Poland’s elections are a crossroad for EU solidarity — and Ukraine assist
The Leader of Civic Coalition Party, Donald Tusk delivers a speech during the Women for Elections Campaign rally on October 10, 2023 in Lodz, Poland.
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Poland’s election on Sunday is being closely watched overseas, with the result likely to have major implications for the country’s relationship with the European Union — and Ukraine.
The vote on Oct. 15 will pit the incumbent rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) party — which is seeking an unprecedented third term — and its conservative allies against opposition group Civic Coalition (KO), led by former European Council President Donald Tusk and his liberal Civic Platform party.
Momentum has built around this center-right opposition in recent weeks, following a huge rally at which Tusk hailed “Poland’s rebirth,” and the resignation of two top army commanders amid accusations that the ruling party is seeking to politicize the military.
Law and Justice denies the claims, along with claims by the opposition — also levied by various civic groups, NGOs and the EU itself — that it has curtailed judicial independence and media and activist freedom in Poland.
Access to abortion services in the country has been severely restricted to a near-total ban, which polls suggest is opposed by roughly half of citizens. Tusk opposes the current abortion law and has said he would restore media freedoms and look into introducing same-sex civil partnerships, though some observe it will be difficult to do so within the Polish political system.
The political campaigns have seen both sides convey the election as a battle over sovereignty and identity. Migration is another core and divisive issue.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Law and Justice (PiS) ruling party, gives a speech during a final convention of elections campaign in Krakow, Poland on October 11, 2023.
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The ruling party remains widely popular, particularly in rural areas, leading many opinion polls in the run-up to the vote. Though it has suffered from extremely high inflation rates, Poland has achieved strong economic growth in recent years — not just when compared to the EU, but on a global scale — with wages rising and unemployment falling.
The election result is likely to be close and result in a period of negotiations. Consultancy Eurasia Group believes it is most likely to end in a hung parliament — and smaller parties could perform unexpectedly well. A record 560,000 Poles living overseas have registered to vote, officials said this week.
Eurasia Group analysts also said in a recent note that the far-right Confederation party, considered a potential kingmaker, may surprise by supporting the opposition rather than the United Right grouping led by Law and Justice, as it seeks to become Poland’s dominant force on the right. Confederation has fiercely criticized prior support for Ukraine.
The risk of no government being formed and repeat elections being held next year remains a possibility, they added.
Law and Justice’s leadership has seen Poland’s relationship with the EU and its various institutions become increasingly strained.
The EU has leveled a range of criticism at the government and withheld billions of euros in funds over rule of law concerns. Tusk claims his reforms will unlock the funding, an issue investors will be monitoring, according to analysts at Dutch bank ING.
Poland has, meanwhile, opposed measures such as a joint EU declaration on migration, regarding which Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said: “We are not afraid of diktats … from Berlin and Brussels.”
And while Poland has been a staunch supporter of Ukraine since the full-scale Russian invasion in 2022, it has become embroiled in a bitter dispute with its neighbor over grain flows out of the war-torn country, which it argues harm domestic farmers by creating a supply glut.
It resulted in Morawiecki saying last month that his country would no longer supply weapons to Ukraine as it was “now arming Poland.” (Tusk recently told local media there “is no alternative to a pro-Ukrainian policy,” although he added that there must be measures to protect domestic interests.)
Poland’s vote follows elections in neighbor Slovakia which saw populist former Prime Minister Robert Fico return to power. On Wednesday, he finalized a deal to form a coalition government.
Fico ran a firmly EU-critical and Russia-sympathetic campaign during which he repeatedly stated that the country would send no more weapons or ammunition to Ukraine.
Slovakia and rightwing-led Hungary also clashed with Ukraine over the grain export issue, and leveled sharp criticisms at the EU over its handling of that and other policies.
Poland is arguably the most influential of the three, with by far the largest economy and the biggest population. It also hosts U.S. and NATO troops.
If Poland’s incumbents retain power, the three EU countries combined could ramp up the criticism of its perceived overreach and increasingly obstruct the bloc’s policy aims.
Hungary’s firebrand rightwing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has persistently used inflammatory language regarding the EU, attacking it repeatedly on social media. He also welcomed the election of “patriot” Fico.
“At stake is the future of Poland’s democratic institutions, the country’s place in the European Union, and the general direction of the country’s foreign policy in relations with its neighbors, especially Ukraine and Germany,” researchers at U.S. think tank GMF said, adding the result is likely to “herald a period of messy and difficult government formation.”
The market impact of the election results is likely to be limited due to checks and balances within Poland and between the country and Europe, Daniel Wood, portfolio manager for emerging market debt at William Blair Investment Management, said in a note Thursday.
“If the [Tusk-led] Civic Coalition wins then we can expect a closer relationship with the EU, less frequent delays around EU disbursements and perhaps a slow reversal of some of PiS’ [Law and Justice] less market friendly policies, particularly around the judiciary,” he said.
A PiS coalition win could see the Polish zloty depreciate marginally on the back of an expected deterioration in the country’s relationship with the European Union, Wood said. “However, this is likely to be a very short-lived sell-off as Poland and the European Union can only antagonise each other so far given their common interests geo-politically.”