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Four Questions about Poland’s Election Results

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Polish voters turned out in record numbers October 15, 2023, to vote in a high-stakes parliamentary election. The Sunday election had a nearly 75 percent turnout—the highest since 1919 and higher than the first free elections following the fall of communism in 1989, according to ABC News.

After eight years of being governed by the right-wing Law and Justice Party—known by its Polish acronym PiS—three opposition parties garnered nearly 54 percent of votes combined, according to the Associated Press. PiS won 35 percent of the vote and will hold 194 seats in the new parliament, while the three opposition parties will hold 248 seats in the 460-seat Sejm. While PiS won the most votes for any single party in the election, analysts and political observers say the three opposition parties appear to be in position to form a coalition government, according to the New York Times.

The three opposition groups campaigned on restoring democratic values in Poland and mending ties with European Union. To better understand the implications of Poland’s election results, we asked SIS professors Garret Martin and Alexandria Wilson-McDonald a few questions. 

Heading into this election, the right-wing populist Law and Justice Party—known by its Polish acronym as PiS—was hoping to clinch a third consecutive term, though the center-right Civic Coalition, comprised of an alliance of parties opposing Law and Justice party, was polling close to PiS. What are the key ideologies of these two groups, and what are some ways they differ?
Garret Martin: Both the incumbent party, Law and Justice (PiS hereafter), and the main opposition force, Civic Coalition, agreed that the elections on October 15 were particularly consequential. But that is as far as their agreement went. Both parties depicted the other as a major threat to the future of Poland and offered very different visions for the voters.
PiS, as a right-wing populist party, presented itself as the best placed to protect Poland’s sovereignty and the interests of ‘the people’ against the elites and the European Union. Historically, the party is strongly associated with the agricultural sector; views itself as socially conservative, with strong opposition to abortion rights and immigration; and is more skeptical of the EU.
Civic Coalition, as a center-right party, offered a very distinct message. It denounced PiS as a threat to Polish democracy and the independence of the judiciary; it took a more liberal view on social issues, such as same-sex couples and abortion rights; and it is far more supportive of constructive engagement with the EU.
Alexandria Wilson-McDonald: PiS has been the ruling party for the past eight years. PiS is a right-wing populist party with very close ties to the Polish Catholic Church. The party opposes liberal democracy and is Eurosceptic in its rhetoric towards the European Union. In addition, PiS has been in opposition to LGBTQ+ rights and reproductive rights. In 2016, PiS supported legislation to ban abortion under all conditions. PiS politicians have also engaged in hate speech against the LGBTQ+ community and encouraged the establishment of “LGBT-free zones” around the country. Civic Coalition was established in 2018 to oppose PiS. This centrist coalition is primarily based on their support for liberal democracy and its pro-EU stance.
PiS lost its majority in the weekend election when three opposition parties secured 54% of the vote. What does this outcome mean for the Poland’s politics, and what impact might it have on the larger Central European region?
Wilson-McDonald: This is a significant change in direction for domestic Polish politics and the country's relationship with the European Union. PiS's illiberal policies and Eurosceptic rhetoric have brought tensions between the ruling party and the EU. Recently, the EU has frozen billions of euros in funding to Poland over rule of law concerns. In particular, the PiS has infringed on the independence of the judiciary and media freedom in the country. PiS's defeat will prevent Poland from joining Hungary and now Slovakia in an anti-EU bloc within the EU. Of course, there will be disagreement over Poland's role in the EU and some domestic policies within the coalition that will likely form among Civic Coalition, the centrist Third Way, and The Left. Nevertheless, we should expect to see a much better relationship between Poland and the EU.
