Polish Elections: Liberal Democracy Is Still Alive And Kicking
The results from the landmark Polish election, which saw a surge by liberal and center-right parties, is long awaited good news for the European Union... and not-so-good news for Viktor Orban.
PARIS — Poland has provided the world with a fine illustration of the difference between an "illiberal" regime and a dictatorship. The country's ruling party Law and Justice (better known by its initials, PiS) falls perfectly under said "illiberal" label, having greatly undermined the independence of the judiciary and curtailed press freedom in recent years.
But the national-populist party lost the general election on Sunday, to an opposition front led by former prime minister and former European Council leader Donald Tusk. This was anything but a done deal, be it only because of the continuous, if crude, attempts to discredit Tusk.
This relative defeat of the PiS — the party is holding its own in terms of votes but has seen the collapse of its potential far-right ally — is an important political moment for Europe.
What Poland needs
It's first important to remember that Poland is Central Europe's largest country, with a population of almost 40 million and consistently strong economic growth. But PiS's often virulent Euroscepticism has thus far prevented it from playing the major role it could have aspired to.
Poland has also found itself on the front line of the Ukraine war, both by becoming the West's de facto hub for arms supplies to Kyiv, but also by leading the call for a stronger European commitment toward Ukraine. That fact made this summer's crisis all the stranger, with Warsaw lashing out at Ukraine over a dispute on grain exports. The incident was actually a thinly-veiled attempt at winning votes — and it wasn't enough to save PiS.
Poland needs a government that's less unpredictable.
By increasing its defense budget to 4% of the its GDP (twice that of France!), Poland shows it has everything it needs to be a key player in the region, as both history and geography have placed the country on a geopolitical fault line.
But to finally take its rightful place in Europe, what Poland needs is a government that's less unpredictable. A government, that isn't subject to the fears and phobias of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, whose twin brother former President Lech Kaczynski, died in a 2010 plane crash on his way to Russia.
PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has been ruling Poland for eight years.
Good for Brussels, bad for Budapest
Since PiS's return to power in 2015, Poland has been a polarized country, a polarized society — with large cities held by the liberal opposition, and predominantly conservative rural areas and medium-sized towns. The PiS has divided the country by attacking abortion rights, the LGBTQ+ minority, the justice system, migrants, and by referring to Brussels as "the new Moscow."
Sunday's landmark result, which saw a record turnout and a surge by liberal and center-right parties, shows that a majority of the population is choosing a European future. This victory was achieved over societal fears and a twisted parental and parochial brand of nationalism.
The defeat of the PiS is bad news for Orban.
This is, by all accounts, a significant result on the continent's political scene. Ten days ago, Slovakia made the opposite choice, hailing the return of Robert Fico — a pro-Russian populist who will seek an alliance with his country's far-right to govern. These contrasting results show that the political landscape is far from settled in Europe.
The next test will be the European elections, in June 2024. But already, the defeat of the PiS is bad news for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who still dreams of turning over the EU table.
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