A deeply divided Polish electorate will go to the polls on Sunday to issue verdicts on two main rivals that are offering drastically different interpretations of Poland’s recent history — and different visions for its future.
The parliamentary election, which has been depicted by all political sides as pivotal for Poland, a NATO and European Union frontline nation, and for Europe, is on a razor edge.
The two main rivals — the governing nationalist Law and Justice party, which is seeking an unprecedented third term, and the center-right Civic Coalition — have sought to rally their supporters, in a brutal campaign, by presenting the other as an existential threat to the country.
Law and Justice, which is leading opinion polls by only a few percentage points, has portrayed itself as the defender of Polish sovereignty and of “ordinary” Poles against the “elites” and the European Union. Its victory would surely embolden populist parties elsewhere in Europe. Civic Coalition, favored by pro-European urbanites, has vowed to “bring Poland back to Europe,” and to reverse what it has described as the country’s illiberal course.
What’s at stake?
In a way, by casting their votes on Sunday, Poles will be making a judgment on the legacy of Poland’s post-1989 transition from Communism to capitalism and democracy.
The election’s results will have ramifications well beyond the country’s borders: Poland has the largest economy in Europe’s formerly Communist eastern fringe, and it has been one of Kyiv’s staunchest supporters in its fight against Russia, which launched a full-scale invasion on Ukraine in February 2022. Poland hosts over 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees, and it serves as the main hub for transferring weapons and aid to Kyiv.
But in recent months, leaders in Warsaw got embroiled in a bitter public dispute with Ukraine over grain and hinted at cutting back on new military aid and subsidies for Ukrainian refugees, exacerbating concerns about Europe’s fatigue with long-term aid to Kyiv.
Although Law and Justice is leading opinion polls at about 37 percent, no party is expected to get enough seats to govern on its own. The most likely result is a stalemate, with the winner designated to patch together a coalition government. Whether they would be able to do that depends on the results of smaller groupings, including an emboldened far-right alliance and a centrist, agrarian coalition.
What are the main themes?
The campaign has been particularly vicious and unfair, with Poland’s public broadcasting system — a network of television and radio stations controlled by Law and Justice — pumping out nonstop vitriol against the opposition. In a bid to drum up support, the governing party was willing to damage Poland’s relationship with important allies, like Germany and Ukraine,undermining Warsaw’s efforts to present itself as a stable pillar of Western solidarity against Russia’s aggression.
In the prelude to the vote, Law and Justice has painted a picture of a country under attack. It has often invoked both the war in Ukraine raging next door and the issue of migration, the latter in the context of a continuing crisis at the border with Belarus, where migrants from the Middle East and Europe seek to cross into the European Union.
Law and Justice has also repeatedly declared it was the only guarantee for keeping Poland safe. In a pre-election debate aired by the public broadcaster, the country’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said, “As long as the Law and Justice government is in power, Poland is like an unconquered fortress.” But in a significant U-turn, two top military commanders resigned only days before the vote, undermining the national security pledge.
The opposition has fired back, pointing out Law and Justice’s involvement with a visa-selling scheme, which saw the sales of work visas to hundreds of thousands of African and Asian migrants in exchange for cash, despite its combative anti-migration messaging.
But the governing party recovered, deploying its vast media apparatus to refocus attention on what it presented as E.U. plans to flood Poland with migrants in violation of Polish sovereignty. Alongside the parliamentary election, the government is holding a referendum to ask Poles their views on “admitting thousands of illegal migrants from the Middle East and Africa,” and on “selling out national wealth to foreign entities.” Human Rights Watch, a rights groups, said these questions were “loaded” and spread misinformation. For the referendum results to be valid, at least 50 percent of citizens must take part in it.
What is the governing party’s message?
The governing Law and Justice party positions itself as a promoter of traditional, conservative values, which it claims have been under attack by liberal elites in Warsaw and Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union. The party has promised further purges of “post-Communist” elements from the state, in particular the judiciary, and more generous social handouts to make up for what it says was an unjust transition to capitalism.
Under Law and Justice’s rule, Poland has experienced a decrease in poverty, but also soaring inflation and a housing crisis. The party is also involved in a yearslong conflict with the European Union over the rule of law, which has resulted in the freezing of billions of euros in subsidies.
And it further tightened an already strict abortion ban and has targeted the L.G.B.T.Q. community. In April 2019, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of the Law and Justice party and Poland’s de facto leader, called homosexuality a “threat to Polish identity, to our nation, to its existence, and thus to the Polish state.”
Mr. Kaczynski has also promoted a theory that Donald Tusk, the opposition’s leader, is responsible for the 2010 death of Mr. Kaczynski’s twin brother, Lech Kaczynski. A government plane carrying Lech Kaczynski, then Poland’s president, and other officials crashed while en route to Russia on an official visit. Mr. Tusk was the prime minister at the time.
Who are the other players?
The main opposition party, Civic Coalition, is running on a pro-European, liberal platform, with a pledge to reverse what it has described as undemocratic changes in the news media and the judiciary, as well as the now near-total abortion ban.
Much of the party’s popularity relies on its leader, Mr. Tusk, a former president of the European Council, who embodies aspirations for Poland to reconcile with the European Union and to reclaim its place as Europe’s post-Communist poster child.
Confederation, a far-right alliance that barely made it into Parliament in the last election, in 2019, has increased in popularity and emerged as the possible kingmaker in the postelection effort to form a government. It is calling for lower taxes and no social benefits, and it opposes Poland’s aid to Ukraine.
In 2019, during an election for representatives to the European Parliament, Confederation’s leader summarized its program: “We don’t want Jews, homosexuals, abortion, taxes and the European Union.”
The centrist Third Way alliance, which consists of the agrarian Polish People’s Party and the center-right Poland 2050 party, has a similar platform to Civic Coalition’s. If the latter does well enough to be given a chance to form a government, both Third Way and the New Left party, also on the rise, are expected to be the coalition partners.