Parliamentary elections are held in Poland on 15 October. To use the overused phrase, it will be a ‘fateful’ election, which is certainly true, as elections in democracies tend to decide the fate of the country. The impact of this election, however, will be felt far beyond Poland’s borders, which is why it is being watched so closely from Brussels, Kyiv—and Budapest.
The obvious way to put it is to say that the stakes in the 2023 Polish election are essentially whether the Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość—PiS) party, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, will be able to form a third government in a row, something that has never happened in the history of the Third Polish Republic.
But, of course, that is not only what this election will only be about.
It is not possible in this article to go into the history of Polish politics over the past decade in any depth, nor to go into the individual parties and political alliances in detail. However, as a starting point, it is perhaps worth noting that Polish elections are generally not dominated by individual parties, but by coalitions and other political alliances.
PiS’ alliance is known in English as the United Right (Zjednoczona Prawica, ZP). ZP is a centre-right to far-right conservative political alliance whose main challenger is the catch-all, centre-left Civic Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska, KO). KO is led by Donald Tusk, a centre-right politician well-versed in European Union (EU) matters. He himself is the leader of the Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska—PO), which dominates this alliance.
The Polish Opposition is Becoming Visible
The relationship between the Civic Platform and PiS, the two dominant parties, follows the typical urban-rural fault line. KO candidates tend to perform well in the more urbanized parts of Poland, such as around Gdańsk and Poznań, and of course also in the capital, Warsaw. PiS’s main voter base is located in the southern and eastern parts of Poland, which is both more rural and, at least in the case of the eastern areas, closer to Russia. All this is clearly visible in the map showing the results of the 2019 elections.
In many respects, this is very advantageous for KO, which has long been in opposition, as the urban voter base can be mobilized very well, for example through spectacular mass demonstrations, of which there have been several in Poland in recent years.
The wave of protests against PiS’s strict abortion law, which gave rise to large demonstrations in several Polish cities, is a case in point, but there were also similar rallies following the escalation of the war in Ukraine last year, for example in front of the Hungarian embassy in Warsaw.
On the opposition side, optimism can be found in the fact that they also managed to hold anti-government demonstrations in several cities in early October, which attracted large crowds and were supported by the Lewica alliance, which is not averse to far-left views.
The rally of the Tusk camp in Warsaw was, according to KO, attended by over a million people, an almost unprecedented number in the history of post-regime Poland
—even if the number of participants was probably well overestimated.
PiS’s Time of The Lean Kine
Opposition-minded Polish voters may be more dissatisfied than usual with several decisions by the PiS government. In the wake of tensions over the ban on grain imports, the conservative government has announced that it will change its policy of supporting the Ukrainian war effort with a variety of means and will no longer supply arms to its neighbour, a sharp change from Warsaw’s almost doctrinaire previous attitude.
However, this is far from the only area where the PiS government is not quite doing what it says it will do: it has recently emerged that illegal immigrants in Poland have been illegally obtaining EU visas, which is relatively difficult to reconcile with Warsaw’s hitherto hardline immigration policy—which, incidentally, has made PiS’s relationship with Fidesz in Hungary so close at one time.
Despite these massive protests, KO’s popularity lags behind that of PiS.
According to the latest opinion polls, Kaczyński’s party and his alliance have a confident lead going into the 15 October elections, while KO is expected to win only around 30 per cent of the popular vote.
This would not be a bad outcome compared to PO’s performance four years ago, when the alliance, led by Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, a rather weak candidate, won 27.4 per cent of the vote, a drop of more than four per cent compared to the previous election. The United Right, on the other hand, is underperforming compared to 2019: four years ago, polls predicted a steady result of over 40 per cent for the conservative alliance, which eventually managed to achieve 43.59 per cent—then enough for a not very comfortable five-mandate majority in the Sejm.
The parliamentary term since 2019 has presented the Kaczyński-led Polish government with many challenges, but interestingly enough, since then, PiS has only twice been able to come close to the level of support it achieved in the elections four years ago. It was in March and August 2020, at the start of the first and second waves of the COVID pandemic in Europe.
This trend has been observed almost everywhere across Europe: the Christian Democrats (CDU), who were badly defeated in the 2021 German elections, saw their support rise above the magic 40 per cent mark on several occasions during the COVID period, something that had not happened for many years before. In the long term, however, PiS has not—either—been able to benefit from the positive political effects of the COVID crisis.
Surprisingly, the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine in 2022 has not been able to boost PiS’s popularity, either.
Last February’s Russian attack was the realization of one of Poland’s primal fears, and Warsaw immediately went into war mode. This is also a personal matter for Jarosław Kaczyński, whose private life has been cratered by Moscow’s games: his brother and closest political ally, Lech, lost his life 13 years ago when a Polish government plane crashed in the Smolensk region of Russia under circumstances that remain unclear. But despite the generous welcome of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees and the loud and determined support of the Kyiv government by every conceivable means, PiS’s numbers have remained essentially unchanged. For the time being, the turnaround on the grain issue is not even showing up in the polls.
