Those cheering for the progressive side of politics have been in for a lot of disappointment recently in Europe. The Hungarian opposition, made up of eight democratic parties, lost to Victor Orbán’s hard right Fidesz party.

We have also seen Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, rooted in post-fascism, win a landslide, making her the first radical right prime minister in her country’s modern history. Most recently, the alarm bell rang when pro-Russian Robert Fico, known as “Slovakia’s Orban,” won decisively in Slovak parliamentary elections last month.

In this light, what has happened in Poland seems truly remarkable – a coalition of liberal and left-wing parties winning a comfortable majority of 248 of 460 seats in the lower chamber.

Uneven fight

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The deck was stacked against the opposition in many ways. The ruling nationalist-conservative government of the Law and Justice party (PiS) has turned state-owned media into a propaganda machine. Throughout their eight years in government, the national radio, as well as the hugely popular state-owned news channels, have been pumping out party narrative worthy of the dark days of authoritarian communist Poland.

“Manipulation of state resources and media bias gave Law and Justice a clear advantage over opposition” reported the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe on Oct. 16.

The Catholic Church, still hugely popular in Poland, also swayed its whole weight on the side of the governing party. From cardinals to bishops, and all the way down to parish priests, clergymen were openly telling churchgoers to vote for the right. Special masses were organized to pray for the party’s leader, Jarosław Kaczyński. Church affiliated media, hugely popular in rural Poland, had one objective – put Law and Justice in government for the third term. 

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Then came additional funding which the ruling party had illegally amassed for the election campaign. Hundreds of millions of zloty of public funds have been transferred into the party’s coffers through a number of schemes. Just to list a few, in 2023 the government transferred expensive Warsaw properties to party-affiliated think tanks and foundations (known as Villa+ affair) and just a couple of months later got caught granting tens of millions of zloty to party apparatchiks, through The National Centre for Research and Development.

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What went wrong for PiS?

Law and Justice decided to play by their usual electoral campaign scenario and execute a long-standing strategy of focusing on poorer and older voters living outside main Polish agglomerations. Focusing on social spending and mixing it with saber-rattling against the EU, along with a culture war against migrants, has been their winning combination since 2015.

But this time around, it was their inability to get outside their usual playbook, that got in the way. Hard-headed and old-school chief of campaign, Joachim Brudziński, addressed the core right-wing electorate, but failed to appeal to more centrist voters.

The main focus of their campaign was stirring fears of migration from Muslim countries while improving Poland’s military security. And both of these have been hard hit by developments on the ground.

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First, it was revealed that the Law and Justice government illegally issued hundreds of thousands of work visas to migrants from Muslim-majority countries, causing not only a massive influx, but also a corruption scandal; the dismissal of deputy foreign minister; and a police investigation.

Then, five days before the election, General Rajmund Andrzejczak, the chief of the general staff, and the operational commander, Lieutenant Geneal Tomasz Piotrowski, the two most senior Polish generals, submitted their resignations. It had to do with the incompetence of the government and numerous conflicts with the defense minister.

Turning tides

On Oct. 15, Donald Tusk, leader of the centrist Civic Coalition (KO, along with the center-right “Third Way” and social democratic “Left” parties, amassed a comfortable majority of 18 seats. The record-breaking turnout of 74 percent is a testimony to how well the opposition parties were able to motivate the electorate to come out and vote. 

And this time round it wasn’t the well-disciplined retirees who went to the polls en masse and chose the government, but young voters. Almost 70 percent of Poles aged between 18 and 29 went to polling stations, while in 2019 that number was less than half. In that group, PiS scored the very last place, with just 14 percent of support, well behind the democratic opposition, who amassed two-thirds of the vote.

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Young Poles voted for liberalization of Poland’s super strict abortion law and secularization of public life away from the dominance of the Catholic clergy. They also wanted to see legalization of same-sex civil unions and a more pro-European stance on the international stage.

Back in the game

It wasn’t only PiS who lost on Oct. 15. The complete electoral failure of the far-right, anti-Ukrainian and euro-sceptic Konfederacja party is a clear signal that Poles want to remain committed to their alliances. While some pre-election polls had put them on 14 percent, on the election night they received as little as 6.8 percent, which translates to only 18 seats in the lower chamber of the parliament.

The scenario of the Eurosceptic PiS and anti-Ukrainian Konfederacja parties coalition government, which for months prior to the election had loomed like dark clouds over the horizon, has been put to rest for the next four years. Poland’s partners to the west and to the east can breathe a sigh of relief.

The soon-to-be coalition of leftists, Christian democrats and liberals, is determined to re-establish a good relationship with Brussels, put Poland back on the path of further European integration, and continue its commitment to NATO.

There is also the matter of the recent crack in Polish-Ukrainian relations. The dispute over grain transit through Ukraine’s neighbors caused a diplomatic spat between Kyiv and Warsaw. It seems like the rise of Polish nationalism, unashamedly stirred by the Law and Justice government, led to a tipping point. Not even having Russia as a common enemy was able to hold emotions and angry words back.

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Tusk announced he will return to close diplomatic cooperation with Kyiv, and his plans for resolving the grain issue have been laid out and await being executed as one of the top priorities for the new government.

However, given how broad the new coalition is bound to be, it won’t all be smooth sailing – especially when it comes to domestic policies. While all parties that will soon form a new government agree that Poland needs to rejoin the European mainstream and help Ukraine to the maximum, there is little agreement on what to do with the level of taxation, extent of social benefits, size of the state, policy for social housing and the level of public debt.

After the honeymoon period, expect rifts, drama and divisions.

Michał Piękoś is a Polish journalist and columnist, and editor-in-Chief of the Trybuna daily newspaper. He worked as editor of MSN News in Berlin and editor-in-chief of the news website wPunkt. He is a political commentator on Polish Radio 24 and a member of the Polish Association of Journalists.

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The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

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Comments ( 1)

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Sounvoice
This comment contains spoilers. Click here if you want to read.

'It seems like the rise of Polish nationalism, unashamedly stirred by the Law and Justice government, led to a tipping point. '

So we should understand that Polish 'nationalism' forced Ukraine to sue Poland to WTO and Mr Zalenskyy to make a speech at the UN. The same 'nationalism' was however OK when tanks, jets, amo, aid were delivered or when Duda (PiS) organized eg tank coalition etc.

Here quick reminder. On 20th September there were 6 countries (Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Romania) that baned import (not transit) of some Ukrainan's products. It was against EU statment from 15th September but somehow ok for Ukraine as regards to Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia.

Pity that Mr Piekos' (author's) knowledge is limited only to Polish politics and not reach beyound it. But on the other hand, it suits narrative of Kyiv Post (Ukrainie) very well.

PS
It would be nice if Kyiv Post explains us in details for example why Ukraine suspended but did not withdraw lawsuit to WTO and why grain must be sold in EU(Poland) but not be sent to starving Africa in first place.

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