Poland Has Woken Up

Piotr Zagórski

5 mins - 31 de Octubre de 2023, 07:00

Liberal democracy has triumphed, but the most difficult is yet to come.
Last Sunday, after eight years of Law and Justice government, Poland woke up. An unprecedented mobilisation in the country’s democratic history, with a turnout of 74%, enabled the opposition parties to achieve a result that far exceeds the parliamentary majority needed to form a government. The new government is likely to make a 180-degree turnaround and return the country to the ranks of Europe’s liberal democracies. Warsaw, despite Jaroslaw Kaczyński and Viktor Orbán, is not Budapest.

Despite the efforts of Law and Justice (PiS) to cling to power by all available means, the opposition has won the day. Without contesting on a joint list, which would probably have propelled a better result due to the electoral system, the three opposition parties have passed the exam with flying colours. Donald Tusk’s liberal-conservative Civic Coalition with 30.7% of the vote and 157 seats, the Third Way coalition (which unites the peasant party with another conservative party) with 14.4% and 65 seats, and the New Left with 8.6% and 26 seats will try to form a government backed by 248 MPs, 17 above the majority.

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“Good news at last,” tweeted Francis Fukuyama, in one of many sighs of relief. And it is true. It is good news for the millions of Poles tired of the democratic decline and clientelism fostered by the outgoing government. Most especially for women and LGBT+ people who have seen their rights repeatedly trampled (see the near-total ban on abortion and the infamous ‘anti-LGTB zones’). It is also a relief for the European Union, with which the Law and Justice government - closer to the idea of a Europe of nations than of European integration - has been at war over its constant challenges to the rule of law. All in all, this is good news for European democracy, as one front in the fight with illiberal tendencies seems to have been closed at least for the next four years. Unlike Hungary or Turkey, with the outcome of these elections Poland has shown the way to reverse the authoritarian decline and return to the democratic path.

The very high voter turnout was striking. Even after the closing of the polling stations, long queues of voters were still waiting for their turn and the electoral commission had to distribute additional ballot papers that apparently did not fit in the ballot boxes. According to the exit poll, those under 29, traditionally less likely to vote, have turned out to vote in greater numbers than those over 60. Turnout has risen from 62% in 2019 to 74%. This is a record figure, far from even the rate of the first elections in 1989.

Still, not everything is rosy. After all, it is PiS that won the election with 36.8% of the vote. This result is undoubtedly somewhat inflated by all PiS’s efforts to level the playing field in its favour. The partisan and propagandistic use of public television (by portraying Donald Tusk, the opposition leader, as nothing less than a German agent working for Moscow’s interests), of state enterprises (by lowering the price of petrol to below-cost levels just before the election), of the central bank (by lowering gas prices to below-cost levels just before the election), the central bank (by lowering interest rates with inflation soaring, when all central banks raise them) and the institution of the referendum (coupled with the elections by PiS only to mobilise their own and free up additional funds for the election campaign) have made these elections less fair than expected from a fully democratic country.

The great task of the new government will now be threefold. First, there are many problems that need to be solved effectively to show that liberal democracy can tackle them better (or at least no worse) than an illiberal government. Inflation and national security threatened by the war in Ukraine stand out. Second, the PiS government’s accounts with democracy must be settled. Those who have acted contrary to the constitution must be brought to account before the State Court. Democratic institutions emptied of their content by PiS must be restored and the division of powers and the independence of the judiciary restored. The outgoing government has already announced that it will try to hinder these efforts with all the means at its disposal. And these are not few, since PiS has the veto power of President Andrzej Duda (unless he decides to become independent of the party), the Constitutional Court subjugated to the interests of the party, and a Supreme Court also dominated by PiS (which by the way has not yet taken the election results for granted).

Finally, there is a need to dialogue with the other side, to reduce the dizzying ideological polarisation and to be an inclusive government. Half of those over 60, those living in the countryside or workers have supported PiS. Among citizens with basic education and farmers, the proportion is even higher: two out of three have backed the ruling party. This is perhaps the most difficult task for the new government. If, however democratic, European and liberal it may be, it fails to reconcile the country and bring these groups closer to the ideas of liberal democracy, the good news may turn bad again in just four years. 
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