Civic Coalition leader Donald Tusk speaks in Lodz, Poland, October 10, 2023 (OSV News photo/Kacper Pempel, Reuters).

In Poland’s October 15 parliamentary elections, the governing Law and Justice Party (known by its Polish acronym PiS) faced a challenge from the centrist Civic Coalition. Almost three-quarters of the Polish population cast their votes, the highest voter turnout since the country won its independence from the Soviet Union more than thirty years ago. Ultimately, PiS won more votes than any other single party but could not form a parliamentary coalition. So the Civic Coalition will form a government under the leadership of ex–prime minister and former European Council president Donald Tusk.

Opponents of PiS considered this election a pivotal one that would determine the future of Polish democracy. Before the election, historian Karolina Wigura warned that “Poland is like a ‘zebra,’ which in recent years has displayed in turns both an authoritarian character and democratic remnants. If PiS wins a third term, then the stripes will wash out.” Since winning parliamentary and presidential elections in 2015, PiS has undermined the independence of Poland’s courts in order to pursue its agenda and entrench its power. It has also implemented openly xenophobic policies in response to the “threat” of immigration from the Middle East and Africa. Journalist Anne Applebaum has accused the PiS of “state capture,” in which a “political party or clique typically consolidates control over a state’s institutions” through legislation, the use of state media to broadcast propaganda, and pervasive corruption. In Poland, PiS “began with an assault on the highest courts. Then it set out to dominate everything else: the national and local civil administration, regulators of all kinds, even seemingly apolitical institutions such as the forestry service.” In this election, PiS used state media to smear Tusk as treasonous, more loyal to Germany than to Poland. It also employed voter-suppression tactics and gerrymandering. The result, Applebaum writes, is that “only one issue [was] really on the ballot: Do you want PiS to complete its capture of state institutions, or do you want those institutions to belong once again to the entire country?”

The hard work of democratic governance is better than the shortcuts of authoritarians.

The Civic Coalition will not have an easy time untangling state institutions from PiS. President Andrzej Duda, who is supported by PiS, remains in power and holds a veto over legislation. Tusk will have to maintain a center-left/center-right coalition of three parties that may be unable to agree on legislation: the centrist Civic Platform party, which dominates the Civic Coalition, will have to be able to work with the Third Way coalition, an alliance of centrists and agrarian conservatives, as well as the New Left, a progressive social-democratic party.

One of Civic Coalition’s first decisions will be whether to continue PiS’s widely popular social-welfare programs. A child benefit called “Family 500+” sends 500 zlotys (about $118) a month to parents with children under the age of eighteen, and during the campaign PiS promised to raise it. PiS also increased pensions, lowered the retirement age, made medicines free for young people and the elderly, and doubled the minimum wage. The Civic Coalition initially opposed these policies and later reversed course. But there is disagreement within its coalition; Third Way insisted that the “government handouts” should end, while the New Left will likely want to increase them.

Still, the three parties in the Civic Coalition agree on at least one thing: the hard work of democratic governance is better than the shortcuts of authoritarians. At least for now, Poland is no longer an example to the growing right-wing nationalist movements in Western democracies, and relations between Poland and the European Union will likely improve. The zebra still has its stripes.

Published in the November 2023 issue: View Contents

Regina Munch is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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