As Poland’s exit polls rolled in on Sunday 15 October, Adam Michnik, the founder of liberal daily paper Gazeta Wyborcza, made a prediction to his newsroom: “In 1989, we Poles were the first to wipe out communism, now we will be the first to wipe out Trumpism.” He proclaimed the “end of Kaczynskism,” after eight years under the Trump-like Jarosław Kaczyński and his far-right Law and Justice party (PiS). Though the party remained the largest party, on just over 35 per cent support, it fell far short of a majority, has no apparent route to forming a coalition, and the broad opposition looks ready to form a government led by Donald Tusk.
When Michnik spoke of “Poles” setting an example, he subverted two common tropes. One was to reject PiS’s attempt to monopolise patriotism by presenting its adversaries as anti-Polish stooges of Berlin or even Moscow. Yet his comment also clashed with a framing that has become widespread in international media, which has presented Poland, together with Hungary, not just as states whose illiberal ruling parties have tried to entrench their grip on power, but as societies whose young democracies formed in the 1990s proved unable to resist the force of entrenched national and religious chauvinism.
This reading explains PiS’s hegemony in the exceptionalist terms used by Western media to describe a Polish-national or “Eastern” democratic culture: the “rise of strongmen in weak states” without “mature” checks and balances, Poland’s place in “the politically underdeveloped post-communist region”, or, from a conservative viewpoint, the claim that “Poles” (i.e. the minority of them who vote PiS) choose this party because it defends a long-threatened national sovereignty. Surely, PiS is a party of democratic backsliding: it has packed the Constitutional Tribunal with handpicked judges, wields political influence through public media and state-owned firms, and on 15 October staged a farcical referendum with loaded questions on migration. A close relationship with the Catholic Church extends to a priestly takeover of public schools, pushing an anti-LGBT agenda.
But a gloomy picture of Polish democratic standards also must consider the general strength of civil society and democratic mobilisation in the country. Its vitality was on display at the ballot box: indeed, while parliamentary elections in the 1990s-2000s routinely had sub-50 per cent turnouts (cratering at 40.6 per cent in 2005, when PiS first entered government), on 15 October turnout topped 74 per cent. This figure was higher than the first multi-party elections in 1989, and above recent contests in Britain, France, and Italy.
Some more everyday forms of democratic participation have drastically weakened since the 1990s, including the significant decline of trade unionism. But movements such as the large demonstrations and strikes in defence of abortion rights – in 2016, in 2018 and again after the ban finalised in 2020 by the Constitutional Tribunal – defy the idea of a subdued and weakly democratic society.
The media narrative which “Orientalizes” right-wing authoritarianism by attributing it to incomplete democratic developments in the former Eastern Bloc does not concern Poland alone. In today’s Germany, the supposedly poor democratic mores among former GDR citizens are widely cited to explain the strength of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in the former east. A less hasty judgement might ask why younger easterners are far more likely to vote for the AfD than those who were adults in 1989 or why the AfD is gaining momentum even in the wealthiest Western states. Equally, the political use of courts and intelligence services is hardly limited to Eastern countries; we need only consider the official spying on opponents of the Greek government, the right-wing grip on the Spanish judiciary, or indeed the troublingly authoritarian response to protest movements in France.
This is not to idealise the situation in Poland. Even after the opposition’s victory, PiS hopes to thwart it through the veto wielded by president Andrzej Duda, and its influence in the state machine. The opposition includes widely varying forces and does not have a clear progressive agenda. If the broad-left Lewica coalition (9 per cent) is solidly for LGBT and women’s rights, Donald Tusk’s catch-all Civic Coalition (KO, 31 per cent) and the Third Way alliance (14 per cent) include everything from greenish liberals to family-values conservatives, and Tusk combines pro-Europeanism with a call for tougher borders. His austerian economic dogmas, as enacted during his government from 2007 to 2014, weakened public services, in turn aiding PiS’s rise; Lewica can hope another Tusk government will have learned the lessons, but this left-wing force will be a minority in any coalition.
If Poland’s rising turnout is unusual, this vote also displayed dynamics broadly comparable to Western European countries, rather than representing a national oddity. While early polls do not allow us to precisely cross-compare the dynamics of different categories of voters, it is clear that rural areas and small towns leant toward PiS; higher-educated voters leant toward the opposition; and the anti-welfarist, far-right Konfederacja scored well among young men but poorly among women. In this sense, it is likely an illusion to imagine that in this election Poles roundly rejected “populism” or that there was a “wipeout” for PiS. The ruling party’s vote share and number of MPs fell sharply, but its total electorate (7.6 million) slipped by only 400,000. Its setbacks appear to owe less to disillusionment among its own base, than to soaring turnout in urban areas where the opposition was strongest.
The Polish election has shown that it is not a land eternally in the grip of the far right, and that even PiS’s eight-year control of the state machine has not allowed it to fully entrench its authority. Some of its measures, such as cash transfers to families with children, remain popular, while the denial of rights to LGBT people has not. What comes next will determine whether this is only a blip in the rise of nationalist identity politics, or whether the failures of liberal parties will again demobilise their own voters and allow the far right to sink roots among working Poles. This is no oddity of the democracies which resulted from the upheavals of 1989, but a dynamic today deciding every election from France to the United States.