After years of conservative rule, most Poles voted for the opposition parties. The conservatives are nonetheless poised to remain influent through the public institutions they control.
A record number of people took part in the October elections in Poland – turnout exceeded 74% for the first time in the post-communist history of Poland (the previous record was 62.7% and it was set in 1989). The conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) led by Jarosław Kaczyński got the best result – over 7.5 million people opted for the far-right party, which gave PiS 35.38% of the votes. The Civic Coalition (KO) led by former prime-minister and former European Council president Donald Tusk, came in second, with nearly 31%. The KO is made out of four liberal-democratic parties, the Civic Platform (PO), Nowoczesna, Inicjatywa Polska and The Greens. Another coalition, the centrist Trzecia Droga obtained almost 14.5% votes, while Nowa Lewica (New Left) was chosen by 8.6% of the voters. The far right anti-EU Konfederacja got some 1,5 million votes, or around 7%, in spite of the fact that pre-elections polls predicted the party would come third. Konfederacja is the most likely coalition partner for PiS, but the two parties don’t have the number of MPs needed to validate a government (248). The opposition is in a much better position to form a majority.
PiS refuses to acknowledge defeat and may try to call early elections
However, Kaczyński did not acknowledge the defeat of his party ("We won for the third time in a row!" he said on Sunday evening, October 15, when exit poll results gave PiS almost 38% support) and wants to form a government with Mateusz Morawiecki as a prime minister. Since President Andrzej Duda is a member of Kaczyński's party, he will probably agree to such a scenario – according to the Constitution, it is the president who, after consultation with the winning party, appoints the prime minister and convenes a meeting of the new Sejm no later than 30 days after the elections. For now, Duda has announced his willingness to meet with the leaders of all parties. And so far he has not confirmed that Morawiecki will be given the mission of forming a government. It is clear that the PiS politicians will use all possible means – bribery, blackmail (some right-wing politicians admitted that they are already looking for compromising details in the biographies of political rivals) – to obtain a majority in parliament, but their chances currently seem to be quite slim. It can therefore be assumed that Kaczyński himself will decide that Morawiecki's desperate mission to form a government may damage PiS's image and, after consultations with the president, he will give up this idea.
Even if PiS loses the government, the party will still continue to be a major force in the Polish state. During its long tenure in power, PiS took (almost) complete control over the state. It controls the public media, it filled the management boards of the largest state-owned companies with political appointees, promoted its people at the Central Bank, the Constitutional Tribunal, courts, prosecutors, the army, and institutions that are theoretically supposed to act as guardians of the rule of law and the principles of a democratic state. Assuming the opposition parties form a common government, it will need to function in very difficult conditions – surrounded by institutions dominated by the previous ruling team. The president must approve many nominations and dismissals from important positions; if he does not consent, neither the Supreme Court nor the National Prosecutor's Office will change. Voices can already be heard from there: "Nothing will happen to us until the presidential elections in 2025. And then PiS will come back." This is a clear signal that Jarosław Kaczyński and his camp (including President Andrzej Duda) will do everything to make it difficult for the democratic opposition to govern, to turn Poles against it and force early elections.
Many journalists speculate that Kaczyński will have to punish someone for losing the seats in the parliament. One of the leading news portals WP.pl reports – citing anonymous sources in PiS – that the culprits of the defeat have already been identified: Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Joachim Brudziński, head of the election staff. According to many right-wing politicians and publicists, they are the ones responsible for the much weaker-than-expected electoral result. The two PiS officials, together with the Minister of Justice and the leader of Suwerenna Polska party, Zbigniew Ziobro, predicted, before the elections, that PiS would get at least 40% of the votes, and that the centrist Trzecia Droga would not even be able to meet the 8% electoral threshold set for coalitions. None of these predictions came true.
However, some wonder whether it is in Kaczyński’s advantage to punish them. Some analysts predict that Kaczyński's main goal today is not to hold people accountable, but to maintain the party monolith. And since PiS did not maintain a majority in the Sejm, it faces a worst-case scenario in which Zbigniew Ziobro and his 17 MPs leave PiS to form their own parliamentary group. This could trigger a domino effect and the disintegration of PiS, a scenario that the right wing could not afford considering that local elections are due next spring.
