Poland: Women and youth mobilise to vote out reaction
Poland held elections on October 15 for the lower house (Sejm) and Senate, which ended the eight-year, two-term rule of the incumbent Law and Justice (PiS) party and the United Right (ZP) political alliance centred on it. The election featured the highest turnout in the history of the Third Republic of Poland, at 73.38%
This result was due to the mobilisation of young people and women, especially in the large cities, who were much more inclined to support candidates of the democratic opposition parties. On election day the most frequent scenes on Polish media were the queues at polling stations, lasting in some places until the early hours of the following morning (in Wrocław voting ended at 3 am). The scene was similar abroad, with social media circulating pictures of queues in front of Polish embassies and consulates around the world, from Tbilisi to New York.
There were concerns as to whether all votes could be counted within 24 hours, as required by a change in the Electoral Code introduced by the PiS government, along with the abolition of postal voting abroad. However, all results from outside Poland were received by the State Electoral Commission, helping the democratic opposition for which the Polish diaspora voted in large numbers: even in the United States and Canada, where PiS usually wins, its support dropped significantly.
The background to this outpouring were the social movements that have swept Poland in recent years, notably the mass protests against the Constitutional Tribunal ruling limiting grounds for abortion. These engulfed the whole country and were very noticeable in the small towns that have been PiS strongholds. The massive movement to help Ukrainian refugees at the start of the Russian invasion was likewise very important, as has been the longer-term growth of secularisation, as evidenced by the drop in the number of young people attending religious classes in schools. According to the 2021 census the number of people identifying as members of the Roman Catholic Church fell by more than 16 per cent compared to the previous census of 2011, and now stands at 71 per cent.
PiS traces its origins to the Solidarity (Solidarność) movement. It originally had a socially conservative and Christian democrat ideological profile, but recently Catholic-nationalist, Polish-sovereigntist and even moderately Eurosceptic currents have emerged within it. Prior to its 2015-23 rule, it also briefly governed between 2005-07 in a coalition with Self-Defence for the Republic of Poland and the League of Polish Families.
A big part of PiS’s previous successes were its social commitments: 500 zloty (PLN500/A$187) monthly for each child (rising to 800 zloty from January 1, 2024); the introduction of 13th and 14th month pension payments; and an increase in the minimum wage. PiS politicians also portrayed themselves as champions of energy sovereignty (especially in support of coal mining), finance sector renationalisation and ending the privatisation of state assets.
In many cases PiS promises ended up as mere rhetoric, notably in its failure to implement an effective housing program (the Polish housing gap is 1-2 million units) and to respond to the demands of parents raising adult children with disabilities, who have twice protested within the Sejm. Although there has recently been less worker protests in Poland, the demands of teachers, civil servants and, especially, miners, also went unmet under the PiS administration.
Five broad currents in Polish politics went into battle in the run-up to the October 15 election, grouped in the following coalitions.
The right. Beside PiS, the ZP camp consisted of:
- Sovereign Poland, headed by Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro and representing a more national-Catholic electorate hostile to abortion, euthanasia, LGBTQ+ rights, immigration and “the impositions of Brussels”;
- The less extreme Republican Party and Renewal of the Polish Republic, formed as the result of a split in former Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Gowin's Agreement grouping after its pro-government party members refused to leave the PiS parliamentary caucus;
- Polish Affairs and Kukiz`15, both seat-winning tools for individual right-populist politicians. For example, Kukiz’15 was founded by former rock musician Paweł Kukiz and advocated direct democracy and the introduction of single-seat constituencies. In the 2015 election it elected 42 MPs to the 460-seat Sejm, only to start losing them in a series of scandals. Kukiz then entered into coalition with the centre-right agrarian Polish People's Party (PSL) for the 2019 election, winning just six seats, and finally ended up allying with PiS for this poll.
The centre. The opposition Civic Coalition (KO) was centred on Civic Platform, led by Donald Tusk, former Polish prime minister and former president of the European Council and the European People’s Party. It brought together centre-right and liberal forces, along with smaller centre-left groupings. Civic Platform derives mainly from the liberal Freedom Union and, like parts of PiS, from Solidarity Electoral Action. A conservative-liberal formation in origin, today it mainly accentuates its centrism and creates the image of a catch-all party.
