06 November 2023

At a crossroads: After the parliamentary elections in Poland

By Cordelia Buchanan Ponczek
Portrait Donald Tusk
Donald Tusk has good prospects of becoming the next Polish prime minister. But the road to a new government is still long and could be messy.

On October 15, Polish voters made history. The country had the highest electoral turnout ever—74.7%—even higher than the first democratic elections after the collapse of communism (62.7% for the parliamentary elections in 1989; 60.6% for the presidential elections in 1990). This voter turnout is critical because it shows the engagement of the Polish people and the clear lack of mandate for the current governing party PiS (ECR) to continue.

The scenes on election day were inspiring. The last vote was cast at 2:48 AM by a woman, Agata, in Wrocław, Lower Silesia. Throughout the country and abroad, queues stretched for hours. Some polling places even ran out of ballots—which contributed to a concern that this could have been intentional. There is a sense that it was easier to vote in rural areas (PiS voters) than abroad and urban centers (opposition voters). The turnout was inspiring, but the election was clouded over by the tense environment and the uncertain aftermath as the parties struggle to determine who will lead—or continue to rule—Poland.

Free elections—but were they fair?

The debate over the ease of voting is part of a larger discussion about whether the election was free and fair. The lead-up to October’s voting included widespread use of public services to push the ruling party’s position. The PiS government under Mateusz Morawiecki made use of its control over the state station (TVP Info) to push its party line. (As the New York Times reports, TVP Info gave 66% of its airtime to PiS and just 10% to the main opposition party.) It used state funds to pay out turnout bonuses to incentivize voter turnout in small areas. The ruling party also been accused of using of the state-controlled oil and gas company, Orlen, to artificially suppress petrol prices.

And the inclusion of referendum questions on the ballot were a de facto litmus test of PiS support. Voters had to take the referendum ballot separately, which could also be understood as a visual count of pro-PiS voters. The opposition had told their voters to boycott the referendum, which ultimately did not meet the 50% threshold.

Youth, women, and “invisible middle” voters

Among the voters, there was particularly notable turnout among three groups: youth, women, and the usually absent “invisible middle” voters. Turnout for ages 18–29 was a whopping 68.8%—an impressive number especially when compared to the youth turnout in 2019, which was 46.4%. This year, there were more voters in the under-29 than in the over-65 age range. PiS did not do well among these young voters. One reason for this is the pro-EU stance of youth, in contrast to PiS’s antagonistic stance against the EU. Another factor were media. The opposition tapped into a social-media savvy that PiS lacks, especially on sites like TikTok and Instagram. The flip side of this is that younger voters also consume little-to-no PiS-controlled TV media/radio.

The turnout for women was 74.7%: abortion was a key issue to swing votes; women turned out in full force in response to PiS’s strong anti-abortion policy and rhetoric. According to Pew Research, 56% of Poles support access to abortion. That includes in smaller towns and even in villages. The tragic death of a 33-year-old woman, Dorota, in May 2023, due to pregnancy complications that were exacerbated by Poland’s strict abortion laws brought protestors to the streets and ensured the issue was front-and-center for voters.

PiS’ hardline strategy scares off centrist voters

The final group with a high turnout was among the “invisible middle” voters from mid-sized cities and middle-aged people. This group is known for its apathy; essentially, they would not usually feel obligated or inspired to vote. But this time, PiS’s hardline strategy of Tusk-bashing and polarization drove people to action. PiS’s 2023 offer, unlike in 2015 and 2019, was aimed at hard-core PiS supporters—it was not centrist.

This resulted in several things: first, it galvanized the usually apathetic voters to the poles, and second, it pushed more moderate would-be PiS voters to vote for a different party, in this case PO (EPP) and TD (an alliance of PSL/EPP and PL2050/close to ALDE). A third outcome was that PiS’s usual dominance in the countryside was lackluster. In Polish villages—typically PiS strongholds—PiS’s vote share decreased 11 percentage points, from 56% in 2019 to 45% this year. While the vote was higher in these small towns, the voters were turning out as much for the opposition as for PiS.

