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No Free Pass: Poland’s Next Government Must Also Be Held to Standards

October 18, 2023
Photo credit: DarSzach / Shutterstock.com
The October 15 election in Poland delivered a solid rebuff to the ruling Law and Justice party and appears to herald a return to democratic processes and a pro-EU stance. However, the strong showing of smaller parties indicates a desire among Polish voters for genuinely new leadership.

In Sunday’s parliamentary election, Polish voters rejected the Law and Justice (PiS) government and signaled a clear “no” to undiluted power and to policies that isolated Poland on the international stage; “no” also to rejecting migrants, restricting women’s rights, and attacking LGBTQ+ communities. PiS’s highly emotional and polarizing election campaign had the opposite of its intended effect—it drew people to the polls in record numbers to vote the government out of power. Civil society groups organized campaigns that motivated women and young people especially to come to the polling stations, and people stood in line until 3:00am to cast their votes.

All this had the feel of an anti-PiS grassroots movement. However, the strong showing of the two smaller opposition parties (Third Way with 14.40 % and The Left with 8.61%) demonstrates that  people are also eager for an alternative to the two main players: PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński and Donald Tusk, head of the opposition grouping Civic Coalition.

As of December 2023, Civic Coalition, Third Way, and The Left will share power and form a new government. They will hold a solid majority of 248 of 460 seats, and in the most likely scenario, Tusk will be selected as prime minister. Though this outcome tells a story of optimism and hope, it should still be viewed with a degree of caution. At least three considerations should be kept in mind.

First, Tusk ran on a clear anti-PiS campaign, and his message of overthrowing the ruling party trumped his policy agenda. He continues to give the impression of a man bent on taking down his longtime rival. But given the past eight years of party- and media-driven polarization, what Poland needs now is reconciliation, not conflict.

Second, the unprecedented voter turnout highlights the public’s disinterest in politics in the recent past. Young voters and women in particular felt disconnected, but both groups went out into the streets when issues that affected them specifically were at stake. The question remains whether the new government will be able to address their needs while maintaining their engagement in politics.

Third, the policy that unites the three liberal opposition parties is the clean-up after PiS: de-politicizing state institutions and resetting relations with the EU. To follow through with campaign promises to unfreeze EU funds, the new prime minister will need to reach milestones set by Brussels. But with Andrzej Duda—a veto-yielding, PiS-friendly president—in power, their ability to implement significant legislative changes is limited.

The European Commission will show good will towards the liberal, pro-European government, but in welcoming Poland back into the fold, it should not go so far as to weaken its own rule-of-law standards.  Poland’s new government must be held to the same high standards as any democracy, and should not be given a free pass simply because it is not PiS.