The other components of the Civic Coalition were:
- Modern, a small liberal force;
- Polish Initiative, a social-liberal split from the social democracy;
- The Greens; and
- KO's most surprising acquisition, the agricultural trade union AGROunia, famous for its colourful anti-government actions. Initially distanced from the liberal opposition as well as PiS, the announcement that union leader Michał Kołodziejczak would have first place on KO`s list in the Konin district came as a surprise to many commentators.
The Third Way. The new Poland 2050 grouping, led by former Catholic journalist Szymon Hołownia, who came in third place in the 2020 presidential elections, initially challenged KO in many polls. However, with support declining, Holownia formed the Third Way coalition with the PSL This alliance also brought together a number of politicians from other formations and was boosted by, among others, MPs who split from Agreement; Artur Dziambor, the chairman of the right-libertarian Freedom Party; and the founder and former chairman of Modern, Ryszard Petru. While it emphasised free market economic demands, its voters and activists had diverse and contradictory positions on these and other key issues, such as abortion rights.
Social democracy and the left. This was represented by New Left. Formed as a result of the merger of the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance and the social-liberal Spring, its list also included Left Together, the most left-wing grouping in mainstream Polish politics as well as two smaller formations, the Polish Socialist Party and Labour Union.
Many journalists (especially from the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza) and some voters (mainly KO) dreamed of a broad coalition, along Hungarian lines of Civic Coalition, involving KO, Third Way and the New Left, but the smaller lists unanimously rejected this idea, pointing out that it would discourage some voters, conservative and left-wing, from voting.
Far right. The far-right Confederation presented itself as a “third force” in opposition to both PiS and KO. In early polling its anti-Ukrainian, anti-immigrant and anti-social welfare message gained around 15 per cent support. However, its ratings soon began to fall and this “technical party”, composed of the libertarian-conservative New Hope, the nationalist National Movement and the Catholic-monarchist Confederation of the Polish Crown (Korona), failed to recover from its candidates’ statements on eating dogs, disenfranchising women, supporting Russia and downplaying paedophilia.
Others. This panorama was completed by the German Minority Electoral Committee, Non-Partisan Local Government People, the anti-vax and conspiracy theorist party There Is One Poland (led by the mayor of Siemianowice Śląskie Rafał Piech), and a gaggle of right-wing regional groupuscules, including the Prosperity and Peace Movement, Normal Country, Anti-Party and the Movement for Poland's Repair
The election campaign started long before officially announced, with PiS trying to find “catchy” themes to enthuse voters. A tour of the country by leader Jarosław Kaczynski featured transphobic jokes, allegations of EU ordering that insects replace meat on Polish tables and mobilisations defending the honour of late Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla). The untouchable former pontiff was allegedly slandered by Franciszkańska 3, a documentary by Marcin Gutowski that produced evidence that Wojtyla had done nothing about cases of paedophilia of which he was aware.
A return to the topic of alleged “LGBT ideology” also flopped. In previous years this theme had inflamed some PiS-governed local authorities to declare their bailiwicks “ideology-free”, but they were then forced by European Union funding conditions to back down. The reminder that PiS had helped families and introduced the PLN500+ child allowance also failed to create a flagship theme for its campaign.
That left the PiS incumbents with their old standby: a return to anti-immigrant rhetoric, in particular vindication of the tragic blockade of refugees on the Polish-Belarusian border. This was treated by the party (and a large part of its electorate) as a necessary “defence against [Russian-Belorusian] hybrid war”. PiS also hoped to gain from the return to talks on European Union refugee relocation policy: ministers declared that Poland “will not be a second Lampedusa” and painted Tusk as facilitating the Islamisation of Europe. PiS also launched a hate campaign against Agnieszka Holland’s film Green Border (about a Syrian family and an Afghan woman trying to enter Poland via Belarus) and finally — just so everyone knew the crisis was really bad and only PiS could be trusted to manage it — introduced temporary border controls at the crossings with Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Lithuania.
Green Border, which shows activists helping people on the border and a border guard who makes pushbacks, was met with a “tsunami of hate”, as the director herself put it. Right-wing politicians and columnists outdid each other in attacking the film, even before it appeared in cinemas. Holland was compared to Nazi propagandist cinematographer Leni Riefenstahl, and President Andrzej Duda revived the phrase “only pigs sit in the cinema”, used by the Polish Resistance during World War II. The government also wanted to force cinemas to play a spot “explaining” the position of the Polish authorities before screenings of Green Border.
