Polish Election 2023: A choice between two futures
11 October 2023 /
Only a few days left until one of the most decisive elections of Eastern Europe takes place. Will the national conservative and Eurosceptic United Right coalition led by the Law and Justice party (PiS) maintain its power grip over Poland, or will the pro-European opposition camp led by the liberal conservative Civic Coalition (KO) land a victory?
The outcome will not only alter the character of Polish domestic politics, but also Poland’s role within the European Union. Both lead candidates, Jarosław Kaczyński (PiS) and Donald Tusk (KO) are no strangers to each other. Back in 2007, both candidates already competed against each other in the general election, resulting in a decisive win by Donald Tusk who prematurely ended a two-year PiS rule. Since then, Tusk has been a red flag for the PiS party and its leader Jarosław Kaczyński. It took the PiS until 2015 to regain power, while Donald Tusk moved on to Brussels to become first President of the European Council from 2014 to 2019 and then President of the European People’s Party (EPP) from 2019 to 2022.
Only in 2022, and without any other heavyweight opposition contender in sight to prevent a third term for the ruling PiS party, Tusk decided to return to national politics. Now looking at 2023, a rematch between Kaczyński and Tusk is taking place, again.
But what are the main topics that have dominated the election campaign?
Security: With the country bordering both Ukraine and Belarus, security has been at the forefront of the most pressing issues for the electorate. In general, both camps acknowledge the importance of enhancing security, particularly in the light of the Russian invasion in Ukraine but also Poland’s historical past as a satellite state of the USSR. Still, the PiS goes even further by promising to build up one of the most powerful armies in Europe via a heavy increase in military spending. Then, particularly the PiS alliance needs to mobilize their voter bases in eastern and southern Poland which both border Belarus and Ukraine.
Migration: As in all of Europe, migration plays a big part of the election campaign. Here, the PiS tells the story of the “invasion by strange others”, linking the rise of refugee arrivals and riots with the consequence of an opposition win while repeating its own anti-migration stance. But within the opposition camp, a harsh line on migration policy is also visible (i.e., Donald Tusk claiming the need to regain control over the country and its borders). Even further, the opposition, based on media revelations, is slamming the government concerning the issuance of temporary Schengen-Visas to non-EU citizens in return for bribes at Polish consulates, which openly contradicts the PiS’s proclaimed hard stance on migration.
Ukraine: While the PiS led government has been from the beginning of the Russian Invasion in 2022 a pioneer in rallying support for Ukraine, backed by the opposition, especially in the recent months, the relations between the Ukrainian and Polish government deteriorated. This was due to the Polish push to block Ukrainian grain exports in the name of Polish farmers, the announcement of the halt of weapon deliveries to Ukraine and the Polish Foreign Minister skipping a joint summit in Kyiv. Because of that, opposition leader Tusk promised a reset of relations in the event of an election victory.
Inflation: Like other European countries, Poland has been marked by skyrocketing prices for essential goods such as food and energy. Here, the opposition points out the PiS alliance’s failure in taming inflation, while the government strategy shifts the scapegoat towards external factors such as the war in Ukraine and the climate policy of the EU.
Relation to the EU & Germany: One of the biggest political divisions between the two camps can be found in the approach towards the EU, and particularly its economic powerhouse, Germany. The PiS government has been for years in conflict with the EU when it comes to the question of rule of law compliance, which ultimately resulted in the freeze of EU funds for Poland. Instead, the opposition and its leader Tusk promote a clear pro-European approach and advocate for the restoration of the rule of law to unblock EU funding.
When it comes to Germany, for years and as well in this election term, the PiS has been sowing Anti-German resentments, which are particularly rooted in the older war-generation of the Polish electorate. Further, PiS repeatedly called on Germany to pay more than 1 trillion euros in reparations, which Berlin has refused several times. Within the same line, PiS constantly attempts to portray Tusk as an agent in the service of Germany, but also Russia.
Social Policy: While the PiS alliance promotes a hard core conservative social policy focused on the de-facto prohibition of abortion as well an anti-LGTBQ policy, the opposition camp platform promotes a pro-women’s rights & LGBTQ campaign. They argue for the allowance of civil partnerships for same-sex couples, the reintroduction of abortion until the 12th week as well as the enshrinement of termination, In-vitro-Fertilisation, and contraception as fundamental rights. Both camps promise to expand social welfare.
A victory for the opposition – What consequences at EU-level?
While a victory for the PiS alliance will likely lead towards further deterioration of the independent Polish judiciary as well as of the relations with the EU and Germany, a victory by the opposition could symbolize a fresh political start after years of strained relationship.
For the most pressing issues, namely the rule of law deterioration, an opposition victory would make the restoration of the rule of law as well as the rebalancing of media within the public broadcasting system much more likely. This could lead the EU to unfreeze its funding for Poland. The same accounts for the highly criticized women and anti-LGBTQ policy the PiS government has been pursuing for several years, where the opposition wants to calm the waves.
Looking at the bigger picture and in the context of calls for broader EU treaty reform and enlargements, a victory by the opposition bears the chance to reinstall Poland’s place and role as a constructive and influential actor within the Weimar Triangle, a group consisting of France, Germany and Poland, giving the Franco-German coalition a much-needed update. Further, Poland could finally do justice to its position, size and growing influence, and take on a leading and positive voice for the eastern member states of the EU to ensure a greater dispersion of power and influence across the different EU regions. To the benefit of the EU.
Poland has a choice between two futures. While four more years of PiS represent four more years of stagnation and division, this election could finally unfold Poland’s full potential in playing an influential and positive role in contributing to making the EU a better place.
Felix Fend is a master student at the Institute of European Studies & Communication Manager of Eyes on Europe.
(Edited by Luka Krauss)