Victory for Democracy in Poland
The long queues outside the polling stations throughout the election day and, in some cases in the early morning hours of Sunday 15 October proved that the term "fateful elections" was no exaggeration. In fact, voter turnout reached a new historic record of more than 74 percent. Today it is clear that Poland is on the verge of a political change of power.
Voters showed a red card to the national conservative Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość - PiS), which has been forming the government for eight years, and have backed the pro-European forces. Although the PiS has become the strongest force for the third time in a row, it has lost compared to the elections four years ago. Moreover, it is likely to hand over power to Donald Tusk, the leading candidate of the liberal-conservative Civic Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska - KO). Although the latter only placed second, it is more likely for his party to succeed in convincing the smaller parliamentary groups in the Sejm, the Warsaw parliament, to side with KO.
"The election result is a huge success of Polish society. After eight difficult years, Poland will return to the liberal and European track," says Milosz Hodun, a long-time active partner of the FNF and a member of the liberal Nowoczesna party, whose leader Adam Szłapka achieved a historic success, when he received the third highest number of votes nationwide after Donald Tusk and Jarosław Kaczyński.
Poland after the battle of the two titans
The Polish map has almost exactly split in half. Seven western Polish Voivodeships voted for KO. In the nine eastern ones, PiS won. In the 2019 elections, PiS had still won almost the entire territory of Poland. Thus, the trend looks promising but there is no doubt that Polish society is still heavily polarised. However, looking at the map where the united democratic opposition won, only three Voivodeships in south-east Poland remain in PiS colours.
PiS has fallen back on its core voters. The party remains leading in its bastions, but is losing rapidly even there. This trend can be observed also, for example, in the Polish diaspora in the USA, who traditionally supported PiS. KO, on the contrary, was able to mobilise many non-voters, according to a post-election survey. 31 percent of non-voters from 2019 voted for KO this time. However, the highest turnout was in the group of voters between 50 and 59 - 83 percent. In this group, PiS was ahead with 44 percent. Among the youngest voters aged 18 to 29, on the other hand, KO won, followed by the other pro-democratic alliances. Even though this group had the second-lowest turnout at just under 70 per cent, it was demonstrably the most mobilized one, compared to the 2019 turnout, when it was only 46 percent.
According to the official results, PiS obtained 35.38 percent - about eight percent less than in the 2019 elections, while KO received 30.7 per cent. Two other pro-democratic and pro-Western actors also got in the parliament: the centrist electoral alliance Trzecia Droga (Third Way) scored an unexpected success for many with 14.40 per cent and Nowa Lewica (New Left) with 8.6 percent has a chance to be back in government after 18 years.
Sejm, the second chamber of the Polish parliament, consists of 460 MPs. To form a government, a simple majority is required. PiS, with its 194 seats, has lost its majority and is now dependent on potential coalition partners. The only potential partner, the far-right party Konfederacja (The Confederation), got fewer votes than expected (7%, converted to 18 seats in parliament). Even with the Confederation on its side, PiS would not have a parliamentary majority.
Pyrrhic victory of PiS
Since assuming control of the government in 2015, PiS has used every means at its disposal to reshape the country according to its own vision. This vision entails a traditionalist, Christian-Catholic Poland with robust elements of a welfare state, all overseen by a paternalistic party that exercises political, social, economic, and cultural influence at every level. The goal was to establish a stronghold against what they saw as the morally decadent West and to create an ethnically homogeneous community that would obediently follow the authorities. Despite this project appearing deeply archaic, the party led by Jarosław Kaczyński adeptly employed the power-political tactics of ruthless authoritarian leaders. They exercised control over the media, thus shaping public opinion. They made the judiciary politically compliant and tailored constituencies to increase the likelihood of conservative majorities. They did not hesitate to utilise state security services against political opponents.
Poland's international reputation has been significantly tarnished due to the ongoing conflicts between the leaders in Warsaw and the European Union and its institutions. Representatives from PiS have actively fueled anti-German and anti-EU sentiments on a large scale. Illegal migration and security concerns dominated the election campaign of PiS, which appeared to be more of a disinformation campaign. To mobilise their supporters, PiS organised a referendum alongside the parliamentary elections. One of the suggestive questions of the referendum was: "Do you support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, as mandated by the European bureaucracy's forced relocation mechanism?" The referendum ultimately failed to achieve its intended turnout of 50 percent, as it barely reached 41 percent.
