On the 15th of October 2023, a record-breaking number of Polish citizens both in Poland and abroad took to polling stations to cast their vote in what would turn out to be a pivotal general election. At 74.4%, the election saw the highest turnout ever recorded. Outside of Poland, approximately 608,000 people registered to vote across 417 polling stations in 88 countries - almost double the 314,000 that registered for the last general election in 2019. But how did they vote, and what do the results mean?
Since 2015, Poland has been governed by the centre-right Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość; PiS). Under their rule, Poland has seen the implementation of a near-total ban on abortion, leading to the death of at least seven women. The LGBTQIA+ community has faced repeated attacks on their rights and humanity, including the declaration of “LGBT-free zones” in approximately 1⁄3 of the country, debates on the banning of Pride parades and the “promotion of homosexuality”, and dehumanising hate speech from a range of politicians including President Andrzej Duda, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, and Minister for Education Przemysław Czarnek. The government’s judicial reforms have been largely deemed as unconstitutional and a threat to the rule of law in Poland, leading to the freezing of European Union funds and imposing of daily fines. PiS’s track record of human rights violations, infringements on democracy, and tarnishing the image of Poland on an international scale resulted in a range of politicians across the political spectrum referring to the 2023 election as “the most important election since 1989” - the first partially free election in Poland since World War II, the outcome of which paved the way for the end of Soviet rule over Poland and ultimately the fall of the USSR.
Controversies and tensions continued even in the lead-up to, and in fact during the election. In April, changes were made to the Polish electoral code, including the implementation of a 24-hour deadline on the counting of votes in polling stations abroad - a decision also deemed unconstitutional. The motivations for this reform were undoubtedly political, as Poles abroad consistently vote more in favour of opposition parties than those living in Poland. In June, it was announced that a referendum would take place alongside the general election, involving four broad, loaded questions directly targeting Kaczyński’s opponent Donald Tusk, such as: “Do you support the reception of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, in accordance with the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy?”. Calls to boycott the referendum followed, with the former Head of Poland’s Electoral Commission describing the questions as “shocking … primitive, crude” and stating that he would be ashamed to participate in it.
For many, the unprecedented turnout at the October election was indicative of the increasing frustration and anger of the Polish nation at PiS. Around the world, people queued for as long as five hours and until as late as 3am. Local restaurants in Poland delivered free food to those still queueing after dark. Some polling stations ran out of ballots, while others needed additional ballot boxes to contain the volume of votes cast. At my polling station in Dublin, I considered myself lucky to only have to queue for about 1.5 hours. The message was clear: Polish people across the world recognised the importance of their vote to the future of Poland and were determined to cast it, regardless of queues, time of day, or weather.
This determination of Poles to influence the future of the Polish political sphere was evident in the results. Although PiS received the largest proportion of votes at 35.4%, this translates to only 194 seats of the 460-member Sejm (lower house of the Polish parliament). In order to remain in office, they would have to enter a coalition with at least one other party to achieve the combined minimum 231 seats - an unlikely outcome, given that all other parties which received the minimum votes required to secure a place in the Sejm have ruled out this possibility.
At 30.7% of votes (157 seats), the second most popular liberal Civic Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska; KO) is composed primarily of the Civic Platform - a party with a long history of rivalry with PiS and led by Donald Tusk, a major political opponent of Jarosław Kaczyński. The liberal-centrist, Christian democratic Third Way (Trzecia Droga) came third with 14.4% of votes (65 seats) and has made it clear both before and since the election that they do not intend to enter a coalition with PiS; during their campaign, their leader Szymon Hołownia referred to the election as a choice between “Third Way or a third term of PiS”. The Left alliance (Lewica) received 8.6% of votes (26 seats); as a left-wing party committed to advocating for the rights of LGBTQIA+ people, separation of church and state, and liberalisation of laws surrounding abortion, their values and policies are fundamentally incompatible with those of PiS.
Arguably the most likely party to enter a coalition with PiS (at least on paper) are the far-right Confederation (Konfederacja), who performed worse than expected at 7.2%, or 18 seats - still not enough to secure a majority. Regardless, Confederation have also repeatedly ruled out the possibility of entering a coalition with PiS. In the absence of a party interested in entering a coalition with PiS, their only remaining option is to convince opposition politicians to defect and join PiS - which would perhaps be possible if they were lacking a handful of seats, but poaching 37 politicians would be at best very challenging and most likely impossible. It would appear, therefore, that the eight-year rule of PiS has ended.
(Though far from the most important outcome of the election, it is worth noting that the call to boycott the referendum was a success; with a turnout of 40.9%, it failed to achieve the minimum 50% required for the results to be valid.)
A coalition government?
Though the result of the election is certainly cause for celebration, its final outcome is currently unclear. The only common factor shared by all four elected opposition parties - KO, Third Way, The Left, Confederation - is precisely their opposition to PiS. The parties fall across the entire political spectrum, from far-right Polish nationalism and euroscepticism to left-wing social democracy and progressivism; their views and policies will be difficult to reconcile, yet their reconciliation is necessary to the formation of a stable government.
