Poland’s ruling party appears on the verge of being overthrown | ET REALITY

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It came down to choosing between two different visions of the future: one dominated by nationalism, traditional Catholic norms, and the defense of Polish sovereignty; the other, with promises to “return Poland to Europe” and to the liberal democratic values ​​espoused by the European Union.

In the end, after a long and fierce election campaign in a highly polarized country, opponents of the nationalist ruling party, Law and Justice, won a clear majority of seats in a crucial general election held on Sunday, according to final official results on Tuesday. .

That victory paved the way for a potentially drastic shift away from Poland’s deeply conservative policies at home and its role abroad as a beacon for right-wing groups and politicians opposed to liberal values.

The European Union has long clashed with Poland’s government over the rule of law, the protection of minority rights and other issues. Now a new government in Warsaw offers an opportunity for a reset with the most populous and, in terms of economic and military power, the most important of the former communist states admitted after the end of the Cold War.

At a time when the bloc is reeling from the tensions of the war in Ukraine and issues such as immigration, Poland matters more than ever.

The prospect of ending years of testy relations between Warsaw and Brussels has delighted Polish liberals and those elsewhere concerned about what, for a time, seemed a rising tide of right-wing, and sometimes left-wing, populism in Poland and across Europe.

But “a tsunami of populism turned out to be not so popular,” said Jaroslaw Kuisz, author of a recent book, “Poland’s New Politics.”

The joy of Polish liberals was tempered by the awareness of how difficult it will be to change Poland’s course after eight years of Law and Justice rule.

“We are waking up from a bad dream, but this dream happened and it will be difficult to overcome it,” Kuisz said. Law and Justice, he added, has “undermined the system and laid many traps” in the judiciary and elsewhere that will delay or block a change of course.

For Slawomir Debski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, a state-funded body, the election campaign, dominated by insults and promises of quick solutions, showed that populism is not a one-sided monopoly and that it is unlikely to disappear.

All parties campaigned with simplistic messages, spread on social networks, he said.

“Sophisticated arguments simply don’t work,” said Debski, “what I see, unfortunately, is a global trend that introduces populist arguments into any political debate from all sides. “We are all influenced by TikTok’s invasion of politics.”

The elections, considered by both sides of the political divide to be the most important in Poland since voters rejected communism in 1989, featured a multitude of parties from the far right to the progressive left. Enthusiasm was so high that more than 74 percent of the electorate voted, higher than the 62 percent who turned out in the 1989 elections.

“These are absolutely historic moments,” Donald Tusk, leader of the main opposition party, the Civic Coalition, told euphoric supporters in Warsaw when the official results were announced Tuesday. “The time has changed,” he added before repeating a phrase from a popular song used during his party’s campaign: “It’s time for a happy Poland.”

Held just two weeks after voters in neighboring Slovakia handed victory to a Russia-friendly and corruption-tainted party, the Polish election was closely watched as a measure of Europe’s direction.

It was also seen as a measure of whether Hungary, increasingly authoritarian under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, would remain an idiosyncratic outlier or become the standard-bearer for a growing cause whose friends extend beyond ideological allies such as personality television Tucker Carlson, a big fan. from Mr Orban, to include European governments.

For a time, Hungary and Poland were close partners and led what they promoted as a “European renaissance” rooted in Christian values ​​and national sovereignty, but they were separated by the war in Ukraine. Orban leaned toward Moscow, while Poland offered strong support to Ukraine, although that position wavered somewhat during the election campaign.

Debski predicted that Poland and Ukraine would now try to calm bad-tempered disputes that erupted in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s election, particularly over Ukrainian grain. Law and Justice banned imports of the grain in an effort to calm angry Polish farmers, an important voting bloc.

But, Debski added, “what happened during the campaign had its reasons: public sentiment has been moving away” from unconditional support.

The election results have cast a shadow over Law and Justice, which had campaigned on promises to save Poland from European bureaucrats pushing “LGBT ideology” and what it denounced as Germany’s hegemonic aspirations.

A final vote count released Tuesday by the electoral commission gave the Civic Coalition, and two smaller groups also opposed to the Law and Justice party (Third Way and New Left), 248 seats in the 460-member Sejm, the lower house. most powerful in Parliament. Parliament.

Together they obtained 53.7 percent of the votes, compared to 35.4 percent of the votes cast for Law and Justice. That count reduced Law and Justice’s presence in the Sejm by 33 seats.

Arkadiusz Mularczyk, a prominent Law and Justice lawmaker, conceded defeat, saying that “we cannot be offended by democracy” and that, “after eight difficult years in government, perhaps it is time for the opposition.”

He admitted that his party’s campaign, focused on vilifying Tusk, illegal immigrants and the European Union, was at times “too harsh.”

Poland remains deeply divided by generations and geography, with Law and Justice sweeping through less prosperous rural areas in the south and east, while the Civic Coalition strengthened its control in urban centers like Warsaw and wealthier regions in the center and west.

But, reversing a Europe-wide trend toward greater youth disenchantment with electoral politics of all ideological shades, Poles under 29 voted in greater numbers than voters over 60. That was even though the two main rival sides were led by veterans: Jaroslaw Kaczynski, 74, the president of Law and Justice, and Mr. Tusk, 66, leader of the Civic Coalition, both former prime ministers. .

The opposition also won a large majority of seats in the 100-member Senate, the upper house, but its victory in both houses of the Polish Parliament, while a major symbolic boost for supporters of liberal democracy and European integration, will be seen hampered by her working with a Polish president loyal to Law and Justice.

President Andrzej Duda, an outspoken critic of Tusk in the past, will remain in office until elections in 2025 and until then can veto legislation passed by his political opponents in Parliament. Duda is now responsible for asking someone to form a government, a task that will likely fall, at least initially, to a Law and Justice MP, who won more votes than any other party.

Without a majority, Law and Justice is unlikely to succeed and Duda will have to turn to the opposition.

With Parliament and the presidency in the hands of rival camps, Poland could face a prolonged period of political stagnation, a risk heightened by the fact that Law and Justice loyalists are deeply entrenched in the judiciary, the national prosecutor’s office and many others. state agencies and will find it difficult to evict without resorting to legally dubious methods.

“The fall of an authoritarian regime is always an extremely dangerous process” said Maciej Kisilowski, professor of law and strategy at the Central European University of Vienna, in a commentary for the liberal newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.

Law and Justice clashed so repeatedly with the European bloc over the rule of law, minority rights and immigration that some questioned whether Poland might be forced to follow Britain and leave the union. However, that is a scenario that the ruling party always insisted it did not want and dismissed as opposition scaremongering.

A large majority of Poles, according to opinion polls, want to remain in the European Union, a sign that not only urban liberals support the bloc, but also many conservative rural voters who are aligned with Law and Justice on cultural issues, but reluctant to lose billions of dollars in funding from Brussels.

A change of government, Kuisz said, should help dilute the bad blood between Warsaw and Brussels, particularly because Tusk, who could be Poland’s new prime minister, served for three years as president of the European Council, the main power center of the block. . But, the author warned, “returning Poland to Europe will not be so easy.”

Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting.

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