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Polish Election Brief 1: The Changing Contours of Rule of Law Discussions

On 15 October, Polish voters will cast votes for both the Sejm and Senat, the lower and upper houses of their country’s parliament. The right-wing United Right coalition (Zjednoczona Prawica, ZP), led by the ruling Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) party, finds itself pitted against the centrist-liberal Civic Coalition, an alliance centred around Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO). In these elections, seen as a pivotal moment for Poland's trajectory, both the current prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, from PiS, and the former prime minister, Donald Tusk, the head of PO, stand as candidates to head the government.

As part of this election brief, which is based on an analysis of posts on Facebook and X (formerly known as Twitter) by leading national political figures, mayors of major Polish cities, and top political journalists, DRI takes a look both backwards and forward. Given that the last Polish parliamentary elections, in 2019, were held in the context of the rule of law crisis, which divided the Polish electorate, this brief looks at how the debate has shifted.   

Key findings 

  • Decreasing rule of law salience: The rule of law, as an issue related to the legitimacy of judicial appointments, has not been prominent in recent discussions. 
  • Vocal pro-government actors: Those in support of the current government remain the most vocal about rule of law issues. 
  • Volume does not translate into engagement: The numbers for engagement show that the most vocal voices on the rule of law have not managed to capture the lead in terms of engagement. 
  • Emerging dominant issues: Possibly adding a new chapter to the rule of law debate, the recent “bribes for visas” scandal is now playing a significant role in shaping the electoral debate.  

Methodology

For the comprehensive analysis presented in this election brief, DRI used a dataset of a total of 2,392 posts. These posts were sourced from two major social media platforms: Facebook and X. The timeframe for data collection spanned from 16 August to 14 September 2023. The sample included diverse categories of authors, comprising messages by leading national politicians, including key party leaders, prime ministerial candidates, and other influential political voices. Additionally, to provide a localised perspective on the elections, we incorporated posts from mayors of the capital cities of 16 voivodships (the highest-level administrative division in Poland). Lastly, recognising the essential role that media plays in shaping public opinion, posts from some of the country’s top political journalists were included. For the analysis of the rule of law issue, a subset of the overall dataset, filtered by relevant keywords, was used. 

The rule of law debate during the election campaign  

The rule of law crisis continues to cast a long shadow over Polish politics, underscored by significant fines and the withholding of COVID-19 recovery funds by the EU. Since 2021, the Polish government has been penalised to the tune of €360 million in fines and a staggering €35.4 billion of blocked pandemic recovery funds due to ongoing disputes. Adding fuel to the fire, the government has come under scrutiny for purportedly undermining principles of fair electoral competition, notably with the controversial "Lex Tusk" draft law. In June, this legislative proposal sparked a massive public outcry, prompting hundreds of thousands to protest.  

While the law's ostensible objective was to bar current and former officeholders under Russian influence from politics, critics — including the EU Commission and the Polish opposition — viewed it as a thinly veiled attempt to sideline Tusk from electoral participation. The law eventually passed, but in a significantly diluted form.   

Although the so-called Lex Tusk law might have brought significant attention to the rule of law debate earlier this year, debate on other issues seems to be dominating the electoral campaign, which officially started on 15 August.  

This becomes clear when considering four topics identified by a panel of Polish experts. The four topics – government/opposition relations, the war in Ukraine, LGBTQ issues, and the rule of law – were pinpointed as highly polarising and potentially susceptible to online manipulation during a risk assessment conducted by DRI, in collaboration with the Institute of Public Affairs (Instytut Spraw Publicznych, IPA), a Polish think tank, in April 2023.  

Analysing our full dataset containing all posts collected during the period of analysis, it was evident, as shown in Graph 1, that discussions characterising government/opposition relations have dominated the debate, which is not surprising, given the heat of the electoral contest. Furthermore, the discussion of the ongoing war in Ukraine has topped that of the rule of law by far — a fact likely influenced by the souring relationship between the Polish and Ukrainian governments, involving a dispute about Ukrainian grain exports to Poland. The rule of law only ranks third, with LGBTQ issues close behind, both of which were defining issues in the last elections. 

Who speaks about the rule of law? 

 

Now, zooming in on the data subset that only includes posts related to the rule of law issue, we can see how different politicians have shaped the discussions. Despite the diminished prominence of the rule of law in the broader discourse, it is notable that government figures and far-right actors remain at the forefront of keeping the topic alive (see Graph 2).  

