Ideas on Europe

Is Poland back in the Game?

©European Union 2019 - Source : EP Is Poland back in the Game?
©European Union 2019 - Source : EP

For our weekly editorial by UACES, the University Association for Contemporary European Studies, we have the pleasure to welcome back Natasza Styczyńska, from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.

According to many observers, last Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Poland were the most important elections in the EU in 2023 ?

Yes, they were, and their results were expected to determine not only internal politics but also the relations Poland will have with EU institutions and member states.

The two main parties competing for victory were the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS), which has been in power since 2015, and the centre-right Civic Platform (PO), which was in power from 2007 to 2015.

The elections were a clash of two visions for Poland’s future in Europe. PiS, accused of and dismantling liberal democracy, is an advocate of the intergovernmental model of cooperation. In contrast, Civic Platform and its partners declared that, should they win the elections, Poland would return to the European arena as a constructive partner and support further integration.

How fair were the elections?

According to OSCE observers, the elections were democratic but not completely free due to the misuse of public funds and the use of state-controlled television and radio in favour of the PiS campaign.

The biggest surprise was a turnout that reached almost 75%, contrary to the average of around 50% observed over the last 30 years. First-time voters under 29 turned out in a larger number than those over 60, and the number of female voters was higher than male ones. Moreover, a record number of around 600.000 Polish citizens registered to vote abroad.

Due to such high turnout, the counting of the votes took longer than expected and official results were announced only on Tuesday. Law and Justice (and their coalition partners) won the single largest share of the votes (35,38 %) but did not manage to secure the majority in the parliament.

The Civic Coalition, led by former prime minister Donald Tusk obtained 30,7 %, the centre-right Third Way 14,4 % and the Left 8,61 %. The far-right nationalistic Confederation party, whose emergence was considered a possible game changer, finally only secured 7,16 %.

The results show that the democratic and pro-European opposition managed to secure a majority of seats both in the Polish Assembly, the “Sejm” and the Senate and is willing to form the government once given the opportunity. This may not happen soon. Most likely, President Duda will give Law and Justice a chance to form the government, but if they failto obtain the parliament’s support, the mandate will be given to the opposition.

What do the voters expect of their new government?

Polish society’s attitude towards the EU is overall positive, and the pro-European rhetoric played an important part in the opposition’s campaign. As a result, the voters expect that the new government will solve the dispute with the European Commission over the rule of law and unblock the EU funds (both structural and Recovery Fund).

Also expected: advanced internal reforms in many areas – education, public spending, judiciary, media – and ideological issues, such as abortion, or same-sex partnerships).

I imagine the reforms will not be easy.

The main challenge will be the restoration of the rule of law by democratic means in a rather short time.

The internal challenge is a hard nut to crack, especially the bridging of the existing polarisation. The electoral map clearly demonstrates a strong, regional polarisation with the west of the country (and big metropoles) voting for the opposition, while the east and rural areas remain still loyal to PiS. The introduction of new policies will have to be accompanied by careful deliberation on the local level as well as civic education.

In a regional perspective, the results mean Viktor Orbán’s illiberal-populist government in Hungary will find itself more isolated on the European stage, being supported only by Slovakia’s Robert Fico.

The opposition victory will have also an impact on the European political arena, in giving a boost to the EPP ahead of the European Parliament elections in 2024. Perhaps the most significant of the potential impacts is on stability and security in the region – a democratic and pro-EU government means the continuation of support towards Ukraine and the strengthening of the EU’s unity.

You can be sure we will follow the formation of the government closely. In the meantime, many thanks, Natasza, for your post-election analysis. I recall you are professor at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. 

Journalist : Laurence Aubron