On October 15 the history of Poland took an important turn and, with it, that of the contest within the West between different visions of democracy. A diverse oppositional front united under the banner of liberal democracy triumphed, against all odds, over the ruling populist government. But it would be a mistake to expect that the Polish clock can be turned back to 2014, when a neoliberal consensus reigned. Populist illiberal democracy may be vanquished, but the equilibrium of politics has shifted permanently in its wake.
When the Poles went to the voting stations, it seemed like the odds favored the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS). If triumphant, the party chaired by Jarosław Kaczyński would have achieved an unprecedented third term in power, solidifying its hold on the Polish state as well as the country’s seeming drift toward illiberalism.
When the final results were released on October 17, PiS indeed came out on top but fell short of achieving the outright majority needed to form a government. To everyone’s surprise, the ruling party’s defeat was sealed by a catastrophically low percentage of the vote for Confederation, an anti-establishment bloc that combines libertarian and far-right sentiments and which was widely perceived as the only possible coalition partner for PiS.
As things stand now, power in Poland is poised to pass into the hands of a diverse coalition of three parties: the centrist Civic Coalition led by former prime minister and European Council president Donald Tusk; the center-right Third Way combining agrarians and Christian Democrats; and the progressive-liberal “Left,” an alliance of young progressives and some former pre-1989 communists.
If you find it hard to wrap your head around the ideological compositions of the three potential ruling coalition parties, you are not alone. Except for perhaps the Left, there is hardly a clear ideological consensus within any one of them; already there are signs of discord on issues such as access to abortion. The only thing that firmly unites all three is a commitment to liberal democracy—or, more specifically, to the European Union, good relations with West European neighbors, the rule of law, and strong checks and balances.
The events of the past eight years shaped the election into a contest between two visions of democracy: a liberal and an illiberal one. The reign of Law and Justice has been widely seen as an example of the latter. During its eight years in power, the PiS parliamentary majority packed Poland’s constitutional court, launched an attack on the Supreme Court, engaged in a protracted conflict with Brussels over the rule of law, politicized the public broadcaster, attempted to silence the largest private television station, bought up small regional media outlets using a state-owned oil company, and most recently used its influence with said oil giant to artificially lower gas prices several weeks before the election.
These measures were not just opportunistic power grabs. They flowed from a vision of political order in which a strong paternalistic state chaperones all political, social, and economic matters under the banner of “patriotism,” upon which it claims a monopoly. This definition doesn’t leave room for respectful competition—political opponents are defined as useful idiots at best and foreign agents at worst. For instance, alluding to Mr. Tusk’s 'nefarious' ties to Germany has become a famous and much-ridiculed trope of state-owned television under PiS.
Furthermore, in illiberal democracy the legitimacy of the “patriotic camp” derives from the “will of the people,” which is not to be constrained by any rules, checks, or balances. So long as the people give their endorsement to the rulers in elections, the authority of the latter must be absolute. Indeed, Mr. Kaczyński often referred to the “will of the people” when justifying his showdowns with liberal norms and institutions.
PiS would not have achieved the unprecedently strong endorsement it did in the 2015 parliamentary elections if it hadn’t been riding the wave of populism then sweeping Europe and America. Kaczyński’s agenda since 2015 addressed real problems. Much like the blue-collar victims of deindustrialization in America and England, small Polish cities and villages were filled with voters who felt like the economic miracle of post-1989 Poland had passed them by.
While the distance between economic winners and losers widened, liberal governments kept balanced budgets and told the public that, in the words of a former finance minister, “There is no money and there will be no money.” Fiscally prudent, perhaps, but politically disastrous. PiS stepped into this void by promising to fund social programs without qualification, and return a sense of dignity and agency to those who felt like they lacked it. This was the populist foundation on which PiS built its power to ride roughshod over liberal democracy.
On October 15 the Poles rescinded their mandate for Kaczyński’s “patriotic camp” by depriving it of a governable majority, despite the support of the state apparatus that the ruling party enjoyed. Voter turnout was among the highest in Polish history—larger than even that in the famous election that overturned communism in 1989. Even Mr. Kaczyński seemed to recognize his defeat when he publicly alluded to the likelihood of giving up the reins of government in his speech on the evening when exit polls were released. His project of illiberal democracy was defeated by circumstances, opponents, as well as his own errors: an economic downturn caused by the joint impact of pandemic and war; a vigorous campaign waged by three parties together appealing to a wide portion of the electorate; and above all a string of scandals on the economic front of the “paternalistic state” and disastrous blunders such as the 2020 abortion restriction.
It would be a mistake, though, to expect that politics in Poland will return to how they were in 2014, when Donald Tusk was last prime minister. Although defeated, PiS almost maintained the number of votes that gave it a crushing second victory back in 2019. The different outcome was brought by a higher voter turnout, but Kaczyński’s party maintains a very strong base of support among the beneficiaries of its economic programs and identity-based politics. If this was a repudiation of illiberal democracy, it was hardly a total defeat for populism.
Equally significant is the policy shift of the liberal opposition. Donald Tusk no longer speaks of raising the retirement age and vows to keep in place all social programs introduced by Kaczyński. In fact, among all the economic programs proposed by the vying parties, that of Civic Coalition was estimated by some accounts to be the most costly. As for the question of non‑European migration—another battle cry of the populist right—Tusk took a hard position on “protecting the Polish border” from Middle Eastern migrants trafficked by Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarusian regime. The center of gravity in Polish politics has clearly shifted.
Clearly, then, this is not a comeback of the neoliberal consensus that the populists attacked in the early 2010s. This is a victory of liberal and institutional democracy, which adopted parts of the populist program to hold illiberal paternalistic democracy at bay—a victory that is still very tentative. It will be up to the emerging coalition to ensure over the next four years that their version of democracy lasts.
Wiktor Babinski is a graduate student studying history at Yale University.
Image: Polish and Poland-related flags. (Flickr: Przemek Pietrak)
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