Domestically speaking, we should expect to see an attempt to liberalize LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights. In the lead-up to the election, Donald Tusk, a longtime Polish politician who leads Civic Coalition, has been vocal about his support for liberalizing abortion laws and proposing a bill to legalize same-sex civil partnerships. The Polish president, Andrzej Duda of PiS, still maintains veto power. However, it is important to keep in mind that this election saw a record number of women and young people vote, many of whom, in recent interviews, have stated that they voted in opposition to PiS due to the party's conservative platform on women's and LGBTQ+ rights. This signals a shift in attitudes on the domestic level and support for conservative policies in the country. It is also crucial to note that on an individual level, there are many LGBTQ+ and women's rights activists facing legal charges for their activism from the right-wing government. This election also signals an end to the threatening environment that liberal activists have faced in recent years.
Martin: With all the votes counted, PiS remains the largest party in Polish politics, with a small lead (less than 5%) on Civic Coalition. But that will not be enough to keep PiS in power. It might take time, but Civic Coalition, combined with its two main partners of the Third Way and the Left, have enough seats to create a majority in the parliament and establish a coalition government.
This new coalition owes a lot of its victory to the surge in participation during the elections. Turnout jumped by 11 percentage points—from 62 percent to 73 percent—since the past elections in 2019, with young voters showing a particularly dramatic rise from 46 percent to 68 percent. Yet, delivering on that enthusiasm will be no easy challenge for the new government.
Besides the many reforms on the agenda, such as bolstering judicial independence, restoring access to abortion or legalizing same-sex civil unions, Civic Coalition and its partners will be facing a country that is increasingly polarized and one in which key public institutions are still under the significant influence of PiS.
On the European front, the new government should herald an era of rapprochement with the EU after eight tumultuous years of frequent disputes between Brussels and Warsaw, especially over rule-of-law matters.
Poland was one of Ukraine’s biggest supporters following Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. The nation hosted the largest number of Ukrainian refugees and pushed for EU sanctions against Russia, but tensions have been on the rise since Poland banned grain imports from Ukraine. Following this election, do you anticipate any changes in Ukraine-Poland relations or of Poland’s support for Ukraine and opposing Russia?
Martin: Following the election, and PiS being removed from power, we can anticipate a change in tone but not necessarily in substance when it comes to Ukraine-Poland relations. Yes, Civic Coalition was critical of the grain dispute, but the majority of the Polish political establishment remains a firm opponent of Russia and a strong support of Ukraine. Additionally, regardless of who is in power, Poland, and the West in general, will face the difficult challenge of sustaining a high-level of economic, political, and military support for what could be a very prolonged conflict.
Wilson-McDonald: There is no doubt that Poland has been one of the largest supporters of Ukraine since Russia's full-scale invasion. Poland not only took in millions of Ukrainian refugees but has also supported Ukraine militarily. However, in recent months, PiS's stance toward Ukraine has shifted as they have banned grain imports from Ukraine and even threatened to withhold military equipment over the grain dispute. Not only has PiS's support for Ukraine weakened, but there was also concern that if the right were to win the election, the most likely coalition partner for PiS would be the Confederation Party. This far-right party has called for an end to Poland's assistance for Ukraine. In contrast, Civic Coalition has openly criticized PiS for its recent stance towards Ukraine and has pledged to maintain support for Ukraine.
Poland has been a close ally of the United States for decades, and the US was the first to recognize independent Poland in 1919, according to the State Department. What are the implications of this election on Poland-US relations?
Wilson-McDonald: Of course, Poland has played a crucial role as a NATO ally since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. As a part of this, Poland strengthened its ties with the US as the country became a primary location for NATO operations and housed US troops. With PiS’s recent dispute over Ukrainian grain and negative remarks towards Kyiv, maintaining this relationship would have been a challenge with a PiS victory. However, with the coalition that is likely to form based on the election results, it seems that Poland will continue to play a crucial role in supporting Ukraine. 
Martin: Domestic debates about the future of the country, the war in Ukraine, and relations with the European Union dominated the elections in Poland. Relations with the United States, however, did not play a prominent role. That was not surprising considering the fact that the two main parties, PiS and Civic Coalition, are largely pro-American, strongly opposed to Russia, and partisans of significant contributions to NATO. In other words, regardless of the results, the elections were never likely to drastically impact US-Polish relations.