On October 13, parliamentary election in Poland was held. After the national-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) defeated the liberal Civic Platform (PO) in 2015, the country was faced with extensive reforms. Not only the socio-economic paradigm changed, from the liberal course to a generous welfare state embodied in newly introduced child allowance, a steady increase of the minimum wage, or lowering retirement age. Radical changes to the judiciary as well as taking control of the public media caused a massive outcry at home and abroad, raising concerns about the state of democracy in Poland. Therefore, this year’s election was labelled the most important ballot since the fall of communism 30 years ago.
A Brief Look at the General Outcomes
At a first glimpse, the outcome of the election did not diverge much from the polls. The electoral alliance of the governing PiS party and its two small satellites, United Poland (Solidarna Polska) and Poland Together (Polska Razem), won 43,5 per cent of all votes. The liberal opposition under the leadership of PO suffered losses if compared to 2015, however remains the second political force in Poland with voter support of 27,4 per cent. The left will reappear in the Parliament after a four-year pause; the alt-right Konfederacja made it for the first time, overcoming the 5 per cent electoral threshold. The agrarian party PSL, allied with the left-overs of the populist Kukiz’15 movement led by a former rock star, barely saved themselves from extinction. To sum up, candidates running from six lists registered countrywide made it to the Parliament, including one representative of the German minority. The majority government of the united right will most probably continue, determined to complete the mission of “rebuilding Poland”, the core message of the PiS.
A More Nuanced Look
Some comments on the outcomes of Polish election referred to the victory of PiS as a popular confirmation of support for the government, legitimization of its agenda, or even made bold statements that Poles prefer social transfers to democracy. However, a more nuanced look reveals that not all that is necessarily true.
- A victory under expectations
The support for the PiS party is significant and has even increased comparing with 2015. Nevertheless, confronted with some opinion polls predicting a victory at 48-49 per cent, the actual outcome might have been disappointing. Moreover, if taking Viktor Orban and Fidesz as a point of reference, the final result of Jarosław Kaczyński’s party was far below the electoral success of the Hungarian prime minister, who in 2010 won the majority of votes and last year enjoyed the support of 49 per cent in general election. The overall result of the PiS and its junior coalition partners did not give them more seats in the Parliament. However, the inner dynamics within the coalition has changed: whereas the PiS lost 15 seats, both junior partners gained more representation. This puts the PiS party under pressure while forming the government and gives their allies a new leverage, which they won’t hesitate to use.
- The Upper House lost to the opposition
With the supermajority of the right-wing coalition led by the PiS, the power balance in Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, remained unchanged. Since 2015 the PiS party had also enjoyed absolute majority in the upper house, the Senate, but now the tables have turned with opposition candidates winning a slight majority (51 of 100 seats). That came as a surprise, with only 320 votes in one constituency turning the tide. The upper house is one of elements of the checks and balances in the Polish political system and is able to, for example, amend or reject the bills passed by Sejm. Nevertheless, with such a fragile majority, only time will tell how sustainable and resilient this newly established balance is.
- A moderate government mandate
Securing supermajority in Sejm by the governing coalition was possible thanks to allocating seats according to the D’Hondt method. It favors bigger parties, however, does not reflect the raw number of votes. Whereas around 8 million Poles supported the PiS party and its coalition partners, the liberal alliance collected 5 million votes; the united left – 2,3 million; the agrarian PSL together with Kukiz’15 – 1,5 million. Simple arithmetic proves that all opposition (excluding the fringe Konfederacja) gathered more votes. All of them built their campaigns on anti-government rhetoric, criticizing both its policies as well as the conduct of its members. Therefore, taking into consideration a record-high voter turnout of almost 62%, the opposition proved its ability to effectively mobilize against the governing coalition. At the same time, it’s the fragmentation that limits this ambition in the competition for power.
- The most diverse parliament yet
As a result of many parties choosing to run in electoral alliances instead of independently, the next Polish parliament will be very fragmented. Altogether, representatives of seventeen political parties will meet in Sejm, representing a wide variety of views: from bottom-up social left to alt-right. Moreover, with quite a few young candidates being successful, a generational change in Polish politics will be visible, too. On the one hand, this diversity makes the new Sejm a true representation of the Polish society and is a sign of political awareness developing among citizens. On the other hand, it might be a hurdle for the opposition to consolidate and find a common ground. Surely, parliamentary sessions will be livelier and debates fiercer, but the future will show, if with a constructive outcome for Poland.
Next Stop: 2020 Presidential Election
A more nuanced look at the outcome of the 2019 parliamentary election in Poland proves not only that the situation in the country is far more complex than the newspaper headlines would suggest, but also that there are signs of a change coming. The atmosphere is electric: Polish political scene is diverse and fragmented, the society polarized but determined in their choices. Next to a very clear concept of Poland offered by PiS, other alternative scenarios emerge. There is potential in the opposition to unite and a determination of the governing party to endure. These tensions and excitement will be of particular significance in the presidential election as this office is relevant to the checks and balances system. In Poland, this ballot is scheduled as soon as in spring 2020. Therefore, political competition and mobilization won’t wear off for now but are bound to intensify.