Comment on this storyComment
You’re reading an excerpt from the Today’s WorldView newsletter. Sign up to get the rest free, including news from around the globe and interesting ideas and opinions to know, sent to your inbox every weekday.
Poland’s nationalist ruling party won the most votes in Sunday’s election, but it’s heading for defeat. A bloc of opposition parties collectively secured a comfortable majority of ballots cast, as counting neared completion Monday. Rounds of parliamentary wrangling are expected to follow, with analysts suggesting a new government may not emerge until around Christmas. But results point to a dramatic ousting of the right-wing Law and Justice party, known by its Polish acronym PiS, which had hoped to extend its rule into a second decade.
During the prior eight years in office, PiS has taken Polish democracy down an illiberal path. Through a series of controversial reforms, it sought to bend the judiciary under its control, prompting unprecedented E.U. censure. Buoyed by staunch support among Poland’s conservative Catholics, PiS curtailed abortion rights and demonized the country’s LGBTQ+ community. It bullied and co-opted leading media outlets and even altered electoral laws ahead of this weekend in a bid to boost chances for reelection. Analysts had cast Poland’s trajectory in line with the democratic erosion in Hungary and Turkey, where illiberal demagogues now preside over de facto electoral autocracies.
And that’s for good reason. “Sunday’s vote was certainly not fair and barely free,” noted the Financial Times, explaining how the ruling faction had “marshalled all the resources of a heavily politicized state apparatus” to secure reelection. “The PiS authorities increased the number of polling stations in its rural heartlands but failed to update boundaries to give more seats to Poland’s liberal cities in line with population growth.”
But the Polish opposition, led by former Polish prime minister and former European Council president Donald Tusk, defied the odds, thanks to a mobilized anti-PiS coalition and the organic strength of Poland’s civil society.
Though PiS won the plurality with about 35.4 percent of the vote, it is left without a path to a governing coalition. The opposition Civic Platform, led by Tusk, came in second with about 30.7 percent but has two likely coalition partners — the Third Way and the Left party — which would give it a majority.
“We still have a democracy in Poland, but it’s thanks to our civil society, nongovernmental organizations and local government that the opposition is relatively strong,” Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski told my colleagues. “We can argue that it’s still democratic. But, of course, it’s also completely unfair.”
Poland election results favor the opposition in a political earthquake
Now, the shock of the opposition’s success may ripple elsewhere. “Even if you don’t live in Poland, don’t care about Poland, and can’t find Poland on a map, take note: The victory of the Polish opposition proves that autocratic populism can be defeated, even after an unfair election,” the Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum wrote. “Nothing is inevitable about the rise of autocracy or the decline of democracy.”
Bucking trends seen in elections elsewhere, Polish voters heeded the opposition’s grandstanding over threats to the country’s democratic future and sided with political forces more associated with Europe’s mainstream establishment. Tusk is a traditional center-right liberals. The opposition was also buoyed by significant turnout in the country’s cities. The election had the highest turnout Poland has seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“The opposition portrayed this election as the last, best chance to forestall Poland’s descent into autocracy,” my colleagues reported. “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.”
Their energy proved stronger than the staunch loyalties of PiS’s more rural, conservative base. “The Polish middle class has mobilized to keep us a European democracy,” tweeted Radek Sikorski, a current Polish member of the European Parliament and former Polish foreign minister under Tusk. (Sikorski also happens to be Applebaum’s spouse.) “Huge turnout in metropolitan areas, demotivated traditionalist South-East. In these dark times forces of light need a break and it looks like Poland might provide it.”
How Poland became the new ‘center of gravity’ in Europe
In Brussels and other European capitals, there were sighs of relief. Liberal democracy in one of the continent’s biggest states appears to be making a comeback. “What it means for Europe is a major shift,” Rosa Balfour, director of Carnegie Europe, a Brussels think tank, told my colleagues. “If we get a government without Law and Justice, the relationship between Warsaw and Brussels, which has deteriorated steadily, would change. It also shows that Polish society can make independent decisions even if the media is government controlled.”
An E.U. diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters, told Politico: “The result should lead to better functioning of the E.U. where the E.U. truly reflects its values and principles, particularly solidarity and responsibility. The rejection of far-right policies should serve as an example to other people, and this should hopefully lead to the E.U. becoming stronger in the face of geopolitical threats.”
But first, PiS has to concede defeat, and it seems far away from doing so. Parallel to Tusk’s declaration of victory Sunday, PiS’s leadership also hailed their electoral success. Polish President Andrzej Duda, a PiS loyalist whose term lasts until May 2025, may give his former party the first chance to form a government, even though it looks unlikely to be able to do so.
Once the opposition is able to take power, they face a complicated task of unwinding eight years of hardening illiberalism in the Polish state. “A deeply entrenched populist system, a president loyal to the Law and Justice party, a puppet Constitutional Tribunal and Supreme Court — these are just a few of the problems a new government would face,” Polish analysts Jaroslaw Kuisz and Karolina Wigura wrote. “That’s before we get to the opposition itself, whose members, spanning the political spectrum from right to left, are by no means in agreement.”
Though Tusk is a political veteran, a future government featuring him and his allies will be navigating “uncharted territory,” wrote Piotr Buras of the European Council on Foreign Affairs. The continent has a long history of countries consolidating democracy after decades of authoritarian rule, but no experience of restoring democracy after the disruptions and constitutional chicanery of elected illiberal governments, which stacked various state institutions with loyal apparatchiks.
“The current opposition will face a task that no one has ever had to face before: it will attempt to dismantle an illiberal system that was established in the last eight years by seemingly democratic means,” Buras wrote.
In that endeavor, many political observers elsewhere will be watching closely.