Reclaiming democracy in Poland

Dr Oliver Hartwich
31 October, 2023

It is not just New Zealanders waiting for a new government to be formed following parliamentary elections. Poland also recently held an election – and like New Zealand, a change of government is expected.

Just as the details take some time to emerge here in New Zealand, forming a new government in Poland still faces some hurdles.

So, if you are frustrated with how long it takes us to find out about our election result, just look at Poland. It puts our own troubles into perspective.

Poland’s election, held on 15 October, a day after New Zealand’s, saw the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) lose its absolute majority. It will now hold only 194 seats out of 460 in the Polish Parliament, the Sejm.

Meanwhile, a coalition of three opposition parties led by former Polish Prime Minister and former European Council President Donald Tusk will have a parliamentary majority of 248 seats. However, the transition of that coalition into government is taking time. This has much to do with Poland’s President, Andrzej Duda.

The PiS-aligned Duda appears to be dragging his feet facilitating the transition to a new government. In nominating a candidate for the office of Prime Minister, Duda prioritises PiS as the largest faction in Parliament, even though it does not command the majority it would need to govern.

This tactic will, of course, result in PiS failing to form a government, which means Duda will eventually have to turn to Tusk in a second round.

Nevertheless, Duda’s tactic will delay the transition process by a few weeks – which might give the outgoing government enough time to clear their desks of materials they do not want their successors to know about.

In many ways, the messy transition process reflects the kind of government Poland is leaving behind. Under the (somewhat ironically named) Law and Justice Party (PiS), the political scene has been tumultuous.

With its nationalist and conservative stance, the outgoing government has been the subject of domestic and international concern. PIS’s tenure has had a wide range of repercussions. It has sparked numerous controversies that have raised eyebrows in Brussels and beyond. This column has repeatedly highlighted these over the past years (for example, here: Brussels’ next nightmare, 16 October 2019).

Among the causes of controversy surrounding PiS were reforms to the Polish judiciary. According to critics, these changes have undermined judicial independence by placing loyalists in key court positions, straining Poland’s relationship with the EU.

However, the erosion of judicial independence, was just one part of a broader shift towards authoritarianism. This move has encountered significant opposition both within Poland and across the EU.

With this, and with its regressive social policies targeting LGBTQ rights and abortion, it was evident that the government was more concerned with consolidating power and promoting a conservative Catholic agenda than upholding democratic values.

Tusk’s new coalition government will have much to do once it takes office. With 157 seats, Tusk’s Civic Coalition will lead it. The Third Way, a centre-right grouping, will add another 65 seats. The smallest coalition party, The New Left, will contribute 26 seats.

Despite their different philosophies, their common agenda is clear: rejuvenating democratic standards and judicial independence. In other words, they aim to restore Poland to status quo ante, before PiS’s time in office.

This transition will not be without its challenges. The outgoing PiS government had implemented various strategies to maintain a tight grip on power. State-run media outlets were heavily biased, pushing a narrative that demonised opposition figures while glorifying the ruling party.

This propaganda machine ran a relentless campaign online and offline, leveraging state resources to fuel its engine. It will take time to change this pro-PiS government media bias.

The road to a fully restored democracy is steep, and not just because of the media. The institutional damage inflicted over the PiS years can be felt in every aspect of Polish social and political life. The judiciary, civil service, and several other public institutions have been co-opted for partisan purposes, removing their neutrality and integrity.

Partisan elements must be rooted out, and these institutions must be rebuilt to impartially serve the public interest. It is comparable to Poland’s mammoth democratic transitions of the post-communist period.

In addition, there are a multitude of legal and political hurdles to overcome. The reform process will likely be hampered by the existence of a substantial PiS opposition block, as well as a President who remains loyal to the outgoing regime.

But the urgency of these reforms is further amplified by the broader security concerns within the Central Eastern European region. Amid multiple crises in the region, first and foremost, Russia’s war against Ukraine, a democratic Poland is needed as a crucial player on the European stage.

Meanwhile, globally, Poland has an important role in fostering stronger transatlantic ties. As Poland improves its relations with its European neighbours, it will become a more influential voice within the EU and an even more valuable ally to the United States.

So Poland’s opposition won the election, even though it is taking a long time to change the government.

But that change, when it finally happens, will be a change for the better – for Poland, Europe and the world.

To view the article on the Newsroom website, click here.

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