By Maciej Kisilowski
WARSAW — Pro-democracy advocates worldwide have turned their attention to Poland’s recent parliamentary election in search of the silver bullet that enabled Poles to defy global trends and oust their authoritarian populist government. But a close examination of the campaign leading up to last month’s vote shows that the democratic opposition’s stunning victory was made possible by an unlikely confluence of five key factors that cannot be easily replicated elsewhere.
First, leadership played a pivotal role. The political comeback of former European Council President Donald Tusk, who served as Poland’s prime minister from 2007 to 2014, rejuvenated the opposition. Much like U.S. President Joe Biden and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Tusk is a veteran insider who successfully challenged an authoritarian incumbent.
The baggage of Tusk’s decades-long political career was more than offset by the benefits of his vast experience. Like former U.S. President Donald Trump and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Jarosław Kaczy?ski, the leader of the outgoing Law and Justice (PiS) party, was relentless in attacking his opponents, especially Tusk, his longtime arch-nemesis.
A lesser-known politician without a firmly established public persona might have succumbed to PiS’s persistent efforts to undermine his campaign. With Tusk, however, this strategy generated diminishing returns. Over time, PiS appeared to lack a positive platform, while Tusk began to garner public support. In May, when PiS tried to ram through parliament an outrageous law that would have banned Tusk from holding any public office, it sparked massive protests in Warsaw, backed by all the major opposition parties. Kaczy?ski’s attacks on Tusk looked increasingly hysterical and unhinged.
Second, given that the opposition won after running as three separate electoral blocs, the outcome might be viewed as disproving the expert consensus that democratic forces must unite in the face of an authoritarian threat. But this interpretation overlooks the close cooperation between the left-wing, liberal, and center-right groups that made up the opposition. With remarkable discipline and ingenuity, the opposition parties enabled Poles to vote their conscience in the multi-candidate proportional districts, while uniting for the first-past-the-post Senate election held the same day, securing two-thirds of the available seats.
The leftist bloc’s self-restraint and collaborative spirit were particularly crucial. Unlike American democratic socialists such as congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Poland’s progressives refrained from remarks that PiS could have used against the entire opposition. They largely steered clear of criticizing the virulent racism of PiS’s anti-refugee stance and even toned down their usual critiques of the Catholic Church. This restraint helped the Third Way, the Christian Democratic bloc of the opposition, which focused relentlessly on winning socially conservative voters back from the PiS camp. Yet it was detrimental to the leftist parties themselves. Struggling to distinguish themselves from Tusk’s centrist Civic Platform, they performed worse than the other opposition blocs.
The third decisive factor was the opposition’s singular focus on Poland’s democratic future.
Political scientists often lament that citizens tend to recognize the authoritarian nature of parties like PiS only when it is too late. Polish opposition parties worked hard to overcome this problem, with Tusk and other leaders repeatedly emphasizing the potential implications of democratic decline for ordinary Poles, especially young voters. A song featuring the catchy refrain “Freedom, I love and understand” became the campaign’s unofficial pop anthem.
To illustrate the consequences of democratic erosion, the opposition’s campaign focused on the increasingly desperate plight of women facing pregnancy complications following the 2020 abortion ban by the PiS-captured Constitutional Court. Then, in the weeks before the election, the state-owned petroleum conglomerate Orlen made the ill-advised decision to set gas prices significantly below market rates. This led to widespread shortages, evoking memories of the communist era.
That brings us to the fourth critical factor behind the Polish opposition’s triumph: the regime’s downfall was hastened by its own blunders. Most notably, just a month before the election, independent media uncovered a massive corruption scheme within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that revolved around the sale of tens of thousands of Schengen work visas to migrants from Asia and Africa. The scandal eviscerated the credibility of PiS’s hardline anti-immigration stance.
Paradoxically, PiS also paid a political price for not being cynical enough. The government’s relatively responsible COVID-19 policies and assistance to Ukrainian refugees alienated part of its conservative nationalist base. The 2020 abortion ruling was also, in a sense, a matter of principle. Like Trump, Kaczy?ski had reportedly been worried about the electoral fallout of the Constitutional Court’s sweeping abortion ban, but PiS ultimately prioritized its commitment to Catholic dogma over political expedience.
Lastly, while experts have been frustrated with the inconsistent responses of the European Union and the United States to democratic backsliding in Poland, Hungary, and Turkey, Poland’s election suggests that even sporadic interventions can make a difference. The EU’s decision to withhold more than 35 billion euros ($38 billion) in pandemic recovery funds earmarked for Poland impeded PiS’s ability to provide benefits to voters. It was also highly symbolic, stoking fears of Poland’s potential exit from the EU if PiS remained in power.
Successful efforts to thwart a PiS takeover of the fiercely independent, American-owned TVN station in 2021 also played a crucial role. Without TVN’s professional, engaging, and widely accessible programming, critical information about the opposition’s agenda and PiS’s numerous scandals might not have reached enough voters.
Poland has become a beacon for other democratic movements facing populist administrations. But its example must not lead to complacency. The convergence of propitious and unique conditions that propelled the Polish opposition to victory underscores the obstacles facing pro-democracy parties operating within systems rigged toward the incumbents. Until the campaign’s final days, it seemed entirely possible that PiS might eke out a narrow victory. Had it prevailed, no remaining avenue of democratic competition would have been safe.
Maciej Kisilowski is associate professor of law and strategy at Central European University in Vienna. This article was distributed by Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).