The government falls short of a majority

The result was a breakdown among five key groups. Jarosław Kaczyński’s Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS/ECR) received 35.4% of the votes, which gave them 194 seats in Poland’s 460-seat lower house of Parliament, the Sejm. This put them 36 seats short of majority. Koalicja Obywatelska (KO), a center-right alliance dominated by PO/EPP (but also including Zieloni/EGP, among others) and led by former PO Prime Minister and former President of the European Council Donald Tusk, received 30.7%, or 157 seats.

After that, Trzecia Droga (TD), a center-right two-party coalition between Szymon Hołownia’s PL2050 (close to ALDE) and PSL (EPP), got 14.4%, earning them 65 seats. Lewica, a left-wing alliance of three small parties, received 8.6% and 26 seats. And Konfederacja, the new right-wing kid on the block, received 7.2%, entitling them to 18 seats.

In Parliament’s upper house, the Senat, Pakt Senacki (an alliance of KO, PSL, PL2050, and Lewica) holds 66 seats to PiS’s 34.

PiS, coalition partner pariah

PiS “won” with the most seats but fell short of a majority. The two parties that could possibly form a coalition with PiS have both refused, in part due to PiS’s bungling of the relationship just weeks before the election.

Konfederacja has said it will not form a coalition with PiS, and even if they did, it would not be enough seats. PSL—known for its usual willingness to form a coalition with anyone—has also refused to form a coalition with PiS, with the leader stating that the Polish people have clearly voted for change, and forming any alliance with PiS would go against that.

Still, PSL is known for its willingness to form a coalition with anyone. (The joke in Poland goes: A TV crewperson asks PSL leadership, “who will win the election?” And the PSL leader confidently replies, “Our next coalition partner, of course!”) So there is a modicum of doubt that PSL will stick to its no-PiS coalition pledge, especially as PiS must be pushing hard behind closed doors to convince PSL.

The outcome means that if KO, TD, and Lewica formed a coalition they would hold a majority of 248 seats. This is where things get a bit hairy. Because PiS technically has the most seats, and because Polish President Andrzej Duda is from PiS, he will give PiS the opportunity to form a government coalition first. This will draw out the process and create a bit of chaos (during which many things could happen, more on that below), but in the end it is likely that PiS will not find any government that can pass the necessary confidence vote, and that a KO-TD-Lewica coalition will emerge.

The ball is in President Duda’s court

We are now two weeks past the election, and President Duda has not asked the opposition to form a government. The Polish president must call a session of the new parliament within 30 days (art. 109 Polish Constitution), which will be overseen by a PM designated by him. There are talks within the opposition to work around delays by submitting a coalition deal with signatures from MPs, showing Duda that there is a viable government already formed. Still, Duda is widely expected not to go along with this and designate a PiS candidate instead. That designated PM will then propose a government, which Duda must appoint within 14 days of the first parliament session, so at latest by end of November (art. 154 (1) Polish Constitution).

Then that new (PiS-led) government will need to present their government program and face a confidence vote in the Sejm within another 14 days (art. 154 (2) Polish Constitution). They need a majority in parliament. PiS will likely fail this confidence vote, unless someone switches sides, which isn’t out of the question. In its desperation to form a coalition to stay in power, PiS is probably offering some very tempting treats to potential coalition partners in government negotiations.

KO-TD-Lewica coalition in the making

If or when PiS fails a confidence vote, parliament has once again 14 days to choose a new PM and government and hold a vote of confidence (art. 154 (3) Polish Constitution). This is likely to be KO-TD-Lewica.

The KO-TD-Lewica coalition deal will require intensive negotiations because each needs the other for the new government. At the same time, there are many differences among the parties—they are mostly unified by their dislike of PiS. We can expect to see a lot of jostling for key ministerial positions now and divisions on how to roll back PiS policy and what policies to pursue later down the road.

