Poland’s opposition bloc, led by the liberal Civic Coalition (KO), is set to end the eight-year rule of Law and Justice (PiS), in a vote that registered the highest turnout since the fall of communism in 1989.
This record level of engagement, at over 70%, is an indication not just that Poland’s democracy is alive and well, but that, in the eyes of the electorate, politics now matter more than ever. Opposition analysts say the results bring hope that change is possible against an entrenched governing party, Law and Justice (PiS), and that the process of “democratic backsliding”, and conflict with the European Union (EU) and other partners can be resolved.
Relations with Brussels are likely to be less fraught and to improve with neighbors like Germany. The idea that Central Europe is becoming more Orbánesque and illiberal — fashionable after September’s Slovak election result — is clearly wrong. Defense and security policy is expected to be largely unchanged, with strong support for Ukraine and for increased defense spending.
Even so much remains unclear, and after years of political polarization and an acrimonious election campaign, the path forward will be fraught with difficulty.
To begin with, at this point (October 16), both sides have declared victory. Despite the minority position (roughly 198 of the Sejm’s 460 seats), which exit polls indicate PiS will receive, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced “We won.” Likewise, PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński hailed the results as a “great success,” though he qualified this by adding, “we still face the question of whether this success will be able to be turned into another term of office.”
With most of the votes counted, PiS had won about 36.5% of the vote, down 7% in 2019, meaning the loss of at least 35 seats in the Sejm, the lower house of parliament.
At the same time, shortly after the release of exit polls, Donald Tusk, leader of KO opposition, announced, “I have never been so happy in my life with this ‘supposed’ second place, Poland won, democracy won. We removed them from power.” KO received roughly 31%, a 4% rise, and is forecast to take 161 seats.
What is clear, is that at this point, neither of the two leading parties, PiS and KO, received the 231 seats required for a Sejm majority. This was not unexpected, and means that coalitions will need to solidify before a new government is formed, but this is also where KO has the advantage.
There are three other parties that can now make or break Poland's next government. The conservative Third Way (Trzecia Droga) with 13% or 55 seats, the left-wing New Left party (Lewica) with roughly 8% or 30 seats, and the far-fight Confederation (Konfederacja) just making it into the Sejm, with 6% or 12 seats.
For now, it is assumed, though not yet official, that KO, the Third Way, and Lewica will form a broad coalition to oppose PiS. These parties have already cooperated in the so-called Senate Pact (Pakt Senacki), choosing a unity candidate in the first-past-the-post senate race, and winning close to 50% of votes for the upper chamber. Together, this coalition would have around 246 seats in the lower house, enough for a majority.
It may, however, take some time before the next ruling government is formed. PiS won a plurality, taking the most seats of any single party, and will likely have the first shot at forming a government. However, its options seem limited, even if it attempts to form a coalition with Confederation it will likely fall short of a majority. If that is the case, a PiS-led minority government will not win approval by the Sejm majority and the opposition will have their chance to take power.
If and when a coalition government is established, they will also need to contend with a hostile presidency, and that risks legislative gridlock. Without a 3/5ths supermajority of the Sejm, the governing parties will be unable to overturn the presidential veto. The next presidential election is scheduled for 2025.
An additional challenge will be the Constitutional Tribunal (Trybunał Konstytucyjny), which has been called “illegitimate [and] unfit to interpret constitution” by the EU Parliament as a result of Poland’s so-called rule of law crisis. Any legislation referred to the court will need to be approved by PiS-aligned judges.
However, some key changes may occur relatively quickly if the coalition government does take power, including control of state media outlets, the appointment of public prosecutors, and — perhaps crucially — over military appointments (the country’s two most senior officers resigned days before the election complaining PiS was seeking to involve the armed forces in politics.)
The new government may also inadvertently benefit from PiS reforms, which concentrated power in the ruling administration.
The next few months will be critical as both blocs jockey to achieve a majority. After nearly a decade in power, PiS will not likely relinquish their position without a struggle, and a stark political divide almost guarantees a bitter transition.
There is still much to play for and there are almost certain to be surprises. Either way, the opposition has much work ahead. But on a positive note, the people have spoken in their greatest-ever numbers and it is now clear that the will for Polish democracy is strong.
Nathan Alan-Lee is a doctoral researcher at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, and is a commentator on Polish and regional affairs.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.