Message in a ballot: What Poland’s election means for Europe

Poland is making its return to Europe – but Warsaw’s partners may still need to be a little patient yet

October 15, 2023, Krakow, Poland: People cast heir ballots at a polling station in Polish parliamentary elections on October 15, 2023 in Krakow, Poland
Image by picture alliance / | Beata Zawrzel

Dear Europe, something momentous just happened in Poland.

Now it is official: the democratic opposition – composed of three political formations (a liberal Civic Coalition led by Donald Tusk, the mildly conservative Third Way, and The Left) – have won a majority of seats in both chambers of the country’s parliament. Within the next two months, they should be able to form a new coalition government. This will bring to an end the eight-year rule of Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his Law and Justice party, which over that time adopted an increasingly illiberal, nationalist, Eurosceptic, and populist course.

A record mobilisation of voters was key to the opposition’s win, and caught observers both in Poland and abroad by surprise. The election’s 74 per cent turnout was higher than in any other national poll since 1989. It was over 10 percentage points above that of the previous legislative election in 2019. This is largely thanks to two key groups of voters – young people and women – who turned out to vote in huge numbers: 71 per cent of those aged 18 to 29 cast their vote, up from 46 per cent in 2019; for the first time, more women voted than men.  

The result of the Polish election sends three important messages to the rest of Europe: a country’s illiberal turn is not a one-way street; polarisation is an important but insufficient tool to mobilise progressive voters; and Poland is returning as a constructive player in European politics.   

Reversing the tide

Firstly, the Polish election has shown democracy can be resilient even where the system of checks and balances is broken – as long as civil society remains vibrant. This should give some hope to those sceptical about the future of Hungary or Turkey, or concerned about the risk of entrenched illiberalism in other European countries.

The limits of polarisation

Secondly, one-third of voters declined to vote for any of the two leading parties, Law and Justice and Civic Coalition, both of which framed this election as a Manichean battle between good and evil. Three smaller parties – Third Way, The Left, and the far-right Confederation – jointly won 30 per cent of the vote. Third Way did especially well, having campaigned on a platform of bringing an end to the intra-Polish psychodrama. Until the announcement of the exit poll, many feared Third Way would fail to pass the 8 per cent threshold for coalitions, which very likely would have allowed Law and Justice to remain in power; in the end, it amassed almost 15 per cent.

Had the democratic opposition established a joint list, as many advocated (and as has been, unsuccessfully, tried in Hungary and Turkey), some floating voters might have gravitated towards Confederation, with others likely staying at home. Thus, while the political polarisation of the last decade doubtless motivated several million Poles to turn out, on its own this would not have been enough for the opposition to win. Fewer than half of the youngest voters opted for either Law and Justice or Civic Coalition. The limits of polarisation may therefore contain an important lesson for progressive forces competing in other European countries and preparing for next year’s European Parliament elections.   

Poland is back

Finally, this result is about the European Union. Rarely ever mentioned in this campaign, it was always implicitly central. At stake in the election was whether Poland should remain a member state with a draconian abortion law, and one whose ever-deepening conflict with Brussels risked spinning out of control; or whether it would return to Europe as a good citizen and a place of openness and tolerance. The historically high turnout suggests Poles understood the significance of the vote. With this result, they clearly demonstrated their wish to be a normal European country, not a difficult noisy roommate.

The historically high turnout suggests Poles understood the significance of the vote

The next government is widely expected to end the fighting with Brussels and Berlin; this was one of Tusk’s main promises in the election. Doing so should allow the unfreezing of €35 billion from the EU’s Recovery Fund, to which Poland is entitled. But voters might have been motivated less by money than by issues related to human dignity. In its electoral programme, Civic Coalition promised to introduce civil unions and liberalise abortion.   

With its new government, Poland will also become a more eager player in European politics. This should be good news for Europe, which is currently grappling with weak leadership due to repetitive infighting between Berlin and Paris as well as within the German coalition. This should also be good news for Ukraine, which has an interest in seeing good relations between Warsaw and Berlin, Paris, and Brussels. The new Polish government is expected to be supportive of both Kyiv’s cause and of Ukrainian refugees already living in Poland. But this also means that other member states will now need to make more room for Poland to step up into this leadership role.

Poland’s return may not be as quick as some hope, however. Reinstating the rule of law will be a colossally difficult task, given the institutional mishmash left by Kaczynski’s party. In particular, the new government may soon learn it cannot do much without at least some goodwill from the president, Andrzej Duda – who might veto all its legislation and dispute its competences on European policy. (A new law passed this summer strengthened the president’s powers in this domain.)

This is why the shape of the upcoming ‘cohabitation’ is the most important question of the moment. Both the president and the democratic opposition might choose to show some flexibility – for example, by agreeing on Rafal Trzaskowski, rather than Tusk, as candidate for prime minister. Both sides have some important incentives to seek a modus vivendi; Duda’s term ends in 2025 and he might need to show a more conciliatory face if he wants to consider an international career afterwards. If, instead, this relationship degenerates into open conflict, the impact on Poland could be considerable – and the new government will have few resources left to engage in European politics.      

Europeans keen to work with the new Polish government will thus need to demonstrate patience – even while they welcome the promise this result brings.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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