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Poland’s Democratic Resurgence: From Backsliding to Beacon
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Poland’s Democratic Resurgence: From Backsliding to Beacon

Poland's recent elections signify a major shift from democratic backsliding to a recommitment to EU values and democratic principles, with implications for regional stability and U.S. foreign policy.

Photo shows five people standing on a wall waving the EU flag and the Polish flag against a clear blue sky
People participate at a pro-democratic rally in Warsaw, Poland, led by former Polish Prime Minister and European Council President Donald Tusk ahead of the Polish elections, October 2023. (Getty/Piotr Lapinski/NurPhoto)

The recent Polish elections have reshaped the nation’s political trajectory, with important implications for the future of Europe. The victory of the democratic opposition is a testament to the resilience of Polish civil society in the face of government attacks and mounting illiberalism. Beyond Poland, the results have rekindled a sense of optimism globally, illustrating that with sustained popular effort, the tides of illiberalism can be reversed.

The United States benefits from a Poland committed to EU values and trans-Atlantic cooperation on critical issues such as Russia’s war against Ukraine. A renewed dedication to democracy and the rule of law aligns with U.S. interests, fostering stronger bilateral and multilateral ties at a time of increased geopolitical competition and amid strains within the NATO alliance. Under new Polish leadership, there is also potential for progress on migration issues, climate action, and EU treaty reform—areas where Poland can serve as a bridge-builder within the European Union.

The election results mark a stunning reversal of Poland’s decadeslong democratic decline and constitute a sharp rebuke of the eight-year rule of the Law and Justice party (PiS). The results also reaffirm Poland’s commitment to the European Union and reflect broad public support for the country’s growing role within the bloc’s security architecture, particularly following the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ultimately, the results align Poland with sentiment in much of the West in support of strong democratic institutions, climate action, and green economic growth.

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Still, significant hurdles persist. Entrenched state capture within key institutions such as Poland’s Supreme Court and Constitutional Tribunal, coupled with an egregiously slanted media landscape, presents a formidable challenge for the opposition as it transitions to governing.

The election results in Poland saw the ruling PiS secure 35.4 percent of the vote, translating to 194 seats in parliament—a drop from 235 seats in the 2019 election. Under the leadership of former Prime Minister and European Council President Donald Tusk, an alignment of center and left parties collectively secured enough support to control 248 seats and are therefore poised to form the new government in Warsaw.

Notwithstanding adverse election manipulation by the governing PiS, Tusk’s Civic Coalition nearly garnered a plurality of the popular vote of 30.7 percent, securing 157 seats. Tusk’s other coalition partners, Third Way and the Left, with their respective 14.4 percent and 8.6 percent tallies, secured 65 and 26 seats.

The election results mark a stunning reversal of Poland's decadeslong democratic decline.

Putting a halt to democratic backsliding

Over the past eight years, Poland has faced significant challenges to its democratic institutions. The divisive politics of the PiS, particularly its attempts to undermine judicial independence and intimidate the free press, have sounded alarms both domestically and internationally. In 2021, the party’s effort to force the divestiture of Poland’s largest private television network, TVN, from its U.S. owner, Discovery, drew scrutiny from Washington before the law was eventually vetoed. The episode was yet another salvo in a protracted assault on media freedom in Poland, including a sordid scheme where a state-owned energy company, Orlen, bought out local media outlets in an effort, critics allege, to consolidate state control over independent press.

Yet it was the attacks on the independence of the Polish judiciary that most alarmed citizens. One of the most contentious moves was the forced early retirement of Supreme Court judges, replaced by appointees chosen by the president upon the recommendation of the National Council of the Judiciary, a body whose members were appointed by the PiS-dominated Parliament. The overhaul prompted the European Union to trigger its Article 7 procedures—a mechanism that imposes punitive sanctions designed to protect the rule of law in member states whose actions threaten the union’s fundamental values.

Tensions reached a boiling point when the Polish Constitutional Tribunal voted to significantly restrict abortion access, catalyzing a groundswell of public anger and culminating in nationwide protests. The ruling invigorated a new wave of political engagement across demographic strata and set the stage for unprecedented voter turnout (74 percent) in the parliamentary elections. Indeed, voter turnout among youth voters surged to 68.8 percent, a stunning rise from the 46.4 percent who voted in the 2019 elections and a high-water mark for Poland. And nearly 75 percent of eligible women cast their ballots, representing a historic 12 percent rise from 2019 and contributing to the turnover of the incumbent government.

The Civic Coalition has pledged to liberalize Poland’s abortion law, endorse civil unions for same-sex couples, and depoliticize the judiciary. This robust reform agenda aims to veer Poland away from burgeoning illiberalism and would herald a political shift in that direction not seen in Europe since the end of communism in 1989.

Poland’s European reintegration 

Implicitly, this election was a referendum on Poland’s place in the European Union. The voters faced a choice between the PiS-led government continuing its contentious relationship with Brussels or endorsing the opposition’s platform and vision for Poland to reemerge as a constructive European player. For many Poles who endured voting lines for upward of six hours, the election represented a clear rebuke of what historian Anne Applebaum termed Poland’s “twilight of democracy.”

More immediately, Poland can cease its pitched battles with the European Commission by rolling back its controversial judicial reforms. The move would unlock some 35 billion euros in sequestered payments from the European Union’s recovery fund, a demand long sought yet consistently thwarted by the PiS government. A reintegrated Poland would also present an opportunity to mend ties with key EU partner Germany, a country often maligned by the PiS, which most recently demanded a sizable World War II reparation package ­­from Germany—much to the unease of the German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.

