Expanding the Legacy

PiS Hold on Power in the Balance 

Poland Votes


Clutching at straws. With the slimmest of margins, voters in Poland opened a narrow path for the pro-EU opposition to reclaim power after eight years in the proverbial wilderness. With fear and ill-disguised loathing, the European Union watched as the national-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) of deputy prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczyński (74) prepared to claim its third consecutive victory at the polls.

Whilst PiS did not disappoint in Sunday’s parliamentary election, securing 36.8 percent of the vote (43.6% in 2019) according to an exit poll by Ipsos, the party is unlikely to cement a coalition that represents a parliamentary majority. Its only possible partner, the far-right Confederation Liberty and Independence, has already discarded joining PiS in government and returns with a much lower-than-expected twelve seats in the 460-strong Sejm, Poland’s lower house.

The Civic Coalition headed by former prime minister and EU Council president Donald Tusk (66) received 31.6 percent of the vote. A possible coalition with Third Way (13%) and The Left (8.6%) would enable Mr Tusk to form a government. The three parties indicated that they are ready to govern the country. However, as the largest party, PiS will get the first shot at finding a parliamentary majority.

PiS chairperson Kaczyńsky remained hopeful and speculated that the exit poll may underestimate the party’s performance: “Some voters would rather not admit to voting for us.” The official result is expected this evening or Tuesday morning. At 73 percent, voter turnout was the highest since the fall of communism in 1991. At some polling stations, people had to wait for up to six hours before being able to cast their vote.

Younger male voters, frustrated with the PiS high-handedness, and largely ignored by the more progressive parties, failed to come trough on their intention to vote far right. The 18-to-24-year-olds, make up just seven percent of the electorate. Younger female voters tended towards the left over issues such as abortion and women rights.

The Confederation Liberty and Independence was expected to come in third but ended behind Third Way and The Left barely scraping together enough votes to meet the five percent threshold required for representation in parliament. According to Ipsos, turnout amongst young voters was particularly high.

The election pitted the conservative rural vote against the more progressive urban one in an exceptionally divisive campaign. If returned to power, Mr Tusk promises to reinsert the country into the heart of Europe by undoing the judicial reforms that undermine the independence of courts – a long-standing bone of contention with Brussels.

The Civic Coalition also wants to re-legalise abortion, end discrimination of LGBTQ+ people, remove the institutional bias at state media outlets, and mend relations with Ukraine after the unilateral imposition of a ban on grain imports from the war-torn country. In early morning trading, the Polish zloty was up by about 1.3 percent against the euro, expressing the market’s relief at the outcome.

Back From the Brink

Under PiS rule, Poland drifted towards the political fringes of the EU, becoming an outlier much like Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Last year, the European Commission withheld €35.4 billion in coronavirus recovery funds over rule of law concerns. The commission also fined the country €1 million (£870,000) per day for ignoring a ruling of the European Court of Justice, halving the penalty after the country’s parliament approved two key pieces of legislation that sought to address EU concerns.

Since PiS is in power, Poland has repeatedly run afoul of EU legislation. In 2021, the country’s constitutional tribunal – stuffed with judges appointed by the party – ruled that some provisions of the consolidated treaties that were signed upon EU accession clashed with the constitution. The ruling effectively rejected the well-established and -accepted principle of EU law primacy over domestic law.

At the time, speculation about an impending ‘Polexit’ ran rife although opinion polls invariable showed that an overwhelming majority of Polish voters (averaging 88%) wish for the country to remain a member of the bloc.

The return to power of a coalition presided over by Donald Tusk would be warmly welcomed in Brussels and take the wind out of the sails of eurosceptics such as prime minister Orbán of Hungary. Mr Tusk has also indicated he will stop Poland’s opposition to institutional reforms currently being debated in Brussels such as the extension of qualified majority voting on foreign policy issues.

That change would not only facilitate the decision-making process in an enlarged union, but also stop smaller member states from blocking legislation aimed at strengthening political cohesion. Moreover, the move would counter attempts by Russia to sow discord in the EU via proxies, such as Hungary and possibly Slovakia.

The election was far from perfect with one-sided reporting on state media and entities such state-owned oil company Orlen reducing fuel prices in districts where the opposition was seen to have an edge. A simultaneous referendum on four topics central to government policies was boycotted by the opposition and failed to attain the fifty percent voter turnout required for validation.

© 2013 Photo by European People’s Party

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