On 15 October a record number of voters cast ballots in Poland’s general election and brought an end to the nationalist Law and Justice party’s (PiS) eight years in office. Despite remaining the largest party in the Sejm, Poland’s lower chamber, PiS will be replaced in government by a coalition comprising the Civic Coalition, the centrist Third Way alliance and the New Left alliance.
The change of government will have huge implications, both at national and international levels. Much has been made of the democratic backsliding that has taken place in Poland since PiS came to power. Civic Coalition leader Donald Tusk – who is expected to become the next prime minister – has promised to undo the damage that has been done, paving the way for billions of euros in European Union (EU) funding withheld by Brussels over concerns about the rule of law to be unlocked. At the European level, Tusk’s previous role as president of the European Council suggests that Warsaw will position itself as a key player in EU politics. To the east, Kyiv will breathe a huge sigh of relief, with Poland’s incoming government ready to reset relations with Ukraine after PiS’s electoral pandering to farmers in the last few weeks of the campaign.
How Polarisation Shaped the Result
Despite retaining its position as the largest party in the Sejm, PiS will not secure a third term in government after the trio of opposition alliances won 248 seats between them (157 for Tusk’s Civic Coalition, 65 for Third Way and 26 for New Left), 17 more than the 231 needed to form a majority. PiS, which won 194 seats, needed the far-right Confederation party to perform well and New Left to drop below the 8 per cent threshold needed to enter parliament, neither of which materialised.
Poland’s population remains highly divided along multiple lines. The most notable one is geographic; PiS came out on top primarily in the south-east of the country, demonstrating a shift away from the traditional east-west divide, while the three opposition parties won the most votes in the rest of the country. Voters were also divided along age, gender and educational lines, with younger, educated and female voters consistently supporting opposition parties and older, less educated and male voters backing the government. Running as three separate entities helped the opposition bloc navigate the high levels of polarisation, unlike in Hungary and Turkey where unified oppositions failed to defeat incumbent governments.
A Return to the Rule of Law
Two noteworthy elements around the vote were the exceptionally high turnout of 74 per cent and the fact that, despite these numbers, the referendum held in tandem with the polls failed to secure enough votes to be binding. Just 40 per cent of voters cast ballots in the referendum, which comprised four questions focused on migration, selling state entities, raising the retirement age and EU bureaucracy, and was seen as an attempt by the government to mobilise turnout among its supporters. Referendum turnout fell below the 50 per cent threshold required to be legally binding, demonstrating that while voters were engaged in the election, they rejected the government’s manoeuvring.
Turnout for the election, however, was the highest in Poland’s post-Communist history and marked a 12-point increase on the 2019 election. This was largely due to non-partisan campaigns encouraging people to vote whatever their political convictions, which countered the ruling party’s efforts to dominate campaigning and smear the opposition.
This record turnout will boost Polish confidence in the democratic process, but fully restoring the rule of law after eight years of it being undermined will require much more work. One of Tusk’s election promises was to unlock EU pandemic-recovery funds – frozen by Brussels following a long-term row with Warsaw – within his first 100 days in office. To do this he will need to take serious and credible steps to reverse his predecessor’s interference in the judiciary, which involved packing the Supreme Court with friendly judges, often using unlawful methods.
Tusk has also promised to depoliticise state media and abolish the National Media Council, a body established in 2016 that gave the government control over who worked for state-owned media outlets. And in a significant shift on social policy, Civic Coalition has pledged to restore rights stripped from women by successive PiS governments, including abortion rights, and to introduce a bill to legalise same-sex civil partnerships.
Delivering these changes will be an extremely difficult and possibly lengthy process; the constitutional court is packed with PiS loyalists who have the power to block bills that President Andrzej Duda (who is from PiS) deems undemocratic. Cleaning up the legislative process will be the incoming government’s immediate priority.
A Collaborative Player in Brussels and a Reliable Ally to Kyiv
In the wake of the Slovakian election, observers in Brussels and Ukraine will have followed the Polish polls with concern. In September, the PiS government announced that it would stop providing military aid to Ukraine amid tensions over shipping Ukrainian grain through Poland following the end of the Black Sea grain deal. Sunday’s result will have reassured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, with the European bloc moving closer together again to support Ukrainian war efforts.
In fact, PiS’s actions were not motivated by a genuine desire to end support for Ukraine but by the need to win votes from Polish farmers critical of grain imports. Since the start of the war, the Polish government has been hawkish in its criticism of Russia and has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies, taking in 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees, of whom 968,000 remain in Poland. The likelihood of this support ending, even in the event of a PiS win, was low; the only risk to the status quo was the far-right Confederation party, which in the run-up to the polls forced PiS to shift away from the bipartisan consensus of support for Ukraine but would not have been able to force a long-term change in strategy.
In the new Polish government, however, Kyiv will have a much more reliable ally who strengthens the EU’s hand. Tusk’s stance on Ukraine has been consistent and his background in Brussels, both as president of the European Council and of the European People’s Party (the same EU group as Ursula von der Leyen, who is eying re-election as European Commission president) means that Poland will not seek to challenge Brussels on support for Ukraine. Tusk has also explicitly stated that a victory for Ukraine is in Poland’s best interests, meaning that political will to aid Ukraine will be unwavering in the legislature.
The result also means that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán loses a key ally in his efforts to prevent further EU integration, potentially further isolating Hungary in European circles. Tusk is likely to rebuild Poland’s relationship with Germany, which will have the effect of pivoting Warsaw away from its tumultuous friendship with Hungary. Ties between Warsaw and Berlin will be strengthened by the restoration of Poland’s liberal values and enhanced cooperation in Brussels, possibly leaving Orbán isolated in his efforts to disrupt European policy (depending on the direction chosen by Robert Fico’s new government in Slovakia).
At a critical time for mainstream parties battling populism and in a critical election fought on an uneven playing field, Poland has shown that the democratic process can deliver results. The outcome will also provide a welcome boost to mainstream parties across Europe, eight months away from pivotal elections for the EU Parliament.
Tusk’s work to start implementing his agenda, repairing relations with the EU and reiterating support for Ukraine may face some delays, however. President Duda is likely to give his own party the first chance to form a government because it came first in the election. Duda, whose second term as president ends in 2025, will retain the ability to veto reforms; the incoming government will not have the three-fifths majority required in the Sejm to overrule him. But the new government will have a Senate majority, after fielding a joint list in the election and comfortably coming out on top, strengthening its position.
If the transition of power is delayed, it will give Tusk crucial time to establish a strong coalition agreement with Third Way and New Left. With state institutions full of PiS appointees, the new government will need to overcome significant challenges if it is to achieve its ambitions – something that would have a hugely positive impact not just in Poland, but in Ukraine and Europe as a whole.