Waiting for a New Poland

Piotr Lapinski/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Demonstrators at the March of a Million Hearts, a pro-democracy rally in Warsaw organized by the opposition party Civic Coalition, October 1, 2023

I did not want to be alone on election night in Warsaw last month, when 460 seats in the Sejm, or lower house of parliament, and a hundred seats in the Senate were chosen for four-year terms. I feared the worst, that the night would end with the defeat of the democratic opposition. That’s why on Sunday, October 15 I accepted an invitation to a big election night party at a club in downtown Warsaw. It was organized by PR professionals and journalists—specialists in campaigning for just causes. Many of my colleagues in the media were also attending, as well as lawyers, left-leaning academics, social activists, and several city officials (the liberal opposition has governed in the capital for many years). Politicians associated with Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), the populist right-wing party that has governed Poland for the past eight years, describe this circle mockingly as the Warsaw “glitterati” or “salon,” and its members generally reciprocate the antipathy.

At the entrance to the club were two stacks of stickers: an Obamaesque “Yes, we can” written in blue and next to it a “No, we won’t” in red. The red stack stood decidedly taller, yet it was by no means assured that our candidates would win. The opposition consisted of three coalitions of parties, which were campaigning on three different ballots but had pledged to form a joint government if they won: the center-liberal Civic Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska), the more conservative Third Way (Trzecia Droga), and the more progressive New Left (Nowa Lewica). Pre-election polls were ambiguous. As late as last summer, the opposition seemed on track to lose. Everything pointed to Law and Justice forming a government with the even more chauvinistic, misogynistic, anti-European, aggressively free-market party Confederation Liberty and Independence (Konfederacja Wolność i Niepodległość).

But in the weeks before election day the polls started to shift. In September journalists from Gazeta Wyborcza—Poland’s biggest newspaper, which often issues strong criticisms of the government—exposed what became known as the cash-for-visa scandal. Officials from the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a government notorious for its severe anti-immigration rhetoric, were selling Schengen visas for profit to migrants. Ostensibly the visas permitted their recipients to do seasonal work in Poland, but in reality a few hundred thousand workers could have used them to pass through Poland and travel farther into Europe. It remains unclear how significantly the news affected Law and Justice’s standing in the polls—but among an electorate where anti-migrant sentiment runs high, it certainly hurt.

On October 1 the liberal Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska)—the country’s largest opposition party and the leader of the Civic Coalition List—organized a demonstration in Warsaw called the March of a Million Hearts. Hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets, their images spreading widely on social media. And yet the evening’s main news broadcast on the public network Telewizja Polska (TVP) called the march a failure and claimed that attendance had been abysmal. Poland, unlike, for instance, Hungary, retains a free and vocal press, with many private TV stations and newspapers (most prominently Gazeta Wyborcza) that offer independent viewpoints, but over the last eight years TVP has been reduced to a propaganda arm of the Law and Justice Party.

Six days before the election, TVP broadcast a debate among the leaders of all the campaigning parties. Donald Tusk, the former head of the European Council and the leader of Civic Platform, did not look his best. He seemed nervous, and the moderator interrupted him when he tried to address viewers directly, quickly moving on to introduce the next candidate. By contrast, Szymon Hołownia, one of the leaders of the Third Way coalition, a former journalist and moderately progressive Catholic known for his campaigns for animal rights, made quite an impression. He seemed more comfortable on stage than Tusk and gave some witty ripostes to Mateusz Morawiecki, the incumbent prime minister, who was representing Law and Justice. The leader of the New Left coalition, Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, a committed feminist known for her battle to expose pedophilia in the Catholic Church, was also forceful—the only candidate onstage who mentioned women’s issues, such as paid leave for mothers to take care of their sick children and salary increases in nursing and other professions dominated by women. The final polls going into the election showed growing numbers for Third Way, which just a few weeks before had sat precariously on the threshold—8 percent of the total votes—that coalitions need to cross to win any parliamentary seats at all.


