“Ladies and Gentlemen, on 15th October 2023, the rule of PiS (Law and Justice) came to an end,” said Joanna Szczepkowska, a renowned Polish actress, in the middle of a theatre performance this week. In a former life, she announced the end of the Communist regime in 1989 with a near-identical sentence. Some may say that comparing the two governments, one imposed, one democratic, may be an overstatement. But for the last 8 years, a significant portion of the Polish population could see direct links between the two. As a matter of fact, the turnout for last weekend’s election was higher than ever before (74%), higher even than when the country first became democratic.
For context, for the last 8 years Poland was ruled by a Christian Nationalist, far right populist party that introduced some of the strictest abortion laws in the world. This caused many women to die because of unhealthy pregnancies and de facto criminalised miscarriages. Through its rhetoric, the party effectively also gave homophobic thugs a green light to cary out assaults motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation.
Not only that, but the outgoing government has implemented many draconian changes to the judiciary system, including restricting judges’ independence, promoting a politician as the chief prosecutor and taking control of the Supreme Court and Constitutional Tribunal, Poland’s two highest ranking courts. Many feared that PiS was intending on taking control of these institutions to destabilise rule of law and seize more power; the threat was so real that the European Union felt that they had no choice but to stop sending grants to Poland, an act which severely limited its otherwise impressive economic growth.
Whilst it is impossible to summarise 8 years of regressive and oppressive far right government into a few short paragraphs, I hope that this sheds some light on what Polish people were enduring under PiS’ rule and why the recent election was as important as it was.
The opposition knew that defeating the populist government would be no easy task and that they would need to unite to achieve this; something which due to a lack of a “fatherly figure” last election they were not able to do. This year such figure arose: veteran of Polish politics Donald Tusk. Tusk has been politically active since he started his history studies and illegal opposition activities during the communist era back in 1976, but is better know as a former President of the EU and an ex-Prime Minister of Poland.
Whilst it is undeniable that Tusk is a political heavyweight, both in Poland and across the continent, a once popular leader does not bring about an election victory on his own. For this, he needed to unite the entire progressive bloc – not an easy task considering there are more than 10 such parties to bring together. Although the Polish political system is heavily reliant on cooperation, it usually means 2 or 3 parties collaborating. Something on the scale that we saw this weekend has never been attempted before, and many doubted whether it was even achievable as it required incredible cohesion. And yet, the results from the parliamentary elections proved the doubters wrong.
At first, the exit poll left everyone confused as PiS appeared to have won the elections and the achieved highest number of parliamentary mandates. However, after a moment or two, those with quick maths skills realised that despite winning the greatest number of votes by a narrow margin, the united opposition efforts paid off as together, they achieved a parliamentary majority in both houses.
This result would not have been possible without the progressive parties working together. In the end, the 10 parties split into 3 electoral coalitions that best suited their individual programmes, and now these groups will come together to form a government that spans the greatest number of voices across the political spectrum that Poland has ever seen, from socialists to centre right liberals. Of course, it won’t be easy to govern the country and make policy when so many contrasting beliefs will occupy ministerial seats during cabinet meetings, but we should look forward with optimism to find out what healing effect this progressive alliance will have on a country that for so long now has been held back by the claws of nationalism and populism.
Sadly, the Polish political system is complicated and leaves most of the power to the President who is opposed to the new alliance. But even if he tries to make the transition of power difficult or delay it, eventually he will need to offer the opportunity of forming the government to the allied opposition, and at that point, we hope, they will begin the transition from an authoritarian Poland to a modern, liberal Poland that is truly in tune with the values of the 21st century.