Road to EU 2024

Polish general elections, a new chapter in the relations with the EU

October 2023
By Maximilian Powell

On Sunday 15 October, Poland held general elections, awaited throughout the EU with bated breath, due to their potential to substantially change its political landscape and relations with the European Union. The opposition, led by Donald Tusk’s pro-EU Civic Platform (PO), emerged as a strong contender to oust the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party led by the long-time politician and brother of former Polish president, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

The outcome was confirmed on Tuesday, with PiS polling at 35.4%, followed by Tusk’s Civic Coalition at 30.7%, Third Way at 14.4%, the Left with 8.6%, and the Confederation with 7.2%. While PiS retained the largest share of the vote, the opposition, consisting of Civic Coalition, Third Way, and the Left, garnered a substantial majority, with over 50% of the vote combined. Despite the PiS obtaining the largest share of the vote, it failed to secure an outright majority, creating an opportunity for opposition parties to form a coalition government. The prospect of a shift in the leadership is not the only reason these elections held such great importance: a historic turnout since the fall of communism was registered, with 72.9% of eligible voters participating and a significant surge in female and young voters.

Under the leadership of PiS, Poland faced numerous contentious issues during its eight-year rule, which put it at odds with the EU. These included controversial judicial and other reforms that drew criticism from the European Commission, undermining Poland’s rule of law and fundamental rights. PiS also strained relations with neighbouring countries such as Ukraine, due to its latest decision to reduce its support in the war effort against the ongoing Russian aggression.

The outcome of the Polish elections was welcomed by many EU leaders and MEPs, who hailed the “return of democracy” to the country, and trusted that the potential change in government in Poland would strengthen its standing within the EU. Germany, which had a complex relationship with Poland under PiS’s leadership, has expressed hope for improved ties with a new Polish government, which are also important for the well functioning of the EU. Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Andrzej Duda held a productive meeting following the elections, signalling a willingness to repair and reinvigorate their relationship. France, too, has expressed optimism about the change in Poland’s political landscape. While traditionally strong, also the Franco-Polish partnership faced challenges during PiS’s tenure. President Emmanuel Macron has emphasized the importance of a united and cohesive EU and views the potential change in Poland as a positive step in that direction. With PiS out of the government, Poland will be less likely to join an obstructionist authoritarian and anti-EU bloc, and Eurosceptics such as Hungarian Viktor Orbán and possible new Slovakian PM Robert Fico will lose an important ally in the European Council. Despite having milder approach, Italian Giorgia Meloni also found herself aligned with Poland on some issues, such as migration, and she probably won’t be able to count on the same support from the new coalition government.

Furthermore, with the potential for a more pro-European government, Poland could play a more constructive role within the EU, helping to bridge divides and foster unity. The expected return of Donald Tusk to the prime minister’s office carries significance for Europe’s security dynamics, as he is well known for his commitment to European integration and his strong stance against Russia. He may help to realign and solidify the security priorities of the EU, contributing to a more cohesive foreign policy approach.

While the opposition’s victory offers hope for Poland’s political and geopolitical future, several challenges and uncertainties remain. Differences among the opposition parties on various issues, such as migration, social policy, and taxation, may complicate the formation of a stable coalition government. The question of how these parties will bridge their differing positions on critical matters remains to be seen. Furthermore, the uncertainty surrounding President Andrzej Duda’s choice for the next prime minister adds complexity to the situation. It is unclear whether he will appoint the current prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, or another PiS candidate to form a new government. PiS may also attempt to attract MPs from opposition groups to secure a majority, although this path is uncertain.