In the lead-up to the Polish parliamentary election on 15 October, all eyes are on the battle between Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s right-wing nationalist Law and Justice party, in government since 2015, and Civic Coalition, led by former prime minister Donald Tusk, which is in alliance with other opposition parties: the progressive Left and the centre-right Third Way. The election could have profound effects not just for Poland, but for the European Union at large: It could either usher in a pro-European government, revive fruitful cooperation between Warsaw and Brussels, and bring back the rule of law, or it could entrench Poland’s populist semi-authoritarianism and bring about an even more confrontational approach towards the EU.
Indeed, from the EU’s point of view, in light of the current geopolitical context, which calls for European unity, possible shifts in the balance of power could damage European political stability, and subsequently its security. But, three weeks out from the vote, the election is still too close to call, and it is unlikely a clear winner will emerge. Instead, the anti-establishment Confederation party could become the kingmaker, yet it will choose to align with remains uncertain.
Formed in 2018, Confederation is the latest attempt at uniting the notoriously divided, and weak, Polish political scene to the right of Law and Justice. After its success in the 2019 parliamentary election, where Confederation gained 11 MPs, the party has focused on unifying its nationalist, anti-EU, and libertarian base, cementing its position in parliamentary politics and maintaining a support of around 6-7 per cent.
Yet since December 2022, this figure has, at times, reached 14 per cent, as Confederation’s voter base expanded to include small business owners, those disgruntled with Polish support for Ukraine, and most noticeably, young men. This newfound support was ushered in by two young, charismatic leaders – Slawomir Mentzen and Krzysztof Bosak – who took over and centralised the party, revamping its public image as a renewed, modern, and youthful right wing, and finally in vogue. No longer does the far-right shout about national honour and enemies of the state in front of an angry men. Instead, they use TikTok and semi-formal gatherings in pubs and bars to bolster their new image. Their base perceives them as funny, ironic, and unafraid to point fingers at the hypocrisy and incompetence of the establishment, both liberal and conservative: Mentzen and Bosak have become borderline celebrities. Previous proclamations such as “we don’t want the Jews, gays, abortion, taxes and the European Union” are now kept in the dark, away from the public eye of their new electorate. But these views are still held, and fervently expressed in the inner circles. Alongside this rebranding, Poland’s economic struggles have validated Confederation’s narrative against Law and Justice’s extensive social transfers and given legitimacy to Mentzen’s carefully crafted technocratic image that aims to fill the economically libertarian void in Poland’s political landscape.
In short, Confederation presents itself as the only party for those who feel at odds with the political mainstream, and for those who wish to prove their political agency. As a result, Confederation often states that it is not interested in a coalition with either Civic Coalition or Law and Justice. As they put it: they want to “flip the table, not sit at the table.” Should Confederation stick to this promise, no government formation will be possible and Poles are likely to be invited to vote again as soon as February 2024. However, if Confederation wishes to ever participate in government and implement its ideas, it will eventually need to start playing the pragmatic political game and leave its dogmatic idealism behind. Thus, they might choose to align themselves with one of the two blocs.
At first glance, the ideological proximity between Law and Justice and Confederation makes a right-wing alliance a plausible scenario. However, three factors could prevent such a formation. Firstly, the economically libertarian policies proposed by Confederation are both central to their narrative and popularity, and stand in direct opposition to Law and Justice’s extensive social benefits of the last eight years. Secondly, forming a coalition would undermine Confederation’s anti-establishment stance, particularly as their recent rise has built upon their image as an alternative to the political mainstream. Lastly, any kind of alliance with Law and Justice, including in the form of a minority government, could be risky for Confederation’s longevity. Kaczynski does not like to share power and would make every effort to poach Confederation’s MPs, as he has often done in the past with other partners. A coalition would not only be risky for Confederation, but would most likely prove highly unstable, just like all previous coalitions Law and Justice has formed.
As such, Confederation will have to choose between a short-term or long-term strategy. While a brief fling with power, ministerial posts, and board memberships in state companies may tempt its leaders, it would likely alienate their anti-establishment base. Alternatively, Confederation could play the long game and bet on Law and Justice’s demise by aligning themselves with the liberal opposition. They could do this in support of a liberal minority government rather than a coalition, which would allow them to maintain a healthy distance from the mainstream politicians and keep their anti-establishment branding. The government could then dismantle Law and Justice’s modus operandi based on clientelism and nepotism in state-owned companies, leaving Confederation to collect the scraps.
Though unlikely allies, Confederation and the liberal opposition of Civic Coalition, the Left, and Third Way, could be united by a common goal: dismantling Law and Justice’s state, which is maintained through public television and state-owned enterprises. This arrangement could allow for the true scale of Law and Justice’s corruption and mismanagement during the last eight years to be unearthed, and restore a level playing field to Polish politics, to the benefit of both Confederation and the liberal opposition. While Confederation can syphon off even more Law and Justice voters and consolidate their position on the right, the liberal opposition could reverse the numerous reforms implemented by Law and Justice, particularly in the judiciary, which has become a key source of conflict with the EU and a prominent indicator of Poland’s democratic erosion. Having no other choice, the liberal opposition could be tempted to strike a deal with the far-right devil – if only to put an end to Law and Justice’s rule. Nonetheless, this would be a marriage of convenience, not compatibility, and would invariably end in a snap election – sooner rather than later.
However, President Andrzej Duda’s veto power could make passing any reform difficult, as he is still at least partially loyal to Law and Justice – and will likely remain so until the end of his term in 2025 – and the two-thirds parliamentary majority required to overrule his veto is unlikely. In light of Law and Justice’s further attempts at expanding the president’s powers, this hypothetical government could be forced to choose between delivering on electoral promises through constitutionally questionable means, and staying loyal to its legalist principle but failing to roll back on Law and Justice’s reforms.
Regardless of the path that lies ahead, the upcoming election will leave Poland with a fragmented, unstable, and chaotic political scene. While a coalition of Law and Justice and Confederation would likely turn into a series of attempts by the former to destroy the latter, an alliance of Confederation and the liberal opposition could spell an uphill battle for implementing reforms. Ultimately, return to the polls seems inevitable as any coalition or minority government would be hanging by a thread. Given the current geopolitical climate, next month’s vote poses a threat to both Poland’s and Europe’s political stability. But it could also prove to be the best opportunity Europe has had in years to push back against the illiberal wave of the last decade, and to heal relations between Warsaw and Brussels. Polish polling stations will thus become the latest battlefield in the ongoing war for liberal democracy.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.