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A "Normal" Transition? What the Outcome of Poland’s Elections Means


The turnout was a record 74.25% as voters flocked to the ballot boxes in the recent Polish elections. Poland confounded expectations and gave a lesson in optimism to European commentators, by now all too accustomed to bad news from elections in countries as far apart as Slovakia and Switzerland. 

Although the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party topped the polls with 35.6% of votes, it failed to secure a majority. In a grouping led by Donald Tusk’s Civic Coalition together with the center-right Third Way and The Left, the opposition parties won a combined 53.5% of the votes. The far-right Confederation took 7%. Out of 460 seats, the pro-Europe opposition grouping secured 248, the PiS 194, and Confederation 18 (211 in all for the two right-wing parties). 

How should we interpret the consequences of this major political shift for Poland and the European Union? 

A democratic transition?

By way of introduction, I will first look at how the term "democratic transition" is used. It speaks to commentators’ unease when discussing the recent parliamentary elections and to the ambivalent nature of the current political process. 

"Transition" usually refers to the end of an authoritarian regime-in other words, a regime where voters cannot change their government and/or where they have no real choice when they go to the polls. This does not describe the situation in Poland. The country is not on a path from autocracy to democracy, as in Spain after the death of Franco in 1977 or in Portugal after the Carnation Revolution in 1974. 

Similarly, the term "illiberal democracy" has its roots in the narrative of promoting liberal democracy. Usage has spread to define certain regimes, such as the government of Victor Orban in Hungary. The term is both critical and not politically neutral. If we must choose a label, then I would describe Poland under the PiS as a "hybrid regime", made up of competitive authoritarianism and/or limited pluralism. 

The PiS makes no secret of its hostility to cultural and political liberalism, and does not purport to be aligned with the principles of liberal democracy.

The PiS makes no secret of its hostility to cultural and political liberalism and the fact that its regime does not purport to be aligned with the principles of liberal democracy. Made up of highly polarized interest groupings, the PiS controls the entire public sphere. Although both the OECD and the Council of Europe identified deficiencies in the democratic functioning of the country's institutions, these did not affect the electoral process: the opposition parties won in elections that were more or less fair, despite some reservations expressed by the OECD. 

Yet, we cannot speak in terms of a wholly ordinary handover of power: the rule of law came under attack and state institutions have been packed with trusted PiS loyalists (in an example of "state capture", when private interests systematically shape public policy for private gain).

What is the emerging political landscape in Poland?

Donald Tusk’s list of candidates under the Civic Coalition banner came out on top of the opposition parties with 30.7% of the votes. Having promised to form a governing coalition if they were victorious, the opposition carried the day, even though the PiS officially garnered the most votes of a single party (35.38%). The center-right Third Way also had an excellent election. It secured 15% of votes and 65 seats, double the projections based on the most recent opinion polls. It now has substantial political capital to draw on. Third Way could hold the presidency of the Sejm, the lower house of parliament. The third coalition partner, The Left, fell slightly short of opinion poll expectations, with 8.61% of the vote and just 26 seats. 

Many unknowns remain, and it is too early to predict how the political situation will unfold.. 
The first unknown concerns the former opposition parties. Now they have won the election, will they govern successfully? This alliance seems pretty solid and has put paid to the machinations of the PiS to lure away the agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL), one member of the Third Way grouping. We see no signs of the alliance disintegrating, despite differences, especially on certain sensitive social questions that are central to the agenda of The Left and which could spark tensions with the Polish People’s Party. 

But a second unknown concerns how the PiS will react: President Andrzej Duda is a PiS ally. Will he break from his party or do its bidding? How does he see the remainder of his term in office? Their electoral fortunes uneven, what will become of the PiS and the United Right coalition after this political setback? Within the PiS itself, Sovereign Poland, a hardline micro-party led by the current Minister for Justice, Zbigniew Ziobro-a big gun on the Polish right, lost none of its seats. Its leader may want to move out from under the PiS umbrella. 

Will [Andrzej Duda] break from his party or do its bidding? 

