3rd Dec 2023


Poland's biggest election since 1989

  • Even if the pro-democratic opposition wins national elections and builds a stable majority, repairing the country will be daunting (Photo:
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This Sunday (15 October), Poles head to vote in the most consequential parliamentary elections since the partially-free elections in 1989 that turned a Soviet satellite state into a burgeoning democracy.

The ruling right-wing party Law & Justice (PiS), led by Jarosław Kaczyński, and its minor allies, have been in power for eight years and overseen major economic successes, improvements to energy security and have rapidly expanded Polish defence capabilities in reaction to Russia's brazen assault on Ukraine.

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But at the same time, the ruling coalition has eroded the rule of law, politically compromised the country's top courts and the judicial council, stifled dissent among judges and lawyers, targeted journalists with frivolous lawsuits, restricted abortion rights and picked a fight with the EU over values.

Poland is now embroiled in a conflict with the European Commission, with its Covid-19 recovery fund withheld over, among others, concerns about the rule of law and judicial independence.

These elections are free but not fair, as PiS has been pursuing an anti-democratic agenda ahead of the vote.

The ruling party has been abusing state-owned public media and outlets controlled by state energy giant Orlen to push relentless propaganda to boost the government's image and denigrate the opposition.

The nationwide referendum, which is, in fact, a plebiscite on some government policies, is being held on the same day as the elections and is being used to rally the support base of the ruling coalition while simultaneously placing the opposition in a tight spot.

The Supreme Court chamber tasked with overseeing the vote, handling electoral protests and validating the vote, consists of judges appointed on recommendation from a politically-captured judicial council and found — by the European Court of Human Rights — to lack independence.

Loaded dice

The deck is stacked in favour of PiS, and the opposition faces an uphill struggle.

The opposition arrayed to challenge PiS represents a diverse spectrum of politics.

The good news is that three of the opposition alliances are mostly on the same page regarding key items such as the place of Poland in the EU, the rule of law, human rights, democracy, supporting Ukraine, and countering Russia and China.

The big tent centrist-liberal-green Civic Coalition led by former PM Donald Tusk, the Third Way — a coalition of agrarian party PSL and newcomer centre-right Polska2050, and The Left, an alliance of leftist parties and organisations led by ex-communist social democrats from SLD and fiery young leftists from Razem — all agree that PiS has eroded the rule of law and democracy.

But having them work together means overcoming differences on other topics: namely, on the economy, taxes, business regulation, farming and green transition — not an easy task.

The fourth significant opposition party, the far-right libertarian Konfederacja, walks a different path and could likely be a coalition ally of PiS. Konfederacja is people who 'simply' want low taxes, a right to bear arms and small government, but also people who think Ukraine should be left on Russia's mercy or people who believe that the age of sexual consent for young girls should be for parents to decide and not regulated by law. Such views set off alarm bells among the European liberal establishment.

If PiS prevails and builds a coalition with Konfederacja, Poland wouldn't be the first EU member state with the far-right in power.

But reconciling Konfederacja's extreme laissez-faire economic views with PiS being all about social transfers and removing economic inequalities would be a tough match.

Even if the pro-democratic opposition wins and builds a stable majority, repairing the country will be daunting.

President Andrzej Duda, armed with the power of a legislative veto, will stay in office until 2025 and could block any attempts to reform the country, as it's unlikely that a majority built by the current opposition would have enough votes to defeat his veto in the parliament.

The Constitutional Tribunal, packed with judges friendly to PiS and presided over by an ally of Kaczyński, could complicate matters even further by striking down new laws.

Some important changes would not require legislation and could happen very quickly. But the larger reform of the country would be a long and bumpy road.

Ahead of the vote, Democracy Reporting International is posting a series of articles on the rule of law and Poland's elections.

Author bio

Jakub Jaraczewski is research coordinator for the rule of law at Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.

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