The incumbent Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, stands out, having posted about the rule of law more than any other politician during the analysis period. Following him is Pawel Kukiz, at the helm of the right-wing populist party "Kukiz’15", which presently backs the ruling coalition. Minister of Justice and, at the same time, Prosecutor General Zbigniew Ziobro, a key figure in the changes to the Polish judiciary, shares third place with Krzystof Bosak. Notably, Bosak belongs to the far-right Confederation party, and maintains a critical view of PiS. The predominance of pro-government actors in discussions around the rule of law underscores their keen interest in steering the narrative on the subject.  

Focusing on the average level of engagement per post, however, reveals a different dynamic in the rule of law discourse (see Graph 3). While pro-government figures seem to be at the helm of the conversation, this dominance apparently does not translate into user engagement, as the public seems less inclined to interact with their posts. Notably, even posts by representatives from less mainstream parties, such as Magdalena Biejat, of the left-wing Left Together (Lewica Razem) party, generated greater user engagement. This is particularly evident in terms of likes, where Biejat and, to an even greater extent, Tusk, have outpaced their counterparts. When it comes to average engagement per post, encompassing likes, replies/comments, and retweets/shares, Bosak, Kukiz, and Morawiecki fall notably behind, underscoring the difference between the volume of the rule of law discourse and its resonance with the public. 

Framing the rule of law 

Differences between the government and opposition are not only related to volume and engagement. Graph 4 underscores the slight contrast in sentiment between pro-government and anti-government voices when speaking about the rule of law. The sentiment analysis highlights a trend – pro-government voices appear to depict issues tied to the rule of law in a more positive light. This may be for various reasons, among which might be an attempt by government members to cast their accomplishments in the rule of law arena in a more favourable shade compared to the portrayal by the opposition. This hypothesis is supported by an examination of the nouns that pro-government and opposition voices, respectively, use when describing the rule of law. 

 

 

Graph 5 offers a revealing look at the contrasting nouns predominantly used by each of the government and opposition voices when discussing the rule of law. From the government side, we see terms like "government," "Poles," "today”, “court," and "Poland." These choices could indicate a focus on their own accomplishments, and perhaps a bid to tap into nationalistic sentiments. 

The opposition primarily references terms such as "court," "PiS," and "referendum." This suggests a heightened attention to a controversial referendum being held parallel to the elections, seemingly designed to rally conservative voters. The referendum, introduced by the government, poses questions such as whether the electorate supports "the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa following the forced resettlement mechanism imposed by European bureaucracy." The language and framing clearly underscore the polarised and strategic narratives at play in these elections.  

Old and new facets in the rule of law debate

The importance of the referendum is also highlighted when looking at the terms used most frequently overall in the rule of law-related subset of posts (Graph 6) 

 


 

The sustained prominence of the referendum might, in part, be caused by the recent visa scandal, in which Polish officials allegedly accepted bribes to issue Schengen visas to migrants from Africa and Asia. 

 
 

Zooming back out to the overall dataset, this becomes apparent when running a topic modelling (Graph 7). The topic modelling presented in this section diverges from the topic analysis presented in Graph 1, in the way that, rather than focusing on predefined topics, it discerns subjects based on word clusters.This way, it also identifies topics that might not have been foreseen by our expert panel, such as topics that only emerged during the analysis period. Across all posts, the seven most frequently broached topics were: 

  • The visa scandal; 
  • Educational politics; 
  • The debate on Ukrainian grain exports; 
  • Far-right politics; 
  • Economic affairs; 
  • Political campaigns; and 
  • Energy. 

Here we see that topping the list is the visa scandal, which was uncovered by independent Polish news outlets. Their reports alleged that the now-dismissed deputy foreign minister, Piotr Wawrzyk, endorsed the bribes-for-visas system.  

This indicates a change. Historically, discussions around the rule of law in Poland have been centred on matters like judicial appointments, but the landscape of these discussions is shifting. This election brief underscores that these traditional facets are becoming less emphasised in the current electoral period. Concurrently, the visa affair, although predominantly debated as a migration issue, is emerging as a significant topic. At its core, this scandal is not merely about migration but, as a clear example of corruption, also represents a deeper rule of law concern. This offers a renewed, if somewhat different, perspective on the ongoing rule of law debate. 

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This work is supported by

Stiftung Mercator