This could weaken the PiS's chances of forming an effective opposition. Active solidarity between the President and PiS members of parliament would empower Andrzej Duda's to use his veto. It would also strengthen the party’s position in the upcoming European and local elections in 2024, especially given its strong local base.

Should these elections be viewed as proof that voting out an illiberal government and electing a democratic government is a natural process? That the far right does not get in the way of such a transition? Doesn't the very possibility of this transfer of power belie concerns about illiberal democracies?

Generalizing and applying our analysis of the Polish election results to predict outcomes in other illiberal or liberal democracies could be misleading. On the contrary, it is important to think contextually and to reason in terms of resources and political flows. Yes, it's true that the election results in Poland are a big win. But look at Switzerland. As I said, we cannot generalize. Hungary, for example, has gone much further in establishing lasting authoritarian rule and yet the opposition there is far weaker. Developments in Poland are not a template we can apply to other countries. 

But, there are lessons to be learned. One is that the values of the rule of law were defended by the opposition, civil society and a considerable number of judges. Rallying in support of these same values, the country as a whole avoided abdicating power to the right. The positive contribution of European legal standards was also important as the backdrop to these efforts.

How should we understand Poland’s distinctive factors?

The historical context played a big role. Poland’s long tradition of civil society mobilization, embedded in its politics since the 1980s, sets the country apart from other neo-authoritarian powers in Europe. It also explains the resurgence in activism over the eight years the PiS was in power. Civil society is extremely resilient in the country. Massive 75% voter turnout-a significant 10 percentage points higher than in 1989 is another factor worth mentioning. This was a record level of participation and should temper any thoughts President Duda might have about delaying the appointment of a prime minister. 

Brexit was held up by the opposition as the example of what not to do. Poles’ attachment to Europe has never wavered. The prospect of unblocking €35 billion from the European recovery fund, which Europe had held back citing Poland’s failure to comply with the rule of law, was also a powerful weapon in Donald Tusk’s campaign arsenal. 
The opposition ran a very skillful election campaign:
the coalition parties consistently showed respect and goodwill towards each other, Donald Tusk was unfailingly courteous to the representatives of his future partners in government, and the opposition democracy rallies in June and October successfully galvanized voters. Rafal Trzaskowski, who won 48.97% of the vote running against the PiS in the 2019 presidential elections further contributed to the Civic Coalition’s political capital.

In stark contrast [with the opposition's very skillful campaign], the PiS’s election campaign stood out for its mediocrity. 

In stark contrast, the PiS’s election campaign stood out for its mediocrity. Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s party descended into a caricature of itself and its image was tarnished by scandal. A visa corruption scheme illegally granted Schengen visas to tens of thousands of African and Asian migrants-even as the PiS relentlessly denounced Europe's supposedly over-generous migration policy. 

This was followed by the resignation of two of Poland’s top military commanders, General Andrzejczak and General Piotrowski, in the wake of a scandal involving an errant Russian missile found near Bydgoszcz, 500 km from the border with Ukraine. For the PiS, the resignations cast an unwelcome light on the ruling party's claims to be the safest pair of hands for Poland’s national security. The incident also pushed the differences between the army and the government into the public domain.

Does the more far-right Confederation still pose a threat? What does its future hold and how does it differ from the PiS?

Rooted on the radical right, the party undershot expectations winning only 18 seats. Confederation is a grouping of two parties, the National Movement and KORWiN (now renamed New Hope), a party formed by Janusz Korwin-Mikke. 

The two founding parties are far more radical and conservative than the PiS. Korwin-Mikke is ultra-libertarian with views close to US libertarian ideas. He has been active on the political scene since the 1980s, and was one of the few opponents of the Round Table Agreements that paved the way for democratization in Poland in 1989. He has a controversial reputation, his frequent anti-feminist tirades positing the superiority of men over women often having been chalked up to "eccentricity". In reality, his broadsides reflect a world view informed by social and even biological domination, as is clear from his outburst that women should earn less than men because they are weaker, smaller and less intelligent and his comments during the 2012 Paralympics that disabled athletes should not be seen on television, for example! 

