Ouster of the populist-nationalist government in Poland is highly consequential

Massive Polish opposition rally ahead of Sunday’s election, Warsaw, October 1, 2023

There is no question that Sunday’s surprising vote in Poland is going to be the most consequential election in Europe this year. It is a game changer for Poland’s democracy and a tipping point geopolitically for the European Union, the Ukraine war and for Russia. 

The ouster of the PiS, as the governing party is known, after an 8-year run in office means an end to Poland’s embrace of social Catholic conservatism, nationalism bleeding into jingoism and state patronage. The angst over the perceived existential threat to Poland’s post-cold war democratic fabric is dissipating. 

Poland may seem in some ways similar to India and Turkey, where too,  politics is loud and breaks through rather easily but loses appeal if the people feel inspired to make serious, rational choices. But where Poland is different lies in that albeit run by populists on the political right at high decibel levels, it is still hardly an autocracy. True, PiS used state media and coffers to swing voters and exploited the usual advantages of incumbency, but democracy worked, nonetheless. 

Rising inflation, slowdown in growth and corruption scandals — and backlash from a bizarre government move to impose draconian restrictions on abortion which alienated younger and female voters — made a combustible mix and worked against the PiS. The alliance of three opposition parties walked away with 54 percent of the vote (as against 35% secured by PiS.) 

The clincher possibly was the return of the talented politician leading the opposition alliance, Donald Tusk, a former prime minister who took time out from active politics for a top job in Brussels at the European Union in 2015 as the president of the European Council, and has returned to Warsaw to reclaim his mantle of leadership —  a good communicator who connects with his voters, and knows how to navigate the media of modern politics. 

The PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s eight turbulent years in power saw huge changes to the country’s rule of law, media freedom, migration policies and LGBTQ+ rights. Opposition parties have vowed to undo these reforms, which they see as a threat to democracy. 

However, it is not just in Poland that the impact of the change of government will be felt. The change has significant consequences for Europe as a whole. For a start, the anti-European rhetoric from Warsaw will stop — and along with that, the non-stop tirade against Germany, which in itself will shift the dynamic within wider EU decision-making, increasing the weight of the more liberal bloc within the EU.

This will translate as a willingness to have serious discussions about a European-wide policy on migration, and a more humane approach, without the demonisation of migrants. Again, Poland will remain a strong and consistent supporter of Ukraine.

Then, there is going to be a ricochet effect on other European countries as Poland moves away from right-wing populism, and the undermining of democratic institutions and the rule of law. Poland’s return towards EU values under a Tusk government could have a positive ripple effect on Eastern European nations, as Poland has served as an inspiration for many countries in the region. 

Clearly, the present dispensation in Hungary and the UK will lose a friend. The UK sought to use Poland as a counter-weight against European institutions when it was still a member of the EU, but on the other hand, an incoming Labour government, if it seeks to rebuild a closer relationship with the EU, would have a friend in Tusk. 

Quite possibly, when it comes to European security, the broken axis of Paris-Berlin-Warsaw will be mended with Tusk’s rise to prime minister, as he is sure to rebuild ties with Germany. French President Emmanuel Macron and Tusk also have a decent relationship. Thus, the troika that is the best hope for Europe to get serious about security will be up and about. This is going to be important if American support for NATO and Ukraine sags and Europe is called upon to step up. 

Suffice to say, the turn in Polish politics could help insulate European security and NATO from the two tumultuous currents currently blowing — changing winds in American politics and a major conflict brewing in West Asia. To be sure, Russia cannot be pleased about it, especially if Tusk finds a common language with Germany’s Olaf Scholz.

Tusk used to be known as a “Russia hawk” during his years in Brussels who tried to convince his friend in Berlin, then chancellor Angela Merkel to harden up on Moscow following its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Put differently, Kiev has had no closer ally in the world than Warsaw, where Poles see the conflict with Russia in existential terms almost as starkly as the Ukrainians do. 

However, the bottom line still remains: a caveat must be added that an orderly transfer of power is allowed to take place in Warsaw. This is not a given because PiS has repeatedly broken the Polish constitution before. Political tribalism comes naturally to PiS, and there is bound to be bitterness that it did win the most seats but may still lose power, solely due to its inability to cobble together a majority government. 

By the way, the  president of the country also happens to be a PiS nominee. Polish society is now deeply divided and polarisation has reached the point where the two political camps are entrenched, and no dialogue is possible. In fact, a senior aide to the incumbent president Andrzej Duda has hinted that by tradition, PiS will be given the first opportunity to form a new government, being the party that obtained the largest share of the vote.