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A Pivotal Election in Poland

By Monika Pronczuk

Election posters on an abandoned building last week in Nowy Sacz, Poland. Credit...Maciek Nabrdalik for The New

Centrist and progressive parties appear best placed to form a new coalition government in Poland, according to exit polls following elections on Sunday, despite the governing nationalist Law and Justice party winning the most votes for any single party.

Exit polling on Sunday showed a strong second-place finish by the main opposition group, Civic Coalition, and better than expected results for two smaller centrist and progressive parties — a dramatic upset. If confirmed, the result would frustrate the governing party’s hope of a third consecutive term. Official results are expected on Tuesday.

If the early forecasts hold, Civic Coalition and its potential partners will have won 248 seats in the 460-member Sejm, the more powerful lower house of Parliament, compared with 200 won by Law and Justice.

Civic Coalition and Law and Justice had offered Polish voters drastically different interpretations of the country’s recent history — and different visions for its future. The parliamentary election had been depicted by all political sides as pivotal for Poland, a NATO and European Union frontline nation, and for Europe.

Each side had sought to rally their supporters by presenting the other as an existential threat to the country. Law and Justice portrayed itself as the defender of Polish sovereignty and of “ordinary” Poles against the “elites” and the European Union. Civic Coalition, favored by pro-European urbanites, vowed to “bring Poland back to Europe,” and to reverse what it has described as the country’s illiberal course.

What was at stake?

By casting their votes on Sunday, Poles were making a judgment on the legacy of Poland’s post-1989 transition from Communism to capitalism and democracy.

The election’s final results will have ramifications well beyond the country’s borders: Poland has the largest economy in Europe’s formerly Communist eastern fringe, and it has been one of Kyiv’s staunchest supporters in its fight against Russia, which launched a full-scale invasion on Ukraine in February 2022. Poland hosts more than 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees and it serves as the main hub for transferring weapons and aid to Kyiv.

But in recent months, leaders in Warsaw became embroiled in a bitter public dispute with Ukraine over grain and hinted at cutting back on new military aid and subsidies for Ukrainian refugees, exacerbating concerns about Europe’s fatigue with long-term aid to Kyiv.

What were the main themes?

The campaign was particularly vicious, with Poland’s public broadcasting system — a network of television and radio stations controlled by Law and Justice — pumping out nonstop vitriol against the opposition. In a bid to drum up support, the governing party was willing to damage Poland’s relationship with important allies, like Germany and Ukraine, undermining Warsaw’s efforts to present itself as a stable pillar of Western solidarity against Russia’s aggression. In the prelude to the vote, Law and Justice painted a picture of a country under attack. It often invoked both the war in Ukraine raging next door and the issue of migration, the latter in the context of a continuing crisis at the border with Belarus, where migrants from the Middle East and Europe seek to cross into the European Union.

Law and Justice also repeatedly declared it was the only guarantee for keeping Poland safe. In a pre-election debate aired by the public broadcaster, the country’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said, “As long as the Law and Justice government is in power, Poland is like an unconquered fortress.” But in a significant U-turn, two top military commanders resigned only days before the vote, undermining the national security pledge.

The opposition fired back, highlighting Law and Justice’s involvement with a visa-selling scheme, in which work visas were sold to hundreds of thousands of African and Asian migrants in exchange for cash, despite that party’s combative anti-migration messaging.

Alongside the parliamentary election, the government also held a referendum to ask Poles their views on “admitting thousands of illegal migrants from the Middle East and Africa,” and on “selling out national wealth to foreign entities.” Human Rights Watch, a rights groups, said these questions were “loaded” and spread misinformation. For the referendum results to be valid, at least 50 percent of citizens must take part in it. Results of the referendum are also expected on Tuesday.

What was the governing party’s message?

The governing Law and Justice party positioned itself as a promoter of traditional, conservative values, which it said have been under attack by liberal elites in Warsaw and Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union. The party had promised further purges of “post-Communist” elements from the state, in particular the judiciary, and more generous social handouts to make up for what it says was an unjust transition to capitalism.

Under Law and Justice’s rule, Poland has experienced a decrease in poverty, but also soaring inflation and a housing crisis. The party is also involved in a yearslong conflict with the European Union over the rule of law, which has resulted in the freezing of billions of euros in subsidies.

And it further tightened an already strict abortion ban and has targeted the L.G.B.T.Q. community. In April 2019, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of Law and Justice and still Poland’s de facto leader, called homosexuality a “threat to Polish identity, to our nation, to its existence, and thus to the Polish state.” Mr. Kaczynski has also promoted a theory that Donald Tusk, the opposition’s leader, is responsible for the 2010 death of Mr. Kaczynski’s twin brother, Lech Kaczynski. A government plane carrying Lech Kaczynski, then Poland’s president, and other officials crashed while en route to Russia on an official visit. Mr. Tusk was the prime minister at the time.

Who are the other players?

The main opposition party, Civic Coalition, ran on a pro-European, liberal platform, with a pledge to reverse what it described as undemocratic changes in the news media and the judiciary, as well as the now near-total abortion ban.

Much of the party’s popularity relies on its leader, Mr. Tusk, a former president of the European Council, who embodies aspirations for Poland to reconcile with the European Union and to reclaim its place as Europe’s post-Communist poster child.

Confederation, a far-right alliance that barely made it into Parliament in the last election, in 2019, had been seen as a possible kingmaker in the postelection effort to form a government. It is calling for lower taxes and no social benefits, and it opposes Poland’s aid to Ukraine. According to the exit polls, Confederation won only 6.2 percent of the vote, giving it 12 seats.

The centrist Third Way alliance, which consists of the agrarian Polish People’s Party and the center-right Poland 2050 party, has a platform similar to that of Civic Coalition and is expected to join as a coalition partner. The exit polls on Sunday showed that Third Way had reached the necessary threshold to enter the Sejm.

© 2023 The New York Times Company


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