Yet, Confederation's radical stance did not prevent it from securing 7% of the vote. Such parties seem to be doing rather well in Europe at the moment. After all, Éric Zemmour, who rose to fame with the publication in 2016 of his anti-feminist essay Le premier sexe (The First Sex), garnered 7% of votes in the 2022 presidential election in France with his Reconquête party. 

Confederation's radical stance did not prevent it from securing 7% of the vote.

Nor does Confederation have the same political roots as the PiS. While the latter is one of the heirs of the Solidarity trade union, Confederation can be fascist in tone and mainly appeals to young men. Its platform is anticollectivist. The party has even berated the PiS’s "socialist" redistributive policies. Confederation is resolutely anti-European, whereas the PiS, while hostile to a federal Europe, has ultimately opted to steer clear of the dreaded "Polexit". One positive of its radical position is that it perhaps makes an alliance with the PiS an unlikely possibility-although the lure of power can make strange bedfellows.

President Andrzej Duda has been a member of the PiS since 2005 and has two more years to serve. Could he delay the formation of a new government? What remains of the PiS’s influence?

The nub of the issue is whether or not Andrzej Duda will shake off his links to the PiS and Jaroslaw Kaczyński. He is in office until 2025 and could either opt to remain relatively impartial so as not to appear to be Kaczyński’s puppet, or play the harder coalition card. He does have the power: the President has a veto, which can only be overturned by a qualified majority, and the prerogative to dissolve the Sejm if it takes longer than four months to approve the budget. He also appoints the prime minister and could give the PiS first shot at forming a government, since it is the largest single party with the most seats, if the three opposition parties are not taken as a political alliance. Yet, even the PiS is beginning to own its failure, with some of its leaders even blaming Jaroslaw Kaczyński and questioning his strategy. 

[Andrzej Duda] is in office until 2025 and could either opt to remain relatively impartial or play the harder coalition card. 

Turning to the institutions, the PiS never managed to secure a majority to amend the constitution, but it did pack the institutions with loyalists. It undermined the independence of the judiciary, which triggered the clash with the EU. Donald Tusk is likely to start replacing PiS loyalists and pursue reform of the judiciary and state media. 

What will Donald Tusk's priorities be when he forms a government? Will the coalition parties unite or are there notable areas of disagreement?

Donald Tusk will seek to mend relations with the EU and reposition Poland as a reliable partner, compliant with Brussels’ recommendations on the rule of law in a bid to unlock the €35 billion in aid from the EU’s post-pandemic recovery plan. This will likely also mean reforming the state media.

Possible areas of tension between the coalition parties could center on social questions: The Left is in favor of abortion, while the matter is thornier for the Third Way. However, their differences should not be insurmountable.

Poland, the EU, NATO and the war in Ukraine
Poland, previously a major arms supplier to Kyiv, ceased weapon shipments to Ukraine on September 20, redirecting resources to bolster its own national security. With plans to increase defense spending to 4% of GDP, Poland wants to enhance its NATO role. It will maintain its role as an arms transit hub but won't make new commitments beyond existing agreements. What will become of this decision under a Tusk government? Does Warsaw’s decision to beef up its military signal a greater long-term commitment to NATO, to the detriment of collaboration with the EU?

This question has to be seen in the broader context: in reality, the majority of the supplies, consisting of old equipment compatible with Ukraine’s existing systems, had already been delivered to Ukraine. The announcement was more of an election ploy and doesn’t actually change anything. However, the move was seen as hostile and undermining the policy of solidarity with Ukraine. The opposition, on the other hand, has taken a very cautious approach to defense matters thus far. 

Political parties spawned by Solidarity have always been both very pro-European and strong Atlanticists, but not all to the same degree (the right is keener on cooperation between America and Europe, the liberals are perhaps a little less closed to the idea of a European defense policy). But they all agree that NATO is essential for Poland’s security, which makes the strategic partnership with the United States an unshakable priority. 

Image copyright : JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP

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