Law and Justice lost its majority in the Polish election on 15 October. Simona Guerra and Fernando Casal Bértoa take stock of the campaign and outline six lessons we learned from the result.
On 15 October, Polish voters headed to the polls at a rate unseen since the country’s first democratic elections of the Second Polish Republic in January 1919. At 74.4%, voter turnout was the highest in the history of the Third Polish Republic, 12% higher than the decisive elections of June 1989 that led to the collapse of communism and the democratisation of the country. Incredibly enough, at 9pm – the time polling stations officially closed – many Poles were still queuing to vote. Some even cast their ballot after midnight.
Following a traditionally fragmented political landscape, five main electoral alliances put forward candidates for the election. These were the national-conservative United Right, led by the main governing party Law and Justice (PiS); the centrist Civic Coalition (KO), composed of Civic Platform, the main opposition party since 2015, and Modern; the Third Way (TD), mostly consisting of the Christian-democratic Poland 2050 and the agrarian party (PSL); the New Left (NL), a coalition between the former post-communist party (SLD) and the radical-left; and the far-right Confederation (KON). Other local activist groupings also ran in the election, but without much success.
With 35.4% of the vote, Law and Justice managed to win the biggest share of support for the third time in a row. But this was a Pyrrhic victory, as its share of seats (194) was well below the 231-majority needed to form a government. This gives an advantage to Donald Tusk, former Prime Minister (2007-2014) and the leader of the main opposition party (Civic Platform), who can bring together 248 seats (157 from the Civic Coalition, 65 from the Third Way and 26 from the New Left). Celebrating his victory, Tusk pointed to the end of the ‘evil times’. Ironically, the same evaluation emerged from the governing camp: “for now, evil has won”.
The formation of a new government will be no easy task, not just for the number of parties involved, but especially due to the ideological differences (the Civic Coalition is liberal, the New Left social-democratic and the Third Way Christian-democratic). Still, it should be seen as an incredible victory for the opposition parties who had to fight a clearly unbalanced battle in what was deemed to be a free, but not really fair, election.
In an 18-page report on the election, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) refers to the “wide use of intolerant, xenophobic and misogynistic rhetoric” and the abuse of state resources. This is the consequence of eight years of democratic erosion caused by the attempts of the governing coalition to dismantle the foundations of the country’s liberal order, its checks and balances, and the separation of powers.
The ODHIR report also notes that while “the campaign was pluralistic, the playing field was uneven”. Nothing illustrates this point more than the government’s decision to follow Viktor Orban’s model in Hungary by organising a referendum on the same day as the election with four clearly tendentious questions. This was organised with the clear aim of furthering the government’s electoral campaign. Law and Justice’s failure is also illustrated by the fact that only 40% of voters decided to participate in the referendum, which was below the level required for the results to be binding.
Implications for Europe
The Civic Coalition’s campaign was mostly focused on women’s rights and a bill to recognise the rights of trans people. Donald Tusk’s Poland is expected to be a more tolerant country for women and non-traditional families, and his leadership will certainly mean less tension with the European Union. A former President of the European Council and recipient of the Charlemagne Prize, Tusk will be able to count on important friends in Brussels, like his successor as leader of the European People’s Party, Manfred Weber, who celebrated the result by stating the “Polish people have spoken”.
One should not forget that among Poles, support for EU membership stands at around 85%. Poland is a net beneficiary from the EU budget and stands to receive tens of billions of euros from the EU’s pandemic recovery funds and the EU budget in the coming years. Law and Justice’s hostile position towards the EU and its attacks on judicial independence and media freedom resulted in this funding being frozen. This position was unsustainable and the new government will seek to unlock it.
Law and Justice’s falling support, at least in comparison with 2015 (37.6%) and 2019 (43.6%), suggests fatigue among the electorate has set in, with many tired of a style of government characterised by polarisation and continuous conflict – with the EU, social minorities, Germany and Ukraine, among others. On top of that, increasing economic challenges, including the high cost of living, have undermined the traction among voters of policies such as the previously successful Family 500+ Policy.
The fact that this time middle-aged voters (those aged 50-59) were the most numerous at the polls might have benefited the Third Way. Formed only a couple of weeks before the election, this moderate centrist coalition gained voters from Law and Justice. While forecasts had estimated their support at about 10%, the Third Way managed to win 17% in west-central regions like Wielkopolski, and almost 20% in Podlaskie in the north-eastern part of the country. Further, young voters (those aged 18-29) turned out to vote in large numbers (around 70%). This was a higher turnout than for older people (those aged 60+), which was also to the advantage of the opposition.
Now Poland’s President, Andrzej Duda, who was elected as a Law and Justice candidate, must decide on which party should receive the nomination to form a government. On 24 and 25 October, he will meet all the parties and coalitions. Following established tradition, the first choice is expected to be Law and Justice, as the party that received the most votes. Then the opposition will have its chance and, following the parliament’s approval, Poland is expected to have a new multi-party government. If all of this were to fail, Duda would have a third and final turn before dissolving the parliament and calling for a new election.
The 2023 election, as forecasted, proved to be a turning point for Polish politics. First, the Polish government’s assaults on media freedom, civil rights, and judicial independence brought more citizens – and in particular more young people and women – out to vote. This shows the depth of opposition that such policies can produce.
Second, the election confirmed the advantages of Poland’s proportional representation electoral system for the opposition. Comparisons can be made in this context with Hungary, where the opposition tends to run as a single alliance. In Poland, the opposition was rewarded even though it ran as three different parties/coalitions. This stands in contrast to the Hungarian case, where Viktor Orbán has manipulated the rules that govern elections to make victory for the opposition almost impossible.
Third, the persistent antagonism between the Polish government and Brussels was at odds with public opinion about the EU. While this situation is not a new one in Poland, the fact that Polish citizens view the EU as improving their quality of life and protecting their fundamental values played against Law and Justice. It will be interesting to watch how the EU issue develops in the new parliament, with the government likely to take a more pro-EU stance and Law and Justice now free from the constraints of office.
Fourth, the issue of migration, which helped Law and Justice win power in 2015, did little to aid the party’s fortunes this time round. Law and Justice’s position on the issue was marred by a series of scandals involving party officials, as well as allegations that Polish consulates had fraudulently issued hundreds of thousands of visas to migrants from Africa and Asia. Similarly, the economy undermined Law and Justice’s campaign, with Poland experiencing an economic downturn for the first time in recent memory.
Fifth, while women’s rights featured prominently in the campaign, women tended to vote in a similar way to men during the election, though with a slightly higher preference for the Civic Coalition and a slightly lower preference for Law and Justice. The main difference was in relation to the far-right Confederation, whose electoral support was lowest among women and highest among young men from villages and towns. Education appeared to be a more important factor than gender, with those with higher levels of education tending to support the Civic Coalition, the New Left and the Third Way.
Finally, a record number of women (almost 30%) were elected to the Polish parliament. This occurred despite the presence of populist anti-gender campaigns, which go hand in hand with the traditionalism and illiberalism of several Polish parties. The ODIHR’s report highlighted poor representation for women in party lists overall and cases of physical harassment during the campaign. Civic Coalition candidates were the victims of targeted harassment, with one candidate being physically attacked in Opole Lubelskie in September. Once in power, Donald Tusk’s government is expected to liberalise abortion (up to 12 weeks) and introduce the right for same-sex couples to form legally recognised civil partnerships. This underlines once again why the result represented such a huge day for Polish democracy.
Simona Guerra and Fernando Casal Bértoa are the editors, together with Katarzyna Grzybowska-Walecka, of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Polish Politics (OUP)
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Grand Warszawski/Shutterstock.com