Democracy & Elections Foreign Relations & International Law

The Fight for Democracy in Poland Has Just Begun

Tadeusz Koczanowicz
Wednesday, November 8, 2023, 8:00 AM
Bringing back liberal democracy and forming a government after the elections
The Presidential Palace in Warsaw, Poland, September 2021. (Szczecinolog,; CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED,

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We won democracy, we won freedom, we won our beloved Poland again,” said Donald Tusk, the leader of the Polish liberal opposition party and former prime minister (2007-2014), after the announcement of exit polls that thrilled his supporters on election night. At the same time, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the ruling populist right-wing Law and Justice party, also announced victory. The state officials surrounding him cheered with forced smiles. Both leaders of Poland’s two main opposing political factions were right. Law and Justice received the highest number of votes on Oct. 15, but not enough to form a government. Since all the other parties elected to parliament announced that they would not hold talks with the ruling party, only the liberals, center-conservatives, and the new left (united under Tusk’s Civic Platform) are capable of forming a coalition.

Both sides presented the election as the most important since the country’s first, partly free elections in 1989. For Law and Justice, a third term would have provided a chance to consolidate its power and become the first party since 1989 to rule longer than eight years. Law and Justice sought to gain an independent majority rather than having to form a government with the small, nationalist and neoliberal party Confederation. Meanwhile, opposition parties saw the election as their last chance to stop Poland from following the Hungarian model of illiberal democracy. Unlike in Hungary, however, the opposition decided to form different electoral committees for the lower house of the Polish parliament. This move was initially criticized by most liberal journalists, who pushed for creating a unified list of all pro-democratic forces. These journalists believed that forming different electoral committees could lead to a situation like in 2015, when Law and Justice was able to form a government without a coalition. Back then, since the two leftist parties didn’t get enough votes to cross the required threshold, around 11 percent of leftist votes were wasted. Yet it turned out that having multiple electoral committees actually helped the opposition, as no one had to vote against their beliefs.

Though such a positive outcome for the opposition was possible, it was far from preordained: Opinion polls leading up to the election showed either a tie or a small victory for either side. The deciding factor that delivered victory to the democratic camp was incredible mobilization, especially among young people and inhabitants of big cities. The total turnout was a staggering 74 percent of people eligible to vote—the highest in Poland’s history of free elections, including its first partly-free elections in 1989. In other words, Poles were more willing to vote against Kaczyński’s Poland than Communist Poland.

The opposition’s victory is rooted in the women’s protests that started after an illegally functioning Constitutional Court imposed a near-total ban on abortion in fall 2020. These protests, which took place even in the smallest towns of the most conservative regions, provided an initiation to politics for many young people, who retained their political interest and commitment in the following years. The government’s arrogant reaction to the protests, as well as the brutality of some police officers, led to a noticeable decrease in support for Law and Justice; the ruling party lost precisely the few percentage points it needed to win this fall. Meanwhile, the liberals, led by Tusk, promised to fight for women’s reproductive rights and civil partnerships for all. This promise, together with their pro-European and pro-democratic stance, staked out a clear position in Poland’s bitter culture wars.

During the election campaign, Kaczyński was conscious of the anger inflamed by the abortion decision. In an attempt to redefine the conflict, his political camp launched a racist campaign against refugees and migrants coming to Europe that included personal attacks on Tusk. While serving as prime minister in 2014, Tusk agreed to allow the European Union to relocate asylum-seekers and refugees to Poland. Soon after, Tusk became the president of the European Council (2014-2019) and later served as the leader of the European People’s Party (EPP; 2019-2022). EPP, which defines itself as Christian democratic, is the biggest party in the European Parliament. Law and Justice, playing on the decision of Tusk’s government and his personal career in the EU and EPP, used state funds to promote a referendum that was distributed along with the election ballots, solely in an effort to boost turnout among pro-government voters. The two deliberately inflammatory questions that were most present in the media asked voters whether they wanted to accept thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East that the “European bureaucracy” was supposedly attempting to bring to Poland, as well as whether they supported the destruction of the country’s new wall on its border with Belarus (which was built to keep out migrants and refugees from around the world who are attempting to enter the EU). The two other questions were also aimed at what Law and Justice propaganda labeled as Tusk’s decisions. In effect, the referendum implied that Tusk is a sell-out who would risk the Polish state’s security to please his friends in Brussels.

In the lead-up to the referendum, the Polish state-owned television station TVP-Info combined footage of young men of color on boats with clips from a speech that Donald Tusk gave in German. Law and Justice’s campaign accused Tusk not only of flooding Poland with refugees and handing Poland over to Germany, but also of being Putin’s puppet. On this front, the campaign attempted to tar Tusk by launching an initiative to create a parliamentary commission that would investigate “Russian influence” over Tusk’s government. (This initiative stalled in the wake of criticism by the U.S. State Department and massive demonstrations that led President Andrzej Duda to change its format.) Law and Justice presented itself as the only force capable of beating back these foreign and domestic threats and preserving Polish independence.

While the ruling party’s aggressive propaganda failed to mobilize voters on its own behalf, they were highly effective in bringing hundreds of thousands of people to the street in support of Tusk, in a series of street protests that became the country’s biggest demonstrations since the fall of communism. The same propaganda strategies that brought Law and Justice to victory in 2015, including fear-mongering against migrants, cut against it in 2023. This time around, the electorate was more concerned about inflation (currently around 8 percent), the country’s diplomatic isolation as Russia wages war in neighboring Ukraine, and conservative suppression of women’s reproductive rights. For many voters, narratives about evil plotting by European bureaucrats sounded detached from reality. The opposition quickly pointed out the ruling party’s cynicism on migration when the deputy minister of foreign affairs stepped down in the wake of public revelations that he had overseen a scheme to sell Polish visas. Meanwhile, Law and Justice’s relentless depiction of Tusk as the incarnation of evil spawned memes and jokes even among the right-wing electorate. Voters widely rejected the referendum that played on fears of migration; only around 40 percent of citizens took part in it, making its outcome legally insignificant under Polish law. In short, the ruling party’s campaign strategies turned out to be a disaster.

