Supporters of Poland’s Civic Platform celebrate at party headquarters on Election Night, Warsaw, October 15, 2023 (Petr David Josek/AP)
Written by Simona Guerra of the University of Surrey and Fernando Casal Bértoa of the University of Nottingham and originally published on LSE European Politics and Policy
On October 15, Poland’s voters headed to the polls at a rate unseen since the 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. At 9 p.m., when polling stations officially closed, many Poles were queuing to vote. Some cast their ballots after midnight.
In a traditionally fragmented political landscape, five main electoral alliances put forward candidates.
- 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), led by 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;
- The far-right Confederation (KON).
Other local activist groupings 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 194 seats was well below the majority of 231 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 count on 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”. The same evaluation was offered by the governing camp: “For now, evil has won.”
The Challenges Ahead
The formation of a new government will be no easy task, not just because of 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, this was an incredible victory for opposition parties who had to fight an uphill battle in a free, but not really fair, election.
In an 18-page report on the election, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights cited “wide use of intolerant, xenophobic and misogynistic rhetoric” and the abuse of state resources. This was the consequence of eight years of democratic erosion, with the governing coalition dismantling the foundations of the country’s liberal order, its checks and balances, and the separation of powers.
The report notes that while “the campaign was pluralistic, the playing field was uneven”. The government followed Viktor Orban’s model in Hungary by organizing a referendum on the same day as the election with four clearly tendentious questions to advance the Law and Justice Party’s campaign. The tactic failed: only 40% of voters decided to participate in the referendum, below the threshold 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 recognize the rights of trans people. Because of this, Donald Tusk’s Poland is expected to be a more tolerant country for women and non-traditional families.
Tusk’s leadership will also 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. His successor as leader of the European People’s Party, Manfred Weber, celebrated the result: “The Polish people have spoken.”
Among Poles, support for European membership stands at around 85%. Poland is a net beneficiary from the EU budget, and will receive tens of billions of euros, including from pandemic recovery funds, in the coming years. Law and Justice’s hostile attitude towards the EU and its attacks on judicial independence and media freedom had frozen the money; the new government will seek to free it.
Law and Justice’s falling support, compared with 37.6% in 2015 and 43.6% in 2019, suggests many Poles were tired of a style of government characterized by polarization and continuous conflict: with the EU, social minorities, Germany, and Ukraine, among others. Increasing economic challenges and the high cost of living undermined the traction among voters of initiatives such as the previously successful Family 500+ Policy.
The Third Way may have benefited from those aged 50-59 making up the largest share of the turnout. Formed only a couple of weeks before the election, the moderate centrist coalition took voters from Law and Justice. Forecasts had estimated its support at about 10%, but the Third Way managed to win 17% in west-central regions like Wielkopolski, and almost 20% in Podlaskie in the northeast of the country. The high turnout of those aged 18-29 — around 70% — exceed that of those over 60, also boosting the opposition.
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. 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. Following Parliament’s approval, Poland is expected to have a new multi-party government. If this does not happen, Duda has a third and final turn before dissolving Parliament and calling for a new election.
The 2023 election fulfilled predictions that it would be a turning point for Polish politics.
First, the Polish government’s assaults on media freedom, civil rights, and judicial independence brought more citizens – in particular, more young people and women – out to vote in opposition to the ruling party’s policies.
Second, the election confirmed the advantages of Poland’s proportional-representation electoral system for the opposition. In contrast with Hungary, where the opposition tends to run as a single alliance, the Polish opposition was rewarded even though it ran as three different parties/coalitions. So Poland escaped its neighbor’s fate, 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 European Union. While this situation is not a new one in Poland, the view among most citizens that the EU improves their quality of life and protects their fundamental values played against Law and Justice. It will be interesting to watch how th issue develops in the next Parliament, with the new government likely to take a more pro-EU stance and Law and Justice 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. Its 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 a 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, albeit with a slightly higher preference for the Civic Coalition and a slightly lower preference for Law and Justice. The main difference was over 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: those with higher levels of education tended to support the Civic Coalition, the New Left, and the Third Way.
Finally, a record number of women — almost 30% of the members — were elected to Parliament. This occurred despite populist anti-gender campaigns and the traditionalism and illiberalism of several Polish parties. The record share also overcame poor representation for women in party lists, highlighted in the ODIHR’s report, and cases of physical harassment during the campaign. Civic Coalition candidates were the chief victims, with one candidate physically attacked in Opole Lubelskie in September.
Once in power, a Tusk Government is expected to liberalize abortion, permitting the procedure up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy, and to introduce the right for same-sex couples to form legally-recognized civil partnerships.
That alone underlines why the result represented such a huge day for Polish democracy.