We examine how the governing radical right Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS) has a unique voter profile. Our findings reveal that in addition to strong anti-immigrant attitudes, voters that hold higher levels of religiosity (Catholicism) alongside anti-LGBT attitudes are much more likely to vote for the PiS Party. These findings highlight the unique electoral profile of PiS’s voters in Central-Eastern Europe (CEE) alongside the increasingly authoritarian nature of the party.
The PiS Party
The Polish Law and Justice Party was originally founded in 2001 as a center right, anti-establishment party, particularly opposed to former Communist political elites. In recent years, the PiS Party has adopted an increasingly nativist and right-wing authoritarian ideology. In a similar manner to a number of radical right parties in Western Europe, the PiS Party has outlined its strong opposition to Islam. The party is currently led by Jarosław Kaczyński (Chairman) with Andrzej Duda serving as the President of Poland.
The PiS Party has in recent years transformed from a mainstream conservative (i.e., center right) party towards a fully-fledged radical right party. The PiS party has also received steady support at around 40% (pre-COVID-19) of the total vote share and has been the main ruling governing party of Poland since 2015. The PiS Party has also adopted authoritarian attitudes towards social issues such as its strong opposition to LGBT Groups alongside issues such as Feminism. At the same time, the PiS Party has also continuously emphasized the importance of traditional Catholic values. In recent years, the PiS Party has also adopted more left-wing and state interventionist economic policies.
The Radical Right Political Landscape in Poland
It is important to note that radical right-wing populism has not only emerged in Poland in recent years. The League of Polish Families (LPR), a populist radical right-wing party with conservative values and anti-Semitic positions had already gained representation in the Polish Parliament (The Sejm) as early as 2001. When the PiS Party was founded, LPR was arguably towards the right of the PiS and adopted more radical positions than the PiS.
For instance, PiS supported the accession to the European Union (EU) and economic integration, whereas the LPR principally objected to the EU membership. In 2007, the LPR lost every seat in the Parliament. The PiS strategically rebranded itself by upholding the more radical and authoritarian positions that LPR had previously adopted before, such as restrictive immigration positions. Table 1 below demonstrates the increasing restrictive positions on immigration policy that the PiS has adopted (2006-2019).
In the post-Communist political system, Polish politics has been underpinned by relatively low levels of immigration and strong support for the EU. Poland has also tended to have been seen as a successful example of EU integration, with a relatively high approval rating amongst Polish citizens. However, despite a high approval rating, Eurosceptic radical right parties, such as PiS and the opposition radical right party Kukiz’15 have performed increasingly well in recent elections.
Poland has the highest proportion of Catholics(87%) amongst CEE countries. Catholicism has been an important part of national identity in Poland. Poles have tended to view the Catholic Church as a symbol of fighting for independence and the Catholic Church enjoys a high status among Poles.
The alliance between the PiS and the Catholic Church has dominated the political agenda in recent years and brings the policies towards the direction of conservativism and opposing external pressures from the EU. Table 2 below also demonstrates how the PiS Party strongly supports religious principles in politics (2010-2019) with no separation from the state.
The Polish Catholic Church can be viewed a critical influencer on the ideological positions of PiS, alongside the implementation of conservative feminist and anti-LGBT policies. PiS has received the endorsement from the Catholic Church to legitimatize its controversial party lines to tighten both abortion rights and LGBT rights.
Polish PiS Party Voters: Attitudinal Characteristics
In order to examine the unique voter profile of PiS voters, we drew on the internationally renowned European Social Survey (ESS) conducted in 2018, shortly before the 2019 Polish parliamentary election. The ESS data allowed us to investigate the key attitudinal characteristics of PiS voters alongside socio-demographic control variables. The main dependent variable of this research examines the electoral support for the radical right PiS: “Which party did you vote for in the last national election?” and was recoded into a binary dependent variable (1= Voted for the PiS Party, 0= Did not Vote for the PiS Party).
The results from our binary logistic regression analysis (Table 3) reveal that the electoral profile of PiS’s voters is different from that of the radical right in Western Europe. Whilst PiS’s voters are similar to a large number of radical right voters in Europe, in being more likely to hold (a) high levels of anti-immigrant attitudes.
However, our research finds that individuals with higher levels of (b) religiosity and (c) anti-LGBT attitudes are more likely to support the radical right PiS Party. These three main attitudinal variables above are statistically significant at the 99% level and further demonstrate the major attitudinal variables that cause individuals to vote for the PiS Party.
Implications for Contemporary Radical Right Parties in Europe
The implications of our research are wide-ranging in outlining how anti-immigrant attitudes, religiosity and anti-LGBT attitudes drive electoral support for the PiS Party in contemporary Polish politics. This research has important implications in highlighting the uniqueness (i.e., political attitudes) of PiS voters, particularly in the CEE political context.
In European democracies, voters have become increasingly secular and the religious cleavage has become arguably less important in determining electoral support. However, as seen from the above data, religion (Catholicism) has still played a central role in shaping the ideological strategy of the PiS Party in Poland. Regarding anti-LGBT attitudes, some Western European radical right parties have been more liberal on LGBT issues. We argue that these high levels of religiosity and anti-LGBT attitudes have made the PiS Party an exception within the modern European radical right party family.
Most significantly, the findings of our research raise questions beyond the Polish political context. One of the questions concerns further investigating the attitudinal difference between radical right voters in both (a) CEE and (b) Western Europe. First, the findings above demonstrate a positive relationship between anti-LGBT attitudes and radical right voting in Poland. Such a relationship has not been generally observed amongst radical right voters in Western Europe.
In recent years, some radical right politicians in Western Europe (such as in France via the leader of the radical right National Rally Party, Marine Le Pen) have been generally more liberal and open towards LGBT issues. For example, the radical right PVV Party under leader Geert Wilders has actively defended LGBT rights and voted for legalization of same-sex marriage. In contrast, radical right politicians in CEE have appeared more conservative towards LGBT related issues. The Polish PiS and the Hungarian Fidesz Party under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán have frequently demonstrated anti-LGBT attitudes in their respective ideologies. Fidesz has even gone as far as introducing a law to prohibit any LGBT related content in school curriculums.
Future research should seek to build on our findings outside of the Polish context, in investigating whether both radical right voters and candidates in CEE tend to hold more conservative attitudes on LGBT issues than in Western Europe.
Dr James F. Downes is a Senior Fellow and Head of The Populism Research Unit (PRU) at CARR. James is also a Lecturer in Comparative Politics and Head of the Undergraduate Admissions Panel in the Department of Government and Publication Administration at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (SAR, China). He is also affiliated as a Research Fellow to the Global Europe Centre at the University of Kent/Brussels School of International Studies (UK/Belgium). His profile can be found here.
Horace Wong is an incoming MSSc student in Comparative Politics at The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
© James F. Downes and Horace Wong. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).