With the progressive bloc likely to replace the populists in power, the relics of the latter and a polarised society will remain challenging.
On Sunday, a parliamentary election took place in Poland described by many as the most important ballot since the transformation in 1989 to multi-party democracy. It indeed had the potential to decide the country’s future for years to come.
The election could have allowed the national conservatives of Law and Justice (PiS), having governed for eight years, to set their position in stone or it could bring the opposition to power with a pivot in domestic and foreign policies. The PiS did win the most seats but most probably will lose power, due to its inability to form a majority government.
The PiS re-emerged at the top of the pile, with 35.38 per cent of the vote. But the opposition—comprising the liberal Civic Coalition (30.7 per cent), the centrist Third Way (14.4) and the Left Party (8.61)—received more than half of all votes and has a realistic chance of forming the next government. Since the far-right Konfederacja suffered a severe defeat (7.16 per cent), a new majority government under PiS leadership is impossible. Only the three opposition parties have a sufficient combined mandate to form a stable coalition.
Paradoxically, the smaller parties decided the result of this ballot, though frequently portrayed as a battle between the PiS and Donald Tusk, the Civic Coalition leader it demonised. The competition could only be resolved by finding coalition partners. At the same time, the opposition in the Senate (the upper house) defended its majority, thanks to a pact in which the parties resolved not to compete against each other.
Regardless of the outcome, this election proved the resilience of Polish democracy, with a record turnout. In particular, the participation of the under-30s was higher than ever (68.8 per cent) and women’s votes were crucial: never before have so many gone to the polls (73.7 per cent). In constituencies outside Poland, more than 600,000 Polish citizens registered, with a turnout of over 90 per cent.
The campaign was very emotional and at times brutal. Political tribalism and incivil discourse contributed to a severe polarisation in society, reflected in verbal attacks (Tusk was labelled ‘the personification of evil’) and physical interference (meetings with voters were interrupted by opponents). The state-controlled public media sustained a persistent bias, actively supporting the outgoing coalition, even during the debate before election day.
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The most important election themes were the relationship with Brussels, economic policies, women’s rights, migration and the war in Ukraine. Polish society is solidly Euro-enthusiastic, so no party dared call for a ‘Polexit’. Nevertheless, the European Union was very present in the campaign.
Due to the erosion of the rule of law and judicial independence under the PiS, the EU has frozen funds for Poland within the Recovery and Resilience Facility. These much-needed monies would have helped not only to overcome the post-pandemic recession but also to balance the effects of rising inflation and especially energy prices. The cost of living has increased a lot lately and not even the generous social policies of the PiS government were able to cushion these effects.
On migration, a scandal in the Foreign Office associated with the sale of Polish visas, providing access to the Schengen area, created a headache for the governing party. It undermined the way the government was proactively spreading fear against non-European migrants. On top of that, Konfederacja used economic nationalism to feed on growing anti-Ukrainian resentment. Military support for Ukraine was taken hostage by the PiS government in an attempt to limit the import of Ukrainian grain to the EU.
In domestic policies, the de facto ban on abortion introduced by the Constitutional Tribunal in 2020 proved an election mobiliser. Women’s rights were very high on the agenda of most opposition parties, targeting the votes of women and young people—electorates usually under-represented.
It was clear from the beginning that this would be a very competitive race. The result did not bring a definitive answer as to who would be able to form the new government. But there were only two, mutually-exclusive scenarios: the continuation of the United Right coalition or a completely new cabinet under Tusk, with the Third Way (itself a coalition of Christian democrats and a rural party) and the Polish left. Already before the election, they announced a commitment to co-govern, to remove the Pis from power.
The wider future is yet unknown. The PiS will have to transfer power without obstruction. Considering how many times it has broken the Polish constitution before, this is not a given. Then, even if the opposition manages to form a coalition, governing will not be easy.
First, there is legislative chaos after eight years of PiS government meddling with the judiciary and promoting unconstitutional laws. Secondly, the party and its allies have planted loyalists in many non-elected public offices, potentially obstructing actions taken by the new government. Among the highjacked institutions are the National Bank of Poland and the vice prosecutor general. The president of the country was also a PiS nominee.
Thirdly, Polish society is now deeply divided. Over the last decade, practically from the tragic and still-contested Smolensk plane crash, polarisation has reached the point where two political camps are entrenched and impermeable. No dialogue is possible, replaced by personal animosities and accusations.
Political tribalism has been a very successful tactic for the PiS, so it is unlikely to give it up. It will therefore be a challenge for the government created by the current opposition to overcome—the stability of its coalition will depend on it.
Dr Maria Skóra is a researcher and political analyst in Berlin. At the Institut für Europäische Politik, she analysing rule-of-law developments in the European Union. She is also a policy fellow at the think-tank Das Progressive Zentrum, hosting the annual Progressive Governance Summit.