It should be mentioned that in the last four years, United Right and PiS have had to deal with some major setbacks. The government has attempted to limit the possibilities of foreign-funded media, especially the opposition-leaning TVN, but has been forced to drop this under pressure from their key ally in Washington.
Disagreements within the right-wing alliance have also become more frequent, for example, over the aforementioned media law, but there have also been major disputes over the strict abortion law and the 2020 presidential election, which PiS wanted to hold by a postal vote in the middle of the pandemic to keep in power the incumbent Polish president, Andrzej Duda.
The EUmpire Strikes Back
But perhaps above all these, the impact of the European Union should not be overlooked, either. Warsaw and Brussels have long been at loggerheads over Jarosław Kaczyński’s cherished judicial reform, which is seen in the EU as a serious attack on the rule of law in Poland.
Despite years of protracted legal wrangling and punitive measures, Kaczyński remains committed to the reform, which has made it to the list of United Right’s election promises this year as well. But the so-called rule of law process being developed in the EU could thwart this. Poland is now also denied access to some of the NextGenerationEU recovery fund, part of which is a joint borrowing, and Brussels could impose further sanctions on the country if the incoming government continues to reform the justice system.
All of this is becoming a valuable campaign weapon for the opposition: Donald Tusk, who knows the Brussels salons inside out, is accusing Kaczyński of wanting to kick Poland out of the EU, which is of course a totally absurd suggestion, but it is a great way to rile up the very much pro-EU Polish public regardless.
It is a very interesting question how the victory of the opposition alliance would change the relationship between Poland and the EU. It would not be surprising if the relationship between Warsaw and Brussels would be much simplified if the new Polish government were formed under Donald Tusk, as the KO leader is much more willing to compromise on a number of issues than his conservative opponents—something Kaczyński’s team has been presenting to the Polish public during the campaign as Tusk’s giving in to the Germans, another Polish primal fear, at least on the right side of the political spectrum, where Donald Tusk theoretically positions himself.
But it is far from certain that another government would roll back every controversial measure that PiS has taken in the last eight years, and there is really no guarantee that a PO-dominated cabinet could actually get its ideas through as PiS has been careful to put its own loyal people in key positions in the Polish deep state as well as in the most important posts in the judiciary—moreover, at the end of the line there is still President Andrzej Duda, whose word the Sejm will find it very difficult to overrule.
The Motto for Budapest and Kyiv: Hold Your Breath
What is certain is that the formation of a more submissive Polish government would significantly weaken the Hungarian government’s positions in Brussels.
There has long been a kind of ‘offensive and defensive alliance’ between Budapest and Warsaw,
meaning that the two sides have been able to help each other out in EU disputes, but it is also a fact that relations between the Hungarian and Polish governments have been—to put it diplomatically—much less cordial than before the Russian offensive.
It has long been known that Donald Tusk has little sympathy for Viktor Orbán, and that this feeling has been reciprocated in Hungarian government circles and in the Fidesz establishment. It is worth remembering that a few years ago, the Hungarian right-wing press also circulated a photograph, later proved to be a fake, of Donald Tusk’s grandfather, who was rumoured to have been a Nazi officer. This initial state of affairs would certainly not make it easier to work together if there was a change of government in Poland—not least because Budapest and Warsaw’s positions on the key issue of Ukraine have not converged.
In fact, the Ukrainian government itself has plenty of reason to be nervous about the outcome of the election. The PiS government has long been an unquestioning sponsor of the Ukrainians, and although aid to the warring country is unlikely to be jeopardized by a change of government, it is very doubtful how cooperation between Warsaw and Kyiv would continue.
Poland’s arms stockpiles are depleted, and the large-scale army modernization programme announced by the government will have to proceed for a while before Poland will again have redundant weapons that could be transferred to the Ukrainians. The Ukrainian leadership, with its practically unbridled appetite for weapons, is unlikely to give in to this easily, which could quickly strain relations between the two countries.
In any case, the fact that Kyiv threatened Warsaw with a World Trade Organization case when the Polish government banned imports of dumped Ukrainian grain into the country in the interests of Polish farmers rather than Ukrainian grain traders could be a telling precedent for future Polish–Ukrainian relations.
Little Giants and Kingmakers
According to recent polls, neither United Right nor Civic Platform will be able to form a government on its own.
For the former, this is perhaps even more of a challenge than for the Tusk camp, as right-wing conservative parties outside the United Right tent, such as Konfederacja, which currently stands at around 10 per cent, are mostly quite radical and have no government experience. In any case, most of these parties have no chance of entering the Sejm.
Donald Tusk’s situation seems easier in that he may have a realistic chance of including both the aforementioned Lewica and the Third Way alliance in the future governing coalition. This does not mean, however, that it would be easy for him to govern with these parties, and indeed such multi-party coalitions—let us not forget that the KO is itself an alliance—are often not very stable and long-lived.
So, this year’s elections in Poland are certainly different in that the role of small parties is potentially much greater now than it was four years ago —and the small voices of these small parties could yet have a big resonance across Europe.