There is even a worst-case scenario in which no government can pass the confidence vote. In this case, Duda must dissolve parliament and call new elections within 45 days. But given the determination of all of KO, TD, and Lewica to replace the current PiS government, this is unlikely to happen.

Still a long way to go

In any case, the way to a new government is still long, and things could get messy in the next few weeks. There have already been claims by PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński that “foreign interference” by outside countries might have influenced Polish voters. A hardline PiS MP, Antoni Macierewicz, accused the TD leader of having ties to Russian intelligence. PiS media and spokespeople have warned that an opposition government would result in a “Fourth Reich”, “World War III”, and the collapse of Polish society.

There is a lot of speculation about what could happen while PiS and President Duda are delaying the coalition formation and pushing the timeline for the government formation process: It is possible that PSL will switch sides. It is possible that the PiS-appointed judges will try to find a way to invalidate the election. It is possible any opposition coalition would be formed too late and would miss the budget deadline at the end of January 2024, which would allow the President to dissolve parliament (art. 225 Polish Constitution). But the latter two instances would require that Poland hold a new set of elections, and PiS would likely come out worse because Poles would react very poorly to any move to invalidate the results of the October 2023 election.

PiS faces political and legal reckoning

Another motivation for the delay is one of self-protection. The new coalition does not share much in common, but one thing they can unite around is their extreme distaste for the PiS government and their actions while in power. Onlookers can expect a purge of PiS lackeys from positions of power in government and companies.

This will be especially true of the judiciary, which was at the center of the Polish rule-of-law crisis in recent years. In addition, it is likely any new government will shut down the National Media Council, a Polish government agency that has the power to hire and fire personnel who serve in state media—critics say that its dissolution or overhaul would set free the government’s control over the state media. The state-owned oil company Orlen, which is headed by former PiS politician Daniel Obajtek and controls both the country’s main press distribution company Ruch S.A. and the main local newspaper group Polska Press, will likely face a shake-up as well.

We might expect some of these people to be tried and prosecuted for violating the constitution. KO’s political program includes a provision to go after and prosecute anyone who has violated the constitution or the rule of law.  Under these terms, even President Duda himself might face charges, e.g., for refusing to swear in properly elected judges to the Polish Constitutional Tribunal in 2015. Other high-profile candidates for potential prosecution include PM Morawiecki, PiS leader Kaczyński, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, Central Bank Governor Adam Glapiński, and Orlen CEO Obajtek.

There have already been reports of attempts by government agencies to destroy traces of wrongdoing—for example, paper shredding machines being ordered or repaired by several state institutions. (Review and destruction of documents is typically completed at the beginning of the calendar year, and the request and process right after election is abnormal.) PiS has dismissed such reports as “fearmongering by the opposition”.

Peaceful power transition or a clear authoritarian embrace?

It is uncertain whether PiS can step back and seriously assess the damage that its polarizing campaign has wrought, and how unpopular the party has become. Given the words of PiS leaders, it looks unlikely, but there must be PiS strategists who are thinking more critically. Going forward, without its influence over state-controlled media (TVP Info and Polskie Radio) and institutions (courts, companies), PiS will be considerably weaker—which might induce some party strategists to abandon ship and even try to throw each other under the bus. Upcoming local elections in spring 2024 will reveal some of where this is going.

Poland is at a crossroads, and PiS faces a choice: recognize the clear lack of a mandate from Poles in a historic turnout and engage in a peaceful transition of power, or ignore the result, push through a coalition or disavow the election, and consolidate power to become a clearly authoritarian system. If the first happens, Poland has set itself a new course, for now. If the latter happens, Poland’s current allies will respond swiftly and unequivocally, and Poles, denied the change they voted for, will vehemently express their disapproval, probably in ways not seen since the 1980s.

Pictures: Donald Tusk: European People’s Party [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons; portrait Cordelia Buchanan Ponczek: Finnish Institute of International Affairs [all rights reserved].

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