The opposition claim victory in the Polish elections
BY IRIS BRANDON
The unprecedented rise of right-wing populism across Europe in recent years is well documented. Right-wing populist parties are winning increasingly large numbers of votes in almost all European countries and winning office or forming coalition governments in many. Where more traditional political parties remain in power, populist rhetoric is becoming entrenched in mainstream political narratives. Until last week, Poland seemed to be following this familiar path, with the right-wing populist party Law and Justice (PiS) holding political office since 2015.
To many inside Poland and around the world, the 2023 Polish election represented a critical juncture. On one side stood Law and Justice, presenting themselves as defenders of Polish sovereignty and interests against European elites and liberal ideologies. On the other side, the opposition coalition, a centre-right coalition of three opposition parties – the Civic Coalition, The Left and the Third Way – led by Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council. The opposition coalition presented a clear message (and raison d’etre): overthrow Law and Justice to protect democracy.
This election saw the highest voter turnout in Poland since 1919 (higher than the first free elections after the fall of communism in 1989), perhaps indicating the critical importance of this election in the public sphere. Unusually, the election saw more young people under 29 cast their ballots than the over 60’s cohort, mostly in support of the opposition coalition.
The victory of the opposition coalition is largely attributed to the clear anti-PiS campaign message. The opposition coalition has won support primarily as an alternative to Law and Justice. The PiS is perceived by many voters, particularly women and young people, as a threat to democracy, to Poland’s relationship with the EU and to the human rights of women, migrants, and LGBTQ+ people. Indeed, the opposition coalition’s platform seems to be a reaction to anti-democratic and anti-liberal changes implemented by the PiS; for example, its key elements include re-strengthening democracy, restoring an independent judiciary, fixing Polish relations with the EU, and adopting a more liberal position on social issues such as access to abortion, gay rights, and migration.
The erosion of democracy during Law and Justice’s terms in office has been condemned and sanctioned by the EU. Law and Justice introduced legislation which gave politicians the power to appoint and discipline prosecutors and court judges, thus allowing the ruling political party control of the judicial system. The EU has imposed a daily fine of €1 million as long as Polish politicians continue to discipline court judges and has withheld over €36 billion in pandemic relief as punishment for seeking to politicise and control the judiciary. Law and Justice also introduced media laws which gave the government the power to appoint heads of public TV and radio, effectively rendering the media a ‘government mouthpiece’. The impact of politicised media has been clear over the course of the election, with a clear media bias in favour of Law and Justice.
Socially conservative legislation and hate speech against minority groups – particularly migrants and LGBT people – have also persuaded voters to vote against Law and Justice. Over its terms in office, Law and Justice has used anti-migrant and anti-LGBT rhetoric to galvanise right-wing voters. In the 2015 elections, the leader of the PiS Jarosław Kaczyński whipped up fear of foreigners and migrants, stating that migrants threatened Poles’ health with “all sorts of parasites and protozoa”. Kaczyński has also weaponized gay rights, presenting the notion of LGBT rights as a dangerous ideology, representing an “attack on the family” and an “attack on children”. Additionally, the near-total ban on abortion implemented by Law and Justice in 2021 represents a particularly polarising and emotional issue for many voters and has encouraged many women to vote for the opposition coalition.
The victory of the opposition coalition may take weeks or months to be formalised into a new government. As the single party with the largest number of votes, Law and Justice will be given the first opportunity to form a government by President Duda. However, their route to forming a government is unclear and likely untenable: Law and Justice have only won 198 seats, far short of the 231 seats needed to gain a majority in Parliament and secure a vote of confidence to form a government. Law and Justice do have the option of forming a coalition with the far-right Confederation party, but this would only increase their share of parliament to 212 seats; all other political parties have refused to join PiS in a coalition. If Law and Justice fail to form a government, Parliament will have the chance to form a government. With a joint majority of 248 seats, the opposition coalition will secure a vote of confidence from parliament and form a government.
The impact of the opposition’s victory will become clear in the coming months. Donald Tusk and the opposition coalition face difficult obstacles, such as forming a unified decision-making body from parties primarily linked by their opposition to the PiS and circumventing anti-democratic legislative and judicial reforms implemented by the PiS. That said, the election result delivers a significant reason to be optimistic in the power of the people and the power of the democratic process to overturn right-wing populist governments, as liberal and democratic values are in decline globally.
Image: Flickr/ Donald Tusk