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Democracy in Poland is yet to triumph

Ellis Coughlan
October 20, 2023

Donald Tusk, the leader of the Polish opposition and former Polish Prime Minister, declared himself the “happiest man on Earth” as the incumbent Law and Justice Party (PiS) failed to secure a majority in Polish elections on Sunday. However, democracy must be actively protected, and this outcome does not represent a definitive triumph for democracy just yet.

PiS has been in power since 2015, when they became the first party to gain an outright majority since 1989. Democratic quality in Polish governance has since declined, with PiS consolidating power over the courts, military, and the media.

Tusk’s return to Polish politics following his term as president of the European Council ignited new hope for democracy in Poland. This became a reality on Tuesday as the final count gave PiS 35.4 per cent of the vote, 37 seats short of a majority. Meanwhile, Civic Platform, with 30.7 per cent, secures a comfortable majority in the Sejm when combined with the two other opposition parties.

Ousting PiS from power is vital in stopping the democratic backsliding of recent years. However, Tusk faces several obstacles he must overcome if Poland is to reassert its commitment to democratic values. Additionally, if successful, Tusk must actively work to maintain Poland’s democratic quality.

Tusk must reverse the illiberal reforms of his predecessors. This will be no easy feat, given the Polish semi-presidential system. Once a bill passes through both houses of the Sejm, President Andrej Duda, a PiS member, has the authority to sign it into law. His presidential powers give him a veto on any legislation, except in the case of a 3/5 majority vote. Unfortunately, Tusk’s prospective 248-seat coalition falls short of commanding such a majority. He must either negotiate with Duda and PiS or wait until the 2025 presidential election. Midterm elections seldom yield success for incumbents; they must rally around a single candidate or risk splitting the centre-left vote, like in 2020.

Furthermore, Tusk will face ideological division within his prospective centre-left coalition. While his potential coalition partners agree on restoring the rule of law, support of Ukraine, and Poland’s place in the EU, cooperation will not be easy. The opposition parties do not agree over the economy, climate change policy, and abortion. Tusk’s announcement that Civic Platform will support abortion up to 12 weeks into pregnancy saw criticism from the largely Christian Third Way Party and from within Civic Platform itself.

Tusk must heed lessons from Civic Platform’s past. Factionalism between the conservative and liberal wings of Civic Platform, particularly over the 2013 bill to legalise civil unions, contributed to their 2015 electoral defeat. Disunity was detrimental to Tusk’s previous government. Tusk should prioritise gatekeeping democracy over ideological goals which threaten to fracture his coalition.

Tusk must heed lessons from Civic Platform’s past. Quote

Finally, Tusk must strive to ensure the highest standards of government. This also presents a challenge, given that he is under investigation from his previous tenure for alleged abuse of power. Nevertheless, it is essential that he does his utmost to oversee a competent government as scandals surrounding his previous coalition were similarly detrimental. Tusk must set ethical standards, promote transparency, prioritise accountability, and implement robust oversight mechanisms.

One must only look south to Poland’s neighbour to see how disunity and incompetence is harmful to democracy. A plagiarism scandal surrounding former Slovakian Prime Minister, Igor Matovič, resulted in a government reshuffle in 2021 with Eduard Heger becoming Prime Minister. Heger oversaw numerous resignations, leading to the collapse of his government in May. This disabled their capacity to isolate illiberal forces. Thus, Former Prime Minister, Robert fico, whose previous government was marked by illiberalism, successfully signed a coalition deal on Monday following early September elections.

Donald Tusk and his coalition partners must learn the lessons from their neighbours, as well as their recent history. While Tusk’s return to Polish politics presents a significant opportunity to halt the democratic backsliding of recent years, the path ahead is rife with challenges. Prioritising unity over ideology, setting ethical standards, and ensuring accountability are vital steps. The stakes are high, but positive change is at hand.

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Ellis Coughlan is a Senior Political and Media Consultant at Bridgehead Communications. 

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