On Sunday 15 October, Polish voters went to the polls in record numbers to elect their lower and upper houses of Parliament. The election had a turnout rate of nearly 75%, compared to 61% in 2019. After eight years, a centrist, pro-European coalition will likely take over from right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) whose stance on immigration, rule of law, and social rights have raised tensions in EU–Polish relations. Civic Coalition, The Left and The Third Way won a combined 248 seats in the 460-seat parliament. They are likely to lead the next government, if successful in coalition negotiations. This Just the Facts looks at Poland’s parliamentary system, the main campaign issues, and the results of the general election.
Republic of Poland’s Parliamentary System
Poland (Polska) is derived from Polans, a West Slavic tribe who inhabited the Warta River basin of present-day Poland between 500 – 700 AD. The tribe’s name stems from the word pole, meaning field. Between 1989 – 1991, Poland underwent a democratic transition, resulting in the Third Polish Republic and ending the Polish People’s Republic regime that began in 1947.
Today, Poland is a bicameral parliamentary democracy, which includes the lower house, the Sejm (Polish for ‘same’), and the Senate, the upper house. Together, they form Poland’s Houses of Parliament which are accommodated in the Sejm complex in Warsaw. The President is the head of state and is elected by absolute majority vote through a two-round system to serve a five-year term. The Prime Minister is the head of government, who is nominated by the President, reflecting the leader of the party who obtained the most seats at a general election in the Sejm.
The Sejm is made up of 460 deputies, who are elected across 41 multi-seat constituencies through an open-list proportional representation system to serve four-year terms. The Senate consists of 100 senators elected simultaneously as the Sejm for four-year terms by direct universal suffrage in single-member constituencies.
Poland joined the European Union in May 2004, along with nine other countries. Since joining, Poland has made significant contributions to the European Neighbourhood Policy, helping to develop EU relations with Eastern Europe.
Since August 2015, Andrzej Duda has been President of Poland. Although an independent, he was previously a member of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) from 2005 – 2015. Since November 2017, Mateusz Morawiecki of the Law and Justice Party has been Prime Minister in a government with United Poland, the Republican Party and Polish Affairs. Law and Justice have led governments in Poland since the October 2015 general election.
Poland and the Rule of Law
Since taking office in 2015, tensions have developed between Law and Justice and the EU over the rule of law. Over the last eight years, Law and Justice have targeted the independence of state-run media, the Constitutional Tribunal, electoral laws and the boards of state-run companies, making significant changes. Their time in power has seen a rollback of access to abortion, and the establishment in some regions of ‘LGBT Free Zones’ who declared themselves unwelcoming of LGBT+ rights and banned equality marches.
In 2016, the European Commission enacted the Rule of Law Framework for the first time. This framework intends to create a dialogue and prevent rule of law infringements from escalating. Since then, the Commission and Poland have been in ongoing legal battles over constitutional and judicial amendments made by Law and Justice. In addition, post-pandemic recovery funding has been withheld. The 2023 Commission Rule of Law Report detailed ‘serious concerns’ in relation to Poland such as:
-No progress on separating the function of the Minister of Justice from that of the Prosecutor-General
-No progress on ensuring independent and effective investigations and prosecutions
-No progress on ensuring that fair, transparent and non-discriminatory procedures are adhered to for the granting of operating licenses to media outlets
2023 Campaign Issues
Given the decline in EU-Polish relations since 2015, opposition parties made commitments in their campaigns to restore positive EU relations, unblock EU funding, and make amendments to rule of law changes which have occurred. The main opposition party Civic Platform is led by former Prime Minister and President of the European Council Donald Tusk and holds a distinctly pro-European stance. This counters the narrative of Law and Justice, whose stance on immigration and law and order has widely appealed to nationalist voters in recent years.
Ahead of the election, Law and Justice stepped up their anti-migrant rhetoric. The government has refused to take in any asylum-seekers who enter through other EU countries. Opposition parties have accused the ruling party of hypocrisy, arguing the government has overseen the largest wave of migration in recent times. The government also faced a drop in polling numbers when a migration scandal emerged ahead of the election. Law and Justice were accused by opposition parties of standing over a corruption scheme which saw Polish visas illegally sold by consulates, despite a tough stance on immigration.
