By Czesław Kulesza and Gavin Rae
The Polish parliamentary elections, held on 15 October, have resulted in a temporary political stalemate, with no political party able to form a majority government.
The elections were once again dominated by two political blocs from the right: the Law and Justice party (PiS) and Citizens’ Coalition (KO). For the third elections in a row, PiS, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, emerged as the largest party, although the poor performance of the far-right Confederation party (Konfederacja), means that PiS has no political partner in parliament with whom they can form a government. Meanwhile, the runner-up KO, led by Donald Tusk, has declared its willingness to form a coalition government with the centre-right party Third Way (TD) and the social democratic Left (Lewica). The Left will be the minor partner in such a coalition government, and will find it difficult to win agreement for any progressive left-wing policies within it, after the left gained its lowest overall share of the vote in any election since 1989.
Record High Turnout
The elections were marked by a large increase in voter turnout, rising to 74% from 61% in 2019. This was especially due to the high participation of young people and women. These voters mobilised to remove from power the conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) government, which had introduced such policies as, during its second term in power, effectively banning abortion. In the run-up to the elections, the opposition movement, led by the Civic Coalition (KO), had organised huge demonstrations in Warsaw, showing how major sections of the electorate were actively opposed to the PiS government. However, these opposition parties did not present a coherent positive alternative to PiS, with large sections of the electorate voting to prevent PiS from winning a third term in office.
Decline in Support for PiS
Although PiS once again won the largest share of the vote, its support declined by around 8% compared to the previous elections. PiS was unable to expand beyond its core electorate as it had done in previous elections. In 2019, it could win the votes of those who believed that their living standards had improved under the PiS government, due to its introduction of such things as universal child benefits, increases in the minimum wage and reduction of the pension age. During its first term in office, PiS broke the political mode by partially challenging the neo-liberal consensus, although it did not redistribute wealth from the top of society nor challenge the economic power of large international corporations.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the corresponding rise in inflation, many felt that their living standards had stagnated or even declined in recent years. An example of the difficulties faced by PiS was the farmers’ demonstrations against the free import of grain from Ukraine. PiS responded to this by reintroducing trade barriers with Ukraine, as farmers make up an important part of its electorate. The PiS government has not significantly invested in the country’s public services and young people in particular are working in an increasingly precariatised labour market and have been priced out of the housing market. On top of this, the most extreme conservative policies of the PiS government (on issues such as abortion, LGBT+ rights, its political alliance with the Church and refugees) discouraged many people from voting for them at these elections. Support for PiS fell most amongst young people, declining from 26.3% in 2019 to just 14.7% in 2023 and it continued to fare particularly badly in large cities, where they gained just 21.4% of the vote.
PiS largely won the support of those living in the countryside and small towns and from people with a low income and basic education. Therefore, despite its overall fall in support, PiS continues to represent some of the most disadvantaged sections of society. However, PiS also suffered significant setbacks in these heartlands, with over 70% of its losses recorded in villages or small towns. PiS ran an extremely negative campaign during these elections, focussed on warning about the negative consequences of a future KO government and reminding about the neo-liberal policies introduced by Tusk when he was Prime Minister. PiS attempted to connect the parliamentary elections with a confusedly worded referendum on refugees, the maintenance of a wall on the Belarusian border, the future sell-off of state assets and raising the pension age. This backfired on PiS, with a turnout in this referendum (40%) below the required 50% to make its results binding.
Failures of the Far Right
The far-right Confederation party (Konfederacja) fared worse than many had expected after it had reached up to around 15% in the opinion polls over the summer. Confederation combines extreme neo-liberal economics (such as abolishing taxation) with policies directed against marginalised social groups such as the refugees and the LGBT+ community. Confederation won around three times as many votes from men compared to women and particularly targeted young men during its campaign. Its social Darwinian right-wing programme was least popular amongst the most disadvantaged sections of society. Therefore, although it slightly raised its vote compared to 2019, it remains a relatively marginalised political force in Polish politics.
The Centre-Right Opposition
The leader of KO, Donald Tusk, has been playing political double play for some time. On the one hand, he emphasised the role and cooperation of all political groups in removing PiS from power, and on the other hand, he did everything to convince the voters of these groups to vote KO. In order to entice voters from other parties, he developed KO’s 100 electoral demands which included politically attractive demands for voters of other opposition parties. This proved to be a politically astute strategy, with KO able to place itself at the forefront of the movement of opposition to PiS —in a position to lead any possible future coalition government. Yet, despite this success, KO only raised its share of the vote by 3% and has again been unable to surpass PiS as the largest party in Parliament.
