With an unprecedented wave of voters mobilizing for a pro-democratic, western-oriented coalition of opposition parties, Poland’s parliamentary elections on October 15 unseated the national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) after eight years in power, during which democratic institutions and the rule of law were seen to have weakened, the country rallied to support Ukraine and the influx of Ukrainian refugees into Poland, and Warsaw’s relations with Germany and the European Union to which it belongs were tested. The electoral coalition of the Center Right Civic Coalition, the Third Way, and the New Left, won a combined 248 seats in parliament’s lower house (Sejm), giving it a comfortable majority in the 460-seat body, and 66 seats out of 100 in the upper chamber (Senat).
The ruling party enjoyed campaign advantages through its influence over state resources and public media, demographic distortions in election districts, and voter support seen to favor rural and other pro-government constituencies. PiS received the most votes at 35%, but unlike the opposition is likely to fall short of mustering the parliamentary majority needed to form a government. Former prime minister and President of the European Council Donald Tusk’s Civic Coalition (KO) garnered second place with 30.7%, followed by Third Way, pairing the agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL) with centrist Polska 2050 - with 14.4%, and the New Left in fourth place with 8.6%. The far-right Confederation (Konfederacja) finished fifth, at 7.1%. Confederation’s double-digit support over the summer flagged, effectively denying PiS a sufficient number of seats to form a parliamentary majority.
Voter turnout was an extraordinary 74.4%, and is credited with propelling the opposition into a parliamentary majority to form the next government.
The election campaign pulled no punches. It was confrontational, polarizing, and negative. The public broadcaster favored the ruling party and attacked Tusk and the opposition, often using inflammatory language.
In contrast to the preceding parliamentary elections in 2019, political parties prioritized direct voter contact, including party leaders who spent most of their time in meetings with voters outside of Warsaw. Irrespective of their place on party candidate lists in Poland’s proportional electoral system, candidates were in the streets talking to voters. Members of parliament hosted constituency meetings at tram stops. This was especially important as government media did not offer space for the opposition to reach voters. The ruling party spent more on online advertising in social media than all other political parties combined.
The style of the campaign contrasted with Slovakia’s parliamentary election two weeks prior, where political parties favored social media over direct voter outreach. Poland’s election was more reminiscent of Slovakia’s 1998 elections, which ended Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar’s autocratic turn in government and emphasized, as did this month’s Polish vote, the primacy of direct and sustained voter contact that online campaigning can enhance, but not replace.
Record Turnout and Voter Mobilization.
Several factors contributed to the opposition’s victory. The leading factor was its high mobilization of women, youth, and urban voters, resulting in a record 74.4% turnout. This was the highest turnout since the fall of communism in 1989 and a 12% increase from 2019.
In Poland’s largest and traditionally pro-Western cities, turnout exceeded 80%, reaching 85% in Warsaw. Despite cold temperatures, many voters in line at polling stations waited several hours beyond the 9 p.m. closure of voting to cast their ballots, as polling places struggled to process the record turnout.
Women were a primary focus of mobilization efforts. Policy and legislative debates on women’s health in recent years left many women frustrated and disengaged. A few weeks before the election, women constituted a majority of undecided and unlikely voters; 52% of women aged 18-45 planned to vote on the election day compared to 66% in the 45+ group; 27% of the younger cohort had reached a decision on whom to vote for. Several civic social media campaigns targeting younger women had excellent reach, contributing to their turnout. Political parties ran a record number of women candidates for both houses: 44% of candidates on Sejm party lists were women, many running in top positions. A record number of women – 135, almost 30% – have been elected in the lower chamber. Women’s turnout was almost 74% compared to 72% of men.
In parallel, young people turned out in record numbers. In 2019, people aged 18-29 constituted the group of voters with the highest abstention, with a 46% turnout. This year, the turnout in the same age group reached 70%, strengthening support for the opposition.
The opposition also managed to mobilize overseas voters as well as citizens who did not vote in 2019, gaining the majority of this group. KO managed to attract 30% of those who didn’t vote in 2019, followed by 18% for the Third Way; by comparison, PiS gained only 15.5%. While PiS still dominated in small towns, rural areas, and among older voters, KO picked up more votes from these demographics compared to previous years.
By contrast, a government-initiated referendum held on the same day of the elections to mobilize voters and amplify the ruling party’s campaign anti-EU and anti-immigrant messages failed to achieve its desired effect. Turnout for the referendum itself was 40%, almost 35% lower than the election turnout, as voters refused to accept ballots. The results were thus invalid for failing to meet the required participation threshold. On the other hand, the negative sentiments stirred against Ukraine, as PiS and Confederation sought support among nationalist and anti-Ukranian voters, will linger even after the elections.
Tens of thousands of domestic observers representing different civic organizations monitored the election day proceedings and vote count. They also conducted parallel vote tabulation, an unprecedented organic civic effort in the Polish context, which contributed to the general trust in the electoral result. Some of the observers’ recommendations included a revision of the number of mandates allocated to electoral districts as requested by the National Electoral Commission, improvement and standardization of the training system for members of electoral commissions, introduction of mechanisms for protection of the secrecy of the vote, and reduction of the upper limit of the number of inhabitants per voting precinct from 4,000 to 3,000 at most.
The Future Government and Challenges Ahead
After its euphoric victory, the presumed new governing coalition will face several challenges. Relationship-fixing and trust-building with the EU and Ukraine will be one of the leading tasks of the new government, as will fiscal consolidation linked to adopting the new 2024 budget. Poland must quickly implement Brussels-agreed milestones to unblock €36 billion of EU recovery funds. The leading milestone is related to reforming the judicial disciplinary system and includes dismantling the judicial disciplinary chamber and reinstating dismissed judges. Other priority areas requiring the attention of the new government include the depoliticization of public media, education reform, environmental protection, and the development of affordable housing, to name a few.
The heightened intensity of the election campaigns and the growing polarization among supporters of different political parties, particularly PiS, has harmed relationships between Poles and Ukrainian refugee communities. The Polish people’s once-high, positive attitudes towards Ukrainian refugees have deteriorated as the weight of their burden on the state is perceived to have increased: while public sentiment generally remains favorable, almost a quarter of respondents in NDI public opinion research in July 2023 said their opinions of refugees have diminished since the year prior. Further, NDI’s research shows only a third of Poles believe the influx of refugees will have a positive impact on their cities, where Ukrainian refugees often comprise more than 20% of the population. The government – at national and city levels – will need to dedicate more attention to this issue, including demonstrating the positive economic impact Ukrainian refugees have had in their communities.
The new government’s work on its overall reform agenda can be hampered by the veto of President Andrzej Duda, who was elected with Law and Justice’s endorsement. Overriding a presidential veto requires a three-fifths supermajority, which the new government will not have. The politicized judiciary and Constitutional Tribunal can also step in the path of any pro-reform efforts made by the new government, challenging compliance of the laws with the Constitution.
The transfer of power could take up to two months, well into December. The President may first task PiS with forming the government as the highest vote receiver, though its path to do so is implausible. Any artificial delays in forming a government, however, would bring a period of instability. Poland voted overwhelmingly for change, and its people expect the new government to be in charge without further delay.
Author: Zuzana Papazoski, Resident Director in Poland and Resident Senior Director for Central Europe
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.