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Europe on Monday stood on the brink of a political earthquake, as election results in Poland suggested the end of power for a hard-right government that chipped away at liberal democracy, stifled the free press and exerted control over the courts while undermining LBGTQ+ and women’s rights.
Now one of the world’s strongest pillars of conservative illiberalism — Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party — faces the same stark choice that confronted Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil: how to handle defeat in the same democracy it sought to undermine.
Observers see little chance of the kind of insurrections that jarred Washington and Brasília. But Law and Justice, many argue — including some in the party itself — may not go that gently. Under Poland’s parliamentary system, a transition of power could be dragged out for two to three months, during which time Law and Justice, known by its acronym PiS, is likely to search for potential defectors in opposition ranks.
“I’m optimistic that we will not experience any kind of attempt to put the election results in question in such a significant way what happened in the U.S. or Brazil,” said Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But I have no illusion that PiS will try various ways to stay in power, or at least to make the formation of the new government more difficult.”
With more than 99.76 percent of ballots counted, Law and Justice remained the top vote-getter, with 35.5 percent. But it appeared to fall well short of a governing majority, and without a path to a governing coalition. The opposition Civic Platform, although running in second place with 30.6 percent of the vote, appeared to be in the far stronger position. It has two likely coalition partners — the Third Way and the Left party — which would help it achieve a comfortable majority.
Turnout was over 74 percent, the highest in Poland since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
What to know about Poland’s election, Europe’s most-watched vote of 2023
Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister and former president of the European Council, preemptively declared victory for the opposition after the release of an exit poll on Sunday: “Poland has won, democracy has won. We have removed them from power!”
As the official count emerged on Monday, Polish citizens, European leaders and analysts became increasingly comfortable venturing that a sea change was underway.
“We still have to wait for the final results. But the advance taken by the Polish opposition, which was able to unite the center-right, the center and the left against the conservative populism in power, is a tremendous sign of hope for Poland and its place in Europe,” Nathalie Loiseau, a French lawmaker in the European Parliament, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“What it means for Europe is a major shift,” said Rosa Balfour, director of Carnegie Europe, a Brussels think tank. “If we get a government without Law and Justice, the relationship between Warsaw and Brussels, which has deteriorated steadily, would change.”
But whether Tusk would get the nod to form a centrist, pro-Europe government remained uncertain. And even if he does become prime minister once more, aspects of eight years of hard-right rule may be difficult to undo.
Some policy changes, such as loosening penalties for abortions, could be done through ministry edicts. But others would need the endorsement of courts where Law and Justice allies remain entrenched. Other changes would require the cooperation of Polish President Andrzej Duda, who is firmly in the hard-right camp and maintains veto rights through the end of his term in May 2025.
Opposition declares victory in Poland election while vote count continues
Under Poland’s parliamentary system, it is up to Duda to pick a prime minister to try to form a government. He gave no inkling of how he would proceed in public comments on Monday, though previously he indicated that he would select someone from the winning party.
Joachim Brudzinski, Law and Justice’s campaign manager, told Polish media he expected incumbent Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to get the call again.
“However you look at it, we won,” Brudzinski told Polish radio. “It seems to me in an obvious way that President Andrzej Duda will entrust this mission to Law and Justice.”
Law and Justice lawmaker Radoslaw Fogiel told Poland’s Radio Zet that his party would woo every member of Parliament who was “pro-state” and does not want to “submit to Tusk’s diktats.” Asked whether PiS would be ready to horse-trade the prime minister’s office to the center-right Third Way alliance as a way to remain in power, Fogiel replied: “It’s too early to speculate today, but we are open to a wide variety of talks.”
Analysts said untangling the results could drag through Christmas. Ultimately, though, they predict Law and Justice will have to accept a place in the opposition.
Poland faces a pivotal election. Observers say it isn’t a fair vote.
The far right has made some dramatic gains in Europe, especially since the pandemic. But a loss of power in Poland, one of its core strongholds, would be a huge blow. It would suggest that the far right is susceptible to the same economic pressures that have pushed out incumbents from traditional political parties.
It would also highlight the ability of moderates to rally in make-or-break moments. The opposition portrayed this election as the last, best chance to forestall Poland’s descent into autocracy. Exit polls suggested opposition support relied heavily on younger voters, highly educated urban dwellers and Poles living in the industrialized western half of the country, which has deeper historical ties to the rest of Europe.
If Tusk ultimately earns the chance to lead the government, there would be high expectations that he would repair relations with the European Union and further increase Poland’s clout in Europe, while reviving democracy within his country.
As a familiar advocate of European unity, he would be embraced in Brussels and probably succeed in freeing funding that the E.U. denied Poland during clashes over the rule of law. Tusk would reliably side with other E.U. moderates, leaving the bloc’s hard-right icon — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — more isolated.
Poland’s influence in Europe and NATO has already grown because of its proximity to the war in Ukraine and its staunch support for Kyiv. Tusk could elevate Warsaw further, giving it closer parity to Paris, Berlin and Rome and shifting Europe’s center of gravity further east.
But hopes would be highest for what he could accomplish within Poland.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Law and Justice and Poland’s deputy prime minister, has described LGBTQ+ rights as a “threat” to Catholic Poland. Towns influenced by the hard right have declared themselves “LGBTQ+ free zones.” Tusk, meanwhile, has vowed to push for civil unions for same-sex couples and a transgender law that would make it easier for Poles to legally declare themselves a different gender. He has also pledged to weaken Poland’s near-total ban on abortion.
Late Sunday and into Monday, advocates of women’s and LGBTQ+ rights celebrated.
“The nightmare ends,” gay Polish activist Bart Staszewski said on X. “I am gay, I am Polish and I am proud today. After eight years of hate against people like me … Poland is BACK on the path of democracy and the rule of law.”
But Tusk — who took a sharply anti-migrant stance during the campaign — would also need to manage a host of socially conservative politicians within his core alliance. It remains unclear how much change he could bring to Poland and how fast.
The outcome is being especially watched in Washington, Brussels, Kyiv and Moscow, where Poland is seen as central to the West’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Poland led Europe’s backing of Kyiv, criticizing attempts at dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin and equipping Ukraine with German-made Leopard 2 tanks and Polish MiG-29 fighters.
But domestic politics have clouded that support. Last month, a dispute over the impact of Ukrainian grain exports on Polish farmers escalated to the point where Morawiecki, the prime minister, threatened an end to Polish arms shipments. Tusk, meanwhile, has promised unyielding backing for Ukraine.
PiS has sought to paint Tusk as pro-Russian — a description several analysts dismiss as false. He would, however, be less likely to engage in the kind of political theater that saw Morawiecki lock horns with French President Emmanuel Macron last year over dialogue attempts with Putin.
“It’s nonsense that PiS is more anti-Russian than Tusk,” Buras said. “What is true is that Tusk in the past, and probably in the future, would use more care in relations with E.U. partners.”