By Andrzej Drzewieniecki
Edited by Melle de Ridder
With all votes counted in Poland, the right-wing populist party in power, Law and Justice (PiS), hails a “historic third victory in a row”, but admits that forming a government will be difficult, having lost the majority in the Parliament. At the same time, the democratic opposition is euphoric, attaining a majority. However, bringing Poland back to European standards seems a long way ahead.
PiS’s Pyrrhic Third Victory
Regardless of the electoral result, 15 October 2023 was undoubtedly a historic day for Poland. In the country and abroad, Poles rushed to the ballots in the unprecedented mobilisation that saw a record-breaking turnout of nearly 75 per cent.
As the first exit polls came in, PiS emerged as the party with the biggest vote share, of roughly 35 to 36 per cent, spurring a triumphant atmosphere at the governing party’s electoral night. Yet, as it became evident it would not suffice to form a majority, party leader Jarosław Kaczyński admitted in his speech that “we might not hold onto power”.
However, he stressed that “we will not abandon our mission”. Clearly, the top of the party leadership braces for losing power, despite the hopeful spirit of its members.
The following day brought a change of narrative, as PiS members spoke to the press in an unprecedentedly conciliatory tone, claiming that “we will speak [to form a coalition] to anyone who cares about the good of the country”. However, all opposition parties that would be required to form a majority in parliament unequivocally ruled out coalition talks with PiS.
Additionally, the party members monotonously referred to the alleged custom of the Third Republic (since 1989), whereby the President entrusts the mission of government formation to the preferred candidate of the winning party. The Constitution does not support such a custom, but it does give primary initiative to the President.
Given his political past and practice in office, the incumbent President Andrzej Duda is undoubtedly a silent PiS supporter. Therefore it is expected that he will nominate the incumbent Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki for the herculean task of receiving a vote of confidence from the opposition-dominated Sejm (Polish House of Representatives).
Opposition Begins Coalition Talks
In spite of the expected presidential nomination of Morawiecki for PM, the democratic opposition – Donald Tusk’s liberal Civic Platform (PO), a bloc of agrarian People’s Party (PSL) and soft liberal Poland2050 (Polska 2050), and the progressive Left (Nowa Lewica) - celebrate as the victors.
Not only did the opposition deny PiS a majority in parliament, but also achieved a majority without having to bargain with the extreme-right Konfederacja party. The far-right, having polled around 15 per cent in the summer, claimed a disappointing 7.15 per cent of the vote amounting to eighteen seats in the 460 seats Sejm.
According to many, it is the record-breaking turnout and mobilisation of previously apathetic voters that provided the opposition parties with such a large democratic mandate, which resulted in 248 seats.
Under such circumstances, forming a coalition seems natural and logical for the three blocs. All leaders indeed expressed willingness to begin coalition talks as soon as possible.
However, already in the days following the election, there were early signs of potential fallout among coalition partners. It is the reproductive rights issues and LGBTQ rights that cause much discord between the more conservative PSL and Poland2050, and the progressive Left.
The statement by PSL leader Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz that “matters of conscience will not be part of any coalition agreement” spurred confusion and irritation at the Left. As of today, there is no indication that these matters seriously hindered coalition negotiations.
Furthermore, there is some doubt as to who will emerge as the Prime Minister of such a broad coalition government. Veteran Tusk seems like a prime candidate, given his experience and leadership of the biggest coalition party. Moreover, potential coalition partners recognise him as the favourite.
Constitutionally, once the presidential nominee for PM fails to secure a vote of confidence, the initiative to appoint the government is transferred to the Sejm. There, it is up to the MPs of coalition parties to agree on a suitable candidate.
Possible Delays and Budgetary Concerns
In accordance with constitutional deadlines, relatively much time can pass until it becomes the Sejm’s responsibility to agree on a new government. Were the president to exhaust the constitutional timeframes for his initiative, the Sejm could appoint the democratic coalition government only as late as around mid-December.
Such a date would be a major inconvenience for any government, as the budget for the year 2024 still has not been enacted by the parliament. That is of utmost importance for two reasons.
Firstly, last-minute enactment of the budget means that there is no time for a new government to negotiate the unblocking of billions worth of EU funds with the European Commission, which could otherwise be included in the budget.
Secondly, were the parliament to fail to enact the budget in due time, the President could dissolve parliament, which would result in another election around late February. The transition of power will, then, likely be a complicated and lengthy matter.
Democratic Coalition Facing PiS-Appointed Institutions
Seizing the government by the democratic opposition, however, will only be the first step in an incredibly long way to bring Poland back to the standards of a liberal democracy. The majority of state institutions are penetrated by PiS nominees and appointees who may obstruct the progress of forming a new government.
That is especially relevant for the organisation of the judiciary, for example, the Constitutional Tribunal – a matter of years-long disputes with Brussels regarding adherence to the rule of law. The terms of the sitting members end around 2026-27 or even later.
However, the legality of the appointment of some of them is disputed by the ECHR and may end in a series of legal battles between the new government and the judiciary.
Reversing the large overhaul of the national television (TVP) turned into a government propaganda tube over the years, is set to be a difficult task, too. The national broadcaster is constitutionally protected and regulated by the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT), filled with PiS appointees.
However, PiS created a Council for National Media, which, contrary to the constitution, was entrusted with nominating the members of the board of TVP and Polish Radio.
Needless to say, the sitting members of the Council for National Media are also PiS appointees. All in all, bringing the public broadcaster back to standards of impartial journalism will be a matter of incremental changes over an extended period of time.
Substantial Challenges Await
Manfred Weber may well have said “Poland is back!” at the forum of the European Parliament, following the Polish electoral results, but the enthusiasm of EU bureaucracy may soon be curbed.
Even though the democratic opposition is set to take over the Polish government, the transition of power is hardly going to be swift. Bringing Poland and its institutions back to Brussels-cherished standards will be a drawn-out, difficult task for the new pro-European government, which will require much precision, diplomacy and determination.
Sources: AP News, BBC, Foreign Policy, Politico, Polska Agencja Prasowa (Polish Press Agency), Reuters, The Guardian
Written by Andrzej Drzewieniecki