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CCSDD | As Long as There is Democracy There is Hope
As Long as There is Democracy There is Hope
First Assessments of the Polish Election Results

Francesco Spera

As Long as There is Democracy There is Hope
Francesco Spera
October 23, 2023

Poland's opposition parties won enough seats in the general election on Sunday 15th of October to overtake the Law and Justice (PiS) party that has ruled the country since 2015, according to the final vote count published by the National Election Commission on Tuesday morning. Despite this, PiS represents the largest and most-voted party in Poland with 35.4%. However, this majority does not allow PiS to form a winning coalition in the 460-member Sejm (lower house) of Poland's parliament.

The final tally sees PiS with 35.4%, followed by the centrist Civic Coalition at 30.7%, the centre-right Third Way at 14.4%, the Left with 8.6% and the far-right Confederation with 7.2%. The Civic Coalition, led by former Prime Minister and European Council President Donald Tusk, the Third Way and the Left have pledged to form a coalition government to oust the PiS from power – together they have 248 seats.

The opposition also strengthened its control over the less powerful upper house of the Senate, winning 66 seats against 34 for Law and Justice.[1]

The novelty is not only in a result that overturned the majority by not allowing the outgoing government a possible third term. The real result is above all the turnout. It was 72.9 per cent, which is significantly more than in the first partially free parliamentary elections in 1989. At that time, 62.7% of the eligible voters went to the polls. Interestingly, after the first 'free' elections, Poles went to the polls less and less often. The lowest turnout was recorded in the 2005 parliamentary elections (40.57%) and it was in that year that the PiS won.

Looking more generally at the type of voters, the most disciplined group in Sunday's election was voters aged 50-59, among whom the turnout was 83.2%. In second place were voters aged between 40 and 49 (78.5%), followed by those aged between 30 and 39 (72.3%).

Great mobilisation was noticed among the younger generation. Unlike in the 2019 elections where the turnout in the 18-29 age group had been the lowest ever (46.4%), this year's turnout was 68.8%. Finally, the lowest number of voters (67%) who went to vote in the parliamentary elections on Sunday belonged to the over-60s group.

In terms of gender, women (73.7%) were more willing to vote than men (72.0%). The situation is similar to four years ago: 61.5 per cent of voters participated in the 2019 parliamentary elections. Women and men eligible voters: 60.8 per cent.

Calculating the percentage of voters with respect to the size of the cities, it can be said that the inhabitants of larger cities were much more willing to vote: the highest turnout in the parliamentary elections was recorded in cities with between 200,000 and 500,000 inhabitants. The percentage amounted to 81.5%. In the largest cities with more than 500,000 inhabitants, 78.9% of voters went to the polls for the parliamentary elections. In cities between 51,000 and 200,000 inhabitants, the turnout was 73%, in cities with less than 50,000 inhabitants, 73.1%. The lowest turnout was in rural areas: 69.5%.

The turnout also surprised the logistics at the polling stations, as there were more people willing to vote than the ballot papers prepared. Therefore, the district commissions were caught unprepared and without sufficient ballot papers.[2] Four years ago the turnout was 61.74%. The highest vote was recorded in Warsaw: more than three-quarters of the eligible voters went to the polls.

Despite the result of the elections, and the clear majority of seats in the Polish parliament that the three most important opposition parties obtained, it is possible that the transfer of power between the outgoing government and the new 'democratic' alliance will not be so simple. In the coming days and weeks, several constitutional regulations could be used as a weapon by PiS to hinder the transition. It has been pointed out by most experts in this field that discussing elections in hybrid regimes is always a challenge, as too often conceptual frames from 'standard' democratic states are used to describe systems that function very differently in reality. There is evidence that even in an electoral authoritarianism, a democratic opposition can prevail on a highly unequal electoral terrain.

However, the task of the leading candidate of the anti-PiS coalition, Tusk, will not be easy because the transition in post-PiS Poland will require a series of steps leading to what Tusk called 'reconciliation among Poles'. In fact, Tusk promised 'a reckoning with evil' followed by a 'righting of wrongs'. Tusk's point of view cannot be understood if one does not take into account what the winning opposition challenges PiS as the record of the last eight years: the murder of Gdańsk Mayor Paweł Adamowicz, vilified by the PiS-controlled media; the death of the teenage son of an opposition MP who committed suicide after PiS-controlled radio reported him as a victim of paedophilia; numerous women dying from pregnancy complications after the anti-abortion decision of the so-called 'Constitutional Tribunal' fully under PiS control; several cases of LGBT people driven to suicide by the government's methodical dehumanisation; dozens of refugees dying at the Polish-Belarusian border due to the government's non-compliance with the 1951 Refugee Convention; police brutality and torture reported in Polish prisons. In addition to this, the winning coalition criticises PiS for persecuting judges, for subjecting the opposition to extensive surveillance, for politicising the state-owned media and for several cases of corruption in the power apparatus.

Three would be the obstacles that Donald Tusk might face: the Supreme Court, which is in charge of declaring the validity of elections whose majority of judges were appointed by the so-called 'National Council of the Judiciary, unconstitutionally under PiS control since 2018. Moreover, PiS assigned the competence to declare the validity of elections to a new body, the new Extraordinary Review and Public Affairs Chamber entirely controlled by PiS-appointed judges. Another obstacle is the President of the Republic, Duda, who is politically in line with PiS by approving all PiS reforms over the past 10 years and who is in charge of appointing the prime minister. An important precedent with reference to Duda was his refusal to appoint three judges of the Constitutional Tribunal elected by the Sejm but opposed to PiS. Finally, once elected, the new government will face difficult choices on what to do with all the bodies and members illegally appointed over the past eight years by PiS.[3]

In conclusion, the challenges are many, but Polish civil society has proved to itself and to the international community, and especially the European community, that it is still possible to curb or at least limit what has been described as the 'illiberal drift' of some countries.

Now, the next move is up to President Andrzej Duda, who will have to nominate a candidate for prime minister.


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