CIVICUS speaks about Poland’s 15 October parliamentary election with Sonia Horonziak and Filip Pazderski, coordinator and head of the Democracy and Civil Society Programme at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA).
Founded in 1995, IPA is a leading Polish think tank and an independent centre for policy research and analysis that works to contribute to informed public debate on key Polish, European and global policy issues.
What were the main campaign issues?
The campaign was vicious, featuring hateful rhetoric, particularly directed at groups such as migrants. Opposition leaders, notably Donald Tusk, the head of the Civic Coalition, were targeted in every speech and interview given by members of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), even when it was completely unrelated to the subject matter.
Despite the emotional nature of the campaign, opposition parties’ messaging focused on reversing the regressive changes introduced by PiS, in power since 2015. Their electoral promises included restoring the rule of law and improving cooperation with the European Union (EU) and international partners such as Ukraine, with whom relations have deteriorated in recent months. At times, however, they were caught in the trap set by the ruling party, especially regarding migration issues, and their rhetoric wasn’t always fair toward migrants. Nonetheless, the PiS campaign was way more aggressive and hateful.
To react to that, in the final phase of the campaign the leaders of democratic opposition parties began to strongly emphasise their desire to temper social emotions and conflicts and bridge divisions. These were messages responding to the expectations of Poles, particularly from the group of undecided voters whose support was being fought for.
What factors influenced the outcome of the election?
Firstly, it’s crucial to note that, even though the official campaign started only weeks before the elections, PiS’s unofficial campaign has been underway for months, dominating the pre-election narrative. To this end, the ruling party extensively used public resources and received support from companies owned or controlled by the State Treasury. During the official campaign period, the public broadcaster exhibited a clear bias in favour of PiS, undermining the chances of any other party. Constant monitoring of the main news programme of the public TV broadcaster shows that PiS politicians were shown more often and only in a good light. By contrast, opposition party representatives were depicted only badly, and some very badly.
Moreover, during the electoral campaign PiS introduced the idea of a referendum, which was clearly unconstitutional, on issues aligned with its political agenda. In the referendum, people were asked whether they approved of the privatisation of state-owned enterprises, an increase in the retirement age, the admission of immigrants under the EU relocation mechanism and the removal of the barricade on Poland's border with Belarus.
The referendum allowed state-owned companies to engage in the electoral race and provide funding to the ruling party. This wasn’t subject to control or limitations, further contributing to an uneven and biased race in favour of PiS.
However, the results favoured opposition parties, which secured enough seats to form a coalition excluding PiS. This indicated that people had grown tired of the hateful rhetoric and propaganda spread by the government. An IPA survey carried out earlier this year showed a significant increase in dissatisfaction with the country's political and economic situation. It was particularly high among young people and women, which contributed to their views being expressed at ballot boxes and the final outcome of the elections.
No one expected PiS to gain enough votes to rule alone, but two possible outcomes were predicted. In one of them, PiS would be able to form a majority coalition with the far-right Confederation grouping. In the other, which eventually materialised, opposition parties would have the opportunity to govern together. A more even race might have yielded even higher results for the opposition bloc.
How different are the parties that form the winning coalition?
Each of the three groups forming the winning coalition – the Civic Coalition, the Third Way and the Left – comprises multiple parties. This raises the question of whether they will be able to stay together and form a unified front, or whether they will eventually split. Even though they have shared objectives, particularly those of restoring the rule of law and addressing corruption by implementing the EU’s whistleblower directive, they are divided on several issues.
While all parties oppose the strict abortion ban introduced by PiS, the Third Way is more conservative on women’s rights, in contrast to the Left, which holds more liberal and progressive views. Harmonising positions on social contributions also presents a significant challenge: while all agree that over the past eight years PiS has drained the public budget, there is no agreement as to which social groups should receive continued support and which should see their assistance reduced. The Polish People’s Party, a member of the Third Way, could prioritise agricultural workers, while the Left might want to focus on upholding minority rights and the Civic Coalition may emphasise support for older people. But the interests of these groups can ultimately be reconciled, perhaps as a result of a compromise leaving some of the expectations of members of these groups unanswered. It will be a little more difficult to align policies aimed at supporting business activities, a particularly important issue for the Civic Coalition and the Third Way. And for entrepreneurs, the reduction of the tax burden is mostly an important issue, while the Left's ideas may lead to tax increases.