Certainly, the most significant misstep by PiS, exposed during the election campaign, was the visa scandal. Independent media reports revealed that consulates of several embassies in Africa and the Middle East had issued visas to approximately 250,000 individuals seeking employment, who subsequently entered Poland. PiS faced accusations of hypocrisy on two fronts: first, for appearing to promote austerity while being embroiled in corruption, and second, for its hardline anti-immigration stance, which now seemed paradoxical.
Furthermore, PiS received criticism for the billions of euros frozen by the EU due to the Warsaw government's rule-of-law policies, its unsuccessful fight against inflation, declining birth rates, and its interference in media, education, and freedom of speech.
The decrease in votes and the impending loss of power indicate that the majority of Poles who exercised their right to vote on Sunday resisted the government's attempts to disenfranchise them. Poles had already demonstrated their commitment to defending an open society, as evident in the "March of a Million Hearts" held in Warsaw two weeks prior to the election day. This event, described by KO as the largest demonstration in post-communist history, showcased the Polish citizens' determination to stand up for democratic values.
What happens next
According to the Polish Constitution, the Sejm is required to convene for its first session within thirty days of the official announcement of the election results. By this time, the potential prime minister appointed by the president must have proposed a government and its program, which can be supported with a confidence vote of the parliamentary majority. Notably, the Polish Constitution does not mandate the President to assign the government formation task exclusively to the election winner; any leader of a party with parliamentary representation can be entrusted with this responsibility, although tradition favours the election winner. It is therefore up to Head of State Duda who he gives the mandate to, although it can be assumed that he will give preference to his party associates from the PiS.
However, such a move would not make much sense, as there are no signs that the PiS could win a parliamentary majority. All parties that entered parliament have ruled out cooperation with the PiS. PiS has only 194 seats and would have to convince up to 37 MPs from another parliamentary group to form a government with it or at least support it in a vote of confidence. This seems highly unlikely.
Should PiS fail to form a government, the constitutional responsibility falls to the Sejm to select the next prime minister candidate, who will then be tasked with forming a government. Given that the opposition holds the majority of seats (a total of 248 seats) it's clear that KO, led by Donald Tusk together with other pro-democratic parties has a good chance of forming a government. Their leaders have expressed the readiness to establish such a coalition government before and also after the elections.
However, it is already clear that this process can take weeks or even months.
Poland is not yet lost!
Nevertheless, the possible new government of KO, Third Way and the New Left will by no means be ideologically harmonious and free of discord and potential for conflict. Disputes, however, are not to be expected until later, because the biggest common priority is to remove the scars that the legacy of PiS governments has left on Polish democracy. And that will take time.
With the victory of the opposition, Poland should return to the circle of the European family. The PiS's major political project, the destruction of the separation of powers pursued with the politicisation of the judicial power, had put Poland in violation of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Payments from the EU recovery fund have been blocked. After a change of government, access to the European fund should finally be open to Warsaw again. At a time when people are suffering the consequences of the economic crisis and high inflation, this is crucial.
The fight for women's rights was a central common agenda item of the democratic opposition. Women also ultimately had a higher turnout than men. Hopes are now focused on abolishing the restrictive abortion law, introducing state support for artificial insemination and improving health care for pregnant women.
Clearly, priorities will also include the elimination of the PiS monopoly at all levels of public life. One of the first purges will affect state television, which has become an instrument of government propaganda and the alternative world during PiS rule. In line with its original mandate, the public television channel TVP is likely to be re-committed to neutral, differentiated reporting, right down to the local level.
As far as support for Ukraine is concerned, not much is likely to change after a change of government. PiS was already one of the most reliable supporters of Ukraine, possibly because of a historically strong skepticism towards Russia. The new government will probably also renegotiate the grain agreement with Ukraine, which has been the subject of controversy between Warsaw and Kyiv in recent weeks. Polish-Ukrainian relations will therefore only grow stronger.
In terms of Poland's position within the EU, the election outcome offers a significant opportunity to regain its standing in the EU and put an end to constant disputes. Under the experienced leadership of EU-experienced Donald Tusk, Poland has the potential to become one of the leading EU members that genuinely upholds and embodies the fundamental values of the EU.