The opposition, led by former Polish Prime Minister and President of the European Council Donald Tusk, had billed Sunday’s parliamentary elections as the “last chance” to save democracy in the country. Now, the three opposition parties (Civic Coalition, Third Way and the Left) have won enough seats to end the Law and Justice (PiS) party’s reign, under which Poland’s relations with the EU have dramatically soured. “This is the end of grim times,” Tusk declared late on Sunday.

“A triumph of both democracy and liberalism”

According to the Polish National Electoral Commission on Tuesday, right-wing PiS remained the strongest single party but without a majority at 35,38 percent (194 seats) of the votes. The centrist and pro-European electoral alliance Civic Coalition (KO) headed by Tusk followed with 30,7 percent (157 seats). The centrists from Third Way scored 14,40 percent (65 seats) and the leftist several-party-alliance Left 8,61 percent (26 seats). The far-right Confederation got 7,16 percent (18 seats) of the votes.

Despite having obtained more votes than any of its rivals, PiS does not have much room for manoeuvre to establish alliances. Its belligerent attitude throughout the legislature, with confrontations and disqualifications towards practically the entire political spectrum, has ended up isolating it ideologically. The party had increased its nationalist rhetoric in its campaign and even entered a row with its war-torn neighbour Ukraine. PiS’ only realistic coalition partner is the ultra-right Confederation party but even with their seats it would not be enough to create a governing majority. In addition, both groups also said they do not want such a union.

Tusk’s coalition, however, has the easier path to forming a government with a majority in parliament by going into coalition with the Third Way party and the Left. This coalition of coalitions – which would in total encompass more than a dozen parties – would hold 248 seats in the 460-member Sejm, the lower chamber of the parliament.

Putting the liberal opposition in power would bring a huge political shift in Poland, countering the PiS party’s nationalist hardline Catholic vision for the country. To the opposition electorate, ending the PiS reign would also restore Poland’s reputation on the international stage. Tusk has pledged to rebuild relations with Brussels and to unblock EU funds frozen due to an ongoing standoff with Warsaw over the rule of law in Poland.

Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a pan-European think tank, said that these elections were “a triumph of both democracy and liberalism”. The election was dominated by issues such as Russia’s invasion of neighbouring Ukraine, migrants and women’s rights.

The victory of the pro-European opposition is all the more significant because it was achieved in extremely unequal conditions, despite biased public media and the fact that the ruling party used the financial and institutional power of the state to its advantage.

Electoral observers found that PiS exploited its public media power in the elections. “The observer mission found that while public television gave free airtime to all contestants, its political coverage clearly promoted the ruling party and its policies and at the same time demonstrated open hostility towards the opposition,” the observer team from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said in Warsaw on Monday.

Possible “hunt for turncoats”

The formation of a new government will not go smoothly or quickly: much still depends on President Andrej Duda, who is a PiS ally, and is expected to first give the mandate to form a new government to PiS. Only after PiS gives back the mandate due to the lack of majority in the parliament, Duda will offer the mandate to the leader of the opposition, most likely Donald Tusk.

“This government will have a strong and hostile anti-European opposition – PiS and the far-right Konfederacja [Confederation]– representing more than 40 per cent of the voters,” says ECFR-Warsaw head Buras.

Given the foreseeable “hunt for turncoats” that could be unleashed from the governing party, the mayor of Warsaw, Rafal Trzaskowski, a prominent figure in the KO, said on Polish television that he was “convinced that there will be attempts”, but ruled out that there could be so many desertions as to “prevent a new government.”

The Minister of Education, Przemyslaw Czarnek (PiS), warned that “the war is about to begin”, in reference to the manoeuvres with which the PiS will tempt its rivals to attract them into its orbit.

Furthermore, some experts have pointed out the fact that such a heterogeneous coalition could be ineffective and could soon become involved in centrifugal disputes.

People hold the Polish flag and the European flag as they attend an anti-government demonstration organized by the opposition in Warsaw on June 4, 2023. Coming from all over Poland, the demonstrators took up the call of the leader of the main centrist opposition party, Donald Tusk, to protest against “high living costs, swindling and lies, in favor of democracy, free elections and the EU”. Photo: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP

“Poland is back” in the European project, but change won’t happen overnight

The (preliminary) election result was greeted with relief throughout the EU – and is bound to have effects in the short and medium term in Brussels, markedly slowing down the right-wing’s ride across Europe. The Visegrad axis comes out of the Polish elections bruised, as Hungary’s Victor Orban loses a key ally in his challenge of EU values.

“Poland is back,” declared Manfred Weber, the head of the European People’s Party (EPP), the biggest grouping in the European Parliament, in Strasbourg on Monday.

The applause met relief in other EU institutions as they contemplated a changed political direction for the bloc’s sixth-biggest economy, away from the nationalist/populist lines driven by the outgoing government, which had openly defied Brussels on several issues.

Since 2015, PiS has been one of the major spoilers of EU efforts to reshape the bloc’s migration and asylum policy. Two years ago, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared EU law – which is meant to overrule any national legislation – “incompatible” with the Polish constitution.

Some EU peers, including France, saw that as an assault against the European Union and what it stood for. The result was Poland being dragged before the European Court of Justice, where a legal battle continues.

A political analyst and president of the Institute of European Studies at the Université libre de Bruxelles, Ramona Coman, said that, while it often occurred that individual countries complained their interests were being trampled on at EU level, “the Polish and Hungarian governments went much further by challenging the legality and legitimacy of the European Union itself”.

The EU is about to regain “a partner that is more conciliatory, more positive and more open to compromise,” Lukas Macek, the head of the Centre Grande Europe and research fellow at the the Jacques Delors Institute think tank in Paris, predicted.

But he cautioned against a “black-and-white vision” of future relations, saying: “Not everything will radically change. There will be a transition, with a reduced margin for manoeuvre.”

Ursula majority strengthened, Conservatives and Reformists downsized?

The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), chaired by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of the Fratelli d’Italia (FDI), could come out of the vote downsized. With the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki no longer in government, she could find herself at a crossroads in the coming months: to move closer to the EPP, and thus to the majority, or to remain at the side of her Polish ally.

Morawiecki and PiS were and remain one of the main obstacles to a post-election alliance between FDI and the centre-right. Now that the Polish premier has emerged defeated in the elections, the negotiating power of ECR, and therefore of FDI, is bound to drop significantly.

“Who knows what will happen now in Italian politics and in ECR” is the reflection of an EPP leader who does not hide the fact that Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s majority emerges from the elections in Warsaw certainly more solid. The new Polish premier could make their EU debut at the December European Council.

This article is published weekly. The content is based on news by agencies participating in the enr.