Your primer on the elections in Poland

Poland will head to the polls on October 15 for consequential parliamentary elections. The elections have the potential to solidify the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party’s grip on the government with a historic third consecutive term or bring the opposition to power for the first time since 2015.

Ahead of the elections, the Europe Center is answering key questions and breaking down the leading parties and issues to know.

What is the electoral process?

Poland’s National Assembly is composed of two houses, the Sejm, which contains 460 deputies, and the less-powerful Senate, which contains one hundred senators. Parliamentarians are elected for four-year terms, and the president of Poland is required to order elections at least ninety days before the expiration of each term. Elections for the Sejm use party-list proportional representation, where each party must win at least 5 percent of the vote and coalitions must win 8 percent of the vote to earn any seats. The Senate is elected on a first-past-the-post system. To form a government, a minimum of 231 votes in the Sejm is required.

What is at stake?

The liberal opposition and some outside observers contend that these are Poland’s most consequential elections since 1989, a test of Poland’s democracy. Apart from the far-right Confederation party, Polish political leaders support Ukraine and a strong policy of resisting Russian aggression. They are pro-NATO and cherish strong relations with the United States. Stark differences exist over relations with Germany, with the ruling PiS party using anti-German rhetoric, and the European Union (EU), with PiS deploying Euroskeptic rhetoric despite the EU’s overall popularity in Poland. Clashes with the EU over judicial independence and concerns about government pressure on or control over independent media have persisted in recent years.

What does this election mean for Poland’s support for Ukraine? How does the recent grain dispute play into the election?

Opposition to Russia’s war against Ukraine and a firm belief in the justice of the Ukrainian cause remains a cross-partisan issue in Poland, except for the far-right Confederation. At least two million Ukrainian refugees are currently in Poland, and despite generally warm reception, there are growing signs that Polish society is becoming weary of supporting them. The dispute with Ukraine over its grain exports to Poland had both economic and political causes: PiS firmly believed that it had the secured the rural vote only to see Confederation gaining support among farmers angered over the falling prices of Polish grain due to Ukrainian grain. Rhetoric from both countries grew sharp but Polish leaders, especially President Duda, eased the sense of crisis in relations. Should PiS seek to form a government with support from Confederation, limits on Ukrainian grain exports to Poland are likely to be a significant demand from Confederation as well as a decrease in Polish support for Ukrainian refugees.

What does this election mean for Polish leadership in the transatlantic alliance?

Most polls show that for PiS to remain in power, it will need the support of Confederation (or, alternatively, a number of Confederation Sejm deputies as well as others who could be convinced to support PiS). Such a government could be increasingly confrontational with Brussels and Berlin, though not necessarily with Washington. A reelected PiS-led government might choose to increase government influence and control over Polish media, another potential point of contention with Brussels and Washington. Such a course would limit Poland’s ability to increase its influence within the EU and perhaps even in NATO. The opposition broadly supports the government’s support for Ukraine, and resistance to Russian aggression, plans to increase defense spending, and continue to rely on NATO and the United States for the defense of Poland. An opposition-led government would maintain Poland’s support for Ukraine while seeking to ameliorate relations with Berlin and the EU.

Who are the parties to watch?

The ruling coalition is campaigning for a third term in power. Most opinion polls show PiS in the lead with roughly 36 percent of the vote. The opposition Civic Coalition (KO) is not far behind at 30 percent, and has been slowly climbing in national polls. The two leading parties will most likely need to form a coalition to achieve a parliamentary majority. Civic Coalition has a natural coalition partner in the Third Way (itself a coalition between the Peasants Party and the centrist Poland 2050 Party), but PiS is most likely to win the greatest number of parliamentary seats and thus get the first chance to form a government. The strength of the various kingmaker parties (Confederation, Third Way, New Left) could determine the outcome. The question of which of the two front-running parties will form a government depends on which smaller opposition parties meet the thresholds necessary for seats in parliament and how they form coalitions with the two leading parties.

Law and Justice/United Right

Orientation: National conservative, right-wing populist

Leader: Jarosław Kaczyński, deputy prime minister of Poland

European Parliament Group: European Conservatives and Reformists

History: The United Right came to power following the 2015 parliamentary election. It’s dominated by PiS, a right-wing populist and national-conservative party founded in 2001 by the twin brothers Jarosław and Lech Kaczyński. Lech Kaczyński served as president of Poland from 2005 until his death when his government plane crashed in Smolensk in 2010. With 235 seats in its coalition in the Sejm and sixty-six in the Senate, it is currently the largest party in the Polish parliament.

Top priorities: PiS stands for a regulated market economy with a strong focus on the agricultural sector. The party is also considered to be softly Euroskeptic, opposing further EU integration and EU involvement in Poland’s domestic political agenda. The party considers itself to be socially conservative and “anti-political correctness”; generally opposes immigration, especially from Africa and the Middle East (although it welcomes Ukrainians); opposes abortion rights; and has a close association with the Catholic Church. In foreign policy, PiS is strongly anti-Russia, and while it supports Ukraine, increased defense spending, and a partnership with the United States, it also employs strong anti-German rhetoric.

Civic Coalition

Orientation: Liberal, centrist

Leader: Donald Tusk, former prime minister of Poland and former president of the European Council

European Parliament Group: European People’s Party

History: The Civic Coalition was originally created by the Civic Platform and Modern parties for the 2018 local elections. In June 2019, it was announced that it would form a coalition in the Sejm. The Greens joined the coalition in July 2019. KO currently holds the majority in the Polish Senate, although this body has limited powers and can only delay legislation, not block it.

