The election result is a stunning defeat for PiS, which has been in power in Poland since 2015. According to Politico:
The party mobilised the full resources of the state to help it win, and it was also strongly backed by state media — which are firmly in the ruling party’s camp. However, PiS was hobbled by a growing number of scandals — including allegations that officials were selling visas for bribes. Eight years of tensions and social conflict, with fights over abortion, rule of law, grain imports from Ukraine, and awful relations with the EU, which has frozen the payout of billions over rule of law worries, also eroded support for PiS.
Just like Orbán at the last Hungarian election, a referendum was appended to the general election. Hungary’s electorate’s reaction to the loaded questions about LGBTQ restrictions was to spoil the ballots in large enough numbers to make the referendum void. The Polish questions were blatantly targeting opposition parties: “Anyone in favour of accepting illegal migrants, lowering border defences, selling off state companies and making people work longer before they retire?” The turnout of the referendum was below the required 50%, so that it was declared void as well. What impact does the victory of a centre coalition led by Tusk have?
Implications of the PiS defeat for Europe
The election has huge implications, not just for Poland and Central Europe but also for the whole of Europe.
Poland will continue its stand against Russian aggression. It will continue its role in the West’s response to Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, both as a military supply hub and a cheerleader.
A blog in Intellinews explains:
Though PiS has cynically used domestic frustration with the cost of this role – particularly with regard to cheap Ukrainian grain imports – to try to win votes, whichever party wins is likely to maintain Poland’s support for Ukraine and call for other countries to do the same.
PiS government versus Brussels
However, PiS and Tusk disagree strongly in their stance on the EU. PiS have been engaged in a fight with Brussels over its blatant violations of the EU’s values, notably on the rule of law, as it attempted to consolidate its control of the state. In PiS’ second term the EU finally began to respond, freezing some vital funding until the party reverses changes that had damaged judicial independence.
Partly in response to this Commission offensive, PiS has pursued an obstructive and destructive policy in the European Council, together with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. This has hampered the EU’s attempts to prepare the bloc to meet the challenges of climate change and the growing refugee crisis. Another issue was the reforms needed to cope with the impact of the Ukraine war which will lead to a greatly enlarged union in the future.
PiS government versus Berlin
In another cynical move, PiS has also tried to stoke animosities towards Germany by launching an old claim for further compensation for Nazi destruction in the Second World War, and by making spurious allegations that Berlin is Tusk’s puppet master. In fact, one suggestion by PiS was to install a German flag in front of Tusk’s offices. If PiS were to be re-elected, this conflict with Brussels could also gain further fuel from the recent Slovak election.
With the re-election of Robert Fico’s populist leftist Smer party in Slovakia on 30 September, three quarters of the Visegrad Group of Central European states are at present led by populist parties. Brussels bashing, similar to the UK’s Leave campaign, is being used as a good diversion from domestic woes, and has little interest in advancing Europe-wide solutions to common problems.
A government led by Tusk, a former EU Council president, would greatly improve Polish/ EU relations. He has the knowledge and contacts in Brussels to quickly rebuild relations with Germany and the rest of the EU. If Poland shifted its stance, Fico’s Slovakia too would quickly fall into line. This would leave Orbán’s Hungary as the only remaining troublemaker.
Tusk may be no angel
An article by Euractiv, however, warns that Tusk ruled Poland might not be the pro-EU paradise Brussels is hoping for:
“The current opposition’s coming to power does not mean that Warsaw’s position on several key issues would change as dramatically as Brussels may expect,” Sławomir Domaradzki, political analyst at Warsaw University, told Euractiv.
One worrying sign is Tusk’s statements on migration. In July he posted a video that slammed the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) government for letting in thousands of migrants “from Islamic countries.” Tusk called the EU relocation scheme an alleged threat to Poland’s security. The title of the video reminds of slogans which the UK Leave campaign used so effectively: “Polish people must regain control over their country and its borders.”
The second concern is, despite Tusk’s charisma and popularity, his economic policy of longer working hours, higher retirement age and privatisation of national assets. He reassured voters that he would not raise retirement age to 67, but Euractiv.pl did not get a response from PO politicians on the party’s stance on privatising major state assets and its plans for managing key economic sectors.
Parties of the right facing a change across Europe
Overall, however, the Polish election result could affect the mood in Europe where it is feared that radical right-wing populist parties are on the march, while traditional centre-right parties rush to adopt their policies and form governments with them.
Recent elections have led to the victory of Georgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, the Finns party became part of the Finnish government, and the Swedish Democrats exercise significant influence over the centre-right minority Swedish government. The change of government in Poland could therefore be a seismic shift heard right across the continent. It might embolden centrists to put up more resistance to the destructive vision by the right wing populists.