However, this narrative of hate was shattered by the cash for visa scandal, in which Polish consulates were found to be charging up to US$5000 for facilitating visa applications. The affair began with the mysterious resignation (and later also non-candidacy in the elections and failed suicide attempt) of Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Wawrzyk. The media revealed that this may have been related to the massive and uncontrolled issuing of Polish visas at consulates in Asian and African countries. Immigrants with visas issued in this way would be sent to Poland and then to the US and other countries in the Global North, posing as groups of tourists or Bollywood film crews. The scale of the practice is difficult to estimate precisely, but some sources speak of as many as 250,000 illegally issued documents.
The issue of Ukrainian grain, which, under an agreement between the European Union and Ukraine, enters EU markets without customs control, became the grounds for another festival of xenophobia. Initially, the topic of Ukrainian grain and other products (for example, raspberries during the season, which lasts from June to September) was used by the opposition, scorning authorities as not caring about Polish farmers. The turnaround took place on September 15 when the temporary EU embargo ceased to apply and grain from Ukraine reappeared in Poland (as well as in Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary). PiS, wishing to exploit anti-Ukrainian prejudice resulting from history and also win over the electorate of the extreme right, pursued conflict rather than talks with the Ukrainian authorities.
PiS politicians, including Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and party chairman Jarosław Kaczyński, accused Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenski of “ingratitude”, issued reminders that the temporary rights to social benefits introduced for Ukrainian refugees would soon end, and even stated that Poland would no longer arm Ukraine (although later other representatives of the ruling camp tried to soften this statement).
Another element of the government’s strategy was to highlight military security. However, this too was tricky ground. The opposition reproached PiS for the fact that under its administration Polish air space was violated by a Belarusian helicopter, the Polish police chief had fired a grenade launcher (received as a gift in Ukraine) within police headquarters, and that military and police equipment was used during PiS party picnics. Authorities tried to portray the opposition as “traitors” by showing documents from previous governments in which Poland’s line of defence only went as far east as the Vistula River. However, the message about PiS “care” for the uniformed services was again thrown into doubt just days before the election when two out of three top military commanders resigned.
PiS also engaged in paternalistic vote-buying. Members of the ruling party opened unfinished roads or public buildings in their electoral districts, visited Circles of Rural Housewives and Voluntary Fire Brigades to hand them money or equipment, while state-owned Orlen petrol became cheaper. (The offer was eagerly snapped up by Poles, as well as Slovaks, Czechs and Germans, leading to fuel shortages at many stations.) There was strong financial support for pensioners (13th and 14th pension payments, free medicine), considered by PiS to be its “iron electorate”.
The opposition mostly, but with hesitations in the case of the Third Way, relied on mass mobilisation. On June 4, the anniversary of the first round of the first partially free elections in 1989, more than 500,000 people came out in Warsaw for a KO-organised march. An even larger demonstration took place on October 1: more than a million people, according to organisers, turned up for the Million Hearts March that KO had called in response to the story of a Krakow woman who was detained after she took the morning-after pill. The government side trivialised the march, claiming that only 40,000 people took part, and the state media hardly covered it at all.
In the end, PiS won 35.38% (194 seats in the 460-seat Sejm), KO 30.7% (157 seats), Third Way 14.4% (65), the New Left 8.61% (26) and Confederation 7.16% (18). No other forces passed the 5% threshold.
PiS lost support even in districts that traditionally favour it and several well-known ruling party politicians lost their seats. The scale of the phenomenon is best illustrated by the results in municipalities where the ruling right has previously recorded high levels of popularity, such as Godziszów in Lubelskie Voivodeship (88.8% in 2019) or Kobylin-Borzymy in Podlaskie Voivodeship (87.9%): there they lost 10% and 17% of the vote respectively. A number of very well-known ruling party politicians did not get into parliament, including minister and former deputy prime minister Jadwiga Emilewicz.
New Left also lost 23 of its 49 seats in the Sejm, mainly to KO and Third Way, though within its caucus Left Together increased its number of seats from six to seven. Winners for Left Together included Daria Gosek-Popiołek, whose result significantly exceeded that on the list of the New Left's number one in Kraków, Maciej Gdula, and Dorota Olko, who won Left Together’s second seat in the Warsaw constituency. Other left-wing MPs and deputies were elected representing mainly feminist milieus (for example Wanda Nowicka, Katarzyna Kotula, Agnieszka Dziemianowicz-Bąk) and the younger generation of social democracy, such as the Sosnowiec councillor Łukasz Litewka, who promotes rail travel and is involved in helping animal shelters (pictures of dogs up for adoption appeared on his billboards; after the election, however, information emerged about the rather neoliberal views he expounded on his social media). Litewka managed to significantly outscore left-wing leader Włodzimierz Czarzasty, although both will be in the Sejm.
