Why The Polish Election Results Are Such Good News For Ukraine
The recent Polish parliamentary elections have ushered in a significant shift in the country's political landscape, which includes promising outlook for its neighbor Ukraine that could be essential in shoring up support across Europe as the war with Russia heads into its third winter. But Kyiv shouldn't take the amity of Donald Tusk and his centrist coalition for granted.
Updated Oct. 18, 2023 at 5 p.m.
Poland's election results mark a major turning point in the nation's politics. While the ruling national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party secured the most votes with 36.8%, it almost certainly didn't gain enough support to maintain its hold on power. Instead, the centrist Civic Coalition (GC), led by Donald Tusk, former President of the European Council, is expected to take power in a coalition with the Third Way, a new center-left political force that outperformed expectations.
This outcome signals the end of eight years of PiS rule. Civic Coalition and Third Way should be able to control 248 out of 460 seats in Parliament, holding the promise for a more balanced and democratic governance in Poland.
But beyond the borders of Poland, the impact of this handover of power is a much-needed burst of hope to Ukraine after the past two months of disputes with the Polish government, which Kyiv had long counted on as a steadfast ally in the war against Russia.
In the lead-up to this weekend's election, tensions had grown between Warsaw and Kyiv, as a disagreement over the export of Ukrainian grain to the West escalated into a broader dispute involving PiS leaders.
The standoff was surprising, as Kyiv-based Ukrainska Pravda writes, considering Poland had played a pivotal role in providing military aid, facilitating the transport of NATO weapons to the east, and advocating strongly for Ukraine within the European Union.
Some observers interpreted the acrimony from the ruling party as an attempt to counter the electoral threat posed by the far-right Confederation party, which has openly expressed hostility toward the Ukrainian government and the approximately 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees residing in Poland.
Tusk had slammed PiS for its disputes with Ukraine ahead of the election. The former prime minister said maintaining good relations with Ukraine was "an existential issue" for Warsaw.
Though Tusk acknowledged the difficulty of the agricultural dispute, he said: "There is no alternative to a pro-Ukrainian policy." Any Tusk-led coalition will likely spend months trying to smooth those sharp edges that emerged in relations between Ukraine and Poland.
"Never insult Poles"
More general, under PiS rule, Poland had regular disputes with Brussels, and drifted farther into social conservatism on issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights. The new coalition government, comprising a more diverse set of parties in terms of domestic issues, may prefer to prioritize diplomacy and international cooperation, which bodes well for Ukraine's relations with Poland and the European Union.
The tensions reached a peek in September when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told reporters in reference to Poland's criticism of the grain export deal that "it is disturbing to see how at this time some people in Europe are undermining solidarity and organizing a political circus, making a thriller out of grain."
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawieck lashed back, warning Zelensky to "never insult Poles again."
Now, by all accounts based on the final vote counting in Poland, Morawieck and his PiS colleagues won't be running Poland's foreign policy. There is optimism in Kyiv that the new government will seek a compromise in the grain conflict, aim to strengthen overall economic relations and reassert its military and logistical support for Ukraine's war effort.
Weapon supply questions
Yevhen Magda, head of the Institute of World Politics, told Radio Svoboda (Radio Free Europe) that Poland and Ukraine were sister states. "Ukrainians who fled the war live in Poland; there is cooperation in the agricultural sphere; there is borrowing in local self-government; Polish volunteers go to Ukraine," he said "These are important connections between our countries."
However while "we hope for an understanding after the elections, we are preparing for different options. Today there are problems with grain export, predicted difficulties in relations with Slovakia... We cannot become complacent," Magda cautioned.
Nevertheless, the prospect of a Tusk-led government won't necessarily be able to overcome some more structural difficulties.. Some bilateral tensions may persist, irrespective of a change in leadership — and Poland's announcement in September that it would cut its sending of new weapons to Ukraine was more a result of Poland's export capacity limitations than a sudden withdrawal of support.
There should be excitement but also caution.
Oksana Yurynets, an expert on Ukrainian-Polish relations, told Radio Svoboda that "In relations with Poland, it is important there there be unity with politicians, at all branches of government, in the public sector, in business associations and public organizations so that there is mutual cooperation from different sides."
It requires as much concerted effort from Ukraine as Poland, she added. For Ukrainians: "there should be excitement but also caution."
Regarding agricultural exports, Tusk will also need to demonstrate a commitment to the interests of the Polish people and the influential farming sector, regardless of any sympathies toward Kyiv.
Zelensky and Tusk
A 2019 meeting between Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and then President of the European Council Donald Tusk, who is likely to return as Poland's prime minister.
Another tough winter
With vote-counting concluded in Poland, coalition negotiations are already underway. However, it may take some time before significant progress is made. Given PiS's status as the party with the most votes, they will likely be given the first opportunity to form a government, but are expected to fail. Then Tusk will aim to form a government with Third Way.
This suggests that PiS is likely to remain in power until at least mid-December as a caretaker government with full control over state institutions.
Such a period of transition and political uncertainty could present challenges for Ukraine as it pushes to secure Western support ahead of another challenging winter. The next administration in Warsaw will need to navigate complex economic and political issues, especially if Tusk and his allies, who have expressed their intent to reform many of PiS's anti-democratic policies, take the helm.
How has Poland helped Ukraine during the war?
Since Russia first invaded Ukraine on February, 242022, Poland has extended its support by taking in refugees and supplying aid. Data reports that since February 2022 until September 2023, 15.4 million people have crossed the Polish border from Ukraine. Poland has also been among the highest European providers of military and economic aid, in addition to providing a physical channel through which foreign powers could send aid to Ukraine.
Why did Poland stop supplying weapons to Ukraine?
On September 20, 2023, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Jakub Morawiecki announced that the country would “no longer transfer weapons to Ukraine”, and that it was the time to arm Poland instead. Additionally, the Polish President Andrzej Duda compared Ukraine to a drowning man who would drag down those trying to help. This happened ahead of Poland’s October 15 general elections, and it is possible that the Law and Justice Party believed this would make them appear favorable in the eyes of the public. There had also been a dispute between Ukraine and Poland regarding Polish restrictions on grain imports, which led Ukrainian President Zeelensky to declare to the UN that some countries "feign solidarity by indirectly supporting Russia."
Who is Donald Tusk?
Donald Tusk is a former Polish prime minister, as well as former President of the European Council. As leader of Poland’s centrist Civic Coalition, Tusk is expected to take power through his party’s coalition with Third Way, which would give them control of 248 out of 460 seats in parliament. Tusk seeks to restore good ties with the European Union and Ukraine, and is a critic of Poland’s tightening abortion laws and economic inflation.
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