NIAS Europe Studies

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NIAS Europe Studies
Poland elections 2023: Reasons behind the shift

  Padmashree Anandhan

About the Author

Padmashree Anandhan is a Research Associate at NIAS. She is currently working on an issue brief on NATO’s expansion in the phase of war in Ukraine 

Poland elections 2023: Reasons behind the shift
By Padmashree Anandhan

The 2023 election result indicates a further polarised Poland with more votes splitting

On 15 October, Poland’s National Electoral Commission released the final vote of the completed general elections. In the published results, the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party won 200 seats whereas the opposition party, Civic Coalition (KO) won 163 seats. The coalition parties of the opposition, Third Way and Lewica (Left) won 55 and 30 seats as leverage. The Confederation, a potential partner for PiS secured only 12 seats.

On 15 October, KO leader Donald Tusk said: “…Poland has won, democracy has won, this is the end of the PiS government.” PiS' leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski said: “The question before us is whether this success will be able to be turned into another term of office of our government and we don't know that yet.”

On 16 October, one of the EU diplomat (given anonymity) said: “The result should lead to better functioning of the EU where the EU truly reflects its values and principles, particularly solidarity and responsibility.”

When comparing the 2023 election results with 2019, the PiS party’s vote share has reduced by 8.2 per cent and Civic Platform has increased by 3.3 per cent. Although the opposition share increase is not massive, the performance of Third Way (14.4 per cent) and Lewica's vote share increase by four per cent from the 2019 election combined with a reduction in support for the PiS party has resulted in an advantage for the Civic Platform.

Background to the political parties
The PiS is a “national-conservative and Christian democratic political party,” formed in 2001 by Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The party’s prime focus is on socio-economic issues, Polish identity, Christian values, culture and has been more independent from the EU especially in migration. These have redeemed the party to stay in power since 2015 and continue to win a major share of votes in 2023. KO was formed in 2001 by Maciej Płażyński andrzej Olechowski and Donald Tusk who were known as “Three Tenors.” After the leadership switch in 2014, the party lost six elections against PiS so far due to a lack of party strategy and leadership. For instance, during the pandemic instead of proposing alternatives or standing by government policies criticising the ruling government has been a key agenda rather than portraying the party’s vision. Third Way, formed in 2019 emphasised keeping the state and church separate, climate neutrality, education and a comprehensive healthcare system. It received a good start with 14.4 per cent beating Lewica (the left) and Confederation. The Lewica, an alliance of the New Left and Left Together, failed to secure enough seats in the 2015 elections and since then has won between eight to ten per cent. It faces more competition from new found parties such as Third Way.

Reasons behind the shift
First, issues focused on the elections. The PiS vowed to continue the anti-migration policy and an anti-EU stance over migration. Initially portrayed as a supporter of Ukraine, has strained its relations over grain transit. Increased cash benefits and retiree programs are the strength which has sustained the party. Tusk promised to end Poland’s rift with the EU over the rule of law and bring back liberal laws on abortion and media freedom. Similarly, the Third Way and the left also focused on abortion and education, promising increased spending on healthcare and a “simpler tax system” for small businesses. The Confederation proposed a strong anti-migration, anti-LGBTQ+ stance and protection of borders. Differing from the PiS, it vouched for lesser support for Ukraine and a reduction in taxes.

Second, decline in the support for the Law and Justice party. In 2007, Tusk as a prime minister undertook “moderate social and economic” policies and strengthened the equation with the EU. Due to limited reach beyond major cities and in western Poland led to the victory of the Law and Justice party in 2015. Led by Jarosław, key institutions came under control (media and culture) and became vigorous which was viewed as a similar approach to Hungary. Reforms after the 2019 elections, on Poland’s judicial system and a new retirement law sparked concerns. This continued into stricter anti-abortion and LGBTQ+ restrictions leading to a reduction in support. EU’s freezing of pandemic recovery funds over the rule of law diminished its support. Its coalition partner the Confederation emerged from “libertarian and far-right,” whose central push was the economy on lowering taxes. This did help in gaining support from young males but its rhetoric stance on “ethnic and religious minorities” was seen more harsher than PiS which overpowers its economic argument. 

Third, leadership is a key to the Rise of the KO party. Tusk’s failure to win support across Poland in the 2015 election and subsequent position as president of the European Council did not provide an opportunity for the KO to fight strongly against PiS. This resulted in another failure in the 2019 elections and in 2021 the support decreased to 16 per cent according to the polls by Politico. The party members began to vouch for Tusk’s return to put the party back on track. In 2021, Tusk returned to lead KO which led to the recovery. Slowly the support rose to 26 per cent. Along with his return, the failure of the Confederation to appeal to the voters and the PiS clash with the EU over pandemic recovery funds favoured votes for the opposition group.

What does this mean?
First, dissatisfaction with the Polish. The 2023 election result indicates a further polarised Poland with more votes splitting into Third Way, KO and Confederation. This is mainly due to division in Poland’s society over culture, LGBTQ and economic issues. PiS corruption scandals, altering of the judicial system, the negation of EU recovery funds and Polish becoming open-minded to LGBTQ became the barricades to the Party as it pursued its rhetorical agenda. For those dissatisfied with the current government, the alternative liberal policies proposed by Third Way and KO seem to have attracted different groups of youth and the working class.

Second, the task ahead for the opposition. KO does have the votes in favour and common interests to lead to the coalition with the Third Way and the left. Looking at the party’s history, it lacks a well-defined strategy for Poland. Therefore, combining its pro-EU values, it must include its coalition parties in drafting an agenda that will balance both domestic demands, especially including economic benefits. and re-work relations with the EU.

Third, the equation with the EU. The war in Ukraine is the only exception, Poland’s domestic situation and its relations with the EU have always been conflicting. Starting from the concerns over the rule of law, the political interference with Poland’s judicial system, migration management to the recent abortion law, have always contradicted the EU’s norms. This resulted in the freezing of the pandemic recovery funds. This election results seem to provide a chance to reverse the broken relation with the EU. Since the democratic backsliding began in Poland after PiS won in 2015, concerns grew at the EU level. Poland was perceived as an addition to Hungary and Turkey due to Jaroslaw's closeness and the party’s radical laws. The dilemma was broken with the elections giving confidence to bring Poland back on track with democratic values and more EU-integrated policies.

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