Poland’s Elections: New Politics, Old Economics?

October 09, 2023
Jan Boguslawski
3 min read
Photo credit: DeZet / Shutterstock.com
No matter who leads the next government, the legacy of “PiSonomics” will endure. 

In starkly polarized Poland, the campaigning for the October 15 elections has seen the incumbent nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party and the liberal Civic Platform trade insults, accusations of treason, and threats of jail time. An opposition victory would mark a fresh start for the country within the EU and could halt the democratic backsliding that has been going on for several years. However, a political U-turn would not automatically be accompanied by an economic one.  

Eight years of “PiSonomics” cannot be erased and Poland will likely remain on its current path, regardless of the elections’ outcome. This is because, during its time in power, PiS has skillfully used economic growth for political mobilization and electoral support. 

The opposition has been watching closely and has learnt its lesson from its loss of power in 2015. Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk has promised that, if it leads the next government, the party will retain the flagship policies that PiS has embedded into the social fabric: Europe’s lowest female retirement age and cash transfers underpinning social policy. Once a fierce liberal, Tusk has even declared his party’s intention to introduce a new cash benefit, dubbed the “Granny allowance”, for mothers rejoining the labor market.   

On top of that, the foundations of Poland’s economic growth—foreign direct investment and industrial production—predate the PiS government. And they have shown their resilience to political and social upheavals, throughout the PiS years of democratic backsliding and tense EU relations, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the war in Ukraine. The recent announcement by Intel that it will build a state-of-the-art semiconductor assembly facility near Wrocław is a case in point. At the same time, given the need to maintain the engines of growth, any future government is also unlikely to deviate from the increasing reliance on migrant workers to meet the surging demand for labor. 

This path dependence in economic policy poses a risk for Poland as major challenges it faces grow: demographic decline, soaring housing prices, crawling privatization of education and healthcare, stagnant private investment, degradation of the natural environment, and an anemic green transition. Yet, for now, the resolve of PiS or the opposition to devise solutions to these looks rather tepid.  

There would be a silver lining to an opposition victory, though. Ending the democratic backsliding that has taken place under PiS could pave the way to the EU unlocking its recovery funds for Poland, which have been on hold since 2021 due to the government’s row with the European Commission. A significant portion of these funds would be channeled into decarbonization, which is an essential transition for Poland if it is to maintain its industrial competitive edge in the coming years. Repairing democratic institutions and reconciliation with the EU would not just mark a significant stride forward for Poland; it would also instill a sense of stability in the EU, which has for years grappled with PiS’s dissent to the rules governing the union.  

What is more, healthcare and education workers—who have been at odds with PiS and targeted by its propaganda—could potentially advocate more effectively for public services under a new government. They are a significant part of the electorate of the opposition parties, and their trade unions might have more influence on a government led by Civic Platform than they did on the PiS one. 

PiS’s economic achievements and advances in social policy have entrenched a focus on handouts, even among the opposition liberals. This approach is generally positive—as long as it does not undermine the public services and other future-oriented investments, which was the case throughout the past eight years of PiS rule. Reviving this forward-looking perspective is essential for Poland to address the challenges facing it. 


Jan Boguslawski is a 2023 ReThink.CEE Fellow of The German Marshall Fund of the United States.