There might also be tensions when it comes to appointing key positions and achieving a fair distribution of posts among coalition members, as several ambitious party leaders are vying for prominent roles.
But opposition parties know people expect change. We hope they’ll be wise and prioritise crucial reforms in areas such as the rule of law and tackling corruption over personal and political disagreements. This election result also marks Poland's return to the centre of European policy debates and the possibility of unlocking much-needed funds from the EU’s National Recovery Plan.
How did Polish civil society, including your organisation, engage with the electoral process?
Civil society played a crucial role in ensuring the fairness of the election. Several organisations conducted extensive training for thousands of people who volunteered to become electoral observers, empowering them to oversee the elections and ensure compliance with the law. Civil society educated voters on election participation and organised several extensive campaigns to encourage turnout, especially dedicated to women and young people, resulting in a remarkable 74.4 per cent voter turnout, a record in Poland. Civil society engagement particularly contributed to increased participation by women and young people, with turnout among young people 20 per cent higher compared to previous elections. We did our best to increase people’s engagement because it’s essential to achieve a truly representative democracy.
Another area of civil society involvement was in relation to the referendum. Almost all major civil society organisations (CSOs), including IPA, stated that the referendum was unconstitutional, manipulative, violated human rights and solely served the interests of the ruling party. We worked to inform and encourage people to vote in the parliamentary election while boycotting the referendum. This had a positive outcome: for the referendum, turnout was only 40 per cent, below the minimum validity threshold of 50 per cent, so its results were non-binding.
Do you think the government’s relationship with civil society will change under the new administration?
Expectations are high for the new government to improve relations with CSOs. The PiS government propagated a narrative that part of civil society was politicised and worked against the interests of Polish nation. It was hostile towards organisations whose objectives didn’t align with government policies. During calls for public funds from ministries and government agencies, numerous well-established and renowned CSOs were excluded while organisations that had only existed for a few months or weeks and were clearly linked to PiS or its supporters were granted large amounts of money.
Over the past eight years, civic space in Poland has not only shrunk but also shifted towards increasing support of CSOs aligned with the government’s ideology. These organisations have often received long-term support that will enable them to sustain their activities long after a change of government. Certain segments of civil society, mostly those working on human rights, anti-discrimination, LGBTQI+ rights, migrants and refugees, environmental protection and watchdog activities, have faced harassment as well as insufficient support.
The major opposition parties have pledged collaboration with civil society and the implementation of policies formulated by CSOs across Poland in 17 thematic areas. The new government is expected to remain open to international cooperation, and not to marginalise independent CSOs but instead incorporate them into the political process, including on decision-making regarding the introduction or amendment of laws. There’s also a hope for fairer competition for public funds. We need to work on equal and non-discriminatory tools to support civil society and ensure its sustainability.
What forms of international support does Polish civil society currently need?
International solidarity has always played a crucial role for Polish civil society, particularly during the last eight years, when many CSOs wouldn’t have survived without it. The hope is that international CSOs and agencies, including those from the EU and the USA, will keep providing support and collaborating with Polish CSOs and the new government. This support is particularly important in the areas of democracy, the rule of law and anti-corruption.
The international community might mistakenly believe that the positive election outcome resolves all issues in Poland, potentially diverting attention to other problematic regimes. We have already been through this once, when after 2010 many foreign donors left Poland, deeming their job finished. Shortly afterwards, populist-nationalist forces returned to power and it turned out that legal mechanisms and democratic standards were not strong enough to stop them taking control of the state.
We need to understand this is just one victory, and there is much work ahead for both Polish civil society and the international community. Some donors have already withdrawn support for activities to defend and improve civic space across Europe. It is crucial for other donors, including private foundations, to step in and support each EU member so the union can develop and thrive.
Civic space in Poland is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.