Poland’s incumbent nationalists PiS have won the most votes for a single party in Sunday’s general election, exit polls showed, but are on the brink of losing power, raising the possibility of ending eight years of nationalist rule. If the official results are confirmed, the ruling majority would lose its parliamentary majority and be unable to pass legislation without the help of opposition parties. If that happened, the country could be pushed closer to European Union sanctions over its alleged human rights abuses and endemic corruption.
The main opposition Civic Platform and the left-wing Lewica coalition have secured around a quarter of the vote. At the same time, the right-wing populist Confederation is poised to become a junior partner in the next government. The opposition has a real chance of unseating PiS, considered illegitimate and undemocratic. However, the splintered opposition has yet to find a way to unite around a joint program. The opposition has to find a way to appeal beyond its core voters and win over the disaffected middle class, registering an alarming drop in turnout this year.
That disaffection reflects growing anger over the high cost of living, fuelled by PiS’s policies on pensions and benefits. Inflation in Poland is the highest in Europe, eroding the purchasing power of many low-income families. It also explains the rise of a more radical far-right party, which has railed against PiS’s ties to Russia and denounced support for Ukraine.
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The international community has criticized PiS’s attempts to stifle freedom of speech and sway public opinion with state propaganda. It has seized control of institutions such as the media and the constitutional court and painted judges as post-communist holdovers acting against the people. Ahead of the vote, the ODIHR, an international monitoring group, warned that this election is at risk of becoming “a contested process” because of concerns about biased campaigning and manipulation.
As for PiS, the defections of Gowin and three other loyalists to Poland’s Choice will strip it of its formal parliamentary majority. But the party may cobble together a de facto working majority through cooperation agreements with independents and smaller parliamentary groupings such as Kukiz’15, which has four Sejm seats. Those arrangements are unlikely to be stable, though.
In the Senate, the anti-PiS forces won 51 out of 100 seats after agreeing not to field candidates against each other. That means they can prevent any legislation from passing in the chamber if it’s deemed unconstitutional or against international law.
The official results are expected to be announced on Monday. The outcome will be a significant blow to PiS, which will have to find a new coalition partner and likely lose its de facto majority in the upper house of parliament. It will also increase pressure to change course in a country that has feuded with the European Union over its record on the rule of law, media freedom, migration, and LGBT rights.