‘A sense of solidarity’: how Poles mobilised in historic vote

Kasia Czarska drove 45 minutes on Sunday to vote in the town of Sulejówek on the eastern outskirts of Warsaw.

The 39-year-old public relations manager planned her trip three weeks in advance of the fiercely contested election, studying Poland’s electoral map to work out in which constituency her vote could be of most help in ousting the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

It was voters like her, casting their ballot strategically and showing up in unprecedented numbers, who secured the stunning victory of opposition parties led by Donald Tusk. The former president of the European Council is now on course to return as prime minister after eight years of PiS rule.

Like many of the smaller towns around Warsaw, Sulejówek was won by PiS in the last election, in 2019. In contrast, the capital city, where Czarska lives, was among the opposition’s strongholds even under PiS rule.

Czarska convinced about 20 friends and relatives to follow her example and also vote in Sulejówek. Under Polish electoral rules, citizens are allowed to cast their ballots in a different place to their official residence. When she arrived with her three children, she found that others had had the same thought: the line to get to the voting booth lasted three hours.

“The locals had mixed feelings about having to waste so much more time to vote than usual because of all the people who had travelled, but really the atmosphere was very good,” said Czarska. “There was a lot of hope in the crowd and my children really felt they were taking part in something special.”  

This “something special” was both a victory for the opposition and the highest turnout since Poland’s return to democracy. Participation was 74.4 per cent — higher even than in 1989, when Poles ousted the Communists from power just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Polish people queue to vote in Krakow © Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/Getty Images

The grassroots mobilisation was a new phenomenon, however, underlining the high stakes of an election set to redefine the country’s role within the EU, after years of feuding with Brussels and Berlin and, more recently, Kyiv. 

The high turnout for the opposition stood in stark contrast with the PiS government’s attempt to rally support by also holding a referendum on Sunday.

The referendum turnout was only about 40 per cent, failing to reach the threshold required to become binding, after Tusk urged voters to boycott the four-question poll, which touched upon border security, illegal migration, the retirement age and foreign ownership of state companies — all issues at the heart of the PiS campaign.

Tusk, who served as prime minister from 2007 to 2014, presented the election as a last chance to salvage Polish democracy and stop the slide of the rule of law towards authoritarianism. He claimed his longtime nemesis, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, was modelling a future regime on that of the Kremlin. 

As part of his final push to win re-election, Tusk urged women to mobilise and pledged to restore reproductive rights curtailed by PiS.

Among the female voters who had previously been put off by politics but went out to vote on Sunday was Dominika, a 37-year-old painter from Warsaw, who had previously skipped four parliamentary elections. “I now realised there were some things in this country that I really didn’t like,” she said, declining to give her surname. “I wanted to have the feeling that I had done something about this.” 

The huge turnout overwhelmed many polling stations, with people queueing into the early hours of Monday to vote. The polls closed at 9pm on Sunday, but Polish law allowed people who were queueing at a station before that deadline to still take part. 

Natalia Skupień, 28, waited for almost six hours in the longest line in Poland, on the outskirts of the south-western city of Wrocław. She managed to get to the voting booth at around 1am and found “a sense of solidarity” among fellow voters waiting for so many hours. “Many motivated women” had the same desire for change as her, she said, while neighbours brought blankets and hot drinks for people in the queue and a local restaurant distributed 300 pizzas. 

Abroad, 600,000 Poles registered to vote, almost double the number four years ago.

Paulina Niewiadomska, 29, had not voted in the most recent elections, but travelled one-and-a-half hours to the Polish consulate in The Hague and waited another four-and-a-half hours to cast her vote. One of the motivating factors, she said, was a constitutional court ruling supported by PiS that limited abortion only to women whose life or health is in danger and to victims of sexual crimes.

“Women have been fighting for their rights for a very long time, so I wouldn’t want all these years of struggle to be wasted by not voting,” Niewiadomska said. “A woman has the right to make decisions about her body.”

International election observers with the OSCE-led mission said the election had been “democratic”, but highlighted several problems, from PiS’s misuse of state media to the “intolerant, misogynistic and discriminatory language” by candidates.

One bright spot had been the “enthusiasm that we experienced in the polling stations”, said Pia Kauma, a Finnish lawmaker who was the OSCE’s special co-ordinator for the Polish election. “I can honestly say that this was one of the best experiences.” 

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