Dalibor Rohac

Law and Justice has lost. Where does Poland go now?

Donald Tusk celebrates the exit poll results during Poland's elections (Credit: Getty images)

If it continues to hold, the likely electoral victory of Poland’s opposition last night is good news for all those concerned by the health of Polish democracy. In a recent piece in The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum painted a dire picture of creeping state capture, suggesting that in some ways, ‘Poland already [resembled] an autocracy,’ and eloquently arguing why the election campaign was ‘neither free nor fair.’ 

She has a point. Yet, notwithstanding the ruling party’s vicious and paranoia-driven campaign, the election was bound to be a highly competitive one. But even if the Law and Justice Party (PiS) won enough mandates to form a government, it would hardly be in a position to place the country on a one-way path to authoritarianism. 

Bringing down the temperature in Polish politics must also be treated as a matter of urgency

The rhetoric of ‘democratic backsliding’ in Central Europe conflating the situation in Poland and Hungary has been misleading. While in Hungary, political change is unlikely to come through the ballot box, Poland has always had an effective and well-organised opposition, fiercely independent media, and civil society, all of which have come to bear in Sunday’s election. 

Many questions remain about what is next. Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk has declared victory but coalition talks between his and the other two opposition blocks, each made up of a handful of different political parties, may be long. The country’s president, Andrzej Duda, may want to delay the appointment of the new government by giving PiS a first shot at forming a cabinet. And what substantive policy agenda can the likely coalition, composed of two broadly centre-right groupings and an explicitly left-leaning faction, agree on?

The good news is that no future Polish government is likely to disturb the existing consensus on Poland’s Ukraine policy, or on the country’s impressive rearmament. This year and the next, the country is expected to spend around 4 per cent of GDP on defence, driven mainly by new, highly ambitious modernisation programme. This includes contracts for 32 F-35 fighters and 96 Apache helicopters from the United States, as well as armour and artillery pieces from South Korea.

Simultaneously, there is hope that a new government will repair ties with Berlin, Paris, and Brussels instead of picking often needless fights with Poland’s western allies on topics such as Germany’s second world war reparations. PiS’s arrival in power in 2015 essentially killed the emerging Weimar Triangle: a series of top-level meetings between French, German, and Polish leaders in which Poland often spoke on behalf of much of Central and Eastern Europe. 

It would be good if Poland’s reputation in Western European capitals improved – but not at the expense of Warsaw’s acquiescing to every fad originating in Brussels or Paris. What makes Poland’s influence in the EU valuable is precisely that it can emphasize themes that matter to ‘new Europe’ – whether it’s immigration, Ukraine’s accession to the EU, energy security, or the balance between national sovereignty and powers of Brussels. 

It would be particularly helpful, both for the health of the EU’s economy and for the strength of western alliances, if Poles started building effective coalitions with like minded countries. They could push back against the top-down, protectionist instincts of, in particular, French policymakers. If it is to succeed, the EU’s decarbonisation agenda must be also steered in a more market-friendly direction. 

On both of those fronts, Warsaw has many potential allies both in the region (the Czech Republic, Baltic states) and beyond (Sweden). Yet, stepping up in these efforts is a choice and it is equally possible that the new coalition, united in its embrace of ‘European values’ will believe that abandoning any hint of assertiveness is the surest way to repair damaged partnerships with Berlin and Paris. 

The most pressing challenges, however, are at home. Maintaining macroeconomic stability and bringing down stubbornly high inflation is paramount. The left will likely have a different sense of priorities to the centre-right and just how the new government approaches the ticking time bombs that are the new entitlement programmes introduced by PiS is unclear.

Bringing down the temperature in Polish politics must also be treated as a matter of urgency. Applebaum is correct in listing the instances of PiS’ capture of public institutions, from the broadcasters, through courts, to the intelligence apparatus. In the week before the election, two of Poland’s top-ranking military commanders, including chief of the general staff, resigned – it has been suggested in protest of political interference in the armed forces.

The new government may be tempted to respond in kind. There is talk, for example, of what should be done with the central bank’s governor, Adam Glapiński, who cut interest rates twice in the weeks leading to the election, arguably to help PiS – even though inflation was and still remains far above the bank’s target. Restoring trust in the country’s basic institutions and creating a sense that, in this dangerous world, Poles are in it together will require restraint, prudence, and true statesmanship. Whether the opposition can deliver remains an open question.