On October 15, as long lines of voters thronged polling stations and embassies abroad, the eyes of Brussels, Kyiv and Washington were anxiously fixated on the news from Warsaw. While the polls had tightened in the past weeks, the incumbent Law and Justice (PiS) party was expected to retain power. Then came the shock. As the votes trickled in, Poland’s voters had delivered an upset: led by the Civic Coalition (KO), a host of centrist parties had won both the Sejm and the Senate. As Donald Tusk, a former president of the European Commission, returns as prime minister, the verdict of Poles is clear: a vote for a free, democratic and European Poland.
As the smoke cleared, the results became clearer: despite commanding the largest vote share, the PiS had lost its majority. A disparate coalition of parties ranging from centrists to the hard left had won 248 of 460 seats in the Sejm. Despite the bitterness and shrill rhetoric of the campaign, some 74% of Poles turned out to vote. Widely dubbed as the most consequential election since the fall of communism, Poles voted for their future by denying the PiS a third term.
In the years after 1989, on the backs of the Solidarity movement Poland transitioned to democracy and market economics; it joined the European Union and NATO. Ever since Poland has undergone unprecedented economic growth. Once locked behind the Iron Curtain, Poles have since integrated with Europe. As the power balance in the European Union tilts east, Poland has emerged as a leader. While the rest of Europe floundered over its ties with Russia, Poland has always been prescient about Russia’s intentions in the region. After its invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Poland has emerged as one of Kyiv’s staunchest backers, donating billions in economic, military and humanitarian aid.
For Poland to continue on its path to progress, the PiS’s defeat was vital. Had the PiS won a third term, like the Fidesz in neighbouring Hungary, it would have been entrenched deeply in power.
Since winning power in 2015, the PiS has gamed Poland’s independent institutions in its favour. It has asserted control over the judiciary, packing a constitutional tribunal with 15 of its loyalists; the judiciary has promptly harassed opposition parties and liberals. The PiS has turned the state media into the party’s mouthpiece, blaring its propaganda to citizens. The media has left the opposition’s marches and protests uncovered, including the large rally in Warsaw last month. Similarly, state companies have been handed over to cronies of the party, creating a patronage system, even for lower-level jobs. In an example of the meddling, Orlen, a state oil company, slashed fuel prices just before the vote.
In its 8-year rule, the PiS has pursued an illiberal agenda domestically. It has clamped down on abortion, even in the face of mass protests. It has repeatedly harassed members of the LGBTQ community. It has vowed to make textbooks more ‘patriotic’. Some hardliners have even called for a fourth republic, modelled on Catholic values.
Under the PiS rule, ties with the European Union and Germany have sharply deteriorated. The European Union has suspended £35 billion in funding earmarked for Poland over ‘rule of law’ concerns. The PiS has politicised the plight of refugees, flouting the EU’s laws on sharing migration. Despite being one of Kyiv’s stanchest backers, on the eve of the election, the government has picked a fight with Ukraine over exporting grain, again defying EU rules.
As Donald Tusk awaits President Andrzej Duda’s nod to form a government, he has his task cut out. While juggling a nine-party coalition, he has to weaken the PiS’s grip on the Polish state; no easy feat considering the president’s veto and fixed nine-year terms for PiS-friendly judges. Secondly, he has to undo the PiS clampdown on abortion and women’s rights. Even on economic policy, he has to continue his balancing act: liberal economic policy without scuttling the PiS’s generous handouts. In the face of all this, he will face a loud PiS opposition.
Internationally, Mr Tusk will seek to leverage his ties in Brussels to mend Poland’s relationship with the EU and return the country to the mainstream of European policymaking; he will seek to unfreeze the £35 billion earmarked for the country. As the war in neighbouring Ukraine enters its third year, he has vowed to continue supporting Ukraine, both economically and militarily (the PiS has routinely accused him of being a puppet of the Germans and Russians).
In the last 30 years, Poland has emerged as an exemplar of a post-Soviet success story, unlike many of Moscow’s former satellites in the region. As the region battles renewed Russian aggression, it looks to Poland for direction. Poland’s transition to liberal democracy, free market economics and Europeanism is an example for the region. It is in that spirit that Poles have elected Donald Tusk, to uphold their mandate for a free, democratic and European Poland.
Featured Image: Donald Tusk, the incoming prime minister of Poland, taken from Sky News