Poland’s government will very likely change as a result of the October 15 elections. The three main opposition groups gained 248 seats in the lower house, or Sejm, where 231 are required for a majority. The governing Law and Justice party (PiS) lost almost 40 seats and ended up with 194. Turnout, at almost 75%, was the highest in a free election since 1919.
So while the transition may stretch well into November, there is no path for PiS to remain in power unless it can peel away deputies from other parties, regardless of the fact that it won the greatest number of votes at about 35.5%, down 8% from 2019.
President Andrzej Duda is expected to give PiS the first chance to form a government; failing that, it will be the opposition’s turn to put together a governing coalition.
The election results reveal several significant features of the country’s political landscape.
First, they show that the electorate has become weary of the deep polarization that has marked the increasingly toxic competition between PiS, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, and the Civic Platform (PO) coalition led by Donald Tusk, whose vote inched up by about 3% to a little under 31%.
The numbers demonstrate that the two largest parties can maintain a significant block of core supporters, but that they struggle to move beyond their base.
Moreover, the opposition coalition that is poised to take power in Poland is a complex tapestry of political parties that came together for this electoral cycle but may find it challenging to stay united as they seek to govern together.
The most significant change, however, is the unexpected performance of parties outside the PiS/PO binary. Only weeks before the vote, it appeared that the center-right PSL/2050 Third Way coalition would struggle to achieve the minimum number of votes to enter the Sejm, only to ultimately emerge as the kingmaker for the next government.
Third Way appears to have been buoyed by younger voters and by women – the latter having shown up at the polls in unprecedented numbers, something at least partly linked to the 2021 near-total ban on abortion, which was unpopular with around three-quarters of Poles. The overall message was clear: the citizenry is starved for an alternative, and ready for a generational turn-over among the country’s leaders.
Perhaps a larger lesson from this election is that — contrary to the gloomy pronouncements about the country’s inexorable slide towards authoritarianism — democracy in Poland is alive and well, and that choices in the country extend beyond the governing PiS and the largest PO-led opposition coalition parties.
There is a refreshing degree of pragmatism to this nascent “third way,” carrying within it the seeds of a new movement emerging on the political scene in the next few years, one with the potential to transcend the political divisions dating back to the Solidarity era of the country’s struggle against communism.
This electorate seems to want to look forward and not re-litigate the past. We may be witnessing a transformation, marking the final step in the country’s post-communist evolution, one not measured in economic indicators alone but also in the refusal to allow decades-old rivalries among the anti-communist old guard to dictate the terms of Polish politics.
This election has been heralded as the triumph of PO over PiS and, by extension, of Donald Tusk over his archrival, Jarosław Kaczyński, both icons for their core political bases. But to view it only in such terms is to lose sight of what appears to be underway in Poland: a generational change likely to eclipse the now-familiar post-Solidarity “family feud,” raising fundamental questions about the new government’s future direction.
If the “third way” can leverage its current momentum, present itself as a genuine alternative to the PiS-PO base, and start to peel away voters from both, it will have laid the foundations for a lasting reconfiguration of the Polish political scene.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Army, the US Department of Defense, or the US government.
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.