In a high-stakes election, Poland returns to the European mainstream

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by Shairee Malhotra

First Published in: Oct.23,2023

Nov.17, 2023

The Polish elections are a harbinger of hope that populism and illiberalism, however entrenched, are reversible. Amidst a week of global headlines captured by terror attacks and hospital bombings, it was easy to miss a general election that took place on October 15 in Central and Eastern Europe. Yet the Polish elections, with their ramifications beyond Poland’s borders, were a crucial event for Europe and the future of democracy worldwide.

An existential election

The election yielded a loss for the Eurosceptic right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party—a party that has ruled Poland for eight years since 2015 and was responsible for much democratic backsliding, leading Poland down the rabbit hole of illiberalism and authoritarianism. The Opposition, led by Donald Tusk’s (former Polish Prime Minister and President of the European Council) liberal Civic Platform, won 30.7 percent of the total vote and 157 seats in the Parliament and is likely to form a coalition government with the centre-right Third Way. Third Way has 14.4 percent of the vote and 65 seats, and the New Left has 8.6 percent of the vote and 26 seats. Together, the three parties won 248 out of the 460 seats in the Parliament. Even though the ruling PiS at 34 percent won the most votes and 194 seats in the Parliament in this tight election, its alliance with the far-right Confederation that won 7.2 percent of the vote and 18 seats was insufficient to form a majority. This is despite a heavily polarised and inflammatory campaign, where the odds were in the ruling party’s favour, given its capture of state media, institutions, and resources. The statement from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Election Observation Mission in Poland deemed the election as taking place on “an uneven playing field”. Besides the elections, the ruling party also held a referendum with questions involving immigration that would cast a negative light on the European Union (EU), and by extension the pro-EU Opposition, and which rewarded localities with the highest voter turnouts, particularly small towns in rural areas that are supportive of PiS. PiS’s socially conservative agenda and dramatic takeover of Poland’s democratic institutions including the judiciary led to bitter rule of law disputes, with the European Commission withholding €36 billion of pandemic recovery funds until this backsliding was reversed. Under PiS rule, Poland saw poverty and unemployment decline and the economy grow by over 50 percent. Yet the repercussions from the pandemic and the Ukraine war amounted to Poland suffering amongst the highest inflation rates, at over 18 percent in parts of 2022, in Europe. Scandals such as PiS officials allegedly selling visas for bribes also contributed to dwindling support amongst voters. Thus, in a record voter turnout of 74.4 percent—greater than the turnout of 63 percent recorded in the historic 1989 Polish election when voters rejected communism—the 2023 polls were existential in nature, marking a moment of truth for the overall direction and future of Poland as a liberal European democracy. This close win by progressive pro-European forces marks an opportunity for the EU’s fifth-largest country with a GDP of US$ 700 billion to return to the European mainstream.

A string of reversals

Amongst a new Tusk-led government’s top aims will be the unblocking of EU funds, a reversal of illiberal reforms including the reinstating of judicial and media independence, and restoration of abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. Yet unwinding a lot of what PiS put in place will not be an easy task, starting with the transition of power, which will likely be complicated by Poland’s PiS-aligned President Andrzej Duda, who will remain in power until 2025 and will initially give PiS, the party with the largest votes, the chance to form a government. Besides, ideological differences within Tusk’s coalition could also complicate decision-making. Crucially, Poland is a front-line state in the Western coalition against Russia and amongst the staunchest supporters of Kyiv, both in terms of political support and military supplies. The country is hosting over a million Ukrainian refugees and has become a critical Western transit hub for arms and aid. However, relations between Warsaw and Kyiv came under strain with the Polish embargo on Ukrainian grain imports in a bid to appeal to Polish farmers for votes, with even talks of halting military aid and cutting back support for Ukrainian refugees. A new government in Warsaw is likely to iron out these tensions and continue supporting Kyiv, which is good news for an increasingly fragile Western alliance.

Brussels’ delight

Despite looming political uncertainties, the results will reset Poland’s relations with the EU and restore Polish credibility. This presents opportunities for Warsaw to reposition itself from ‘pariah’ to power centre in the EU and NATO, particularly as Europe’s centre of gravity shifts from West to East. A progressive government in Poland will also break with the anti-EU Budapest-Warsaw alliance—an alliance that was tearing apart at the foundations of the EU itself, given that the EU is a rule of law construct—and render it incapable of playing spoiler at the EU level in tackling issues such as migration. Ultimately, the Polish elections are a harbinger of hope that populism and illiberalism, however entrenched, are reversible. And a reminder that every vote counts. The folks in Brussels are right to rejoice.

First published in :

ORF - Observer Research Foundation


Shairee Malhotra

Shairee Malhotra is Associate Fellow at ORF in India. Her areas of work include Indian foreign policy with a focus on EU-India relations, broader strategic developments within Europe, and European politics - both at member state and EU level. Shairee has several years experience working in Brussels - the headquarters of the European Union, at the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS), and at the European External Action Service (EEAS) - the official foreign policy arm of the EU - where she was selected at a success rate of only 1% for non-EU nationals.

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