From the vantage of Brussels, Poland's transformation from communist nation to among Europe's healthiest economies has been one of the European Union’s brightest success stories.
But that view could now change.
Tapping into discontent over an economic expansion that has not been felt equally, the Euroskeptic and nationalist Law & Justice party (PiS) captured more than 37 percent of votes in the national election Sunday, according to early results. It is projected to be able to form a government alone, the first time a single group has done so since democracy was restored in Poland in 1989.
But while PiS victory will have an immediate impact on domestic policy, the new government could also cause a wide-ranging shift on foreign affairs, from relations with NATO to Russia to the EU – and most notably, with Germany. Breaking from the policies of the outgoing Civic Platform, the center-right party that ruled Poland since 2007 and cozied up to Germany and the EU, the new government has promised to shore up alliances in the east and take on Germany – particularly its policies towards Russia and refugees.
Many fear this could ultimately isolate Poland rather than strengthen its hand.
“If Poland practices a confrontational policy towards Russia and the EU [for example on refugees], it will become an isolated island,” says Wawrzyniec Konarski, a political expert at Jagiellonian University in Krakow.
A pricklier relationship with Germany?
Beata Szydlo, Poland’s new prime minister, is believed to have been tapped to represent PiS in the race because of her less confrontational style. But Jarosław Kaczyński, former prime minister and current PiS leader, is said to hold the real power. And his distrust towards Germany and the EU is well-established.
Law & Justice rule from 2005 to 2007 was marked by public animosity towards Germany and its occupation of Poland during World War II. In 2007, Luxembourgian Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who is today president of the European Commission, admonished Poland's rulers: "You will not be happy in the long-run if you are always looking in the rear view mirror."
Former Prime Minister Donald Tusk – who tellingly now presides over the European Council – and his Civic Platform tried hard to shed 20th-century fears of Germany, viewing it not as an enemy but as the best partner to have to achieve its goals.
Now some of that progress could come undone, especially over the issue with Russia. One of the biggest changes will be in style rather than substance. Poland has always been hawkish on relations with Moscow, which grew after the annexation of Crimea. But Law & Justice is more hardline and less diplomatic, especially since the 2010 plane crash in which Mr. Kaczyński’s twin brother, Lech, died along with dozens of government officials.
They will continue to push hard for permanent NATO bases on Polish soil – something that Germany has long maintained is an unnecessary provocation towards Russia. Witold Waszczykowski, a Law & Justice lawmaker considered a candidate for foreign affairs minister, criticized Germany’s position.
“Germans think that strengthening Poland's safety would be a confrontational move towards Russia. We think that weakness provokes,” he says. “If NATO allocates here its bases, it will be a clear message for any potential aggressor.”
Jobs and refugees
This position worries voters like Piotr Szewczyk, a student at the University of Warsaw.
“During the last eight years Poland has worked out a good position in the EU. I'm afraid that all these will be lost, and that we will be seen as an insular country of eastern Europe and that everybody is going to laugh at us,” he says. “I'm afraid that new government will be also very confrontational towards Russia and that nothing good will come from this.”
But foreign policy isn’t at the top of minds of most voters. Poland’s economy expanded by nearly 50 percent in the past decade and famously was the only EU member not to sink into recession at the height of financial crisis in 2008. But that expansion has not spread equally.
Many young people, especially from poorer regions, continue to emigrate. Meanwhile, new “junk contracts,” which don't have benefits like insurance or paid vacation, have become increasingly common. Voters have also tired of eight years of the same government.
“The government kept telling us that the economy was doing well, but I haven't felt this, I lost my job and can't find new one,” says Wiesława Buziak, who worked in a store. “Relations with Russia won't get better, but it's not Poland's fault.”
Ms. Buziak is firmly against the refugee policy for which Civic Platform signed up Poland. The issue over refugees and EU member state obligations to help relocate them has caused wide divisions between eastern and western EU nations. While Poland did agree to a quota system under outgoing Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz – despite initial resistance – it is unlikely that a Law & Justice government would have done the same.
Kaczyński in fact has made some of the more controversial remarks regarding refugees – that they should be checked for diseases and parasites – and the party continues to oppose the quota plan. “We need to think about these people in Europe as illegal economic immigrants,” says Mr. Waszczykowski.
Bartłomiej Biskup, a political analyst at the University of Warsaw, says PiS won't be so radical on the refugees issue once in power, particularly because “the Catholic Church has gotten involved and is asking for allowing immigrants to come,” he says.
Hawkish on Russia and Germany?
Ultimately it’s Russia that might define the near future in Poland and its relationship with its allies. Waszczykowski has said that he, like his predecessors, wants to become a key player in the EU, not a periphery one. But he plans to do so by forming deeper regional alliances with eastern countries.
But even that might be hard to pull off, as Poland stands as an outlier on its hawkish stance towards Russia, says Mr. Konarski.
“It would be hard for Poland to find a strategic ally in a confrontational policy towards Russia, as well as in eastern and western Europe,” he says. “Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic as well as Germany and France are not interested in worsening relations with Moscow.”
• Sara Miller Llana contributed to this report from Paris.