Despite winning 194 seats in the parliament, Poland’s incumbent Law and Justice (PiS) party can start waving power goodbye, the long-awaited official results of the election confirmed on October 17.
PiS won nearly 35.4% of the vote, ahead of the centre-right Civic Coalition at 30.7%, the centrist Third Way at 14.4%, the Left at just over 8.6%, and the far-right grouping Confederation at just short of 7.2%.
In effect, PiS is 37 seats short of a majority on their own and will not stand a chance of getting one even in a coalition with the far-right grouping Confederation, which won only 18 seats.
The lower house of the Polish parliament, the Sejm, has 460 seats and the minimum required to hold a majority is 231 seats.
There will most likely be a new government led by Civic Coalition, which won 157 seats; together with the Third Way’s 65 MPs and the Left’s 26, the three parties stand a good chance of governing with a comfortable 248 seats.
The election ends PiS’ run of eight years in power. The radical right-wing party’s divisive policies mobilised voters on an unprecedented scale. Turnout came in at nearly 74% – more than in any election held in democratic Poland after 1989.
But PiS had seen no benefit of voters turning out in droves across polling stations in Poland, winning 7.64mn votes, nearly 500,000 less than in 2019. In contrast, Civic Coalition gained over 1.6mn votes, winning 6.6mn total.
In some locations, people queued until 3 am to vote, a testament to great mobilisation but also to poor organisation of the vote by the central election commission PKW, which PiS stuffed with party nominees.
PiS also miscalculated in running a campaign that portrayed the election as a fight between its vision of Poland for the people and safe from migrants against that of Donald Tusk’s, the Civic Coalition leader. His return to power was touted as a comeback to poverty for rank-and-file Poles.
For his part, Tusk also adopted some of PiS’ very own tactics to defeat them, embracing populism in promising to keep PiS’ welfare policies intact and even to expand them, and attacking the government for lax migration control.
But the opposition was more than just Tusk. The anti-PiS camp eventually fielded two other candidate lists – the Third Way (itself a coalition of agrarian party PSL and the centrist Polska 2050) and the Left.
This had two effects. Focussed only on Tusk, PiS could not mount an effective campaign to counteract the other two rivals. For the opposition, it meant not having to come together with a featureless consensus that would have people rather stay home than queue in the cold for hours to vote.
Instead, the three parties lashed out at PiS, each from their own platform, which gave them credibility and played a role in mobilising voters.
PiS’ original mistake, however, might have been allowing the party-controlled Constitutional Tribunal to restrict the right to abortion in 2020. The decision pushed the party’s popularity from over 40% to a few percentage points above 30%, where it has stayed until the election.
Each party of the now-likely coalition spent a lot of time convincing women to vote for them. And vote they did, with 60% of women voting for one of the three anti-PiS parties versus 35% picking PiS.
The path to power appears wide open for the opposition although it may well be weeks before the tripartite cabinet stands for a confidence vote in the parliament.
The inaugural session of the Sejm is due by mid-November after which a prime minister – proposed by President Andrzej Duda – will have two weeks to win the confidence vote.
It is unclear if Duda will hand the government-building mission to a nominee from PiS, the party that won the single biggest percentage of votes in the election.
The opposition is already pushing the president not to waste time and nominate a prime minister – read Donald Tusk – with a real chance of having a parliamentary majority back him.
But ever the loyalist, Duda might opt for giving PiS the first shot with – critics charge - a hidden agenda of prolonging its stay in power and trying to entrench its people where it can with a view to thwart Tusk once he eventually becomes the PM.
PiS still retains many outposts in the state. Even if the party switches to opposition benches, it still controls the public media (Tusk promised to change that immediately upon assuming office), the Constitutional Tribunal, parts of the Supreme Court, many prosecution offices and common court judges.
Obviously, PiS will also have Duda, who can derail any government bill by simply vetoing it, as the new government will not have the voting power to overturn a veto. Just how the president sees his role facing a government longtime fiercely opposed to him – let alone vowing to prosecute him for his role in the government’s judiciary reforms, widely seen as unconstitutional – is going to become clear by the end of the year.