What Elections in Poland Mean for Europe? [PODCAST]

In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) talks about the results of the recent Polish elections, voter mobilization, the structure of the new ruling coalition, obstacles that lie ahead, and what does this all mean for the European Union.

The election in Poland took place on October 15, 2023. The results are quite significant. Despite a mathematical win (35% of votes, which translates into 194 seats in the parliament out of 460 in total) for the ruling Law and Justice party, it has politically lost the election, because it does not have the ability to build a coalition with any other party. It takes 231 seats in the parliament to rule, so even together with the right-wing/libertarian Confederation party (which received 7.16% of votes thus 18 seats), they still would be short of the majority.

Therefore, quite a significant change is about to happen in Poland. After eight years, there is going to be a new/old prime minister – Donal Tusk, who has been designated by his party. He still needs to be accepted by two other coalition partners.

Third Way (a coalition of Poland 2050, led by Szymon Holownia, and agrarian Polish People’s Party, led by Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz), which received 14.4% of votes (65 seats). There was a threat that they might not reach the 8% threshold. Meanwhile, the Left received 8.6% of votes (26 seats) – a little bit below their expectations, which makes the party the minority member of the future coalition.

The first step after the election belongs to President Andrzej Duda, who is clearly trying to help Law and Justice during a difficult transition from power. He is likely to designate the current prima minister, Mateusz Morawiecki to be the prime minister in spe. However, quite clearly, he will not get the necessary votes to form the majority. The next step is the parliament designating the prime minister on its own. It will most likely be Donald Tusk. A new government will probably be formed around December with a new majority. This will likely lead to the introduction of new politics in Poland.

What needs to be emphasized in terms of this election is also the turnout at the level of 74%, which is by far a record number. The political polarization, the emotions evoked by this election (especially on the opposition’s side) made a lot of people feeling that this was the only chance to put a stop to the illiberal tendencies brought about by the current government. It was a huge mobilization. The level of engagement by the civil society was unprecedented.

The last eight years in Poland were really not the best of times for those who share pro-European, liberal, and democratic values. The Law and Justice government brought Poland closer to Hungary’s illiberal direction. Another four years of rule of the party would  likely lead to a complete destruction of private media, NGOs, and other areas where the civil society and freedom reside.

Therefore, bringing Poland back on the pro-European track is one of the key issues. Another unifying issue for the new coalition government is the restoration of the democratic institutions in Poland. This includes the Constitutional Tribunal (which will be very difficult to fix), public television (which during the campaign served as a propaganda machine for the ruling party), and to some extent the abortion laws.

In terms of the latter, some obstacles are bound to occur – one is the Third Way party, a center-right alliance, which is not going to support the liberalization of abortion laws as proposed by the Left and the Civic Platform (according to which abortion shall be legal until 12 weeks of pregnancy). They might, however, support the so-called ‘abortion compromise’, which allows abortion when it threatens a woman’s life, in the case of rape and some medical conditions.

Still, the biggest obstacle of all is going to be President Duda, who holds the veto power. To abolish the veto one needs 3/5 of the votes in the parliament (276 seats), and the opposition does not have it (it could have around 260 seats, together with the Confederation). Clearly, President Duda will try to prove that the new coalition cannot rule – especially with regards to the issues that they will try to fix, change, and reform everything that the Law and Justice did wrong. This will take some time. Some of these reforms will be very difficult and legally challenging. The new government will need to come up with solutions that may be dubious from the constitutional perspective – it will be extremely difficult to estimate what is constitutional and what is not. This is bound to bring about political conflicts.

Moreover, one can expect that the Law and Justice party – which did not take losing the election well as they expected to continue their rule – will have to mobilize against the new coalition. They will try to bring it down and force early elections, or at least try to slow down the reforms the winning coalition is planning. The party will try to keep as much power in its hands as possible – be it in different institution, the public media, and state enterprises.

There is some uncertainty in terms of how the new coalition will want to proceed. With the exception of defense, Ukraine, and some international issues, or lowering the taxes (in these areas the President might sign the proposed reforms as he wants to be popular), the President will likely be firmly against reforms on other issues. That will be the biggest challenge for the new government.

All members of the coalition are highly mobilized, determined, and will want to prove themselves and ‘fix democracy’. Meanwhile, the Polish society has very high expectations – the high election turnout puts additional pressure on the new government. Therefore, at the beginning the coalition will probably try to keep politicking at bay. At the same time, given that they were not in power for a long time, it might be difficult to keep them from taking over all state institutions – especially because the Law and Justice party set the standards in this respect so low that the temptation to follow suit will be there.

I suppose that only Donald Tusk will attempt to fight the most egregious cases of taking over the state institutions by political parties. He promised a morally better politics and he needs to keep his word – along with the other political leaders.

After the change in power, the new government will need to focus on the internal matters first. Eventually, we will get back onto the European stage, moving away from blocking decisions by default. However, with the exception of Ukraine, for the first few months Poland will likely be preoccupied with trying to fix itself.

We need to keep in mind that the Recovery Funds – which Poland would very much like to receive and the retrieving of which was one of the key promises of the new coalition – will be blocked by the institutional destruction caused by Law and Justice. The Constitutional tribunal is not able to function properly, and unless it is fixed, it will be difficult to move on.

Therefore, there are many issues on which the new government will have their hands tied. They might have good intentions and might want to ‘play ball’ on the international stage (on such issues like climate, defense, energy, or refugees), but it is going to take some time. Moreover, the local election is scheduled for April and the European election for June 2024 – these will also keep everyone busy in Warsaw and elsewhere. Therefore, I would expect that Poland will need to quickly rebuild a constructive relationship with Germany, France, and the United States (as well as other partners in Europe).

This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.

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Polish Elections [PODCAST]

Polish Elections: Winners and Losers

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