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How historic voter turnout upended illiberal rule in Poland

Understanding the triumph of Poland’s opposition and what it means for Polish democracy and foreign policy.

- October 19, 2023

Polish voters turned out in record numbers this Sunday to renounce the illiberal government of the Law and Justice Party (PiS). After eight years of conservative populist rule, the democratic opposition won, with a predicted 248 out of 460 seats in parliament. PiS, with 35% of the overall vote, was the party with the most votes, but does not have the parliamentary seats to form a majority government, even with its designated coalition partner, Confederation (Konfederacja). 

So what does this all mean? The election is critical for Polish democracy, its foreign policy, and the European Union – and even the ongoing Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion.

PiS undermined democracy

The defeated party, PiS, first came to power in 2015 with 38% of the vote, on a platform of “good change.” What followed was certainly a change: The new single-party government suborned the judiciary and robbed the highest courts in the land of autonomy, it fused the positions of minister of justice and attorney general, attacked independent media while making the state TV channel into a mouthpiece of government propaganda, delivered draconian new abortion restrictions, and divided society into PiS party loyalists and the “worst sort of Poles” who opposed these moves. 

At the same time, PiS-sponsored child subsidies and generous new pensions helped build a loyal electorate that returned the party to power with 44% of the vote in 2019. The democratic opposition was relatively weak and divided, and did not offer a strong counter argument. 

By 2023, the democratic opposition united

In Sunday’s vote, the Civic Coalition (KO), led by Donald Tusk, a former prime minister and European Council president, received 31% of the vote, which will translate to 157 seats in parliament. The Left (Lewica) comprises three smaller parties on the left and got close to 9% of the vote, winning 26 seats. A third party, perhaps the most colorful, is Third Way (Trzecia Droga), which consists of a TV celebrity’s political movement and the oldest party in Poland, the Peasants’ Party, coming in with 14% of the vote and 65 seats in parliament. 

In 2023, these parties all offered clear and distinct programmatic alternatives, rather than simply criticism of the PiS government. They had to contend with various electoral shenanigans, including a referendum with four leading questions to gin up votes – a move that allowed PiS to spend state funds on its own electoral campaign. (The result? Only 40 % of Polish voters bothered to pick up a referendum ballot, and the measure was declared invalid.) 

The opposition mobilized voters like never before, resulting in record turnout: over 74% nationwide, and as high as 88% in some cities. (The highest previous average national turnout in Poland had been 63%, in the 1989 historic election that ended the communist monopoly on power.) Close to 70% of the youngest cohort of voters, 18-29 year olds, turned out to vote this week and overwhelmingly voted for the democratic opposition. For them, the PiS abortion restrictions, corruption, climate change denial, and homophobia all became too much. Polish democracy, in the eyes of many of its citizens, was saved by the united efforts of older parties, middle-aged politicians, and determined young voters. 

The difficult tasks of forming a coalition and rebuilding democracy

Now comes the hard part. First, the government has to form a coalition – traditionally, the president asks the party most likely to form the government to do so. In the eyes of PiS representatives, this means President Andrzej Duda should ask the largest party, even if it’s mathematically impossible for PiS to form a government. KO supporters, in contrast, believe it only makes sense to ask Tusk to form the new government, since he has the votes and seats to do so. Duda himself has not indicated what he will do, and Poland’s constitution simply says his job is to designate a prime minister. In short, Poland could see months of delays before the new government assumes office.

Second, the new democratic government would then face the prospect of rolling back the democratic erosion of the previous eight years. Some of the changes will be relatively easy, such as stopping attacks on media and journalists, or ending the condemnations of sexual minorities and immigrants, and so on. Regaining autonomy for the judiciary is a far heavier lift – and yet it will be crucial for the reconsolidation of democracy in Poland. 

Purging the state administration of the thousands of PiS loyalists may be necessary, but also will be controversial. These challenges are magnified by a weakening economy, and a president who has hewed very close to the PiS party line. Moreover, the three parties comprising the anti-PiS opposition do not see eye to eye on policy, including abortion, and past Polish governing coalitions have been fragile and unstable.

What Poland’s new government will mean for foreign policy

Foreign policy is likely to change in several ways, illustrating the dictum that once you hit rock bottom, there is no place to go but up. First, Polish-German relations are likely to improve. PiS was notorious for aggressively criticizing Germany, demanding $1.3 trillion in reparations from World War II, and accusing opposition politicians of being German flunkies

Second, Poland’s relationship with the E.U. can now be repaired. The E.U. had criticized Poland for the abuses of the rule of law, and suspended covid-19 recovery funds as a result. Tusk, who is savvy and familiar with the inner workings of the E.U., can now start to restore these relationships. Meanwhile, the E.U.’s other autocratic government – Hungary’s Fidesz government, led by Viktor Orbán – has just lost its biggest ally (though it may have gained a new friend in Slovakia.)

And third, many will be looking to see how the election affects relations with Poland’s other neighbor, Ukraine. Strong Polish support for Ukraine and Ukraine’s sovereignty will not change. The tone will: When Ukraine began to sell grain in Poland last month after the E.U. embargo ended, PiS immediately began to criticize Ukraine. Poland’s strategic interests had not changed – but PiS wanted to keep its rural constituents happy during a heated election season.

Democracy in Poland was the clear winner on October 15. Whether Poland can now rebuild and fortify its democratic institutions remains to be seen.