Finally, on 15 October, with a very high turnout of 74.4%, the Polish electorate decisively rejected the authoritarian Law and Justice party’s stranglehold on Polish democracy which has dominated Polish politics since 2015.
In the main cities, the vote, which surpassed even the election turnout of 1989 that ended communist rule, resembled a massive carnival, particularly for younger voters, as whole families turned up with their children to vote and mark what appeared to them to be a day of liberation. The actual turnout in Warsaw, the capital, was 84.92%.
It had nevertheless been an uphill task, as the United Right ruling coalition, of which the Law and Justice Party (PiS) was the essential element, had the genuine support of the less affluent members of society – especially in the conservative countryside – whom they could keep on side with generous subsidies and increased pensions.
Also, PiS had stacked the cards by monopolizing state television and the local press, which they used systematically to mock and denigrate opposition parties and independent-minded cultural elites. Any diplomatic or economic setback was shamelessly blamed on the main opposition leader Donald Tusk, whom they vilified as simultaneously a Russian and German stooge. During the election itself they circulated government propaganda, issuing four tendentious referendum questions to accompany the official ballot paper.
How the vote was won
Despite all this, and despite the sustained loyalty of the PiS core vote exceeding 35% of the electorate, the remaining 65% went to parties and coalitions determined to deny a return to power for PiS and its truculent leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
The main opposition party, the Civic Coalition, led by Donald Tusk, gained 30.7%, while its two potential coalition partners in a future government, the centre right Third Way and the Left coalition, won 14.4% and 8.6% respectively of the vote. That gave them a joint 248 seats in parliament against the 194 seats allocated by the vote to PiS. The far-right Confederation coalition gained 18 seats. Similarly, in the Senate the united opposition, organized this time into one electoral bloc, won 66 seats while just 34 went to PiS.
As for the biased referendum questions, less than 50% of the electorate participated, refusing to pick up the relevant voting slip at the polling booths, so its results were invalidated.
Despite this clear opposition victory, the incumbent government is in no hurry to relinquish power. The state television is still in their hands, still claiming that PiS won the election because it had the largest vote, and still churning out hate propaganda against the opposition. Its journalists remain defiant because, in case of being fired, they are counting on getting jobs in the new right-wing media empire promised by Kaczynski. The state bank will continue to be headed by the highly politicized PiS nominee, Adam Glapinski, until 2028.
Added to this, the state enterprises which dominate the Polish economic landscape, the Constitutional Court and other legal bodies and above all the Presidency, remain in the hands of PiS nominees and still follow Kaczynski’s diktat. So does the present prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who appears to have no intention of resigning.
Delays and manoeuvres from PiS
The president has already stated that the Lower House and the Senate will not meet until early November, and he is likely to give Morawiecki several weeks to try to forge a governing coalition, though such a mission has no chance of success. Even if the Confederacy changed its mind and was bribed into supporting PiS, the right would still be 36 seats short of a working majority in the Lower House.
Under the constitution, President Andrzej Duda has to summon parliament within 30 days of an election. He could do it in less time bearing in mind that the mathematics of the election result are clear.
Opposition spokespersons claim Duda is under pressure from PiS to delay its loss of power and to allow time for its politicians to destroy compromising documentation. He has promised to speak this week to representatives of each electoral list of candidates separately. Initially, he will seek to winnow out support from wavering opposition groups to join in a coalition with PiS, but this is unlikely to succeed.
The three opposition parties are, today, due to issue a clear joint statement of intent declaring their readiness to form a government headed by Donald Tusk.
When will Tusk be invited to form a government?
The current timetable following the opening of parliament would begin with the election of speakers for both chambers and would be able to elect parliamentary committees dominated by the three democratic opposition parties. These could include commissions to investigate evidence of corruption and breaches of the constitution by the previous government. The president would not have the power to stop them.
There would probably be a last-minute attempt by Morawiecki to seek support in the Lower House for a PiS minority government, but judging by the current mood this will fail.
Ultimately President Duda will be forced by constitutional convention to invite Donald Tusk to form a government, but the process could well be delayed until the end of November. So for weeks, PiS will be using TVP state television as a crude method of propaganda, the nomination of rogue judges by the president can continue, and the army and police remain under the political control of the current ruling party.
The fanatical justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, the initiator of a politically controlled judiciary, remains in charge of the prosecutor’s office. Eventually Ziobro may be ousted and replaced by a new government, but any attempt to bring the judiciary in line with EU standards, or to reform the media, could be vetoed by Duda, who stays in office until 2025.
High spending and blocked EU funds
Following the election results the Polish zloty strengthened considerably, and Poland’s stock market recorded its strongest post-election opening since it was created. However, there are serious economic problems which the new government inherits. Some of this stems from government support for businesses during the pandemic, but the problems have been augmented deliberately by lowering state enterprise prices for fuel, dishing out generous social benefits, lowering the pension age and increasing the defence budget, despite inflation remaining at 9.5%, and despite negative growth in GDP and rising public sector debt.
Much spending is currently channelled through extra-budgetary funds, which will be difficult to recover, as these funds are all run by PiS nominees, many of them relatives or partners of PiS deputies.
Admittedly, there is a total of €60bn of EU funding, including €35bn from the European post-Covid recovery fund, waiting in the wings for a future Polish finance minister to claim and distribute, but access to it will be blocked until judicial and media reforms are concluded and these, too, could well be countered initially by presidential veto. The opposition parties do not have the required three-fifths-thirds majority in the Lower House to overcome such vetoes.
A difficult road leading to a more liberal Poland
There could be similar difficulties in changing the school programme to drop the nationalist and compulsory religious curriculums and to reintroduce sex education. It will take considerable effort to bring in a more liberal law on abortion and to recognize same sex marriage. President Duda and the hard core PiS opposition would still be appealing to the more conservative rural electorate to challenge what they might consider excessively radical social reforms.
In any case, there will be a broad spectrum of views on social and economic reforms among the three parties in the coming coalition. Some opposition leaders have sounded more optimistic about the future, like the new Warsaw senator, Adam Bodnar, as they count on the president eventually succumbing to public pressure over the loss of EU funding and consideration of his own future. Others hint he could face possible impeachment for breaches of the Polish constitution during his time in office. The road to a more liberal and democratic Poland remains pockmarked with obstacles.
Whatever the difficulties though, the direction of travel is clear. The new government’s goal will be a more liberal and secular political system respecting minority rights, together with an independent judiciary. They would bring Poland back into the mainstream of progressive and constructive members of the European Union. Also, Polish commitment to NATO and to supporting Ukraine in its struggle with Putin’s Russia is likely to be reaffirmed.
This election is a turning point not only for Poland, but for the whole of Europe. It is rightly seen as a successful attempt by the sixth largest European economy to challenge the current trend towards illiberal political factions and to keep Europe united in facing the Russian challenge.
The following link gives a brief but helpful summary of the Polish legislature: https://www.britannica.com/place/Poland/Government-and-society.