Eight Years of Populist Rule in Poland Comes to an End

Donald Tusk speaks at an election rally after a televised debate on government television at the end of the campaign in Warsaw, Poland on October 9, 2023. Photo: Shutterstock.

Unlike in Hungary and Türkiye, where opposition blocs failed to defeat long-term populists in power, the loosely aligned opposition “coalition of coalitions” in Poland rose to the task. Elites in Brussels and national capitals can rightly breathe a sigh of relief at Poland’s return to the camp of “regular politics.” PiS’s defeat represents a clear win for Polish democracy, for pluralism writ large, and for Europe. Nonetheless, we should not overread the outcome — Poland’s populists are certainly down but far from out. 

By Simon P. Watmough*

After eight years in power, Poland’s national-populist Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) has left office. On Wednesday, 13 December 2023, following more than eight weeks of delay tactics, Poland’s president, Andrej Duda — first elected in 2015 with PiS’s backing — finally appointed Donald Tusk as head of an incoming coalition government made up of his center-right Civic Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska, KO), the centrist Third Way (Trzecia Droga), and the New Left (Lewica). Tusk now returns to the post of prime minister, which he first held between 2007 and 2014.

Throwing more than a little shade on the outgoing government during remarks as his government was sworn in, Tusk vowed“Allegiance to the provisions of the constitution will be the trademark of this new team, this new government.”

The three coalition partners took 53.7% of the vote and a comfortable majority (248 seats in the 460-seat Sejm) in elections held on 15 October. On 10 November, the parties inked a coalition deal signaling their readiness to assume government immediately. But despite calls for a speedy transition in the national interest, President Duda chose to drag the government formation process out to its constitutional limit. While it had no chance of success — PiS took the largest vote share (35.4%) and won the most seats overall, but it failed to win a majority and was never in a position to form a government — the president gave PiS’s caretaker prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki the first shot at forming a government. Duda’s foot-dragging portends the kinds of challenges an incoming Tusk government will likely face as it seeks to reverse eight years of democratic backsliding.

The question now is what the PiS defeat means for the future of populism in Poland — and, indeed, Europe more broadly. This commentary argues that PiS’s defeat represents a clear win for Polish democracy, for pluralism writ large, and for Europe. Nonetheless, we should not overread the outcome — Poland’s populists are certainly down but far from out. Getting down to causes and conditions — that is, dealing with the underlying structural factors that have given rise to populism in the first place — will be essential if Poland is to remain in the pluralist camp.

The Most Divisive Government in Polish History

Commentators have described the 2023 parliamentary campaign as the most divisive and hardest-fought electoral campaign in Polish history. PiS was seeking an unprecedented third term in office, promising to complete its national-populist agenda of defending traditional Polish values against perceived threats and “cleansing” the state and society of leftists and “foreign influences,” including so-called “LGBT ideology.”

A third PiS term would almost certainly have seen Poland follow Hungary’s slide into outright “competitive authoritarianism,” an outcome that might have put the entire European project in jeopardy. On returning to power in 2015, PiS head Jarosław Kaczyński held up Fidesz — in power since 2010 — as the model the party would adopt in government.

Indeed, from confronting Brussels to subverting media freedom and stifling minority rights in the name of “traditional” national values, PiS has hued close to the Fidesz line. For example, like Fidesz, it engaged in political hiring and firing on a massive scale, placing thousands of party loyalists in every state institution — including the public broadcaster, which devolved into little more than a party mouthpiece during the campaign — but also the civil service and state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Infamously, the party also brought sweeping changes to how judges are appointed, giving the political majority greater control over the judiciary and sparking a “rule of law crisis” with the EU. The European Court of Justice initiated legal proceedings against Poland for these breaches of the rule of law.

Attacks on women’s and LGBTQ+ rights — including the declaration of “LGBT-free zones” by some PiS-led municipal governments — were widely condemned by human rights groups and the international community. As a result, Poland’s Freedom House “democracy score” has fallen steadily since 2015, and the country has fallen from 18th in Reporters Without Borders’ global media freedom rankings in 2015 to 58th today.

During the campaign, PiS pulled every move in the populist playbook. PiS used its dominance of public media to target prominent Poles with any “foreign” connection, including Tusk himself (he has German ancestry). Casting him as a “German agent” deliberately invoked images of the Nazi occupation of Poland during the Second World War. This chimed with PiS’s general tendency to cast internal enemies as conspiring with the external Other to do the country in. PiS also directed government agencies and SOEs to promote the party’s electoral message, thus redirecting their advertising budgets toward campaigns that supported PiS’s agenda, effectively leveraging public resources for party gain.

The opposition parties met this onslaught with a campaign focused on the economy, the rule of law and Poland’s future in Europe. KO and Third Way, in particular, campaigned tirelessly in rural areas and Poland’s less prosperous urban areas. This went a long way to mitigating the perception in the mind of some voters that Tusk and his party are “aloof” liberal elites with little concern for “real Poles.”

A Win for Pluralism …

The biggest winner in PiS’s defeat is Polish democracy. Voter turnout broke all records, with 74.4% of Poles casting a ballot (compared to 69% in 2019). The rise in youth turnout was more impressive still, rising from 46% last time to 69%. The Polish diaspora, which generally disfavors PiS, also turned out en masse, with over half a million Poles living abroad registering to vote (nearly double that in 2019). The immense turnout necessitated a 70% increase in overseas electoral commissions to manage the volume​.