KO is a Christian Democratic political force that belongs to the European People’s Party and has traditionally combined neo-liberal economics with social conservatism. KO remains a party that wins most of its support from the relatively privileged sections of society, including those from large cities with a higher education and relatively high income. However, as large sections of Polish society have turned against the socially reactionary agenda of PiS, KO has ostensibly moved to the left to win the support of these voters. Therefore, KO has promised not to reverse such things as the child benefits introduced by PiS and has promised more social spending. Also, it has pledged to liberalise the abortion law and introduce same-sex legally registered partnerships. At the same time, KO attacked PiS from the right on the issue of refugees, with Tusk claiming that PiS had put Poland at risk by allowing too many people from Muslim countries to enter the country.
The party which made the largest gains in these elections was the Third Way (TD). It is a new political coalition bringing together the agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL), with the new centre-right Poland 2050 party, built around the media personality Szymon Hołownia. TD offered a combination of moderate neo-liberal economics and social conservatism. On issues such as abortion, for example, it supported reversing the most draconian laws brought in by the PiS government whilst opposing legalising abortion up to twelve weeks. TD was able to draw support away from Confederation and win the votes of a broad range of social groups, including, for example, those from both the countryside and large cities.
Record Losses for the Left
The biggest losers in these elections was the Left, whose proportion of the vote nearly halved compared to 2019 and which was the only party along with PiS to see its number of seats fall (from 26 to 18). Despite the overall turnout rise, the Left lost over 460,000 votes in these elections. The Left essentially positioned itself as the left wing of the so-called democratic opposition, attending the demonstrations led by KO and Tusk against PiS. They could not offer a distinctive alternative voice to KO nor avoid the accusation that a vote for the Left represented, in reality, a vote for a future KO-led government. The Left has not distanced itself from the mainstream consensus of supporting the NATO strategy in Ukraine, including sending arms to Ukraine. It therefore supports current hikes in military spending, which undermines its other social spending pledges. Furthermore, during the election campaign, it failed to take a decisive stance against the wall constructed along the border with Belarus to try and keep refugees from entering the country (some of which have already perished trying to do so).
The Left’s decision to join other opposition parties in boycotting the referendum could be seen as a missed opportunity for the Left. The manner in which the referendum was decided and the questions themselves formulated was highly controversial. PiS aimed to secure support for Poland to be independent of European institutions (in areas such as accepting EU quotas of refugees) and to curb a return to naked neo-liberalism — for example by ruling out further privatisation of state property. The Left could have developed and promoted its own political narrative through campaigning on these questions – i.e. against future privatisations and the pension age rise, and in favour of removing the border wall with Belarus and accepting refugees. This would have differentiated it from other political parties and given room for a left narrative in the election campaign.
Support for the left declined markedly amongst older voters and those living in small towns and villages. Support for the Left remains below 5% amongst those with a basic or technical education and it even received the lowest proportion of the vote (amongst those parties/coalitions that entered Parliament) from blue-collar workers. The candidates connected to the former leading social democratic party the Democratic Left Alliance and to the social-liberal Spring party (Wiosna), which together make up Lewica, fared the worst in these elections. Meanwhile, those left candidates representing local activists, and some from the left-wing Razem party (which stood on the Lewica list), received the most votes amongst the left candidates. Razem increased its number of MPs in these elections from 6 to 7 and gained two seats in the Upper House after standing on a joint opposition slate.
A New Government
At the time of writing, no new government has been formed. President Andrzej Duda, connected to PiS, has already met with all the major political parties. Despite KO, TD and Lewica announcing that they are willing to form a new government under the Premiership of Tusk, President Duda has said that he would not call for the first sitting of the new Parliament until 13 November and would later nominate his candidate for Prime Minister. It seems that although PiS cannot form a new government, Duda and PiS are attempting to obstruct the creation of a new KO-led coalition government.
There are already signs that such a coalition government will face several difficulties. On election night, publicist and politician Szymon Hołownia announced that the election results signalled the end of social handouts, and that leaders of PSL said they would not accept a liberalisation of the abortion law as part of a coalition agreement. The Left will be the minor party in this government; and it will be difficult for them to win support for significant progressive policies inside the coalition. The left-wing party Razem looks set to enter this coalition, even though a coalition government could be formed without the support of their MPs. An alternative strategy could be for the Left to form its own group in Parliament and build an alternative left opposition to the coalition government. However, it is very unlikely that it will take this decision. Therefore, the left’s strategy which essentially consists in aligning with KO – which has led to its sharp electoral decline – is set to continue.
The above article was originally published here by transform! europe.