Excluding Confederation from the coalition is an almost certain prospect and would make this task slightly easier. A Confederation spokesperson has stated that they are not interested in entering a coalition with KO, while KO, Third Way, and The Left have been open in their intention to form a coalition government together - without Confederation. The 18 seats won by Confederation are not necessary for the remaining three opposition parties to achieve a majority. However, even without a far-right party, the prospective coalition would still encompass a wide range of competing views and priorities. To complicate the matter further, KO, Third Way, and The Left are all alliances consisting of a number of smaller parties and groups - approximately a dozen total - not all of whom agree with one another either.
As mentioned, all three alliances are aligned in their opposition to PiS and, relatedly, their desire to undo some of the harms done by eight years of PiS rule. In particular, they have all signed an Agreement for the Rule of Law (Porozumienie dla Praworządności), in which they commit to overhauling the unconstitutional reforms of the judicial system carried out by the PiS government. This would be a crucial step in improving Poland’s relations with the EU and unfreezing EU funds for Poland - both of which are also goals shared by the three alliances. Aside from this, however, they diverge majorly on key social and economic issues, including abortion, LGBTQIA+ rights, social welfare, and taxation.
For example, while all three alliances believe that abortion law should be liberalised in Poland, the Christian democratic Third Way seeks to return to the law which was in place prior to the 2021 near-total ban, which was still one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. They have also argued for a referendum to be held on the matter. KO and The Left, on the other hand, both support wider access to abortion, and The Left has repeatedly argued against a referendum on the topic, stating that abortion is a human right which should not be put to debate. Although a KO-Third Way-The Left coalition would be composed primarily of KO (who would hold 157 of the 248 seats), Third Way and The Left are imperative to the formation of the coalition; their plan for government will require the support of all three alliances and will therefore need to reach a compromise between their competing views and priorities, which is no small task.
The details of the coalition that will ultimately govern Poland for the next four years should become clear in the coming weeks. According to the Polish constitution, the next moves are in the hands of President Andrzej Duda. The President has 30 days from the date of the election to call the first Sejm session, which will mark the beginning of the new four-year term. From that date, he will then have 14 days to appoint his candidate for Prime Minister, who then has 14 days to win a vote of confidence from the Sejm, through presenting their plan for government and proposed cabinet of ministers.
If they fail, the Sejm then nominates their own candidate. This candidate will similarly need to achieve a vote of confidence from at least 261 members of the Sejm. If they too fail to achieve this, the decision once again reverts to the President, whose new candidate will now only be required to achieve a relative majority - that is, more votes of confidence than not - rather than an absolute majority. If the President’s new candidate is also unsuccessful, another election is called.
Accordingly, President Duda has announced that the first Sejm session will occur on the 13th of November. In the days following the election, the President met with all of the parties which will form the new Sejm and from this, two candidates for Prime Minister emerged. The first, from PiS, is Mateusz Morawiecki, who has served as Prime Minister since 2017. In accordance with both tradition and the President’s own political leaning (who himself is affiliated with PiS and has very consistently supported PiS in their decisions and actions over the last eight years), President Duda will most likely appoint Morawiecki as his candidate.
Though Morawiecki is unlikely to gain a vote of confidence given the composition of the Sejm, some have suggested that the President may be additionally inclined to support his candidature in an attempt to stall the formation of a KO-Third Way-The Left government. However, the potential motivations behind this are doubtful. Any attempt to delay the formation of a new government would seek to trigger a second election, which is unlikely to be of any benefit to PiS, in the absence of any indicators that they would perform better in another election.
The alternative to Morawiecki is the aforementioned Donald Tusk, nominated by KO, Third Way, and The Left. Donald Tusk served as Prime Minister of Poland from 2007 and 2014, and is a well-known Polish politician in the international sphere, having presided over the European Council from 2014 to 2019. As all three parties have supported Tusk’s candidature, he would most likely receive sufficient votes of confidence to succeed - unless 18 or more of their 248 MPs vote in contrary to their Party’s stance, and there is no evidence to believe that this will occur. In any case, it is clear that the coming weeks will see crucial decisions made about the future of Poland, though their final outcome may not be known until late December or even early 2024.
Maria (Marysia) Pachowicz is TASC's Junior Researcher on Health. They have a B.A. in Psychology & Mathematics and an M.Sc. in Applied Psychology from Trinity College Dublin. They have conducted research on body image and disordered eating among sexual minority women for their undergraduate thesis, and on the experiences of accessing mental healthcare among people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder for their Masters thesis. They are a member of the “Sharing the Vision: A Mental Health Policy for Everyone” Reference Group of Service Users and Family Members, where they advise the Department of Health on the implementation of mental health policy, ensuring that the voice of the service user is at the centre of all decisions. They also sit on the Health Research Board Expert Group tasked with producing Ireland’s first National Mental Health Research Strategy. Aside from this, they have experience of working in disability services, as well as extensive experience in activism, particularly in relation to LGBTQ+ rights in Ireland and abroad.