Yet the most significant ripple effect of the October 15 election may reverberate not in Brussels but in Budapest. Without a key ally in Warsaw, Viktor Orbán will be more isolated on the European stage, complicating Hungarian efforts to obstruct aid to Ukraine and to hinder much-needed EU treaty reform. Indeed, Poland’s resilience delivers a hopeful message to individuals in backsliding democracies, such as Hungary, also grappling with state capture. As political scientist Daniel Ziblatt keenly observes, “Look to Poland today to see the power of majority rule: how … together majorities can defeat an authoritarian minority faction” through sheer political mobilization.

Poland’s role in the European security order

Poland’s role within the European security order is set to become even more influential following recent elections. Despite Poland accepting more than 1.6 million Ukrainian refugees for Temporary Protected Status and increasing its defense spending to 4 percent of gross domestic product—the highest in NATO—the PiS’ support for Ukraine was not without its own political calculations, including a cynical attempt to court the Ukrainian-skeptic Konfederacja party. Here, the PiS openly traded in populist and far-right sentiments, rehashing historical conflicts with Ukraine and engaging in a trade dispute that momentarily hindered military aid to Kyiv.

The tendency of parties such as the PiS to engage in populist gamesmanship results in more unpredictable alliances. The government’s erratic signals on Ukraine, suggesting it might wind down support, underscore the instability introduced by populist parties into international relations. Indeed, the recent election results in Poland have successfully mitigated a serious, though overlooked, threat to the European security order.

With a coalition committed to democratic principles and EU integration at the helm in Warsaw, Poland is now poised to become a steadying presence in European security politics, particularly when it comes to Russian aggression. This reorientation is vital; leveraging Poland’s deep-rooted understanding of Russian history, the new government is set to play a more influential role in guiding European policy—an observation echoed by political analyst Chels Michta, who notes an eastward shift in EU decision-making power on Moscow.

A tough road ahead

While the election results are promising, deep challenges lie ahead. Reinstating the rule of law, given the institutional chaos left by the previous government, will indeed be a Herculean task. For starters, the Supreme Court, led by Małgorzata Manowsk, and the Constitutional Tribunal, headed by Julia Przyłębska, are institutionally aligned with the Law and Justice party; Przyłębska is reportedly personal friends with PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński and may resist reforms.

Complicating matters still, any new government will have to collaborate with President Andrzej Duda. Duda, a stalwart supporter of the PiS, has given the party first chance to form a government. Moreover, Duda has the power to veto legislation. Finding a modus vivendi with President Duda is therefore crucial if the Civic Coalition hopes to govern effectively. This is a tall order, especially considering Duda’s sharp criticisms of Donald Tusk in the past.

The United States has an interest in doing what it can to support the new government’s efforts to implement its electoral mandate and demonstrate how leaders adhering to democratic principles can deliver for their people.

Recommendations 

The United States has an interest in doing what it can to support the new government’s efforts to implement its electoral mandate and demonstrate how leaders adhering to democratic principles can deliver for their people. The United States can consider the following policy recommendations, which also align with U.S. national interests:

  • Enhancing security cooperation: The new government will be expected to demonstrate immediately its ability to defend the country. The United States should affirm right away the continuity of its security partnership with Poland. There are a number of areas to demonstrate U.S. commitment. The United States should expand joint cyberdefense initiatives with Poland and share intelligence. In coordination with NATO allies, the United States can consider increasing troop rotations to affirm security commitments under NATO’s existing framework. Concurrently, the United States should continue to backfill Polish military equipment through direct transfers from U.S. stocks, expedite procurement channels, and offer financial assistance for new purchases.
  • Advancing a U.S.-Poland energy partnership: By partnering with Poland in nuclear energy, the United States already provides crucial expertise for Poland’s transition from coal generation to clean energy sources, a climate and security imperative following the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine. The United States can enhance its collaborative efforts by further supporting the Three Seas Initiative, a platform that fosters energy infrastructure development across eastern, central, and southern Europe by investing in grid modernization and energy connectivity within these regions. This wholesale approach not only aligns with global climate goals but also serves Poland’s energy security needs as outlined in the 2022 NATO strategic concept.
  • Supporting democratic reforms: Supporting regional democratization efforts, the United States can lend expertise to Poland for rule of law reforms, which could aid in unlocking the 35.4 billion euros in the EU recovery fund. By utilizing initiatives similar to the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Judicial Reform and Government Accountability Project—which ran in Serbia from 2011–2016­­—Poland can strengthen its democratic institutions. Moreover, supporting women’s political participation through programs such as SHE PERSISTS can further consolidate democratic governance by ensuring a more inclusive political process. Successful reforms in Poland could serve as a model for Ukraine’s EU membership and apply pressure on countries experiencing democratic backsliding within NATO and the European Union.

Conclusion

The incoming coalition faces substantial challenges in Poland, chiefly restoring judicial independence, ensuring media freedom, and realigning with the European Union’s democratic values. Working with, or around, a president aligned with the previous government will undoubtedly prove difficult. Yet defying the odds has become somewhat of a Polish hallmark. Amid the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and regional democratic backsliding, Poland’s potential success in these endeavors could transform it into a standard-bearer of democracy in Europe—a status that appeared elusive just a few short weeks ago.

A future Tusk government also holds the promise of progress in pivotal areas such as migration, climate policy, and EU treaty reform, where Poland has the capacity to act as a pivotal link within the European Union. Additionally, a reinvigorated commitment to democratic principles will bolster U.S. foreign policy objectives, enhancing bilateral and multilateral relationships during a period marked by heightened global strategic rivalry.

 

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Author

Robert Benson

Senior Policy Analyst

Department

National Security and International Policy

Advancing progressive national security policies that are grounded in respect for democratic values: accountability, rule of law, and human rights.

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