What are the prospects for the opposition coalition to form a government?
Polish President Andrzej Duda will likely allow the incumbent Law and Justice Party (PiS) government and its current Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to try and form a new government, as they remain the largest single party in parliament. But they are likely to fall short of a majority. The opposition Civic Coalition, led by former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, would then be in a good position to form a new government, although the opposition could still face challenges.
Tusk will need his own centrist political alliance to find common ground with the left-wing Lewica and center-right Third Way blocs. The glue that binds these three together—their joint aversion to the democratic backsliding under two consecutive PiS-led governments—should prove stronger than what divides them, issues including abortion, social housing, and protection for farmers. So, while President Duda, who ran as an independent but has support from the PiS government, could slow the process down, Poland can probably expect a new Tusk-led government in December 2023.
Do the results shift Warsaw’s stance on relations with the European Union?
As the former president of the European Council, Tusk is deeply pro-European Union (EU). He has promised to reverse many of PiS’s policies on judicial independence, media freedom, and lack of respect for the rule of law. That would be music to the ears of the EU institutions, where many officials are keen on restoring liberal democratic principles in Poland. Tusk thereby hopes to unlock billions of euros in EU funding that was allocated to Poland as part of the COVID-19 pandemic recovery fund, “Next Generation EU,” but that has been frozen due to the ongoing dispute between Brussels and Warsaw.
But delivering on those promises may be harder than meets the eye. Tusk will need to overcome resistance from within Poland’s institutions, which have been under PiS control since 2015, and the pro-PiS President Duda has the constitutional power to veto legislation. An even bigger question is whether Tusk will be able to move the needle on Polish membership of the euro common currency. As long as Poland remains outside of the Eurozone, it cannot hope to play a leading role in shaping the EU’s future.
Will a new government have a different approach to the war in Ukraine?
Even under a new government, Poland is likely to stay the course and continue its leading role within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the EU when it comes to supporting Ukraine.
The September 2023 fallout between Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki during the annual UN General Assembly over future weapons deliveries and the ongoing dispute over grain imports from Ukraine into Poland were mostly motivated by electoral considerations. PiS was fighting off a challenge from right-wing parties and facing pressure to continue protecting Polish farmers, and the expectation is that Poland’s support for Ukraine will now rebound. Tusk will continue support for Ukraine’s war effort against Russia, though he will also have to navigate coalition partners that will insist on keeping the current protectionist measures on grain imports in place.
What drove the decline in the popularity of the PiS?
Compared to Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party has been in power since 2010, Poland has always had a more vibrant civil society, and PiS has not managed to silence it. The country has also seen less emigration of those who do not support the regime. As a result, turnout reached a historic high of more than 74 percent, well above the previous record of 62 percent in 2019. This was mainly due to a dramatic increase in youth turnout. Participation of voters under thirty years of age rose from just 46 percent in 2019 to 68 percent in 2023.
There was also a sense among the electorate that Poland had gone too far in its erosion of the rule of law, and some of PiS’ anti-abortion policies as well as its harsh treatment of the wider LGBTQ+ community was not popular beyond its base. Many voters worried, too, that their country had become increasingly isolated in the EU and believed that the Tusk-led opposition would restore Poland’s place at the heart of Europe.
What does the vote say about broader populist movements in Europe?
The outcome underscores that there is nothing inevitable about illiberal populist parties coming to power—though the September 2023 victory of the pro-Putin leftwing populist Robert Fico in Slovakia is a reminder that this threat is not quite gone, either.
It also demonstrates the competing forces populism is subjected to. On the one hand, the proportional representation of European parliamentary democracy means that populists often end up governing in coalition with centrist parties. They then end up having to compromise on many of their more extreme ideological positions, such as Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in Italy has done. PiS could only stay in office if they find willing coalition partners, which could prove a significant challenge given their antagonistic governing style over the last eight years.
On the other hand, once they have been in power long enough, like Orban’s Fidesz, it becomes harder to stop the slide towards “competitive” authoritarianism, where the outcome of elections is all but guaranteed. But even in the case of Orban, as with Poland under the PiS, it is clear that there are limits to how far such rulers can go as long as they depend on billions of dollars from EU funds.