Law and Justice could easily have secured a third term in Poland. Here is how

The leader of PiS Jarosław Kaczyński doubles down on his defence of Polish sovereignty in opposition to proposed changes in EU treaties being debated in the European Parliament EPA-EFE/Leszek Szymanski


There are a few fictional narratives that need untangling to make sense of Poland’s October elections, understand what is happening now, and know what to expect.

First, the meta-narrative: Western media explainers claim that in October 2023, the “democratic opposition” bested “the party of government”. If the opposition is “democratic”, the party in power for the last eight years is naturally presumed to be the opposite.

But how could it not be democratic if it won democratic elections each time, fair and square, and ruled according to democratic norms? Or how to explain the fact that free elections took place at all or that the governing party lost power in the supposed absence of democracy?

Poland has remained a constitutional republic with a democratic, parliamentary system.

To the surprise of Brussels and all those who learnt from the news reports that progressives in Poland won an outright victory in recent elections, President Andrzej Duda reminded the EU and pundits everywhere that their celebrations were premature.

In keeping with precedent dating back to the fall of communism in Poland, the president called on the party that won the highest number of votes, i.e., the United Right led by Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice, to form the next government. This proposed government is now being presented to parliament.

Remember, Poland’s Civic Coalition (KO) under Donald Tusk did not win. Just like in 2015 and again in 2019, the Law and Justice Party once again got the most votes in 2023. Out of 460 deputies, the PiS has the largest contingent, 194 legislators (35.38 per cent of the vote), in the lower house, the Sejm. The KO trails PiS with 157 seats (30.7 per cent).

Law and Justice have in all probability scored a Pyrrhic victory, though. It is 37 votes short and cannot form a government on its own.

The Civic Coalition, on the other hand, has an array of other liberal and Leftist coalitions that are ready and willing to enter the government under Tusk and share power.

​Coalitions, not parties, are what matters in the current landscape. For example, United Right consists of Law and Justice, center-right Sovereign Poland (Suwerenna Polska), and the populist Kukiz Party.

The Civic Coalition comprises the pro-Brussels Civic Platform and its leftist appendages: the LGBT-aligned Modern Party (Nowoczesna), the pro-abortion Polish Initiative (Inicjatywa Polska), and the tree-hugging Greens (Zieloni).

Thus, pace Western media, instead of a battle of progressive “forces of light” against the benighted “dark forces”, we witnessed a contest of multiple coalitions. They include various post-Communist groups like the “New Left” (Nowa Lewica) and old post-Communist associations, such as the Polish Peasant Party (PSL), in turn allied with yet another coalition, the “Third Way” (Trzecia Droga).

On the account of the Peasant Party’s rather traditionalist countryside grass roots, PiS has tried to co-opt the PSL as a coalition partner with generous offers of the prime ministership and pork barrel politics. Kaczyński clearly wants to pry the Peasants from their progressive Third Way coalition partner, Poland 2050, and join his government with perhaps 30 PSL deputies.

The PSL bosses have not budged, for two reasons. First, they are as far away from their constituents as American teachers union caciques from theirs.

Second, the bosses are personally beholden to the main stream Left-liberal and post-Communist ruling milieux, in particular Donald Tusk. Betraying him is not impossible, but it is easier for the Peasant Party to betray one’s own electorate for it has already voted and has nothing to offer for the next 4 years.

Aside from the PSL, Konfederacja (Confederacy) with its 18 deputies is another possible coalition partner. The problem? A hard Right coalition of libertarians, Christian nationalists, and Catholic monarchists, the party has vowed never to work with PiS.

However, it campaigned to the centre and sidelined its most controversial leaders. More recently, Konfederacja has even disavowed one of its founders, the flamboyant anarcho-capitalist Rothbardian and reactionary, Janusz Korwin Mikke, signaling its readiness to deal with PiS after all.

Yet, the two groups — Law and Justice and Confederacy — would not have enough votes for a majority government. They still need the Peasant Party. Forming a coalition government, then, remains a tall order.

Western media like another false narrative to explain the most recent Polish elections: PiS lost because it was “backsliding from democracy”.

This form of “backsliding” occurs, of course, only when a non-Leftist party wins a democratic election and rules thus with a democratic mandate to the chagrin of the chattering classes that would prefer a woke revolution instead of parliamentary rule.

“Democratic backsliding” nonsense aside, there is no denying that the performance of PiS was lackluster. Why did it lose 33 deputies in this national contest, down from 226 to 194?

There were several actual reasons that Law and Justice failed to perform as well as before.

First, the party and its coalition partners ran, incongruously, as a farmer and provincial party. To a large extent, the United Right ignored big cities as Left-liberal fortresses of perdition, allowing them to go Left-liberal uncontested.

Second, the ruling coalition failed to elucidate a comprehensive programme to woo the youth vote. Previously, PiS campaigned as a champion of the memory of anti-Nazi and anti-Communist insurgents (so-called “Soldiers Accursed”), which inspired many a young voter. Now, inexplicably, the party lacked any comparable slogan, let alone a vision.

Third, the United Right had shown itself as quite unsophisticated in the social media front. It allowed the Polish internet market to be dominated by woke American Big Tech and other companies.

It never went to war against Leftist Facebook, YouTube, and other woke platforms. The virtual woke revolutionaries routinely and brazenly stifled free speech, cancelled non-Leftist political opponents, in fact anyone who was not Left or liberal, and dictated the content of its platforms.

Meanwhile, the Law and Justice government completely eschewed defending freedom of speech via legislation. To be fair, a United Right coalition partner, Sovereign Poland, did try but prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki declined taking on the new technology giants. This was duly noted, primarily by young people, but not only by them.

Incidentally, Twitter, or X, has returned as the most free platform. However, this should be qualified: Elon Musk does not know Polish, so the same Warsaw tech-Leftists who used to suppress freedom of speech under the old regime remain in positions of influence, waiting for a change of course at the US headquarters. They should be retired as they were in the US.

Fourth, the reason why PiS scored worse than before is because its secret police Agencja Bezpieczeństwa Wewnętrznego (Agency of Internal Security), also suppressed free speech on the internet, closing down web sites and streaming services of Right-wing provenance.

This included the main news hub of the Confederacy coalition, the conservative-libertarian High Time! (Najwyższy Czas!), which became inaccessible in Poland in March 2023, half a year before the election. It is telling that the government lacked the courage to go after Leftist websites.

Fifth, and last, PiS had no idea how to woo women. Most Polish women, younger women in particular, chose the Left-liberal option. Like their western counterparts, single non-married women tend to embrace progressive sensibilities.

But for all intents and purposes, that is water under the bridge.

What matters now is if the United Right, having secured the plurality but not the majority of the votes, can do the impossible: overcome its parliamentary deficit and form a government for the third time since 2015.

If PiS fails to put together a coalition, Tusk and his liberal-progressive allies will have a turn.  This is now looking extremely likely. But it will be a fragile coalition government. Poland may still be looking at another round of elections in the spring.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is the Kościuszko Chair in Polish History at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft in Washington, DC