Law and Justice were further criticised for using the election date to host a national referendum. The referendum asked voters to vote on four questions:
-Do you support the selling of state assets to foreign entities, leading to the loss of Poles’ control over strategic sectors of the economy?
-Do you support an increase in the retirement age, including the restoration of the increased retirement age to 67 for men and women?
-Do you support the removal of the barrier on the border between Poland and Belarus?
-Do you support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, in accordance with the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy?
Law and Justice oppose all these measures, while the opposition is not planning to pursue any of the policies. Opposition parties argued the questions were worded in a biased way to sway the electorate into voting for Law and Justice. Ahead of the election, they encouraged a boycott of the referendum.
In recent years, Law and Justice have been accused of politicising the judiciary by capturing the body that nominates judges in Poland and bringing in rules to punish judges who criticised government reforms. The party is also accused of staffing the Constitutional Tribunal and Supreme Court with sympathetic judges.
In 2021, the EU’s Court of Justice fined the government €1 million per day, until the Court ruled in June that Poland violated EU rules through its code for punishing judges. The EU has since withheld €36 billion in pandemic recovery funds from Poland until the changes are reversed.
Results of the 2023 General Election
Following the election on 15 October, Poland’s opposition parties won enough seats to likely take power from Law and Justice. The centrist and left-wing opposition also won a majority in Poland’s upper house, the Senate. Led by former Prime Minister and European Council President, Donald Tusk, a coalition including Civic Coalition, The Third Way, and The Left would hold a total of 248 seats within the 460-seat parliament, compared to Law and Justice’ 194 seats.
President Andrzej Duda must now nominate a candidate for Prime Minister. The president has indicated that he would approach the party who had won the most seats first. As Law and Justice are the largest single-party, they will be the first approached. However, given that Law and Justice lacks coalition allies, it is unlikely that they will be able to form a government.
Should the centrist coalition led by Donald Tusk succeed in forming the next government, it will be a change from the right-wing rule of Law and Justice since 2015. Opposition parties have called on Duda not to delay his decision on who will be next PM of Poland, so that coalition negotiations can officially begin.
|Alliance||Party||Established||Oct. 2019||Oct. 2023||Seat Change||European Parliament Group||Irish Parties in that Group|
|United Right (ZP – 2013)||Law and Justice||2001||187||157||-30||European Conservatives and Reformists Party||–|
|Solidarity Poland||2012||10||18||8||European Conservatives and Reformists Party||–|
|Republican Party||2013||1||4||3||European Conservatives and Reformists Party||–|
|Kukiz 15||2015||New||2||None (Centre-right to right-wing)||–|
|Independents and others||–||21||13||-8||–||–|
|Civic Coalition (KO – 2018)||Civic Platform||2001||102||122||20||European People’s Party||Fine Gael|
|Modern||2015||8||6||-2||Renew Europe||Fianna Fáil|
|Polish Initiative||2017||2||3||1||Socialists and Democrats||Labour Party, Social Democrats|
|The Greens||2003||3||3||0||Greens/European Free Alliance||Green Party|
|Good Movement||2023||New||–||None (Centre-right)||–|
|Independents and others||–||19||22||–||–|
|The Left (2019)||Democratic Left Alliance||2020||23||0||-23||Socialists and Democrats||Labour Party, Social Democrats|
|Left Together||2015||6||7||1||Socialists and Democrats||Labour Party, Social Democrats|
|Spring||2019||15||0||-15||Socialists and Democrats||Labour Party, Social Democrats|
|New Left||2021||New||19||Socialists and Democrats||Labour Party, Social Democrats|
|Independents and others||5||0||-5||–||–|
|Polish Coalition (KP – 2019) / Third Way (2023)||Polish People’s Party||1990||19||28||9||European People’s Party||Fine Gael|
|PL2050||2020||New||33||Renew Europe||Fianna Fáil|
|Centre for Poland||2022||New||3||None (Centre-right)||–|
|Union of European Democrats||2016||1||0||-1||Renew Europe||Fianna Fáil|
|Independents and others||–||10||1||-9||–||–|
|Confederation (2018)||National Movement||2014||5||0||-5||None (Far-right)||–|
|New Hope||2015||3||6||3||None (Right-wing)||–|
|Confederation of the Polish Crown||2019||New||2||None (Far-right)|
|Independents and others||–||0||3||3||–||–|
|460 seats – Sejm of the Republic of Poland||460||460|
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