Polish voters face a stark choice in parliamentary elections set for October 15, which are likely to have a significant impact not only on a deeply polarized Polish society but also on the future of Europe as a whole.
According to a recent public opinion poll, the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party and the opposition Civic Coalition bloc are in a close race for seats in the two-house, 460-member Parliament.
One of these political forces will likely have to form a coalition in order to govern what is the largest post-communist EU and NATO member and a critical supporter of Ukraine in its defense against Russia’s invasion.
The Law and Justice party has held power for eight years. Led from behind the scenes by former Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczynski, 74, the party pledges to maintain traditional values and ensure the country’s security, especially in light of Russian aggression in neighboring Ukraine.
The party leadership also aims to conclude a revamping of the Polish judicial system, a process that started in 2019 and has been criticized by the EU as undermining judicial independence.
In contrast, the Civic Coalition bloc, headed by Donald Tusk, 66, a former president of the European Council and a former Polish prime minister, pledges to reverse the judicial amendments, safeguard media independence and protect civil liberties.
The Tusk coalition asserts that it will work to restore Poland’s international reputation as a democratic nation and rebuild its cooperative relationships within the EU, particularly with Germany, which has faced strong criticism from the current government in recent months.
Political battle ahead
“It will be a very close run. The election result is extremely difficult to predict,” Jacek Kucharczyk, president of the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw, said in an interview with VOA.
Tusk’s Civic Coalition trails the Law and Justice party by several percentage points in the polls, but Kucharczyk believes it has a chance to secure enough votes to form a parliamentary majority in partnership with other forces, like Poland’s New Left.
Alternatively, he foresees “a coalition between the current ruling party, Law and Justice, and the far-right Confederation party” — an outcome that he believes “will likely result in further democratic backsliding in Poland.”
Campaign strategist Sergiusz Trzeciak says it will be very challenging for either bloc to form a governing coalition “due to their differing platform positions.”
He anticipates a protracted political struggle after the election, possibly leading to a new election. And bearing in mind that Poland will have local elections early next year and a presidential election later in 2025, “this is going to be a very difficult time for Polish politics.”
A protracted internal political struggle could have adverse implications for Poland’s stance on Ukraine, as demonstrated in recent months with restrictions on agricultural products from Ukraine and rhetoric centered on protecting Polish farmers, an important voting bloc.
“Initially, due to the war in Ukraine and Russian aggression, there was a rare moment of national unity in Poland, with widespread agreement on supporting Ukraine and against Russian aggression,” said Kucharczyk, the Institute of Public Affairs president.
But that consensus has eroded during this election campaign, and in Kucharczyk’s view, the Law and Justice party is adjusting its rhetoric, particularly on Ukraine, to fend off competition from the far-right Confederates, who are perceived as pro-Russian.
Additionally, there is a crisis in agricultural imports, especially grain deliveries in rural areas, which is influencing the ruling party’s messaging.
Analysts say the majority of polls still show support for the effort to assist Ukraine, but recent political rhetoric has created a crack in Polish-Ukraine unity. “I am very, very relieved that Poles are fully aware that they still need to provide support to Ukraine,” Trzeciak said.
Analysts assert that, when considering centuries of Polish suffering at the hands of Russia, it is highly unlikely that Poland would become pro-Russian, regardless of the election outcome.
From Euro enthusiasts to Euro realists
EU-Polish relations could be the next casualty of political uncertainty, especially with the upcoming 2024 European Parliament elections.
Poland, under the current ruling party, has had strained relations with the EU. On the one hand, EU funding has ensured a Polish economic revival. At the same time, the current political leadership in Warsaw is offended by criticism from Brussels toward its immigration policies and restrictions on civil liberties.
“Poles used to be Euro enthusiasts. Now they have become Euro realists, or sometimes even more and more people are simply Euroskeptic,” said Trzeciak, the campaign strategist.
Kucharczyk says he believes the Polish election is of major significance for the entire EU bloc. He says the outcome will affect external EU policies like relations with Russia and Ukraine, as well as its internal cohesion based on values like democracy and the rule of law.