Discover more from Persuasion
A Brighter Future for Poland
The opposition’s startling election victory upends narratives about Eastern Europe’s illiberal drift.
In a surreal turn of events, following Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Poland, both the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) and the largest party in the opposition, the Civic Coalition (KO), declared victory. In absolute terms, PiS had indeed won more parliamentary seats than any other party, garnering over 35% of the vote. But the math was not on their side: KO, together with two other opposition parties that had coordinated with each other during the electoral campaign period, collectively gained almost 54% of the vote, giving them enough seats to try to form a coalition government and to oust PiS from power.
The opposition victory in Poland represents a shock to the system within an East and Central European political landscape that had for years seen illiberal nationalists gain and retain power. Following a playbook pioneered by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, PiS has brandished its autocratic, nationalist, right-wing brand of Catholic populism to reshape the country’s judiciary, create a politicized system of patronage in Poland, and, perhaps most crucially, remake state-funded media outlets into partisan mouthpieces of the government.
Had PiS won a majority of the vote or even gained enough seats to create a viable coalition government, they might well have finished what they started, completing their subjugation of the courts and fully sidelining the opposition using tools like their controversial and partisan “anti-Russian influence” commission. A takeover of the state of the sort that Orbán has achieved in Hungary would be a very real possibility, effectively turning Poland into a one-party oligarchy.
Yet KO, a centrist party with largely liberal social attitudes, together with their center-right and left-wing coalition partners, seem to have brought Poland back from the brink. For the better part of a decade, conventional wisdom about the region held that countries like Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia had fundamentally more traditional social and political values than did other parts of Europe. With their liberal views, particularly on women’s rights, KO and its partners offer an arresting departure from that set of assumptions—and have proved that more liberal views have widespread support. A series of opposition-sponsored marches, held in Warsaw during the campaign, drew over a million people to the streets.
Days after Sunday’s election, PiS leaders implicitly accepted their defeat—but bitterly. A senior party official stated that “evil [had] prevailed in Poland.” Such rhetoric has been par for the course for the party, and was in keeping with what had been one of the most ruthless campaign cycles in modern Polish history. PiS had hurled accusations of treason and pro-Russian sympathies at the opposition, while weaponizing state media to go after its political rivals. They appeared to have all the tools they needed to tilt the scales in their favor.
Nevertheless, Poland’s voters, above all urbanites and young people, mobilized in an unprecedented fashion. Turnout in Sunday’s election reached a stunning 73%, higher even than in the watershed 1989 elections that marked the end of Soviet-backed communism in Poland. The opposition also did better than expected in rural areas, with voters demonstrating unhappiness over inflation and over PiS’ fatiguing ideological battles with Brussels.
Beneath these factors, more fundamental changes are taking place in Polish society that may make Sunday’s surprise results less of an anomaly than one might imagine. Though Poland has long been one of the most religious countries in Europe, young Poles have begun to dramatically buck this trend. According to CBOS, Poland’s state research agency, less than 25% of young people in Poland today are actively religious, down from 70% in 1992. A slew of issues, including poor handling of sex abuse in the Catholic Church, may be responsible for this shift—but the implications could be potentially catastrophic for conservative parties like PiS that have built their support base around the church.
The election results not only return Poland closer to the EU mainstream but signal a renewed commitment to Ukraine. The last months before the election have been colored by high-profile spats between PiS leaders and Ukraine’s government over grain shipments from Ukraine into Poland, which the government feared would flood the local market and hurt Polish farmers. The future of various benefit programs for Ukrainian refugees in Poland has also been called into question by PiS politicians. Despite emerging as stalwart defenders of Kyiv with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, PiS has increasingly been pushed toward a protectionist, “Poland First” approach to Ukraine, largely due to pressure from its agricultural base and from its notorious challengers on the far-right, the nascent Confederation party, which has taken a much more firmly anti-Ukrainian stance than most other players across Poland’s political spectrum.
Confederation, which has a history of anti-Semitic and at times pro-Russian attitudes, was widely perceived to be a potential kingmaker in a close election. Despite a long history of antipathy between PiS and Confederation, an alliance would likely have been the only way for PiS to form a coalition government given the slim chances that it alone would win an outright majority. Ultimately, however, Confederation’s appeal proved overstated: it took only 7% of the vote, too small of a share to help PiS in forming a new government.
With the threat from Confederation and its anti-Ukraine stance abated, KO and its allies appear set to double down on support for Ukrainians both in Poland and on the frontline. Not only have opposition leaders promised to continue sending military aid to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and to repair damaged Polish-Ukrainian diplomatic ties, but they have committed to continuing the modernization of Poland’s military to stave off Russian threats closer to home.
Yet for all the enthusiasm around the elections, the opposition still has a long way to go before it will be able to enact its vision for Poland and to undo PiS’ overhaul of the political system. PiS will likely get the first shot at government formation despite its negligible chances at succeeding, and even once the KO-led government takes power, they will have to contend with a significant PiS contingent in parliament and a PiS-aligned president, Andrzej Duda. PiS has spent years refashioning Poland’s judiciary and political networks in its own image and has worked hard to make them impervious to reform. And despite their evident desire to work together to oust PiS from Polish politics, KO and its opposition partners are far from united in all of their policy views.
But no matter how successful this new government turns out to be, time is now on the side of reform: the seeds have been sown for Poland to break out of its traditional political confines, potentially opening the door for it to pursue a more dynamic, democratic, yet still fundamentally Polish future.
Michal Kranz is a Warsaw-based journalist who covers Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He has reported from the ground during the war in Ukraine, covered politics and society in Lebanon, and regularly reports on regional developments from Poland.
And, to receive pieces like this in your inbox and support our work, subscribe below: