Is Poland turning its back on populism?

On Sunday 15th October, Poland’s ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), lost its majority in parliament after eight years in power. Whilst winning the vote with 35.8%, the PiS lacks the seats to make up a majority. Poland’s electoral system is proportional and multi-party, meaning that if one party fails to make a majority, a coalition is formed. These results of the election signify that the oppositional parties led by Donald Tusk and the Civic Coalition that have fledged to form a coalition government have 248 seats; comfortably over the 231 needed to form a government.

For many, this election was a long-awaited tussle between national populism that has been rampant in Europe and liberal centrism, fighting to re-emerge after a decade of disappearance. As a former president of the European Council, Tusk is unlikely to hold the same stance on the EU as the current president of Poland, Andrzej Duda. From this perspective, officials in Brussels are sure to be breathing a sigh of relief at the results. 

this election was a long-awaited tussle between national populism… and liberal centrism

Furthermore, this polarisation fits with a wider divide on social issues, such as women’s reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights, which have been systematically chipped away at by the PiS over the last eight years. According to the latest ILGA Europe country ranking report, Poland is now considered the worst state in the European Union for LGBTQ+ rights.

These contests were reflected in turnout from the election, which was up to 74.3%, breaking the record turnout in 1989 which triggered the collapse of the Soviet-backed communist system. Almost 69% of under-30s turned out to vote, a marginally higher percentage than over 60s. 

This bucks many Western electoral trends, such as in the UK, and a 2023 European Parliament report which found a ‘shocking landscape of voter absenteeism…especially among the youngest cohorts of eligible voters.’ The hostility of the PiS on minority rights seems to have pushed greater youth turnout, and was a large contributor to boosting oppositional parties’ vote share.

There are many complications, though, and despite hope among many left-wing and central supporters, the road away from ultra-conservative populism is long and complicated. For those familiar with the TV show Borgen, the post-election mayhem from an unexpected election result rings some bells, and it will likely still be some time until a new coalition is confirmed and approved to govern. 

it will not resolve the ongoing tensions that right-wing populism provokes for the electorate

Although the rhetoric around the election results is one of a rebirth and radical change, this is more symbolic than realistic. Mistrust, resentment and conservatism are an ingrained part of the Polish, and European, political landscape now, and the PiS still won the largest vote share out of all the parties. Polish politicians and pro-government media have heavily used anti-German propaganda, which paints Tusk as bringing about ‘the end of Poland.’ This is a presentation that is not immediately forgotten from popular discourse whether the leader of the governing party or not, and will no doubt be used to discredit his policy agendas.

The Ukraine-Russia war remains in the laser-focus of Eastern European governments, and concern over Russian intentions to restore a Cold War-esque empire weighs heavy in an only relatively recently independent nation-state’s consciousness. Spending on defence specifically for arms supplies for Ukraine is unlikely to stop, and may draw a wedge between the promising EU-Poland relations if the EU tries to retract support for Ukraine at all. This links to the wider anti-German and anti-French sentiment stirred by the PiS, some of which is focused on the lack of strategy for fighting against Russian expansionist ambitions.

despite hope among many left-wing and central supporters, the road away from ultra-conservative populism is long and complicated

This is fuelled in many ways by the deep national trauma that is ever-present in Polish politics. The PiS’ ‘history policy’, which bases a version of history on the politics of memory, effectively works towards erasing anything that doesn’t protect a positive depiction of Poland. 

This is reflected by so-called ‘phantom’ or ‘ghost’ borders, through which electoral results geographically fall on previous geographical borders of Poland; something that has been linked to collective memory of WWII and its aftermath. A contested Poland is by no means over, instead working in a cycle of fighting with its own national trauma, manifested  in some senses through national populism.

On a more practical level, as a coalition there will inevitably be contested issues within the likely incoming governing parties. For example, parts of the coalition involving the New Left will be considerably more socially liberal, such as on abortion policy, which will likely grate against the Christian Democrat faction of the Third Way. Such a diverse coalition risks fracturing, against the opposition of a defined and populist conservative party.

Its lasting impact on the constitution will be long and arduous to unpick, and the PiS will be ready to challenge and divide wherever they can. As well as this, the shift to the ultra-conservative right has a long-lasting impact on the ideological scope for all parties, and has a lasting resonance in popular consciousness. Even if ‘radical’ legislative policy does get introduced, it will not resolve the ongoing tensions that right-wing populism provokes for the electorate. 

A contested Poland is by no means over, instead working in a cycle of fighting with its own national trauma

In spite of the post-election talk of a new age of politics from the left and centre, by no means is populism gone from either parliament or the public. What the election does signal, though, is an uprising of political engagement from traditionally under engaged demographics, such as young people; a pattern that would not be a surprise to see cascading through the rest of Europe.

Image Credit: Tallinn Digital Summit. Arrivals Donald Tusk by Arno Mikkor, licensed under CC BY 2.0, cropped from original.

Image Description: Donald Tusk arriving at a Summit.