What Is—And Isn't—At Stake in the Polish Parliamentary Election

This article originally appeared on the American Enterprise Institute website.

The widely expected victory of the opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland's parliamentary election on Sunday matters not just for Poland, but for the entire European Union. Because it comes at a time when the continent is at several important crossroads, it might be the most consequential parliamentary election in the region in a long while.

Solving the refugee crisis

While the current Polish government acquiesced, albeit without enthusiasm, to the proposal of the European Commission to use mandatory quotas to allocate asylum-seekers among different EU countries, a PiS-led government will likely be at the forefront of a coalition of Central and Eastern European countries opposing not just quotas but any coordinated response to the crisis.

The party leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, has already warned against migrants bringing tropical diseases to Europe, citing cholera, dysentery, and protozoan infections as examples. So far, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania have been the principal troublemakers on this issue. If they are joined by Poland, finding a common European response will become even harder. The most likely victim? Freedom of movement of people in the EU.

Poland's position in Europe

In recent years, Poland has been punching above its weight in the EU and beyond – hence Donald Tusk's election as president of the European Council, Radosław Sikorski's role in facilitating the political transition in Ukraine last year, and the leadership position that Poland assumed in Central Europe. PiS may have toned down its traditional anti-German populism, but it does not appear to be a powerhouse of ideas on how to engage with those in Poland's neighborhood.

Not without reason, there is very little appetite in Poland to rush into adopting the single European currency, the Euro, which the PiS has criticized. However, given Poland's track record in stabilizing public finances and sustaining economic growth during the crisis, the EU and the Eurozone would benefit from Poland's strong and constructive voice on matters that include fiscal governance and structural reforms. With PiS in government, that is unlikely.

Polish prosperity

Fiscal governance and economic policy more generally are another source of concern. PiS promises more welfare spending and lower taxes, all of it financed by levies targeted on the financial industry and large, foreign-owned corporations. It is an agenda not dissimilar to the one pursued by Viktor Orbán's government in Hungary, with disastrous results.

Many Polish economists, including the venerated reformer Leszek Balcerowicz, are ringing alarm bells. "If PiS were in charge, Poland would look like Ukraine," Mr. Balcerowicz said earlier this year. Even Marek Belka, an academic and the head of Poland's central bank, decided to speak out against the economic policy proposals coming from the PiS camp, breaking with the traditional silence that central bankers keep around elections.

Paris climate deal

There is a chance that the Polish election might have an impact on the upcoming climate talks, to be held in Paris this December, as PiS is advocating a renegotiation of the EU's common position on climate change in order to accommodate the potential expansion of Poland's coal-fueled electricity sector.

This is not completely puzzling. While no longer profitable, coal mining is still an important source of employment in some regions of the country, and even Beata Szydło, PiS' candidate for prime minister, is the daughter of a coal miner. Regardless of what one thinks of the EU's emissions targets, coal mining is hardly the industry of the future. The existing coal mines subsist only because closing them has proven to be a political nightmare. PiS will be tempted more than other political parties to throw more public funds at the otherwise unprofitable mining industry.

Attitudes towards Russia

One important issue is unlikely to be affected by the outcome of Sunday's election: Whichever of the two leading parties ends up in government, Poland's leadership will continue to see Russia as a threat to regional security. While in other Central European countries many of the nationalist and Eurosceptic politicians have aligned themselves with the Kremlin, Poland's history seems to have immunized the country's political elites from similar temptations. Incidentally, the crash of President Kaczyński's plane in Smolensk, Russia, in 2010, which is occasionally blamed on the Russian government—and sometimes a subject of conspiracy theories about an alleged political assassination orchestrated by Vladimir Putin—has hardened the suspicions towards Russia harbored by the Polish nationalist right.

Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, which conducts original research on the world economy, U.S. foreign policy and international security, and domestic political and social issues.