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"Poland is back": But a New Government May Not Be in Office Soon

27 Oct 2023
By Dr Simona Guerra and Dr Fernando Casal Bértoa
Donald Tusk, former president, European Council. Source: Estonian President's Photo Stream /

A record turnout at the voting booths has underscored the value Poles see in the European Union and the European idea. While a left coalition now has the numbers to form government, holding the alliance together may not be so easy. 

Poland voted for change on Sunday 15 October 2023, supported by an unprecedented high turnout (the largest since January 1919). Although the ruling national conservative party Law and Justice (PiS) received the most votes in the Sejm – the lower chamber of the Polish parliament – for the third time in a row (unprecedented since the transition to democracy in 1989), it will not be able to form government. That honour will belong to the political forces of the opposition: Civic Coalition (KO), Third Way (TD) and New Left (NL). Still, while their parliamentary majority is clear, their ideological differences are wide, and the broad governing alliance formed by liberals, Christian-democrats, agrarians, social-democrats, and the radical left may need long negotiations before the dust finally settles.

Electoral campaign

The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) provided an 18-page report on the run-up to the election and how it was conducted. Like the 2015 election, the PiS coalition pursued the objective of dismantling the foundations of Poland’s liberal democratic order, its checks and balances, and the separation of powers. The report stressed that the election was held in a free, but unfair, environment. Thus, it specifically referd to the “wide use of intolerant, xenophobic and misogynistic rhetoric,” and the abuse of state resources with the use of referendums that helped to amplify the government’s campaign electoral messages.

The referendum questions referred to: (1) the sale of state assets to foreign entities, (2) the reform of the retirement age, (3) the elimination of the barrier at the border between Poland and Belarus, and (4) the admission of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa as required by the EU migration pact. While more than 90 percent of those participating (40 percent turnout) in the referendum voted “no” to all four questions, the referendum was 10 points short of the necessary 50 percent threshold to be binding. And all this despite the fact that the National Electoral Commission invited voters to receive all the election papers, asking the electoral staff not to ask which papers voters wished to receive at the ballot box. As explained elsewhere, ODIHR’s report also noted the way in which the questions were framed and stressed that while the campaign was pluralistic, the playing field was uneven.” In short, the referendum strengthened the nationalist conservative campaign of the government.

For example, the question on the migration pact read: “Do you support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa under the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy?” Not surprisingly, only 1.4 percent voted “yes.” Despite these considerations, the report also underlined the work at the polling stations that supported the enthusiastic participation of voters.

Undoubtedly, these elections were held in a “highly polarized political environment.” Even with recent challenges like the COVID pandemic, migration, and the Russian war against Ukraine, added to EU sanctions against Poland (including the freeze of 100 billion euros) for violating European law, the government has continued to antagonise the EU. The media and judiciary reforms also limited the competitive political space as well as the implementation of legislative changes limiting abortion rights. What the vote showed, however, is that a huge majority of Poles stand for fundamental European values.

Main campaign issues

The judiciary, free media, and democracy have been important issues for voters. Similarly, the current economic situation, the high cost of living, recent scandals, and a campaign that is no longer as attractive as it was almost ten years ago, have brought a large number of Poles to support and revive democracy, and to stand up for European values.

The opposition, led by former prime minister (2007-2014), president of the European Council (2014-2019) and of the European People’s Party (2019-2022), Donald Tusk, campaigned for a European country, announcing new bills to simplify gender recognition for trans people and introducing same-sex partnership. The future for women and their abortion rights and the LGBTQIA+ community will move forward, as Tusk said, even as the PiS government “dehumanises” them. Foreign policy, relations with the EU (always important for Polish voters), and Ukraine may now received a more positive focus.

The results

While a high turnout was expected, nobody expected such a record turnout: 74.4 percent, the highest in Poland’s Third Republic. At 9 p.m., when the polling stations officially closed, Poles were still queuing to vote well after midnight.

As we have written elsewhere, ever since the first free and fair parliamentary elections in 1991, when up to 29 political groupings managed to obtain representation, the Polish party system has been characterised by high levels of fragmentation and party turnover. These elections were no different. Up to six electoral committees were accepted in the election list across the 41 constituencies. These are: the United Right, led by PiS, the governing alliance; the centrist KO, which is the main opposition force; the TD, consisting of Poland 2050 and the agrarian party (PSL); the left-wing NL, formed by the former communist and the radical-left, and the far-right Confederation (KON). There were other further local activist groupings, but none got parliamentary representation.

While the nationalist conservative PiS party gained the highest percentage of votes (35.4 percent), the opposition still has more chances to be in power. The government needs to secure the majority of the seats in the Sejm, (231 out of 460), and PiS has 194 seats, and not enough support across the political system – not even with the only other party to its right, KON, which only obtained 7.2 percent of the votes.

By contrast, the liberal KO gained 30.7 percent votes (and 157 seats). With the centrists TD at 14.4 percent (and 65 seats), and the socialist NL at 8.6 percent (and 26 seats), the opposition reaches a 248 majority to govern, though without a comfortable 60 percent majority that could win a possible president’s veto on legislation.

What comes next?

Now President Andrzej Sebastian Duda will need to decide who to nominate to form a government. Following established tradition, we can expect that the first choice will be PiS, the most voted party, though without a parliamentary majority. If the opposition is able to leave aside their ideological differences, Poland will have a new government before the end of the year. This won’t be an easy task given the necessary reforms to be undertaken, but hopes are high. Meanwhile he has met all parties. As Manfred Weber, Tusk’s successor as leader of the European People’s Party, stated after knowing the results: “Poland is back.

Simona Guerra is Senior Lecturer of Comparative Politics at the University of Surrey and Fernando Casal Bértoa is Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Nottingham (United Kingdom). 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.