Ana Oppenheim reports on the victory for the centre coalition and asks what does it mean for Polish people?
The most important protest will happen at the polls.
Ahead of Poland’s general election on the 15th October, variations of this slogan were popping up on social media and in political speeches.
Until the very last minute, the outcome of the vote was uncertain, and the stakes sky-high. During its eight years in power, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party had attacked democratic institutions: from turning public media into a hyper-partisan propaganda machine, to undermining the independence of the judiciary. Its decision to retire and replace judges on Poland’s top court enabled it to introduce a near-complete abortion ban, leading to a number of avoidable deaths of pregnant women. Meanwhile, PiS mobilised support with aggressive campaigns attacking migrants and LGBT+ people.
Its authoritarianism was met with an upsurge of resistance. Previously relatively rare, mass street protests became a common sight. In the leadup to the election, hundreds of thousands took part in anti-government marches led by opposition leader Donald Tusk. Thousands of people had also demonstrated against the government’s attacks on the courts. As a response to PiS’ homophobic campaigns, and dozens of local authorities proclaiming “LGBT-free zones”, large Pride marches were organised up and down the country. When the Constitutional Tribunal outlawed abortion in cases of severe foetal defects, it sparked the biggest wave of protests since the Solidarity movement in the 1980s. Women and their allies were met with police batons and tear gas.
The increased politicisation of Polish society was also reflected in this month’s astonishing voter turnout. More than 73% of people took part – by some distance the most in Poland’s modern democratic history. Compared to the previous general election, turnout among under-30s increased by over 20 percentage points, and it was higher among women than men. In Warsaw, it neared 85%.
There were good reasons to be worried about the future of Polish democracy if PiS were to win a third term – especially since one possible outcome was a coalition of PiS with the far-right Confederation. Confederation is an alliance of ultra-nationalist, Catholic fundamentalist and monarchist groups, whose candidates had denied Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine, called for a national register of gay people and argued against women’s right to vote. With a sleek campaign focused on pro-market economic policies, the party was surging in the polls and threatening to become the kingmaker in the next Parliament. Luckily, both PiS and Confederation ended the night with disappointing results, giving three “democratic opposition” parties the majority needed to form the next government.
Defeating the radical right was an unqualified success. But once the initial euphoria subsided, the challenges ahead became clear. While the “democratic opposition” parties are united in their opposition to PiS and concern for the rule of law, on other issues they have significant differences.
The biggest of the three, Civic Coalition (KO), is a centre-right grouping led by former President of the European Council Donald Tusk. After years of fence-sitting, Tusk finally committed to legalising abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, but only after pressure from pro-choice activists. The alliance supports civil partnerships (but not equal marriage) for same-sex couples, but Tusk had already made and failed to deliver on that pledge before, during his last time as Prime Minister in 2007-2014. And while he promised no cuts to PiS’ welfare programmes, his record makes many Poles worried about the prospect of austerity.
One of KO’s likely coalition partners is Third Way, a small-c conservative centrist alliance. In particular its agrarian faction has already expressed reluctance to include social issues in any coalition agreement, implying it might block reforms. Third Way politicians have also repeatedly attacked PiS over public spending, and will likely clash with the Left over economic policy.
As the most junior partner in the expected coalition, the Left (Lewica) will face an uphill struggle to carry out its programme: from introducing legal abortion, equal marriage and a greater separation between the Church and the state; to strengthening trade union rights, reducing the working week to 35 hours and delivering a mass programme of building social housing.
Another obstacle on its way will be Andrzej Duda. The PiS-backed President, whose term doesn’t end until 2025, has the power to veto legislation, which would require a 3/5 majority to overturn – a majority which the likely coalition won’t have. Duda has previously shown that he’s not unresponsive to public pressure, vetoing or amending several PiS bills that caused a public uproar. Time will tell how willing he will be to concede this time.
It might be tempting for Poland’s progressive activists to consider their job done now that PiS is gone. But it’s not the time for complacency. It took mass movements to change KO’s stance on abortion, shift public opinion on legal rights for same-sex couples, and now to defeat PiS at the polls. As the new government takes shape, everything is to play for. Those who want to see real change in Poland will need to carry on marching.