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JANEK SKARZYNSKI (AFP)

Polish Elections: A paradigm shift in the European Union

Guillermo Iñiguez

7 mins - 16 de Octubre de 2023, 16:05

For the first time since 2015, the Law and Justice party (PiS) may have lost the Polish government. On Monday morning, with much of the vote still to be counted in a parliamentary election with record turnout, all indications are that the democratic opposition, led by Donald Tusk, could form a government. According to early indications, the three opposition parties – Tusk’s Civic Platform, Third Way, and the Left – could add up to 248 seats, giving them an absolute majority in a lower house (the Sejm) of 460 MPs. Law and Justice and its parliamentary allies, on the other hand, would only get 212 MPs. 

The formation of the new government will not be immediate. Law and Justice, as the force with the most votes, will most likely receive the first mandate to form a government. Failing that, it would be up to Donald Tusk’s alliance in an investiture process that could last until January. However, if last night’s results are confirmed, the elections will have consequences beyond Poland; they will, in other words, represent a paradigm shift in European politics.

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First, a Tusk victory could mark the beginning of the end of Poland’s rule of law crisis. Since 2015, successive Law and Justice governments had carried out a series of reforms to consolidate their control over the country’s institutions. The most controversial of these were the successive judicial reforms, which led to a head-on clash with the European Commission, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). This conflict reached its climax between 2021 and 2022, with the Constitutional Court (CC) ruling shaking the foundations of the EU’s constitutional order and the European Commission threatening to freeze Poland’s share of the recovery fund – some €35 billion – if the country’s key democratic regressions were not changed. 

Throughout the campaign, all three opposition parties had promised to mend relations with Brussels and restore judicial independence in their country. However, carrying out these counter-reforms will not be easy. For one thing, such attempts could run into opposition from the president of the republic. In Poland’s political system, the president plays a key role: among other things, he can delay the investiture process, veto laws, and refer bills to the TC. Since his election in 2015, Andrej Duda has not hesitated to use his office to advance the causes of Law and Justice, sanctioning its most controversial reforms and using the TC to facilitate his party’s government action. Precisely the Constitutional Court – which is filled with allies of the current government, with a clear partisan mission, and immersed in a crusade against the EU and the Council of Europe – could be the biggest obstacle to any judicial reform, delaying and even overturning the bills presented by the new executive. And yet, if there is one thing that unites the three parties that could form the next government, it is the need to halt their country’s illiberal drift. A victory for Tusk could therefore mark a turning point in the crisis of the rule of law that the EU has been experiencing since 2010.

A defeat for Law and Justice will also have political consequences in the European Council. On the one hand, it will weaken the so-called Visegrad Group, the alliance between Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia that played a key role in Brussels between 2015 and 2017. If in recent years the Visegrad bloc had experienced a progressive weakening, being reduced to an illiberal alliance between Warsaw and Budapest, last night’s results leave Orbán without his main political ally. This could even lead to the activation of the sanction mechanism contained in Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), which provides for the suspension of rights derived from the European treaties, including the right to vote, if the Council, acting unanimously, finds “the existence of a serious and persistent breach” of the values enshrined in Article 2 of the TEU: democracy, freedom, and the rule of law. While the recent victory of the populist Robert Fico in Slovakia seemed to provide Orbán with a new ally, the defeat of Law and Justice changes the picture. A veto by Slovakia, the EU’s eighteenth largest economy, would be much easier to circumvent than that of Poland, the EU’s sixth largest economy and a key country in European governance.



In turn, a Tusk-led government could strengthen the tripartite alliance between the People’s Party, the Socialists, and the Liberals, while curbing the growth of the European Conservatives and Reformists, the party of Giorgia Meloni and Law and Justice. In recent months, the European People’s Party’s rapprochement with the Conservatives and Reformists had cracked the tripartite. A change of government in Poland could have two immediate consequences. Firstly, it would be a breath of fresh air for the EPP, which until now did not govern in any of the five major European capitals: Berlin, Paris, Madrid, Rome, and Warsaw. It could also bring about a new rapprochement between Europe’s three major political parties. Donald Tusk’s profile, a liberal democrat and a classic Europeanist, is radically different from that of Germany’s Manfred Weber, the main supporter of the right-wing right wing of the Populares; and the conservatism he represents has much more in common with the European orthodoxy embodied by Ursula von der Leyen, Olaf Scholz, Emmanuel Macron, or Pedro Sánchez than with the national-populism of Meloni, Weber, or Mateusz Morawiecki.

Finally, a change of government could unblock some of the most sensitive issues facing the Union. On the one hand, it could strengthen Poland’s support for Ukraine, which had been in question as elections approached and the Morawiecki government, fearful of losing the rural vote, adopted increasingly hardline positions towards Ukraine. With the fall of Law and Justice, the EU also loses one of the governments most opposed to the green agenda, an issue that threatened to be drawn into the US-imported culture wars.

The Polish elections were the most important since 1989. For many analysts, Polish democracy was facing a match ball. The opposition’s victory is not only good news in itself: it also shows that the processes of democratic regression are not irreversible if three conditions are met. First, strong institutions: the Polish institutions have been strong, much stronger than the Hungarian ones. Second, a democratic opposition that understands how to contest the political framework of the government: again, the Tusk-led coalition learned from the mistakes made by the Hungarian opposition in 2022. Third, a civil society aware of the gravity of the situation it faces: electoral mobilisation, especially among young people, could have been key to bringing about a change of government in Warsaw.

Last night’s result is great news beyond Poland. It is such for Central Europe, whose main member has returned to the democratic mainstream; it is such for the European Union and NATO, which have regained a key ally; and it is such for the global democratic alliance, which today dawns much stronger than it did last night.
 
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