In October 2023, Poland will hold parliamentary elections that will determine the country’s democratic course as well as its place in the European Union. What does the crowded political field mean for the country’s future?
The Polish 2023 parliamentary elections will be one of the most important votes of the year in Europe. The stakes are high not only for the country itself, but for the fate of “illiberal democracies” more generally following right-wing populist losses in US, Brazil, Czechia, and Slovenia at the same time as wins in Hungary, Italy, and Sweden.
On the one hand, Jarosław Kaczyński is the strongman leader of the nationalist coalition dominated by the Law and Justice Party. On the other hand, there is a patchwork of opposition parties, whose supporters outnumber that of Law and Justice in every single opinion poll. The most popular among the opposition parties is the Civic Coalition under the leadership of Donald Tusk, former prime minister of the country and former president of the European Council.
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For the European Union, this election could be major. Should the current government be re-elected, it will continue its policy of undermining the rule of law in ways that run counter to European values and its constitutional basis. In the longer term, the fate of Eurozone accession negotiations and the accession of the Western Balkans and Ukraine to the EU will also be strongly influenced by the result.
Should the democratic opposition win, cleaning up and returning to normalcy after eight years of PiS’s rule will be a major undertaking. Urgent reforms include a return of the rule law and the separation of powers, the depoliticisation of the civil service, depoliticisation of the schools, recalibrating the state budget for full transparency, and the independence of the central bank and the state’s highest tribunals. That is necessary even before addressing the today’s challenges: high inflation and labour shortages and the implementation of EU climate legislation.
A crowded field of coalitions
On the side of the ruling government of Law and Justice, there is an effective coalition known us the United Right. Today, there are two main actors within this coalition, who could either run together (like in 2015 and in 2019) or separately. The larger party is the Law and Justice (PiS). Mateusz Morawiecki, the prime minister and protégé of Kaczyński is a clear No. 2 in the party but unpopular among PiS MPs. Morawiecki has been Poland’s prime minister since 2017, making him one the longest-serving members of the European Council.
PiS opposes Eurozone accession and EU treaty reforms. If there was a reform to the Union basic laws, Kaczyński has stated he would push for returning certain competences to member states. Especially unpopular with parts of PiS is the Union policy of decarbonisation. However, the party is keen on finding a workable solution to the rule of law problems between Poland and the EU institutions – unlike its junior coalition partner.
PiS’ junior coalition partner is the ultra-nationalist and anti-EU party United Poland (or, Solidary Poland, SP). The party paints the EU recovery funds as a tool to create a German-dominated European federation and the Green Deal as an ideological attempt to ruin the Polish coal-based economy. United Poland has also called for Poland to leave the Emissions Trading System (ETS). Poland’s Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who belongs to this party, has not participated in any meetings of the EU Council of justice ministers since his appointment in 2015.
Ziobro’s radical solutions are popular among some PiS backbencher MPs. It is also widely reported that Ziobro’s ambition is to become a leader of the Polish right-wing movement after Kaczyński’s retirement, which is expected but remains to be seen in two years.
There are other smaller parties within the United Right, but they are not independent political actors capable of making a major difference in the electoral campaign. PiS with SP leads the electoral polls with about 30 to 33 per cent public support, but some leaders of PiS suggest that SP will not be allowed to run with PiS as it is a liability for rule of law reforms and recovery funds implementation.
The democratic opposition
The Civic Coalition (KO) is by far the most popular opposition force and is led by Donald Tusk, president of the Civic Platform (PO, member of the EPP). Among smaller members of the coalition are the liberal party Modern (Renew Europe) and the Polish Greens.
Civic Coalition’s popularity is linked with Tusk’s return to the Polish politics. In 2021, the KO support dropped to 14 per cent and there was an insider poll suggesting further deterioration. Following his departure from the European Council in 2019, Tusk became president of the European People’s Party (EPP). Then, seeing the situation of his home country, he decided to return to domestic politics. Tusk decided to resign from the EPP leadership in mid-2021, though it was only formalised in 2022 due to the pandemic. With Tusk’s taking over of the Civic Platform – hence the coalition – in the second half of 2021, the KO regained the trust of its core electorate. In 2023, it is polling at 27 to 30 per cent.