Top priorities: Civic Coalition asserts its support for preserving liberal democratic institutions in Poland and argues that PiS is a threat to Polish democracy. On social issues, KO supports civil unions for same-sex couples, a degree of secularism, and the reintroduction of abortion rights. The group also supports moderate expansions of pensions and state welfare programs, media and judicial reform (to reverse what it considers PiS-led attempts to exert political influence over the judiciary and independent media), lowering taxes, and lowering energy prices while increasing investment in renewable technology. Lastly, on foreign policy, KO is a strong supporter of EU integration and of continued Polish aid to Ukraine.

Confederation Freedom and Independence

Orientation: Far-right, populist with libertarian elements

Leaders: Sławomir Mentzen and Kryzsztof Bosak are the two official leaders. In addition, the party has a council of leaders that features nine additional names.

History: Confederation was founded in 2018 as a coalition formed between the far-right KORWiN and National Movement parties for the 2019 European Parliament elections. Confederation was later expanded to form a distinct political party.

Top priorities: Confederation takes a hard stance against the European Union, supporting Poland’s total withdrawal. On social issues, Confederation also opposes immigration, is considered by critics to be strongly anti-LGBTQI+ and anti-abortion, and faces accusations of antisemitism. Somewhat inconsistently, parts of the party have a libertarian streak. It is also the only party openly advocating withdrawing Polish support for Ukraine.

The New Left

Orientation: Social democracy, left-wing

Leader: Włodzimierz Czarzasty

European Parliament Group: Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats

History: The New Left was founded in 2021 as a merger between the left-wing Democratic Left Alliance (a success in part of the old communist party turned social democratic) and the Spring Party. It is a part of the Left Coalition, which is standing jointly behind NL in the coming election.

Top priorities: The New Left supports expanding the Polish welfare state and social benefits system, advancing investment in renewable energy, reforming education, and supporting Polish agriculture. The party is progressive on social issues, supporting legal abortion, drug decriminalization, LGBTQI+ rights, and a more lenient immigration policy. The party is pro-EU and supports European enlargement.

Third Way

Orientation: Center-right, liberal coalition

Leader: Szymon Hołownia and Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz

European Parliament Group: Renew Europe (Poland 2050) / European People’s Party (Polish Peasant Party)

History: Third Way is a coalition formed in early 2023 by the centrist Poland 2050, led by Szymon Hołownia, and Polish Peasant Party, led by Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz. Though the parties will run together in the election, both groups will return to acting as separate political parties afterwards.

Top priorities: Third Way consists of conservative, Christian democratic, and moderate political candidates with the main electoral goal being to transfer support away from PiS and toward the opposition. The coalition hopes to reform education, advance stronger climate policy, deregulate the economy, and simplify the tax system while leaving its individual members free to define their own social policies. The party also supports tariffs on Ukrainian agricultural goods.

What domestic priorities are driving voters to the polls?

Inflation and economy

In general, the Polish economy has been a success story since the fall of the communist regime in 1989 with high growth rates that have quadrupled the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) over the last thirty years. In 2022, the Polish economy grew by about 5 percent. Growth was led by industrial production, as the economy continued to rebound from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consumer spending is expected to have slowed sharply, largely due to soaring inflation triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and consequent rate hikes by the National Bank of Poland. Inflation now stands at about 10 percent, a decrease from the peak of over 18 percent in February this year. Still, this remains by far the most important issue for voters. The opposition is strongly campaigning on this topic while the government is downplaying it.

Security

This issue is usually understood as connected to the Russian war against Ukraine. Support for Ukraine and opposition to Russia enjoy broad support in Poland, with the only exception being the Confederation party. The government has embarked on an ambitious armament program, raising Polish defense spending to 3 percent of GDP with the goal of getting to 4 percent. This is not a contested issue since KO, the main party of the opposition, also supports increased defense spending and has declared that it would honor the contracts made by the government. In an attempt to make security into a contested issue, PiS has warned about unrestricted migration into Poland, claiming a threat based on a recent decision from the European Commission on relocation of migrants among the EU member states.

Relations with the EU

Whereas NATO and a partnership with the United States is a consensus issue in Poland, the country’s relationship with the EU remains contested. PiS supports Polish EU membership, which remains popular in Poland, but is critical of Brussels and EU institutions, accusing them of being a threat to Polish sovereignty. The opposition supports further EU integration. A dispute with the European Commission over rules over judicial reform has led to the EU withholding EU Recovery and Resilience funds for Poland, which would boost investment, but further delays would entail lower economic growth. The dispute over Ukrainian grain demonstrates the strained relations between Warsaw and Brussels, as the European Commission decided to list the ban on the sale of Ukrainian grain on September 15, one month before the election. The government accused the EU of banking on an opposition victory in the elections while the opposition accused the government of incompetence in managing flows of Ukrainian grain. In their campaign rhetoric, PiS tends to conflate Brussels with Berlin, citing both as a threat to Poland, playing on traditional resentment towards foreign interference in Poland.

The Europe Center promotes leadership, strategies and analysis to ensure a strong, ambitious and forward-looking transatlantic relationship.

Related Experts: Aaron Korewa, Daniel Fried, and Emma Nix

Image: A man looks at election posters displayed on an advertising column, before Sunday's parliamentary elections, in Bialobrzegi, Poland October 9, 2023. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel