With the next Polish government presumed to take office by mid-December, it is instructive to step back and digest the consequences of the October 15 parliamentary elections for Poland’s domestic and foreign policies.
A predictable upset
Despite often apocalyptic forecasts, the outcome largely tracked preelection polling and produced few major surprises. The results are well known: the opposition alliance consisting of nearly a dozen parties that formed the Civic Coalition blocs – Koalicja Obywatelska, or KO), Third Way (Trzecia Droga) and New Left (Nowa Lewica) – won 248 of the 460 seats (54 percent) in the Sejm, Poland’s parliament, securing a clear popular mandate to form a center-left government.
The incumbent conservative United Right (Zjednoczona Prawica) coalition wound up with 194 seats. The bloc’s leader, Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, or PiS), won the popular vote with 35.4 percent. The KO came in second with 30.7 percent. The centrist Third Way (14.4 percent) produced the biggest surprise, gathering 22 more seats than polls had suggested. The left side of the political spectrum performed worse than expected (8.6 percent) but returns to government with 48 seats after 18 years in opposition.
The far-right, pro-Russian Confederation (Konfederacja) fared worse than predicted, receiving 7.6 percent, but returned to the Sejm with 11 seats. The opposition coalition increased its control over the 100-member Senate from 51 to 65 and will dominate both houses.
After eight years in opposition and six consecutive electoral defeats, PiS’s rivals captured the zeitgeist. They offered voters a pragmatic, center-left program to replace the PiS governing agenda that many considered divisive and backward-looking. The opposition parties gained additional support by promising prior to the election that they would join forces to form a coalition if given a majority, sending a clear signal that those who wanted change would have an alternative. Voters also heeded opposition pleas not to answer four referendum questions it described as manipulative. At 41 percent, the referendum turnout was well shy of the 50 percent threshold to be valid. Nevertheless, more than 90 percent of those who did participate in the referendum voted with PiS.
The election demonstrated that Poland’s democracy, contrary to frequently raised alarms, had not been damaged beyond repair. There have been issues surrounding the independence of the judiciary, corruption, cronyism and strong pro-government coverage in state-run media. And like many governing parties, PiS used its incumbency to its advantage during the election campaign.
However, the electoral process and outcome would have been different had the state apparatus been “captured” or “authoritarian,” as some critics maintained. Poland is hardly an autocracy. Virtually every election in Poland since the collapse of communism has been branded domestically and abroad as “the most important since 1989,” and hyperbole was widespread this time as well.
Opposition parties were well-organized, civil society organizations were vibrant and active and the media was boisterous and diverse, even as the public broadcaster engaged heavily on behalf of PiS. The vigorous campaign and orderly conduct of the elections themselves, as well as the extraordinary voter turnout of over 74 percent – more even than in 1989 when communism had collapsed – demonstrated yet again that democracy is deeply embedded in Polish political culture, indeed in its citizens’ DNA, which dispassionate observers knew all along.
Poland is becoming more liberal
There were many signs that the United Right’s fortunes were declining and its days in office numbered. PiS was reelected in 2019 with a respectable mandate but began to lose support soon after the Constitutional Tribunal, controlled by PiS loyalists, issued a near-total ban on legal abortion in 2020. This decision was deeply unpopular among critical demographics. Female, young, first-time and centrist voters punished PiS for it, turning out in exceptionally large numbers and voting for change.
Dissatisfaction with PiS also grew over its disputes with Brussels, which caused the European Commission to withhold some 36 billion euros from the Covid-related Recovery and Resilience Facility since 2020 and another 76 billion euros in cohesion funds for 2021-2027 in connection with concerns over judicial independence and the rule of law.
Poland is secularizing. Approval of same-sex relationships has grown, while the number of church-going Poles who identify as Roman Catholics fell by 6.6 million between 1992 and 2022, or 19 percent. According to the Institute for Catholic Church Statistics, 28.3 percent of adults attended mass in 2021, down from 36.9 percent in 2019. In 2011, the number stood at 40 percent; in 2001, at 46.8 percent; in 1991, at 47.6 percent; and in 1981, at 52.7 percent. Among those aged 18-24, religious practice fell from 69 percent in 1992 to just 23 percent in 2021. Young Poles have been especially active in anti-church protests. An IBRiS poll found in 2020 that only 9 percent of those aged 18-29 held a positive view of the Roman Catholic Church. These generational changes reduced structural support for PiS, even in core constituencies, and for its social policies.
The election was also a referendum on another term for PiS, and a clear majority voted for the alternatives, choosing to look forward to a more pro-EU future and to set aside old internecine wars in the post-Solidarity camp, as symbolized by the decades-long feud between PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Civic Platform prime minister-designate Donald Tusk. Local government elections in the spring of 2024 and for the European Parliament in June will provide further indications of how significant these societal changes are and how the new government is faring.
These societal trends were fertile ground on which the opposition in June mobilized hundreds of thousands of Poles across the country for perhaps the largest anti-government demonstration since 1989. Shortly later, the media reported that a senior Foreign Ministry PiS appointee was implicated in selling large numbers of visas to Asian and African trafficking rings. Then, five days before the balloting, two senior military commanders resigned, raising questions about politicization of the armed forces.
Diaspora voters registered in unusually large numbers (some 600,000), and voter registration within Poland but outside places of residence was four times that of 2019. Polls showed for months that PiS would not be able to form a government alone, and potential partners were not assured. Unsurprisingly, turnout was so high, and it did not favor PiS.
Cohabitation will show domestic changes
The opposition coalition’s clear majority in both chambers has the potential to ensure a relatively smooth legislative process, even if the bloc may be unwieldy and consists of unusual bedfellows. However, Prime Minister-designate Tusk will cohabit for the next two years with President Andrzej Duda, who, with few exceptions, has supported PiS and can be expected to veto legislation PiS opposes. The next government will not have enough votes to overturn his vetoes, as PiS has a blocking minority in the Sejm. Unless the PiS-led conservatives split, this cohabitation will make it more difficult for the new government to execute its legislative priorities and will slow the fulfillment of its agenda.
Some of the domestic policy changes the opposition has promised will be relatively easy to push through, but others will be difficult. A removal of PiS appointees from supervisory boards of state-owned firms and state-run radio and television belong to the first category; new governments have done such things routinely in the past. Also, replacing political appointees in ministries is unlikely to require much time. However, President Duda retains influence over ambassadorial and senior military appointments, and there are hurdles to replacing the heads of vital constitutional institutions, like the National Bank of Poland. Its head Adam Glapinski, a PiS loyalist, began his second six-year term in 2022; the opposition considers him illegally reappointed.
Judicial reforms may also take time. The incoming government will have to guard against charges of interfering in the judiciary. It is not clear how the dozens of judges in various bodies, including the Constitutional Court, will be replaced. It will take time to reform the entities considered politicized and to close the court’s controversial disciplinary chamber. All this may affect Mr. Tusk’s timeline and delay resolving cases the EC filed against Poland in the Court of Justice of the European Union, on which the full transfer of EU funds depends.
A divided country
The new government must contend with the extensive reservoir of popular support for conservative policies in the country. While opposition candidates for the Sejm won some 12 million votes, more than 12 million Poles also voted in the referendum the opposition boycotted. This split will complicate the incoming government’s actions on divisive cultural issues, like the abortion law its left-wing partners seek to liberalize.
Polish society remains deeply divided divided between conservative and centrist/center-left, pro-EU parties. Leaders of both camps consider each other threats to the nation. Opposition leaders will not quickly forget being labeled “stooges of Russia and Germany” and “traitors” who must be excluded from the political scene. PiS leaders will long remember being denounced as evil threats to Polish families and Poland’s place in Europe. Since October 15, both camps have continued their sharp political rhetoric, indicating the intention to pursue quite different visions of Poland’s future. The opposition coalition’s pledge to prosecute anyone for breaking the Constitution and the rule of law, if carried out, would exacerbate the divide further, as it could bring senior PiS politicians before the courts for actions that may not necessarily, legally speaking, be crimes. Campaign rhetoric emanating from both sides was poisonous, which will make it difficult for the new government to build a broad consensus on its priorities.