Some feared that Kaczyński would refuse to step down and try to introduce some form of martial law. These fears grew after the Polish army’s main generals resigned a few days before the elections without giving a precise reason. Though some politicians in the ruling party did claim that the referendum’s result was manipulated by local electoral commissions, they did not take any serious steps to question the result, which Kaczyński accepted. After the obvious blunders of the campaign, the ruling party’s leader clearly didn’t want to risk explaining to its supporters why he is questioning the election results after already announcing that his party won.

Undermining the election simply isn’t worth the risk—in part because the opposition government’s success is not guaranteed. Polish President Andrzej Duda (supported by Law and Justice in his campaigns) has nominated the acting prime minister to form a government. Though this move has no chance of success, it will slow down the transition of power. Opposition media suggests that Law and Justice is buying time to cover up evidence that it spied on its opponents. There is no evidence of this, apart from a text message that an anonymous whistleblower sent to the opposition’s leaders before the elections. However, many journalists are willing to believe this allegation, especially because, during the country’s last elections in 2019, Poland’s secret service (controlled by Law and Justice) used the software Pegasus to wiretap the phone of the main opposition party’s campaign chief, as well as a personal lawyer for Tusk. The fear of spying is therefore justified and reveals a deeper obstacle to the return of democracy.

Moreover, over the past several years, people nominated by Law and Justice have taken over the state. Kaczyński sees the illegally functioning Constitutional Court, state-owned television stations, state-owned companies, and a loyal president as protection for Law and Justice’s supposed achievements. The boards of state-owned companies will be easily changed by new ministers. At state-funded institutions like museums, staffing changes can take place after the Law and Justice appointees finish their current term. The same goes for the people in charge of the security services, prosecutors, and the police, whose position depends on who is in office. The opposition will have the most difficulty changing the judicial system and state television, processes that will require new legislation.

Since the Polish president doesn’t have executive power but can veto laws (apart from the budget), Law and Justice (with President Duda’s help) is able to impair the parliament’s ability to function. Many hope that Duda will be a moderating force, as he vetoed a law that Kaczyński tried to introduce to get rid of an American-owned opposition television station and changed the law regarding the parliamentary commission that was supposed to go after Tusk. In both cases, Duda’s decision may have been influenced by American officials’ stated opposition to these initiatives, since he is personally very engaged in upholding Poland’s alliance with the United States. It’s unlikely that Duda will allow any changes to the judicial system, because he is legally responsible for its decisions and could be put on trial if they were found to have been illegal. Duda also has no interest in allowing the opposition to succeed by introducing promises that go against his political views—especially since he still has a good relationship with Law and Justice, which supported him in his two presidential campaigns. Duda’s presidency carries considerable political risk for the opposition, as it means that a government with a huge election mandate will not be able to introduce major legislation, especially regarding the rule of law, women’s rights, and LGBTQ+ rights (all of which Duda opposes). It’s unclear whether the opposition will be able to deliver on Tusk’s promise that the new government will negotiate the release of significant funding earmarked for Poland that the EU blocked due to rule of law violations. In the meantime, next year’s regional elections and elections to the European Parliament will provide an opportunity for Law and Justice to try to rebuild its support.

In two years, a presidential election will decide whether the opposition is really able to wipe out the remains of illiberal democracy. Since Tusk was always more interested in real power, which the prime minister position carries, he would probably not be interested in running for the presidency. The liberal candidate will likely be the charismatic and progressive mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski, who had a very good result in the second round of the previous presidential elections (in which he received 48. 97 percent of votes). He also knows how to appeal to young and urban voters: He walks in Pride marches, supports women’s rights, speaks multiple foreign languages, and is trying to transform Warsaw into an ecological city. On the opposition side, he will likely be challenged in the first round by Szymon Hołownia, a Catholic journalist and former talent show host from the party of pro-democratic conservatives who performed very well in this year’s preelection debate and received an unexpectedly high number of votes. Hołownia co-leads a party called the Third Way, which is the second strongest in the democratic opposition, and hopes to become the speaker of the lower chamber of the parliament.

Although Hołownia has a chance of convincing some less-radical Law and Justice supporters, which he proved he was able to do during this election, his vague stance on reproductive rights could play against him. (Hołownia says that he wants to organize a referendum on the matter). His party is fighting to leave the abortion issue out of the democratic opposition’s coalition deal, while the left wants to include it. Meanwhile, Law and Justice will have the chance to create another campaign around the culture wars and its vision of existential threats to Poland. The opposition’s task will be to mobilize the young and urban electorate whose demands will be hard or impossible to fulfill without a progressive president like Trzaszkowski, as well as the broader electorate interested in protecting democratic institutions and the rule of law.

It remains to be seen whether two years with two campaigns, conducted as Law and Justice retains various tools of influence and blocks legislation, will make the opposition’s voters apathetic. If not, Poland will truly become Eastern Europe’s first successful return from illiberal democracy to liberal democracy—and an example to other countries that this transition is possible.

Tadeusz Koczanowicz is a sociologist and cultural historian. Currently he is a visiting scholar at the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies at The New School sponsored by the Swiss National Science Foundation. He holds a PhD in Eastern European and Slavic Studies from the University of Zurich.

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