Thanks to the opposition’s so-called Senate Pact — in each of the 100 Senate districts only one candidate was fielded — it won 66 senators (KO 41, Third Way 11, New Left 9, independents 5) to PiS’s 34. The New Left went from two seats to nine, with Left Together increasing from zero to two (Magdalena Biejat from one of the districts in Warsaw and Anna Górska from what is considered a conservative district covering the counties of Bytów, Chojnice, Człuchów, Kartuzy and Kościerzyna in Kashubia, where she ran against the Pomeranian Voivode Robert Drelich). The leaders of the two smaller social democratic parties in New Left (Wojciech Konieczny from the Polish Socialist Party and Waldemar Witkowski from the Labour Union) each won a Senate seat.
The far right, although improving its result, can consider the election a failure, as it expected to win a much higher number of seats. The structure of the new Confederation parliamentary caucus has also changed: as many as four seats will be taken by MPs from the ultra-Catholic Korona, while the doyen of Polish economic ultraliberalism Janusz Korwin-Mikke failed to get back into the Sejm. His place will be taken by Karina Bosak, the wife of another Confederation MP, the ultra-nationalist Krzysztof Bosak. Commenting on the fact that the candidate running from second place on the Confederation ticket overtook his vote, Korwin said that this only proved that “women should not have the right to vote.”
Since the elections, the far right has entered into a very strong crisis. Janusz Korwin-Mikke was suspended from the Confederation Council of Leaders and Sławomir Mentzen, one of the leaders of the party and of the New Hope grouping, stated that he would not be on their lists in the future. 81-year-old Korwin-Mikke is considering creating another party (he has a lot of practice in this, having in the past been the leader of the Real Politics Union, Janusz Korwin-Mikke's Platform and the Congress of the New Right). He is currently out of parliament, but it is unclear how the MPs associated with him — Konrad Berkowicz and Korwin-Mikke’s son-in-law Bartłomiej Pejo — will behave.
Another uncertainty is how Grzegorz Braun's Korona, which has four MPs, will act; its leader has already called a media conference at which he considered setting up his own parliamentary group. If this were to happen, the Confederation, which now has 18 MPs, would itself become a group rather than a fully-fledged caucus, as in the Sejm 15 MPs are needed to form a caucus while three suffice for a group. The conflict within the far right has also led to allegations of immorality and hypocrisy, with Korwin-Mikke supporters accusing Witold Tumanowicz, the Confederation's chief of staff, of cheating on his wife.
For the first time since 1991, the German minority will not have its representative in the Sejm. According to Article 197 of the Electoral Code, tickets representing national minorities recognised by the Polish state are only exempted from the obligation to exceed the five per cent electoral threshold at a national level. At the district level, they have to fight on an equal footing with other tickets to win a seat. The high turnout and vote for the larger democratic opposition parties, however, ended in a result far below expectations.
Together with the parliamentary elections, four loaded referendum questions formulated by the government were put to voters. They were immediately met with sharp opposition from the KO, Third Way and the New Left: the fact that both votes were to be held on the same day meant that the government side could spend unlimited additional resources on the referendum campaign (which, according to the opposition, was nothing more than part of the campaign for the Sejm and Senate).
Opposition leaders repeatedly stressed that they would not participate in the referendum, but there was no organised boycott campaign, even though some NGOs called for this. Despite this, only 40.91% of eligible voters took part in the referendum vote, making it invalid as the minimum necessary participation is half the electoral roll. Only in one voivodeship (Podkarpackie) did more than 50 per cent of voters take part, meaning that even in regions where PiS won the election, it was unable to persuade all its voters to take part in the referendum. It is worth noting that the referendum ballots and election ballots were handed out together and voters had to declare if they did not want to take the referendum ballot and have that decision noted.
Among those who did vote, the results are as follows:
To the question “Do you support the selling off of state assets to foreign entities, leading to Poles losing control over strategic sectors of the economy?” Yes 3.51%, No 96.49%.
To the question “Do you support an increase in the retirement age, including the restoration of the increased retirement age to 67 for men and women?” Yes 5.39%, No 94.61%.
To the question “Do you support the removal of the barrier on the border of the Republic of Poland with the Republic of Belarus?” Yes 3.96%, No 96.04%.
To the question “Do you support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, according to the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy?” Yes 3.21%, No 96.79%.