The day before elections here, the media observes a general silence. In any case I dared not trust the predictions: in Poland as elsewhere, liberal parties tend to see higher results in early polling than they get in the final tallies. Waiting for the returns I felt like a schoolgirl expecting the results of an important exam. I have voted in every Polish election since the mid-1990s, but I had never before felt that so much depended on the outcome.


I remember the first democratic elections in Poland, in 1989—or rather semi-democratic, since that year 65 percent of the seats in the Sejm were already reserved for the Communist Party. Still, Solidarity activists won all 161 of the Sejm’s contested seats, and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a veteran of the anti-Communist opposition, formed the government. I knew my parents were pleased. I had also yearned for the fall of communism in Poland—I dreamed that we could travel abroad like free citizens, that Poland would open itself up to the world, and that we in “Eastern Europe” would finally stop feeling like pariahs in relation to the West. But I didn’t grasp the full meaning of those elections; I was too young to know what it meant to live under an authoritarian regime and then pass to a democratic one.  

Later the most significant political division in Poland came to be between those who had benefited from the transformations of 1989 and those who hadn’t. In a wider sense, everyone benefited from Poland’s transformation into a democracy and our subsequent entry, in 2004, into the European Union. The country’s infrastructure improved, basic household goods became more available, and the end of the shortage economy made life easier. But in a consumer society feelings of deprivation are relative. You feel left behind just because you do not consume as much as others. You feel unnoticed—by the markets, by the politicians, by the media.

Around the beginning of the 2000s, the post-Communist left became too liberal—too pro-European, too pro-choice, too anti-religious—for these “victim voters,” who often had more conservative worldviews, less education, and lived in smaller, more rural towns than the rest of the left’s constituents. They gravitated easily to Law and Justice when it formed in 2001. The party’s leading politicians operated in the democratic opposition, but in the early 1990s they were not elected to any important government posts. A bit like those who voted for them, they resented missing out on the tastiest morsels of the post-Communist transformation, finding themselves less visibly represented not only in government but also in media companies and cultural institutions. The Catholic Church also supported Law and Justice, having quickly realized that further modernizing Poland—opening the country to the West, increasing opportunities for social mobility, empowering women—would mean secularization.

For the next two decades Law and Justice and Civic Platform fought over a small group of “middle voters.” Law and Justice enjoyed two years in power between 2005 and 2007 but spent the rest of its first fourteen years in the opposition. Then, in 2015, it returned to government with a decisive electoral victory. In the eight years since, the growing authoritarianism of its rule prompted people who hadn’t previously voted to take an interest in politics. Even as the party introduced populist social programs, such as giving families €125 a month per child and significantly raising pensions for retirees, its leaders started using more nationalistic, homophobic, and anti-immigration rhetoric. It tightened its control over TVP, which began to resemble the media networks in authoritarian post-Soviet countries like Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan. Public television stations, under the ruling party’s control, scrupulously reported whenever a farm was visited by the prime minister or the party chairman, Jarosław Kaczyński, while casting the opposition as traitors serving German interests, rampant capitalists, egoists, thieves, and perverts trying to rob Polish society of its traditional values.

The courts too were politicized, as Law and Justice assumed greater influence over the selection of judges and in some cases exerted pressure on them to make rulings in accordance with the government’s ideological and political line. The Constitutional Tribunal, which has the power to strike down unconstitutional laws, was padded with inexperienced and incompetent members whose only merit was their personal loyalty to Kaczyński. It was this tribunal’s decision that led, in 2020, to the tightening of the country’s anti-abortion laws. Abortion had already only been permitted in three cases: if the pregnancy threatened the mother’s life and health, if the fetus was diagnosed with a severe disease, or if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. The Constitutional Court eliminated the second of these exemptions, arguing that it ran counter to the constitution’s guarantee to “ensure the legal protection of the life of every human being.” The ruling forced women to give birth to babies with serious genetic disorders who would not survive for long. In six instances so far, according to the Foundation for Women and Family Planning, women have died in hospitals because anxious doctors avoided carrying out even legal abortions.


