Nationalists ousted in Poland: a game-changer for the EU
For a decade Law and Justice has joined with Viktor Orban in dismantling the rule of law, curtailing press freedom and blocking EU climate action. It looks like Polish voters have sent them packing.
At first glance, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. After all, according to exit polls the far-right Law and Justice (PiS) party came first in yesterday’s Polish election with 200 seats. But, as so often happens in multi-party parliamentary democracies, first place doesn’t mean you won. 200 seats is not enough to form a government, and the ultranationalist Confederation party, their possible coalition partner, only got 12 seats - together not enough for the 231 out of 460 seats needed. The centre-right Civic Platform, led by former European Council President Donald Tusk, came second with 163 seats according to exit polls. Together with centre-right and centre-left allies they would have 248 seats, enough to form a government. In a country where the political spectrum sits overwhelmingly to the right and the left is almost nonexistent, keeping the far-right nationalists out of power is a significant victory for those supporting liberal democracy. It still needs to be confirmed by the actual count today, but it appears the liberal democratic opposition has won.
“It’s the end of the bad times, the end of the PiS rule,” Tusk told a jubilant crowd last night after exit polls came out. “We’ve won democracy, we’ve won freedom, we’ve won our free beloved Poland. This day will be remembered in history as a bright day, the rebirth of Poland.”
It’s a surprise result given that PiS, which has been in power for eight years, used the full apparatus of the government and the state media they’ve taken control of to try to win this. They even were offering rewards to their rural voters to go vote. They also scheduled a last-minute referendum with migration questions designed to turn out their rural right vote and make the opposition parties look bad. But it appears that many people refused to vote on those questions, as it had only 40% turnout, short of the 50% threshold needed. The overall turnout was 73%. That’s the highest proportion in the history of democratic Poland, even higher than the first election after the fall of Communism.
After a decade of horrible relations between Brussels and Warsaw, which saw the EU challenging the government’s erosion of the rule of law and interference with the judiciary (withholding funding as a result) things are about to change significantly. PiS was founded by the Kaczyński twins, only one of whom, Jarosław, still heads the party after his brother was killed in the infamous 2010 Smolensk plane crash in Russia. Today the PiS prime minister is Mateusz Morawiecki, and he has been antagonistic to Brussels to say the least (something papered over recently by the Brussels-Warsaw alignment on the Ukraine War, something that has strained Budapest-Warsaw relations).
Donald Tusk, who is expected to become the next prime minister, is a pro-EU centrist who himself was heading the European Council in Brussels just four years ago. Poland is the fifth-largest country in the EU and was the anchor of the 2004 Eastern accession, since then often seeing itself as the guarantor of the East’s interests. Having Warsaw in the wilderness all these years was incredibly damaging to EU cohesion and unity. The Budapest-Warsaw axis, backed intermittently by Prague and Bratislava as part of the V4 alliance, have protected each other from rule of law consequences because they require unanimous votes in the Council. Without PiS in power, Viktor Orban is in trouble.
The change in government will also have a significant effect on EU climate policy. Law and Justice has been trying to vote down EU climate policy for a decade, and has had varying degrees of success in doing so. The government currently has four legal challenges against President von der Leyen’s green deal, which Civic Platform has already say they will immediately cancel. The loss of PiS’s vote in Council in theory means more will be possible on climate.
The result is also a relief for Poland’s gay community which has been targeted by this government, notably by establishing “LGBT-free zones” (something condemned by the European Parliament). PiS also launched a crackdown on criminalizing abortion, seeking out women who had surreptitiously had to procedure to punish them and even going so far as draining a woman’s cesspit to find fetal remains as proof. Whether Poland’s new center-right government will fully legalize abortion and grant gay marriage is a big question, but at least the persecution will stop.
“The election is a triumph of both democracy and liberalism,” concludes Piotr Buras from the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The opposition won this election despite its deeply unfair nature: the ruling party used the financial and institutional power of the state to its advantage, but failed to succeed.”
Whether or not it was a love of democracy that made Polish voters reject PiS this time around, however, is less clear however. “The deteriorating economic situation, high inflation and incompetence of the government are the main reasons for the PiS defeat,” says Buras. “In the past, PiS’s popularity was based upon the appeal of generous social benefits. However, many voters have become concerned about what was perceived as unfair distribution of public money. Also, the flip side of the high level of direct payments to the citizens has been the deteriorating state of public services. While from 2015-2019 many citizens believed that they were better off with the PiS government, even if they did not necessarily share the party’s ideological positions, in the last four years they have become more and more disappointed.”
But Tusk doesn’t face an easy task in de-PiSifying the Polish state, healing the economy and mending EU relations. Polish President Andrzej Duda is close with PiS and will likely ask them to try to form a government first because they got the most vote (as the King of Spain did after July’s election, even though the party that came first had no chance of forming a government). Although this will almost certainly fail, it will keep PiS in power until at least mid-December as a caretaker government with full control over state institutions.
“The real test of whether and how the power will be transferred to the new government will come at the end of the year,” says Buras. “The main immediate goal of the new government will be to remove PiS people from the state institutions, state owned companies, and public television. The promise of the liberals is to restore the rule of law and get the EU funds released as quickly as possible. But even with full control of parliament, the new government will face tremendous obstacles. President Duda can veto each piece of legislation and the new government will not have the 3/5 majority needed to overrule his veto.”
Tusks’ new government will be a shaky one. “With a strong and hostile anti-European opposition – PiS and the far-right Konfederacja – representing more than 40 per cent of the voters, European policy-making will be the subject of a polarised political debate which will limit the government’s room for maneuver as it faces very serious challenges in transforming the post-PiS country and restoring the rule of law,” says Buras.
But those are problems for another day. For now, supporters of liberal democracy in Europe are elated after having endured so many frightening election results in recent times. And the allies of PiS, from Orban in Hungary to Meloni in Italy to Le Pen in France, are surely thinking nervously about what the future holds for them. Less directly, the British Conservatives - who allied with PiS in 2009 and together created the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group because of their shared anti-EU views - will also be wondering how it affects them to have the last Brexit-sympathetic government in Europe taken out. They will likely look to Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, who now heads ECR, for such support, suggested by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s warm meeting with Meloni and their editorial last week proclaiming “we are two of the closest friends in Europe today.” The problem is that, unlike with Poland, Italy doesn’t have a history of cooperating with the UK or any particular shared interest. And no party in Italy has any interest in leaving the EU (especially after having witnessed the Brexit mess).
Meanwhile, without his ally Poland to protect him any more in Council, Viktor Orban will be looking to Robert Fico in Slovakia and Giorgia Meloni in Italy to bail him out. Both leaders have their own reasons not to do so. Fico is from the left and has a different political orientation than the far-right Orban, and the two countries have long-running tensions over the status of ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia. Meloni, for her part, has been busy since taking office convincing the world that she is center-right: wholeheartedly supporting Ukraine, sticking with economic orthodoxy and only making a light fuss on migration. It is unlikely she would want to jeapordize her newfound status as the darling of Brussels and Washington in order to protect Orban. Her visit with Orban last month, which was highly supportive, still left things unclear about whether she intends to ally with him on the European stage.
The Polish election is a turning point for Europe, but where the continent’s nationalists go from here is hard to guess.