly stated, “We will put the pro-Russian Donald Tusk before the State Tribunal, and then we will put him in prison” — words that have only justified the opposition’s growing concern.
The link between Tusk and the Kremlin has been a mainstay of PiS rhetoric for years now — though it has largely remained outside the realm of legal action. And Tusk has also taken fire for a conciliatory attitude toward the EU and Germany, which Kaczyński has long seen to mean, “Whenever Poland’s vital interest is at stake, Tusk is against it.”
The rivalry had also taken on a personal aspect for Kaczyński since 2010, when his brother, former president Lech Kaczyński, died in the “Smolensk air disaster” over Russia during Tusk’s tenure as prime minister. Investigations into foul play regarding the crash are still ongoing, though informal accusations of “treason” have already been leveled against members of Tusk’s former government.
Tusk, for his part, has been an outspoken critic of Kaczyński’s “caricature of a dictatorship,” and promised that by October’s election, “Poland will be free from fear, free from contempt, free from Kaczyński.”
While this explains the basis for the new law and its threat to Tusk, however, one still has to ask, why now? And why is Kaczyński willing to risk such a controversial move?
The simplest answer is that the PiS — as Kaczyński himself suggests — “cannot afford to lose this election.” And with a quick look at the polls, the risky move starts to make sense.
Support for the PiS currently sits at 35 percent — well below the threshold to maintain a governing majority — while the centrist opposition, dominated by Tusk’s KO and the newly formed Third Way coalition, is polling at around 41 percent combined.
Thus, Kaczyński’s PiS is caught in an existential struggle, which might explain their all-or-nothing approach. However, given the broad outrage, as well as Duda’s own proposed concessions, the law seems to have backfired — regardless of its initial intent.
Without a doubt, the upcoming weeks will be critical for the ruling party, but with this week’s unprecedented demonstrations and the opposition rallied together, it is clear that the will for democracy in Poland has not yet perished.