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Poland’s democratic health appears better than many feared

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“The end of bad times.” That was how Donald Tusk, leader of the opposition, described the outcome, based on exit polls, of Poland’s momentous parliamentary election on Sunday night. After a bitterly polarised campaign designed by the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party to depress participation to its own benefit, Poles turned out in droves to vote. Based on an exit poll by Ipsos, voters have given the opposition parties, led by Tusk’s centre-right Civic Platform a route to power and with it a path to democratic salvation for Poland.

Sunday’s ballot was the most consequential vote since Poland’s first democratic elections in 1989 following the end of communist party rule. At stake was Poland’s survival as a democratic polity and a country that upheld the rule of law rather than the ideological agenda of the governing party. An opposition victory, followed by the depoliticisation of Poland’s judiciary, should unlock billions of euros in EU funds for Warsaw. It will also rehabilitate Poland’s relationship with its closest neighbours, above all Germany but also Ukraine, which became collateral damage in PiS’s campaign. If it means Polish support for enlargement, closer integration and stronger EU defence, it could potentially reshape the union.

The nationalist ultraconservative PiS, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, came out on top of the election, with 37 per cent of the vote, the Ipsos exit poll estimated. (By 10am local time on Monday, only 29 per cent of the vote had been counted, giving PiS a bigger lead). As the biggest party, it will have the right to try first to form a government. But the poor performance of the far-right Confederation, estimated to have won only 6 per cent of the vote, means PiS lacks any partner to reach a majority.

The result is a vindication for Tusk, a former prime minister who returned to Polish politics in 2021 after five years in Brussels as European Council president. Reviled by a large section of the Polish electorate, he imposed order on his fractious party, turned the campaign into a referendum on his arch rival Kaczyński and capitalised on concerns about inflation and the cost of living. Civic Platform outperformed the opinion polls to win 32 per cent. But it was the strong performance of other opposition groups that could ultimately spell the end for Poland’s nationalist government. Third Way, a centre-right coalition, and The Left are expected to win 13 per cent and 9 per cent respectively. Together the three opposition parties would have 248 seats in the 460-member Sejm or lower house.

Unlike Hungary whose nationalist prime minister Viktor Orbán looks un-ejectable, Poland has proved itself a resilient democracy. Turnout on Sunday was almost 73 per cent, massive by Polish standards and the highest for 34 years, a sign that many Poles knew what was at stake.

The 2019 election was deemed free but not fair. Sunday’s vote was certainly not fair and barely free. The PiS authorities increased the number of polling stations in its rural heartlands but failed to update boundaries to give more seats to Poland’s liberal cities in line with population growth. Alongside the Sejm and Senate votes, the PiS government also held four referendums on issues clearly designed to enthuse its own conservative supporters and for which there was no campaign spending limit.

PiS also marshalled all the resources of a heavily politicised state apparatus to support its campaign. Not just the government mouthpiece that is now state television, but also much of the local media that was taken over last year by Orlen, the state oil company. In the run-up to polling day, Orlen conveniently cut petrol prices even though crude was climbing. The central bank cut interest rates in September despite double-digit inflation. Despite the stellar performance of Poland’s economy under eight years of PiS, voters no longer trusted Kaczyński’s party to deliver continued prosperity.

A true test of Poland’s democratic health will be an orderly transfer of power, if, as the exit polls suggest, PiS cannot assemble a majority. It could be January before Tusk gets the chance to form a government. Kaczyński’s warning of “days of fight and various tensions” ahead sounds ominous. Even if the opposition takes power, Andrzej Duda, Poland’s PiS-aligned president and a PiS deep state could thwart reforms to restore democracy and judicial independence. But for the moment, Poland’s pro-Europeans have every reason to celebrate.

ben.hall@ft.com

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