Secondly, it is now clear that PiS’s claim to represent “the people” is a dead letter. This much was already apparent in early 2021 when hundreds of thousands of ordinary Poles poured onto the streets to demonstrate against a near-total ban on abortion that went into effect after a ruling from the Constitutional Tribunal, which PiS has stacked with friendly judgesSuch mass mobilization of “the people” against PiS was clearly in evidence during the campaign, with Tusk headlining a public demonstration of half a million people in Warsaw in July and another that was reportedly attended by a million Poles two weeks before the 15 October polls.

Crucially, we’ve learned that governance matters and that voters will punish populist governments that fail to deliver, engage in corruption, and push the policy and ideological envelopes too far. Beyond rampant corruption and cronyism, PiS has appeared incapable of handling basic policy. The government’s disastrous fumbling of the summer “grain imports” crisis (Romania’s government has deftly handled the same issue) and Prime Minister Morawiecki’s ham-fisted announcement that Poland would stop arms shipments to Ukraine (in fact, they continue) managed to simultaneously alienate farmers (and annoy Kyiv) and paint a picture of a government out of its depth.

As Polish political scientist Sławomir Sierakowski noted in September: “For Kaczyński and the PiS government, transferring cash is easy; but anything more complicated than that is beyond their capacity. That is why queues for doctors are twice as long as in the past, and why court cases take twice as long.”

… and for Europe

PiS’s defeat is also great news for the EU. Brussels (and, for good measure, Berlin) has long served as a useful foil for a national-populist outfit bent on emphasizing “cultural threats” to Polish sovereignty from hostile neighbors. Tusk is a Brussels brahmin, having served as president of the European Council between 2014 and 2019 and then head of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) grouping in the European Parliament (EP) until his return to Polish politics in 2021. Ahead of plans to attend EU summits this week on 13–14 December, Tusk declared Poland would “regain its position as a leader in the European Union.”

Crucially, Poland will no longer play a spoiler role in the institutions. Tusk’s coalition is committed to abiding by EU law, not least to unlock the €35.4 billion in frozen EU recovery funds as quickly as possible. Poland’s “return to Europe” will strengthen the EPP and reduce the sway of the sovereigntist European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), home to many of Europe’s national-populist parties in the EP. With European elections scheduled for mid-2024, the result in Poland will be a welcome shot in the arm for centrists who have been fighting something of a rearguard action against populists across the continent.

Polish Populism: Down, but Not Out

Still, we should not overread the results. A KO-led government will face several challenges that PiS will be primed to exploit in opposition. While the coalition agreement pledges to reverse the near-total ban on abortion that sparked the aforementioned mass protests in 2021, the parties remain divided on the issue. In any event, any legislation loosening abortion access will likely face a veto from President Duda, which the coalition lacks the numbers to override despite its parliamentary majority. Other lightning rod issues will be recognizing same-sex unions (short of marriage), social policy (Lewica will push for major reforms) and support for farmers (the Polish People’s Party, an agrarian outfit, is part of the Third Way coalition).

Moreover, reversing eight years of democratic backsliding will prove a tougher challenge than some have predicted. Expectations are sky high, and with a daunting to-do list, the new government may struggle to meet the moment. The young voters who came out to vote for the coalition parties in droves will be impatient for change, and Tusk will be under pressure to quickly remove PiS loyalists from the media and judiciary. Yet in doing so, Tusk must be careful not to stoop to the same “decisionist” tactics of PiS, which saw the party bypass the law to make political appointments.

The Constitutional Tribunal is already showing signs of obstruction. In rulings this week, it has declared that proposed judicial reforms needed to unlock EU funds would be unconstitutional.

More importantly, PiS is now back on what is, in some ways, more familiar territory. Opposition is, in some respects, the “natural habitat” of populists since lobbing grenades at “ruling elites” is much more straightforward from outside the corridors of power. Those in any doubt about this should recall the relentless “post-truth” campaign Jarosław Kaczyński ran against Tusk after the Smolensk plane disaster in 2010, in which the forces of PiS’s networks in civil society and the Catholic media spread misinformation and conspiracy theories. And, while Mr. Tusk has worked hard to shed his image as an out-of-touch liberal with a haughty contempt for PiS’s conservative base, the resentment lingers in some quarters, something PiS is certain to exploit

Conclusion

Unlike in Hungary and Türkiye, where opposition blocs failed to defeat long-term populists in power, the loosely aligned opposition “coalition of coalitions” in Poland rose to the task. Elites in Brussels and national capitals can rightly breathe a sigh of relief at Poland’s return to the camp of “regular politics.”

But equally, policymakers must not learn the wrong lessons. Yes — governance matters, and voters will punish populists in power that cannot deliver. But the European social model remains broken, leaving plenty of scope for populists of the left and the right to exploit very real grievances and the perceived out-of-touchness of policy elites for electoral gain, something Geert Wilders’ shock victory in the Dutch elections last month makes all too clear.

Policymakers in Poland and elsewhere are on notice: both the style and the substance of policy must meet voters where they are at. The impending green transition and the need to address workforce gaps and demographic issues are vital and unavoidable policy moves. But if these policies are communicated ineffectively, and the cost of implementation falls most heavily on those least able to afford it, the forces of populism will have their opening.


(*) Simon P. Watmough is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Leipzig in Germany and a non-resident research fellow in the research program on authoritarianism at ECPS. Dr. Watmough’s research interests sit at the intersection of global and comparative politics and include varieties of post-authoritarian states, the political sociology of the state, the role of the military in regime change, and the foreign policy of post-authoritarian states in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. He is currently writing a book on the global history of populism.

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