During the POLPAN Seminar on April 27, 2021, Dr. Melis G. Laebens (Oxford University) and Dr. Marcin Ślarzyński (Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences) presented a paper titled ‘Patterns of Local Party Building in Poland: Understanding PiS’s Territorial Expansion.’
In the run up to its 2015 national victory, PiS had considerably expanded its presence in local politics, which in Poland has until lately been dominated by local politicians and non-partisan lists (Gendźwiłł 2020). We hypothesize that alliances with ideologically proximate local civil society organizations and their incorporation into local chapters is helping expand the party’s official presence at the local level and thus increase its vote share and organizational presence on the local level. We focus our analysis of local civil society on the Gazeta Polska clubs, a national network of local right-wing organizations that have become linked to PiS prior to 2015. We base our analysis on interviews we conducted in 2018-19 with local PiS activists and office holders in several municipalities, as well as data on local election results and the establishment of clubs across Poland’s gminas since 2005. We show that there can be considerable overlap between local PiS chapters at the gmina level (candidates, office holders, party leaders) and right-wing local civil society organizations.
To test our hypothesis concerning the effect of establishing local party presence in municipalities on PiS’s electoral success, we use the methodology employed by Samuels and Zucco (2014) in their study of the Brazilian Worker’s Party (PT): a difference-in-differences model estimating the future electoral benefit for the party of presenting a candidate for local office (in our case, the effect of presenting a party list for the gmina or town council where there previously was no party list on performance in the next Sejm elections). To test our second hypothesis about the role of local civil society in party building, we adapt the same methodology to analyze whether the Clubs contributed to PiS’s ability to present local lists in a greater number of municipalities.
Our paper engages with issues both around party building, party institutionalization and local election studies by shedding light on how a party with a radical right ideology has succeeded in expanding its organization and voter base. Highlighting the role of local civil society organizations as co-agents, together with PiS politicians, of this success, we point out that the rise of this party not only reflects the entrepreneurship or opportunism of politicians, but also the efforts of wider social groups who are organized in political communities around ideological goals and shared meanings.