The opposition is determined to overcome differences and form a coalition. Donald Tusk has the highest chance to be nominated prime-minister
The Civic Coalition (KO), Trzecia Droga and Nowa Lewica indicated that, despite obvious program and ideological divisions, they are able to create a joint government. As one Nowa Lewica politician put it “We are stuck with each other. It is impossible to form a government neither without the Civic Coalition, nor without the Trzecia Droga, nor without the Left. None of us can be taken out of this puzzle. This is a guarantee that we will reach an agreement".
The opposition's strategic goal is to maintain political unity and create a common government. There is some common ground to start with, such as the obvious opposition to PiS or the approach to the rule of law. There are also differences, acknowledged during the campaign, such as the economic policies. The record-breaking support of women and young people compel democratic opposition to consider the issues important to these groups of voters – namely, the liberalization of the abortion ban and LGBT equality – but the opposition’s view on these issues, and especially on abortion, is far from being homogenous.
The three opposition parties are expected to announce their common candidates for speakers of both houses of parliament (the Sejm and the Senate), and then to meet with president Andrzej Duda and ask him to entrust them with the task of forming the government. A coalition agreement should be completed before mid-November. If the first session of the new Sejm convenes - as announced by President Duda - on November 13 (Monday), the coalition of democrats will announce what they have agreed to a day or two earlier.
The Polish media are outdoing each other in speculating who will take what position in the new government. Donald Tusk, who leads the opposition party that received most votes and is, arguably, one of Poland’s most experienced politicians, likely is in poll position to be nominated for the Prime Minister job.
How PiS plans to stay in power even if the opposition forms the government
Taking into account that the first session of the new Sejm will take place no earlier than November 13, and that, most likely, President Andrzej Duda will initially designate a PiS politician for the Prime Minister job, the entire process of forming a government by the opposition will be postponed to mid-December or even early January 2024. This means that the PiS government will stay in power for two more months. That’s plenty of time for the ruling parties to start their preparations to get back to power and get some support from the public. Suwerenna Polska leader Zbigniew Ziobro has already announced plans to distribute 15 million zloty (almost EUR 3.5 million) from the Justice Fund, which has just made a public call for projects aimed at counteracting the causes of crime. This is probably the last chance for foundations and associations friendly with Suwerenna Polska politicians to receive large amounts of money from the Fund. The funding goes until 2026, and even real estate can be purchased with the subsidy.
The Justice Fund has become one of the symbols of using public money for political purposes. It has even been called the piggy bank of ultra-right and anti-EU Suwerenna Polska, the party of Minister Ziobro. For years, millions of zlotys have been flowing from the fund intended to help crime victims to newly established foundations and associations related to Ziobro; right-wing organizations that used this money to de facto advertise the political ideas of Ziobro's party (including the fight against "Christianophobia” and crimes "under the influence of LGBT ideology"); Volunteer Fire Brigades, Rural Women's Clubs and hospitals. Observer have noted a tendency to award these funds especially before the elections. It is already known that the latest call was answered. among others, by Lux Veritatis Foundation, headed by oligarch priest Tadeusz Rydzyk, and the Life and Family Foundation, ran by Kaja Godek, a well-known anti-abortion activist.
When a government that will have the support of a majority in parliament is finally formed, its functioning will still be very difficult. The Constitutional Tribunal dominated by Jarosław Kaczyński's appointees will still issue "judgments" in line with the political will of the PiS leader. The regime's public media journalists will attack democrats and civil society in prime time on TVP and Polish Radio, and Andrzej Duda will use his veto power and appoint more judges loyal to the PiS party.
A prime minister designated by the opposition may also have to accept officials appointed by PiS to his office, in the form of members of, for example, the committee on Russian influence. And in addition – due to changes in the "coordination act" voted by PiS in July this year – to hold every meeting with the highest officials of the European Union with Andrzej Duda, whenever Duda wishes. The new version of the act also gives Andrzej Duda the right to approve Polish candidates for the following positions in the structures of the European Union: member of the European Commission, member of the Court of Auditors, judge of the Court of Justice of the European Union, advocate general of the Court of Justice of the European Union, member of the Economic and Social Committee, member of the Committee Regions and director at the European Investment Bank. It is hard to believe that he will accept the candidates put forward by the government led by Donald Tusk or another opposition politician.
KO, Trzecia Droga and Nowa Lewica went to the elections with a common promise: if they win a majority and form a government together, they will unblock Poland’s EU funds on the first day of the new cabinet. Today, few people think this is possible. Will Poles maintain support for a government that will not be able to fulfill its basic promise? For now, the far right government is still in power in Poland.