Poland’s Pro-EU Opposition to End Eight Years of Populist Rule

Poland’s opposition is on course for a majority after Sunday’s election, an upset that would deny the ruling nationalists a third term and see the country re-engage with the European Union.

(Bloomberg) — Poland’s opposition is on course for a majority after Sunday’s election, an upset that would deny the ruling nationalists a third term and see the country re-engage with the European Union. 

With a record number of Poles turning out to vote, the Civic Platform under former European Council President Donald Tusk won 31% of the vote, according to a projection by Ipsos that includes a partial count and exit polling. The Third Way alliance had 14%, with the Left party at 8.6%, giving the three groups 248 seats in the 460-strong lower house of parliament.

The implications of the outcome are significant after arguably the most vitriolic campaign in Poland since the collapse of communism more than three decades ago. Victory for the opposition would see the country adopt a more collaborative approach to EU politics under a veteran statesman who served as European Council president and has the ear of leaders in Brussels and Berlin. 

The zloty gained as much as 1.8% in early trading, its biggest rise in 18 months. 

Tusk has pledged to normalize Poland’s relationship with the EU and to secure the release of more than €35 billion ($37 billion) in funding that was withheld to punish the Law & Justice government for curbing the independence of judges during its eight-year rule. He said his first move will be to restore the impartiality of the public broadcaster. He also wants to liberalize abortion rights and bring back funding for fertility treatment.

A win for the ruling Law & Justice party, by contrast, would have meant deepening Poland’s isolation at a moment when cracks are appearing in support for Ukraine and the world’s focus is shifting to the war between Israel and Hamas.

With turnout estimated at a record 73%, some people in big cities had to queue into the early hours of Monday in order to cast their votes. Under Polish election law, you have a right to vote so long as you arrive at the polling stations before the 9 p.m. cutoff. 

Law & Justice took the most votes with 37%, a result that may give it the first shot at forming a coalition. But that will prove fruitless as long as Tusk’s allies have a blocking majority. A potential Law & Justice ally, the far-right Confederation party, took just 6.4% of the vote.  

“This is the end of the bad times, the end of Law & Justice rule,” Tusk told jubilant supporters in Warsaw after exit poll results were announced. “Poland won, democracy won.” 

Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski called the result a “victory,” though said a third term for the nationalists was in doubt. “This we don’t know yet,” he told supporters. 

When Law & Justice came to power in 2015, Poland was seen as a benchmark for Europe’s post-communist transformation, but since then the party has stacked the top court with allies and used the state broadcaster to pump out government propaganda. 

Short Honeymoon

If events play out as the numbers show, Tusk will be confronted with some immediate challenges. He’ll have to form a government after a bitter campaign exposed the political and social divisions in the country — and to unify parties whose differences prevented them from running on a joint platform in the election. 

Law & Justice will also retain its grip on some levers of power. Polish President Andrzej Duda, who has the power to veto legislation, and the central bank governor, Adam Glapinski, are both allies of the party. 

“There will be euphoria at home and internationally at getting rid of Law and Justice, and all the symbolism,” said Aleks Szczerbiak, a professor of politics at Sussex University in the UK who writes a blog on Polish politics. “But this is not a government that will have an easy ride.”

A win for Tusk, though, would at least mark a shift in the tide of populist forces in Europe. Slovakia’s Robert Fico, a former premier and ally of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, is set to return to power this month after winning on a campaign to halt military aid to Ukraine and migration. 

Together, Kaczynski and Orban pioneered a brand of nativist populism that resonated particularly with socially conservative voters. They built support by opposing immigration and attacking LGBTQ rights while increasing social payments for families with children and pensioners. 

Under Law & Justice, the Polish economy grew by more than 50%, unemployment halved and the wealth gap narrowed with Western Europe. Tusk has promised to keep social benefits while restoring Poland’s position as a loyal EU member.

–With assistance from Piotr Skolimowski, Maciej Martewicz, Isobel Finkel, Barbara Sladkowska, Konrad Krasuski and Piotr Bujnicki.

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