Poland votes for change, but making it happen will not be easy

Undoing almost a decade of democratic backsliding will be a challenge, but Poland’s likely new government is ready to give it a shot. Investors meanwhile appear happy at the prospect of change and the release of much-needed EU funding.

In towns and cities across Poland on October 15, voters—primarily the young—queued long into the night to cast their ballots. Many others were turned away. Although polling stations officially close at 9pm, anyone in the queue to vote at that time must be given the opportunity to do so. As such, it was well past 2am by the time the last of the many votes in Poland’s parliamentary election had been cast. 

By that time, an exit poll had confirmed the whispers that had been circulating since early afternoon, that Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS)—while remaining the largest party in parliament—would be ousted from office by three of the country’s opposition parties: Civic Coalition, Third Way and the Left.  

Exit polls, as Slovakia discovered earlier this month, can be wrong, but the mood at PiS headquarters was noticeably muted. The party’s leader and Poland’s de facto ruler of almost a decade, Jarosław Kaczyński, all but conceded defeat when admitting that although his party had won, it might not be able to form a government. 

“Be it in office or in opposition, our project continues,” he told supporters. The faces of the members of the current government, standing behind him, suggested the game was up. 

Partial results published on October 16 confirmed their assumption. With over 50 per cent of the vote, the three opposition parties can expect to win around 250 seats of the 460 available, a comfortable working majority and well ahead of PiS and its only possible coalition partner, the far-right Confederation party. 

There was, in stark contrast to the sober mood at PiS, unbridled jubilation at Civic Coalition. Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister now likely to return to the post at the age of 66, said that the election marked, “the end of the evil times, the end of PiS rule”. 

“Democracy won, freedom won, and our beloved Poland won,” Tusk added. “This day will be remembered in history as a bright day, the rebirth of Poland.” 

While Third Way and the Left had stated well before polling day that they are willing form a government with Civic Coalition, which should make coalition talks a formality (although Third Way’s exceptional showing, taking nearly 15 per cent of the vote, means it will demand several senior cabinet posts), the next step depends on Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda.

The president, backed by PiS but constitutionally independent, would usually be expected to offer the leader of the largest party the first opportunity to form a government. However, with PiS lacking a clear path to power, it would be difficult for Duda to justify not asking Tusk to form a government. If Duda does turn first to PiS, it would be purely out of spite and could delay the formation of a new government for weeks.

A return to democratic principles 

By year’s end, however, PiS is likely to be gone. The new government’s to-do list will be long. PiS has systematically spent the past decade eroding the rule of law in Poland, politicising the judiciary and bringing it into direct conflict with the European Union. 

“[Poland] still has numerous traces of the PiS tenure—in public entities, financial institutions, the judiciary, the constitutional tribunal, and the supreme court,” says Paulina Lenik of Warsaw’s Kozminski University. 

“These affiliations will take some time to fade. Therefore, the opposition has a difficult task to accomplish. The democratic coalition must not only work together and discuss viable political strategies and policies, but more importantly, they need to ensure a return to democratic principles.” 

Change, as Lenik points out, will not be easy. Poland’s top court is controlled by judges largely sympathetic to PiS, and—like Duda—can veto legislation. The coalition will not have the three-fifths majority in parliament required to overturn a veto, meaning that the new government’s task could be made very difficult indeed. 

It will also need to placate its various bases: The Left contains some hardline socialists while Third Way’s membership is far more conservative than its partners.

Focus on the economy

The new government’s first task will be securing the release of 36 billion euros in grants and loans in post-Covid-19 recovery funding currently being withheld by the EU, mainly over rule of law concerns.

Tusk has promised to ensure that the funds are unfrozen “the same day we take office”.  

Poland could certainly use the money. Its hitherto strong economy has faltered over the past 18 months. GDP fell in both the first and second quarters of 2023, 0.3 per cent year-on-year in Q1 and 0.5 per cent in Q2.  

The outlook for the Polish economy for the remainder of the year is equally gloomy: it will probably avoid recession, but only just. ING, a bank, last month downgraded its growth forecast for 2023 from an already modest one per cent to just 0.4 per cent. 

Resilience in exports and fixed investment, and a drop in imports, will likely stave off recession. Poland’s EU-funded National Recovery and Resilience Plan is expected to support public investment, but any further delays in disbursements represent a downside risk, the World Bank has warned.  

As Lenik points out, however, the initial reaction to the election result from the markets has been positive. 

“Following the exit poll, the złoty appreciated in value. Our stock exchange has also experienced an increase in trading. This illustrates how the election has already had a favourable impact on certain expectations,” she says, adding that the days of constant bickering with the EU are likely over. 

“In the medium term, I would expect further roll-back of PiS policies and closer cooperation with the EU. A pro-European government formed by the opposition would mark the end of the tense relationship with Brussels and unlock the Covid-19 recovery fund.” 

Good news for Ukraine, women 

A change in government in Warsaw is also likely to be good news for Ukraine. While Poland was initially one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies (welcoming millions of Ukrainian refugees, around one million of whom remain), support has been patchy in recent months as PiS sought to appease rural voters and compete with Confederation (which opposes all aid for Kyiv) by placing an import ban on Ukrainian grain. 

As the campaign became increasingly heated, the government even suggested that Ukraine was showing a lack of gratitude, with Duda comparing Kyiv to a drowning man dragging his rescuer down with him. 

With all three likely coalition partners steadfast behind Ukraine, support—including military aid—is likely to be ramped back up to pre-election levels almost immediately. 

Polish women will also be beneficiaries of the new government, Civic Coalition and the Left having made a pledge to liberalise abortion laws a key part of their campaigns. PiS imposed a near-total ban on abortion in 2021. Human Rights Watch last month called the government’s dubious use of its powers to chase down alleged abortion-related activity a “witch hunt”.

While Third Way also supports rolling back the PiS ban, it has maintained a position of putting any further liberalisation of abortion to a referendum. 

The PiS experience may put it off the idea, however. The erstwhile ruling party organised a referendum for polling day in the hope that it would make migration (one of four referendum topics, along with pensions, privatisation, and the construction of fence on the border with Belarus) the focus of the election campaign.  

A nationwide scandal over the issuance of work visas for migrants from outside the EU meant that the tactic backfired, and despite record turnout of well over 70 per cent for the parliamentary vote, the referendum appears to have failed to reach the 50 per cent threshold required to make it legally binding. 

Photo: Donald Tusk casts his vote. (Donald Tusk official Facebook page).

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