The PO is a centrist party. Tusk announced he will not allow any of his future MPs to take conservative positions on socially divisive issues of the past, such as abortion rights and same sex partnerships. It remains a massively pro-European force stressing the importance of the European values (and hence, adherence to the West) and its ability to secure major funds for Poland. PO supports Eurozone accession but tends to focus on other EU-related topics, such as the green transition.
The second party of the “democratic opposition” is Poland 2050 of Szymon Hołownia. Hołownia is a new politician. Entering the political scene in 2020 for the presidential elections, he achieved almost 14 per cent in a highly polarised vote between the PiS-backed president Andrzej Duda and the KO candidate Rafał Trzaskowski. Today, Poland 2050 has about 8 to 12 per cent public support. Poland 2050 EU credentials are high: the party supports both a fast energy transition and accession the Eurozone. In 2021, it joined the Renew Europe Group with its single MEP Róża Thun.
For the European Union, this election could be major. Should the current government be re-elected, it will continue its policy of undermining the rule of law in ways that run counter to European values and its constitutional basis.
The Left is an alliance between the New Left (EU’s Party of European Socialists) and the Left Together (without EU affiliation) of more radical and progressive views. Together they enjoy public support of up to 10 per cent. The New Left is co-led by Włodzimierz Czarzasty and MEP Robert Biedroń. The Left Together co-leaders are Adrian Zandberg and Magdalena Biejat. The Left views resemble those of the majority of European social democracy and remains strongly pro-EU, with the exception of the Left Together which is sceptical about Eurozone accession.
The fourth and last is the Polish People’s Party (PSL), an old agrarian party led by Włodzimierz Kosiniak-Kamysz. The PSL is an EPP member, but is much more traditional than the EPP’s centrist PO. The public support of PSL is about 4 to 5 per cent, around the electoral threshold of 5 per cent. It supports Eurozone accession and energy transformation, but it is less progressive on social issues and opposes agricultural reform.
The PSL traditional stronghold used to be the countryside, where about 40 per cent of the Polish population lives. Largely eradicated and replaced by the Law and Justice, today PSL faces a new protest movement among certain groups of farmers, the AgroUnion, under the leadership of Michał Kołodziejczak. AgroUnion has minimal chances to enter the parliament, but could undermine the PSL individual chances of entering the Sejm, Poland’s lower chamber.
The four political forces together describe themselves as “democratic” in opposition to the government, which they consider undemocratic because it breaks democratic norms and the rule of law. In response, the PiS politicians argue that the opposition is “total” (hence, not constructive) and anti-Polish.
The final force in the mix is the Confederacy, a far-right party uniting various strands of nationalists and conservative libertarians and led by former MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke. Another important figure is Krzysztof Bosak, who was the Confederates’ candidate for president in 2020 and won 6 per cent of the votes. They represent regressive social views and some members of Confederacy are suspect of pro-Russia links promoting Russian propaganda in Poland. Confederacy is critical of the Polish support provided to the Ukrainian refugees arguing it was disproportionate. Euroscepticism is part of their self-identification. Confederacy polls between 4 and 7 per cent. The Confederacy is not considered part of the “democratic opposition” bloc.
Run up to the elections
The Sejm requires 5 per cent votes for parties and 8 per cent for coalitions to enter parliament which meant that at 0.45 per cent, the Left could not join the chamber in 2015. PiS, on the other hand, gained 235 seats in the 460-members Sejm and began its revolution.
The difference between 2015 and 2019 was the coalition partners. In 2015, Ziobro was an individual and, by 2019, he controlled a group of about 20 MPs. This has effectively paralysed the coalition on issues such as the rule of law and the EU recovery funds, but also on other issues such as animal welfare (majority of PiS in favour).
