On October 15, the Polish parliamentary election struck European politics. This was a critical juncture where the current ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), would continue to erode Polish democracy and harmony in the EU. At last, the opposition alliance Civic Coalition (KO) won with 53.52% of votes, though PiS received the most votes with 35.58%. The turnout was over 74% – the highest since Poland’s first free elections in 1989.
What happened to Poland, and how did it turn into a hidden bomb threatening the EU?
In 1989, Poland’s first free elections led to the peaceful fall of communism and the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Then, its free-market economy and democratic political system thrived, and it became a valued EU member. For over a quarter of a century, Poland has been seen as a poster child of post-communist success.
In October 2015, right-wing populist and national-conservative party PiS won the parliamentary election. It was the first time in post-communist Poland that a party won the absolute majority in the upper house of the parliament. The greatest opposition was Civic Platform (PO), which later created the centrist opposition alliance KO with other parties like Third Way and The Left.
The separation of power in the Polish government was gradually eradicated
The victory of PiS in 2015 was a political earthquake for Poland. Just two months after the election, PiS passed a controversial law that raised the bar for Constitutional Court rulings from a simple majority to a two-thirds majority. Meaning that it was more difficult for the Constitutional Court, the only branch of government independent from PiS influence, to judge whether a law is constitutional. Besides, PiS appointed five judges out of the 15-member court. Due to these factors, the separation of power in the Polish government was gradually eradicated.
PiS targeted civil society next. In 2016, it passed another law that enabled the government to appoint and fire the heads of public TV and radio. After these series of controversial reforms, the European Commission officially launched an inquiry into whether the Polish government broke EU democracy rules in January 2016. It was the first time that the EU activated this rule of law mechanism. If the EU confirmed that Poland violated democracy, its voting rights in the EU council would be suspended.
The furious local protests and international pressure did not stop PiS. In 2018, the government attempted to lower the retirement age of judges to force a third of them to retire, but it was stopped by the European Court of Justice. In 2020, the government banned abortion unless the pregnancy was life-threatening, and violently suppressed the large-scale protests against the act. At this point, Poland’s rule of law index had declined by nearly one-tenth since 2015.
2020 also marked the split between Poland and the EU. In November, Poland and Hungary vetoed a budget package that included a €750bn Covid recovery fund as the member states’ access to the funds was conditional on adherence to the rule of law. It demonstrates Poland’s complete rejection of the founding principle of the EU. Considering the continuous violation of democracy, the EU started to freeze the structural fund for Poland in 2022.
Moreover, Poland brought real trouble to the EU. For example, it vetoed a set of conclusions that protect the LGBT+ community from discrimination this year. This kind of act required unanimous approval of all member states, so the uncooperative attitude of Poland and Hungary would hinder the EU’s decision-making and promotion of human rights.
The participation of young and female votes played an important role in the opposition’s victory too. The turnout was 74.7% among women and nearly 69% among those under 30
Mass protests have been prevalent in Poland since 2015, but the government agitated the nation again with the establishment of an ‘anti-Russian’ commission before the election. It can bar anyone “under Russian influence” between 2007 and 2022 from holding national office for a decade. While it seemed to protect Poland from Russian infiltration in politics, the EU and opposition parties condemned that it targeted PO’s leader Donald Tusk, who also served as the prime minister between 2007 and 2014.
Two weeks before the parliamentary election, a million Polish protested in the ‘Great March for Democracy’ against PiS
Two weeks before the parliamentary election, a million Polish protested in the ‘Great March for Democracy’ against PiS. The rally was called by Tusk, who described it to be the largest demonstration in Poland since the fall of communism.
In the latest election, PiS failed to secure a majority of seats in the parliament. With KO attracting over 53% of the votes, so a coalition government is expected to be formed. Donald Tusk is likely to be the next Prime Minister.
The turnout is undoubtedly a highlight of the election. The record-high turnout of over 74% confirmed the legitimacy of the new government and the power of representative democracy. The participation of young and female votes played an important role in the opposition’s victory too. The turnout was 74.7% among women and nearly 69% among those under 30. Policies asserting conservative Catholic ideologies like the abortion ban and erosion of liberty were their major concern.
Despite the national animosity against PiS, the opposition’s victory was not an easy one. The press freedom index of Poland has been the lowest in the EU since its new media law in 2016. Telewizja Polska, the Polish public broadcaster that controls a third of the national media, has become the government’s propaganda arm. PiS also mobilised the state-controlled companies to advertise itself. Thus, the media coverage regarding the election was biased and it was difficult for the opposition to campaign.
Besides, PiS still successively achieved the greatest proportion of votes among all parties. It remains considerably popular due to its effective socio-economic policies since 2015 like the ‘500 plus’ child subsidy. They have contributed to the economic miracle of low taxes, low cost of living, and the longest uninterrupted GDP growth for over three decades in European history. The significant improvement in living standards has helped PiS gain a lot of support from the ground.
PiS’s insistence on conservative Christian ideology has helped it mobilise core supporters in rural areas too. It always argues that the “great offensive of evil” is threatening Polish national identity and Christian values that stabilise the social order. This rhetoric of a moral crusade has created an atmosphere of moral panic among the conservative votes, who then support its anti-Muslim immigrants, anti-EU, and anti-LGBT+ policies. The amount of votes PiS got reveals the deepest moral division in Polish society, which brings uncertainty to future liberal reforms and social stability.
The road to resuming democracy is also rocky from an administrative perspective. In the short term, the new Parliament cannot take power for two months. It is when the president convenes the new parliament and nominates the prime minister, and the new prime minister wins a parliamentary vote of confidence. The PiS can easily delay the reform in this period as the constitutional court, central bank, and television are in its control. In the long term, the unity of the opposition alliance is fundamental to a successful reform. If the alliance breaks, none of the parties will be strong enough to counter the expansion of PiS. Moreover, the current President is a PiS supporter. The opposition alliance, which only has around half of the parliamentary seats, must attain a three-fifths majority to overcome a presidential veto. It is unknown whether the coalition can do so before the next presidential election in 2025.
Yet, the opposition’s victory brings hope to most Poles. After the election result was released, Tusk promised that the coalition government “will create a good new democratic government”. He has been unequivocal about the legalisation of abortion up to 12 weeks and same-sex marriage throughout the campaign too. These reforms sound radical for the Polish conservative community, but his promise and liberal attitude towards human rights and inclusivity hint at a possible change in Polish politics and society in the future.
The reconciliation with the EU is another focus of Tusk. Around a week after the election, he visited Brussels and vowed to bring Poland back to the “European stage” and unlock funds of over €35 billion. As the former President of the European Council, he also has the connections required to reset Poland’s influence in the EU. Since Poland is strategically important in the EU regarding the war in Ukraine, many political analysts predict Poland to take up a leading role in the bloc. Berlin has openly supported Tusk several times, so Poland’s return may influence the growingly intense relationship between Berlin and Paris in the EU.
Nobody knows what will happen, but the Polish election proves that democracy can be resilient even when the system of checks is broken. It has left a small candlelight among the democratic activists fighting in Europe swept by far-right political parties. As long as we can vote, we should not lose hope. We can all bring changes by casting our ballots.