28th Nov 2023


Poland's Tusk now faces greatest challenge of his career

  • Donald Tusk's opposition Civic Coalition (KO) party won about 31 percent support on Sunday (Photo: European Union)
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Poland has sailed into a period of political turbulence after Sunday's parliamentary election (15 October) with final polls giving Law and Justice (PiS) the greatest share of the vote — but opposition parties, taken together, winning a popular majority which will enable them to form the next government.

The result marks a major shift in Europe as it sees one of the largest EU member states bucking trends favouring populist-nationalist regimes and opens the way to the establishment in Warsaw of a democratic, rule-of-law-respecting government.

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The 74-year old Jarosław Kaczynski, whose PiS party has been in power since 2015, claimed victory as the exit polls gave his party a 37-percent vote share and said: "Whether we form the government or go into opposition we will not allow Poland to be betrayed".

Meanwhile, Donald Tusk, the head of the opposition Civic Coalition (KO), with 31 percent support was quick to announce that "this is the end of the PiS government, the end of a bad time for Poland" as the united opposition secured a ruling majority.

The polling suggests that three opposition parties, Tusk's centrist KO together with the centre-right Third Way (14 percent) and the Left (nine percent) could count on 248 seats in the 460-strong parliament, allowing them to form the next government — as they said they would do during the campaign.

The results on the back of a record 72 percent turnout, which saw voters waiting in long queues to vote till the early hours of the morning. And the vote itself came after a bruising campaign in which PiS warned Poland would be flooded with immigrants under a Tusk-led regime which would be beholden to the "bureaucrats in Brussels" who, according to PiS, are puppets of a Germany bent on dominating Europe.

But a majority of voters ignored Kaczynski's warnings of national betrayal and chaos under Tusk and voted for the opposition even though the PiS campaign was shored up by a virulent public media (controlled by PiS) and generous payouts to key constituencies. Konfederacja [Confederation], an openly anti-EU far-right party, came last with a less-than-expected low of six percent support.

The next move is for Poland's president Andrzej Duda, a PiS stalwart, to ask the winner of the campaign to form a government which would then seek parliamentary approval. Failing that parliament itself would identify a party capable of winning a majority reflecting the election result.

Two-month wait?

The process, however, could last more than two months.

By all accounts, this will bring Tusk, a former head of the European Council, into government facing him with the greatest challenge of his long career. This will be to restore the rule of law, remove government threats to media freedom, and clear the government administration and state-owned companies of hordes of PiS-appointed men and women.

The main short-term task for the new government will be to ride out criticism, which will support the recalcitrant PiS opposition when anti-inflation schemes put in place by PiS are phased out in the new year. Petrol prices, artificially lowered by Orlen, the state-owned petrol company, to garner electoral support, will also rise.

Budget funds will have to be found to finance coalition party election promises such as pay increases for hard-pressed teachers. At the same time, the national debt will have to be brought under control. Some relief will come from the expected release of EU post-Covid recovery aid which has been blocked by Brussels in response to Poland's drive to curb judicial independence.

Relations with Brussels will return to an even keel in the wake of the change in government and the three coalition parties unite to ditch PiS politics of disdain towards the EU, which had even put a 'Polexit' on Poland's political horizon.

Poland's position in Nato has been weakened in recent months — as relations between PiS and Ukraine fractured, and the US was dismayed at the resignation last week of two top Polish military generals, unable to work with the now outgoing government.

Another major challenge will be to cobble together a government between the three victorious parties who were united in opposition to PiS but will now be looking to work for a settlement which will improve their chances of political success in the future in a process which fuels mutual tensions.

All this will have to be achieved in the face of fierce opposition from PiS which — as the vote shows — continues to enjoy the support of over one-third of a loyal electorate and will be well-funded in opposition, through transfers made while in government to PiS-controlled non-governmental organisations.

As Kaczynski said to his supporters on Sunday night: "We will do everything in our power and we will win out in the end ... we await developments and there may well be interesting events".

Author bio

Krzysztof Bobinski is a board member of the Society of Journalists, in Warsaw, an independent NGO. He was the Financial Times correspondent in Warsaw from 1976 to 2000. He worked at the Polish Institute of Foreign Affairs (PISM) and was co-chair of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum.


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