Ziobro’s growing influence has prompted questions about the future of PiS’s alliance with United Poland. Ryszard Terlecki, PiS leading politician, recently openly said that PiS should run without Ziobro and his people. Ultimately, the decision on remaining in the coalition lies with Jarosław Kaczyński.
Law and Justice has a limited coalition capacity, should the next Sejm be divided. This winter, as the campaign is already under way, PiS politicians seem to be considering forming a winning coalition with the Confederacy should it be necessary.
On the opposition side, the major question is in how many electoral blocs it should run. There is major pressure on the “democratic front” to run in one bloc. There are arguments for and against such a solution. Among the arguments against a united bloc is that it would be easy to attack by PiS. For example, the conservative rural PSL voters would face a scare campaign that voting for PSL would effectively mean voting for breaking the Catholic values.
In Poland’s polarised context, the electoral campaign is less about convincing the undecided voter, more about motivating one’s base and making those of competing parties stay at home.
It is highly unlikely that the four partners will agree on a single united opposition list. In 2022, an alliance bringing together opposition parties from across the political spectrum failed to oust Viktor Orban. The alternative would be to run on two or three lists. Multiple lists would make it more likely that each party secures seats in the next Sejm – a major concern for PSL in particular.
The Left will form one bloc, as the Left Together threatened to leave the Left, should it join a larger coalition including the Civic Platform.
The first most likely to run together is Poland 2050 and the PSL. If this coupling is successful in the next weeks, it could attract some voters. Both actors portray themselves as alternatives to the duel between Jarosław Kaczyński and Donald Tusk. Majority of the Polish public would prefer for both men to retire from politics together.
Should the talks with Poland 2050 fail, the Civic Coalition and PSL could form an “EPP coalition”.
Meanwhile, there are also elections to the Senate. In 2019 the opposition run a united Senate bloc and won the majority in the upper chamber. It is expected that all four parties will cooperate in order to improve their chance to maintain the control over the Senate. The Senate elections are “single seat” and whoever comes first, wins the seat. Candidates of four parties running against each other strengthen the PiS candidates’ chances. In 2019 the opposition took control over the Senate. It was an effective tool to launch public debates on many issues over the extra month Senate has to legislate. During the 2015 to 2019 term, PiS could get new legislation through the Sejm and the Senate in hours. Since 2019, this has no longer been possible.
In the race for the Sejm, it is crucial for the opposition not to allow its list to fall below the threshold as that would cost them seats and allow a single-party rule as seen in 2015.
What if the opposition wins?
In the current stage of the electoral campaign one thing is clear. Tusk remains the leader of the largest party and may become Poland’s next prime minister ruling a coalition government with the PSL, Poland 2050 and the Left. The goal for the opposition is to gain substantial advantage over PiS so it can overrule any presidential vetoes (Duda will be in office until mid-2025) or to change the constitution (especially on abortion rights, same-sex marriage, euro-zone accession, and on the relationship between EU law and Polish constitutional law). At the very least, the four partners want enough seats to govern.
Regardless of their parliamentary power, the opposition would face a major challenge fixing the country after eight years of PiS rule. The investigative journalists and opposition MPs have led to discovery of over 100 corruption, nepotism or mismanagement scandals of the PiS government that have never been prosecuted under justice minister Ziobro. To clean up those stories is one task. Tackling Poland’s rule of law, green transition and high inflation issues is another.
The opposition does not have one candidate for a prime minister. It could happen that Tusk could be too divisive for his coalition partners or that he would personally opt out of becoming prime minister. Recent polls suggest that Rafał Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw and 2020 presidential candidate who won 10 million votes, is PO’s second option and the most popular potential future prime minister.
The outcome of the autumn election is far from clear. Only a few months ago Law and Justice was pessimistic about their chances for success. Early 2023 polls reported above 30 per cent support. Still, the combined support for the democratic opposition – about 50 per cent – is much higher. The campaign is already well under way. Debates within the governing coalition and within the democratic opposition will determine the number of electoral lists. In Poland’s polarised context, the electoral campaign is less about convincing the undecided voter, more about motivating one’s base and making those of competing parties stay at home.