Poles understood the importance of the October 15 vote, and the turnout of 74% beat the record set by the first post-communist democratic election in 1989. It followed a tight race and led to a result few thought achievable: a victory for the opposition coalition, denying a third term to the Law and Justice (PiS) party.
There will now be weeks of talks between the seemingly allied opposition parties, notably the Civic Coalition, the Third Way, and the New Left. A set of principles bound the coalition during the campaign, but divergent positions on numerous issues persist. Deciding on how the political cake should be split will precede any formal coalition announcements.
A crucial question as talks develop will be the strategic trajectory the country will adopt.
The foreign policy choices for the incoming government are likely to materialize not so much in policy options, but in the means chosen for their implementation. The winning opposition bloc is correctly identified as broadly Western-leaning and pro-American, but questions loom on how key relationships will be handled.
The opposition’s narrative for the past few years, for example, has been that Polish-German relations suffered greatly during the eight years of PiS rule and this damage, while unspecified, needs to be undone. The outgoing government’s stance was that Germany is a strategic competitor and Poland should always be wary of it; but its attempts to portray Donald Tusk — Poland’s former and probable next prime minister — as Berlin’s envoy, backfired.
There are, however, signs of Germany’s attempts to constrain Poland, such as Berlin’s refusal to allow the sale of Rosneft Deutschland’s shares in the Schwedt refinery to a Polish company. Other thorny issues include German objections to Poland’s increased trade on the Oder River, its booming coastal and offshore activity, and its emerging nuclear energy program (Germany is closing its nuclear power stations.)
With Germany’s economy showing alarming signs of weakness (it remains by far the largest European Union economy), an assertive strategy in Warsaw might shore up Poland’s overall position in Europe and beyond. It could include deeper engagement in new forums, such as Emmanuel Macron’s European Political Community (EPC), and a rekindling of old ones, e.g. the Weimar Triangle.
Then there is the US. While inevitably bound by shared interests, differences between Poland and the United States have widened under the Biden administration. There was no love in Washington for what it saw as Warsaw’s loose relationship with the rule of law, and PiS had been hoping for a Donald Trump victory in 2024.
However, the concern in Biden’s administration was probably less about Warsaw’s unruliness, as it proved itself a reliable ally in the context of supporting Ukraine, and more about the deterioration of the business environment in Poland.
There have been a series of political or legal incidents in the past few years that were seen in the West as unacceptable. These included the threat to nationalize the largest private broadcaster in Poland, which is owned by Warner Bros., Discovery Inc. The large number of international arbitrations initiated against Poland shows how Western businesses have grown cautious of the country. At the same time, Warsaw embraced closer ties with other aspiring regional powers, including the UAE and South Korea.
There are unlikely to be U-turns on Ukraine or a substantial increase in support. With no end to the war in sight, doubts persist about how best to organize European efforts to increase weapon and munition production, and the role Poland will play — although the very substantial rises in defense expenditure are expected to remain. The incoming government will also be absorbed by the domestic impact of the war, which proved a key issue during the campaign and can be expected to align with US-led efforts to support Kyiv.
Then there is the issue of migration. The Polish public has been split on the issue, not least because of the discrepancy between stated policy objectives and reality. The new government will unwind a number of immigration policies, but it is unlikely to loosen its grip on its external EU borders. Poland’s new border wall with Belarus, however contested, has barely been criticized by European allies at a time of continuously high tensions on NATO’s Eastern Flank.
On the European front, the incoming administration will certainly work to shake off the label of the bad pupil in the class. Ending its predecessor’s fights with the EU courts will allow it to receive around €112bn ($119bn) from the EU in cohesion and recovery funds, and to be welcomed by pro-EU Western leaders.
On a regional level, the outcomes of elections in Slovakia and Poland this month divided the four-member Visegrad Group into two camps: pro-Russian Hungarian-Slovakian and pro-Western Polish-Czech. The Warsaw-Prague alignment will help heal the recent political wounds between the two, as close cooperation will be needed to contain the pro-Russian, anti-Ukrainian politics of the other two in the EU.
The center-right has won back power at a time of deep geopolitical complexity and uncertainty. While a challenge, this may favor a new political formula, and Poland may learn to leverage its competitive and comparative advantages to its benefit. How the next government will balance its priorities in this pursuit will determine its legacy.
Maciej Filip Bukowski is a 2022 CEPA James S. Denton fellow, a 2023 International Republican Institute Transatlantic Security Initiative fellow, and currently an international analysis expert at BGK, a Polish development bank. A graduate of Sorbonne and Cornell law schools, he is completing a Ph.D. thesis at the Jagiellonian University on the geopolitics of climate change.
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.