PiS was unable to form a government coalition, even with Confederation, and the three democratic opposition groups, with 248 seats in total, declared they would govern together.
The Polish constitution provides for three possible steps in the appointment of the government. In the first step, the president designates the prime minister and appoints the government. The law does not impose any obligations on the president in terms of the person he designates to head the government: it can be the candidate of the winning party, of a coalition of parties, or even a person from outside politics. So far, however, presidents have nominated persons indicated by the party winning the election.
If this government cannot be formed, then a candidate for prime minister can be put forward by a group of at least 46 MPs. The Sejm elects such a prime minister by an absolute majority in the presence of at least half of the number of deputies. The head of government then presents the Sejm with a program of government action and a proposed composition of the Council of Ministers, whom the Sejm elects by an absolute majority in the presence of at least half of the statutory number of deputies. This is a form of granting a vote of confidence to the government and it is at this point that the government of the current democratic opposition is likely to be formed (probably at the end of December).
If the Sejm fails to form its government, then the president appoints the prime minister and, at their request, the members of the government, and takes the oath of office from them within 14 days. The president can appoint as prime minister the same person they designated in the first stage, it can also be the person designated by the Sejm in the second stage. Once appointed by the President, the Council of Ministers has 14 days to obtain a vote of confidence from the Sejm. In this stage, the Sejm only grants the government a vote of confidence by a simple majority in the presence of at least half of the statutory number of MPs.
If the government fails to emerge on the third attempt, the President must shorten the term of the Sejm and order elections.
It is still unclear who will be given the mission to form a government. Many observers of the political scene expect that President Andrzej Duda will entrust it to Mateusz Morawiecki, the current PiS Prime Minister, who, however, has no real possibility of forming a coalition with any other grouping. However, this will delay the possibility of KO, the Third Way and New Left forming a government for at least a month. The media have also reported on the possibility that some PiS MPs may desert to the new governing coalition and (though much less likely) that a few MPs from the current opposition may switch to PiS.
A government formed by KO, Third Way and New Left will have to balance varying interests. Initial announcements include improving relations with the European Union, unblocking money for the National Reconstruction Plan, wage increases for public servants, teachers and health workers, and a halt to the construction of the so-called Central Transport Port, a target of local community protest. Shops will again open on Sundays, but in return New Left is demanding 2.5 times higher pay for Sunday and public holiday work as well as the right to at least two free Sundays per month for workers who are not currently prohibited from working on Sundays. All parties support an increased role for renewable energy and the construction of a nuclear power plant (here, however, Third Way leader Szymon Hołownia has expressed skepticism, but not his coalition partner, the PSL). Spending on the Polish army is certain to rise. There are also decentralisation ideas (for example, the Ministry of Industry to go to Katowice, Silesia, instead of Warsaw) and the creation of a separate Ministry of Housing (the New Left's proposal).
Tax policy will be problematic. KO favours raising the tax-free threshold to PLN 60,000 (A$22,386) annually. The New Left is also in favour of increasing it but has not given a specific amount. The Third Way is rather cautious. KO and the Third Way are united in, for example, reinstating tax deductibility for health contributions. The Left, on the other hand, would like to see the VAT rate reduced and a progressive personal income tax rate introduced, so the highest earners pay more. At the same time, Third Way politicians have promised not to increase income and consumption taxes for the entire first term, until 2026. In addition, families with at least three children would not pay tax at all.
The current opposition also wants to abolish some of the institutions that it considers to have been created just to give positions to the PiS’s timeservers. Michał Szczerba of KO lists 16 such structures, including the Patriotic Fund, the Polish National Foundation and the National Institute of Freedom, among others. It will be much more difficult, due to the long terms of office, to sort out the issue of the Constitutional Tribunal or TVP (public television), which is managed by the National Media Council.
Issues such as abortion or same-sex partnerships will probably not be part of the coalition agreement (PSL leader Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz has expressed his firm opposition), but they may be the subject of a free vote in the Sejm. KO and the Left are in favour of abortion up to the 12th week, while Third Way MPs hold diverse views on the issue; the question of same-sex partnerships may be less fraught.
What else can the new coalition change? Stopping illegal push-backs on the Polish-Belarusian border? Abolishing the conscience clause? Reforming the police? A less repressive approach to culture? We will find out in the coming weeks.
Szymon Martys is active in the European Network for Solidarity with Ukraine. He is based in Kraśnik, in eastern Poland. A shorter version of this article appeared in Green Left.