September 21, 2020

POLAND: Contentious vote pushes United Right coalition to the brink of collapse

BY Andrius Tursa

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A contentious vote on a bill regarding animal rights has triggered the deepest crisis of the United Right coalition government to date. However, since breaking the coalition agreement would leave the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) and its two junior coalition partners more vulnerable, a compromise rather than a collapse of the government is the most likely outcome of the ongoing row. With no immediate electoral pressures ahead and a fragmented opposition, internal rivalries within the ruling bloc will remain the greatest threat to the survival of the government going forward.

On Friday, 18 September, the lower house of parliament (Sejm) passed amendments to the Animal Protection Act, which entails a ban on fur farming and the use of animals for entertainment purposes, and limits ritual slaughters. The vote has exacerbated divisions within the ruling United Right coalition government, consisting of the PiS and its two junior partners, Agreement and Solidarity.

Before the vote on the bill, the PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski strictly warned that he would not tolerate any disobedience. However, only 176 out of 229 United Right deputies participating in the vote supported the amendments. Both junior coalition parties and several deputies from the PiS refused to back the bill, claiming that it would hurt the country’s large fur and meat farming sectors and alienate parts of the important rural electorate.

The PiS deputies that voted against the bill – including the agriculture minister Jan Krzysztof Ardanowski (PiS) – were promptly suspended. Given the increasingly frequent disagreements, the PiS’s leadership is also deliberating whether to continue cooperation with its junior partners, with decisions on this issue expected later this week.

The fall of the United Right coalition would leave the Mateusz Morawiecki cabinet without an absolute majority in parliament. After the failed talks with the center-right Polish People’s Party (PSL) last week, the PiS is unlikely to find support from any other parliamentary group. However, some deputies from the junior partners could join the PiS ranks.

A weakened PiS government would find it difficult to advance its policy agenda, especially on controversial topics such as judiciary reform or the “repolonization” of domestic media. This might strengthen calls for an early election, which may be triggered by: (1) two-thirds of deputies in the lower house voting for its dissolution; (2) failure to form a new government if the current cabinet resigns voluntarily or is removed via a motion of no confidence; (3) president dissolving parliament if it fails to approve the next year budget within four months after its submission.

Although the PiS retains a strong lead in the polls, a snap general election would be a risky pathway. Voters might punish the party for internal disputes, while emerging new opposition movements could take advantage of the situation. Similarly, the PiS’s junior partners Agreement and Solidarity would also struggle in the new election without the PiS’s backing. As a result, despite internal rivalries and policy disputes, the United Right members have a greater interest in bridging their disagreements rather than breaking the coalition.

More generally, the latest conflict over the animal rights bill reflects the intensifying struggle for leadership within the United Right camp. Internal rivalries will likely remain the biggest threat to the survival of the government, even if the current crisis is resolved. To step up oversight and control, the PiS leader Kaczynski might enter the reshuffled cabinet.

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