The Polish opposition won the country’s parliamentary election on 15 October, bringing an end to Law and Justice’s period in power. Agnieszka Smoleńska and Paweł Tokarski write the result was a signal to the rest of Europe that Poland is back as a key player in Brussels.
On 15 October, Polish voters showed they have what it takes to stop the country’s descent into illiberalism. The 2023 Polish election was an awakening of a sense of common responsibility for shared democratic values among citizens.
The vote saw unprecedentedly high turnout (almost 75%), with over 50% of voters choosing the democratic opposition parties ranging from the centre-right to the left. A referendum on EU migration policy, which was held alongside the election, did not receive enough votes to become valid. Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice will lose power, despite having drawn on significant institutional and financial resources of the state and state-controlled enterprises to sway the electorate.
After eight years of increasingly illiberal policies, the path to institutional renewal and democratic rebuilding will be neither swift nor easy. Still, the removal of the Law and Justice government means the EU’s sixth largest state, a key player in the Central European region, is no longer a brake on European integration and is well placed to retake co-responsibility for the project, not least because it is due to take over the EU Council presidency in the first half of 2025.
This will give the EU a new dynamic across its institutional, economic and foreign policies. There are also valuable lessons to be drawn from the Polish experience that can strengthen the resilience of the European project in the long term. Respect for common values and the rule of law is becoming a centrepiece of discussions on the EU’s future reform. This was at the core of the recent report by the Franco-German expert group on EU institutional reform, to give just one example.
In Poland, independent judges, lawyers, private media and bloggers have played a major role in resisting the authoritarian aspirations of the country’s populist government. The EU’s institutions helped to define the stakes when it came to Poland’s backsliding on the rule of law, but it was the local civic awakening that proved critical. It is worth analysing these experiences and applying them in the context of other countries that show authoritarian tendencies or are already far along that path. Already, the change that has occurred in Poland will increase pressure on governments in Italy, Hungary and Slovakia.
At the same time, the reversal of Law and Justice’s judiciary reforms within the current constitutional framework will be a major challenge, not least due to the veto powers of President Andrzej Duda, who was elected as the Law and Justice candidate in 2015. This will be an important test case and could act as a template for any country seeking to return to the democratic fray from the illiberal wilderness.
Another important policy area to watch is the EU budget. The unblocking of Poland’s €36 billion in NextGenerationEU funding once the new government takes appropriate actions and reforms to ensure respect for the rule of law is likely. Brussels will be under pressure to release these funds soon, not least due to funding deadlines. The new Polish government will have to show creativity in meeting EU requirements in a way that strengthens trust in institutions without unwittingly repeating Law and Justice’s destructive practices. This process could further shore up the credibility of the recovery fund mechanism at a time when successor schemes are being discussed.
A new opening for economic transition policies
Over the last few years, the Polish government has pursued a brand of economic nationalism for short-term political gains, including through the instrumentalisation of economic policies such as competition, monetary and financial policy. Re-establishing parliamentary control over economic policy and strengthening corporate governance (especially in state-owned companies) will help strengthen the Polish economy’s resilience at a time of geopolitical and economic instability.
We can also expect an accelerated implementation of policies aimed at achieving the country’s transition to sustainability. As a result, Poland will be better placed to contribute to strengthened EU industrial and internal market policies through more positive regional engagement.
As we noted in a previous article, Poland’s membership of the euro received very little attention during the election campaign. However, the issue will have to be confronted by the new Polish government. With the credibility of the Polish central bank undermined, adopting the euro could be part of a strategy to strengthen the country’s economic institutions and reverse the economic nationalism of the last eight years.
Poland joining the euro could also contribute to a strengthened EU economy, while securing the country against the threat of a future “Polexit”, which was touted by pro-government newspapers prior to the election. Accepting the sixth largest economy into the Eurozone would signal the enduring attractiveness of the single currency.
A key player in Brussels
In the area of foreign policy, there will be a visible improvement in Poland’s relations with Ukraine, Germany and France. We could also see a return of the Weimar Triangle as a forum with meaningful impact. Poland will become one of the biggest players in Brussels again. This may help it find compromises more easily in the EU, especially with the reduced influence of the European Conservatives and Reformists group, which counts on Law and Justice as its largest member. A democratic and rule-of-law respecting Poland will also be a more credible ambassador for further EU enlargement and assistance for Ukraine.
However, before Poland begins to play a more serious role in Brussels, in the short-term Polish politics will focus on the country’s domestic situation. Despite the absolute majority achieved by the opposition, Law and Justice will continue to exert influence over many institutions, including the presidency, the country’s central bank and the Constitutional Court.
The new government will take over in several months and will need to align around a common cause. The challenge of pursuing institutional renewal under significant legal and institutional constraints will be great. But the message to Europe is that Poland is back, and that’s good news at a time when good news is badly needed.