In schools, the cult of the Polish pope John Paul II grew so widely that children started telling jokes about him, much as their grandparents had once poked fun at Lenin. The largest state grants were reserved for Catholic magazines and journals, as well as research on the exegetical words of well-known priests. Some municipalities with Law and Justice governments passed symbolic resolutions establishing so-called “LGBT-free zones.” Many have since been formally revoked after the EU refused to subsidize the municipalities that enacted them, but they left behind a pressurized, hostile atmosphere toward LGBT people. A growing number of citizens, especially younger voters, were increasingly angry at the state for looking into their bedrooms and telling them what to think.


On October 15 turnout was over 74 percent, a record, and higher than the election of 1989. More women voted than men, and there was a higher proportion of women on the ballot than ever—44 percent. An exceptionally high number of young people showed up; for the first time, the number of voters twenty-nine and under eclipsed those over sixty. Lines at some electoral offices started forming at dawn. The last voters marked their ballots in the middle of the night, long after most voting locations had closed.

I went to the polls with my nineteen-year-old son, a first-time voter. Five hours later at the club downtown, when the estimated results were announced at 9:00 PM, joyful cheers erupted, but many of us were still afraid to believe the news. We remembered what happened in Slovakia a few weeks before: postelection polls suggested that the liberal parties had won, but in the morning, after the ballots were counted, it was the socially conservative, pro-Russian party that prevailed.

But this time the predictions held. Law and Justice received more votes in the Sejm (35.38 percent) than any single party, but the three opposition coalitions combined received 248 seats, which gives them a vast majority. In the senate race, to avoid splitting votes, they had made a pact before the election to only put a single candidate forward for each seat. That strategy paid off: opposition candidates won sixty-six of the hundred seats.

And yet I was still unable to feel immediate joy over the result. For one thing, it will take some time for an opposition government to form. Poland’s constitution dictates that the president gets the first chance to appoint a prime minister, who then submits his cabinet for a vote of confidence by the parliament; only if the vote fails does the power to choose the prime minister revert to the Sejm. The current Law and Justice president, Andrzej Duda, has shown how loyal he is to his party: on November 6 he appointed Morawiecki to form the next government, even though he has no chance of gaining the necessary majority. The opposition has already declared that they will nominate Donald Tusk to form the country’s next government when Morawiecki’s bid fails, but the earliest we’d have an opposition government would be the end of the year.

Nor will the opposition government be ideal. The first signs of friction have already appeared. Soon after the election Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, a member of Third Way, told an interviewer that unlike Civic Coalition and the New Left, which have proposed legalizing abortion up to twelve weeks after conception without any added conditions, his coalition promised only to return to the status quo as it had been before the Constitutional Tribunal’s verdict three years ago.

In the meantime Law and Justice is doing everything in its power to fragment the opposition, trying to cherry-pick the more conservative members of the future coalition government to form one of its own. But the opposition in all likelihood has too wide a majority for this tactic to work, and so far the new democratic coalition seems to be functioning smoothly. On November 13 the Sejm, during its first gathering, chose Szymon Hołownia as its new speaker and rejected Elżbieta Witek, the former speaker from Law and Justice, in her candidacy first for speaker and then for deputy speaker.

There were deeper sources, too, for the cautiousness of my optimism on election night. Eight years of Law and Justice rule—the manipulations on which the party’s leaders had depended, the lies that far exceeded previous standards for integrity in public life, and above all the hate and vitriol they fostered—had changed something in me. When I heard the news of the opposition’s victory I felt a sense of disbelief. Tusk has considerable democratic credit and inspires great expectations. He received over half a million votes in Warsaw, another Polish record. In the probable event he becomes prime minister, I know that I will still be frustrated many times over, but at the very least I will not be living in a country where leading politicians hurl insults and slander at their rivals, I will not be living in a country where the government subsidizes neo-Nazis, and I will not be living in a country where the Minister of Justice calls Brussels a second Moscow. I am waiting for it, as we say in Polish, jak kania na dżdżu—as a mushroom waits for rain.

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