"It's the end of the bad times. It's the end of PiS rule. We made it," a visibly moved Donald Tusk, leader of the liberal opposition Civic Coalition (KO), told supporters in Warsaw after the announcement of the first exit poll on Sunday evening.
"I am the happiest man on earth," the former Polish Prime Minister said. "Democracy has won. Poland has won."
A second, late exit poll published by IPSOS on Monday morning confirmed, with a few minor adjustments, the results of the first exit poll on Sunday evening. Official final results are expected on Tuesday.
According to this latest poll, the ruling national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, which has been in power for eight years, got 36.6% of the vote. The result would put it in first place, but it means the party has lost its parliamentary majority. This is a significant drop from the 43.6% PiS got four years ago.
Strong results for center and left opposition parties
The Monday poll puts the opposition KO, which includes Tusk's Civic Platform (PO) party and two other smaller parliamentary groups, at 31% and the Christian democratic Third Way and New Left — its potential coalition partners — at 13.5% and 8.6%, respectively.
This would give the three political groupings, which campaigned for a coalition government in the run-up to the election, a majority of 248 seats in the 460-seat Sejm, the lower house of parliament. By contrast, PiS would only have 198 seats.
Ultra-right Confederation party defeated
In a blow to PiS's hopes of forming a government, the ultra-right Confederation party, its only likely coalition partner, got just 6.4% of the vote (14 seats).
With its libertarian economic program and anti-Ukrainian slogans, Confederation had hoped to pick up votes on the far right of the Polish political spectrum.
"We suffered a defeat," conceded party leader Slawomir Mentzen. "We were supposed to flip the table, but everything points to the fact we did not succeed."
PiS' Kaczynski remains bullish
Despite the exit polls, Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who heads PiS, described the election result as a "big success" for his party, underlining that it was the "fourth PiS victory in a parliamentary election."
"We will not allow Poland to be betrayed," he told supporters. "We will not allow Poland to lose the most valuable thing in its history, the right to decide its own fate."
The 74-year-old political veteran was by no means willing to throw in the towel and remained bullish on Sunday evening: "Days of fight and tension await us," he said.
Tusk confident after exit poll
Not one to be rattled by such statements, Donald Tusk announced that he would begin negotiations about forming a coalition government as soon as election results are confirmed.
The 66-year-old has every reason to be pleased: The positive result for PO is primarily his doing. Tusk, a former president of the European Council and head of the European People's Party, returned to Poland from Brussels in 2022, breathed new life into a party in crisis and ran a rousing, high-energy campaign.
In the run-up to the election, he was the target of a major smear campaign by the ruling PiS, which labeled him a "German collaborator" and declared that he was being "controlled by Berlin and Brussels."
Who will be invited to form a government?
All eyes are now on Polish President Andrzej Duda. He has to convene the new parliament's first session within 30 days and then, within another 14 days, task a politician with forming a government within two weeks. Polish presidents traditionally invite the party that gets the most votes to form a government but are not obliged to do so.
Speaking to reporters during a visit to the Vatican on Monday, his first public appearance since the election, the president — a PiS ally — would not be drawn on what he would do next, instead urging people to be patient and "wait for the results."
Several opposition politicians have called on the president to give the three opposition parties that have declared their intention to form a coalition the first shot at creating a government instead of playing for time and inviting PiS to do so.
PO lawmaker Cezary Tomczyk told private broadcaster TVN 24 that "the natural candidate for prime minister is Donald Tusk." Tusk was prime minister of Poland from 2007 to 2014.
Prospects if Tusk does form a government
Duda was the PiS candidate for the presidency in 2015 and has openly supported the policies of PiS in recent years. He could make life very difficult for a new government by wielding his veto powers.
If the three center and left opposition parties successfully form a government, they will also face stiff opposition in a new parliament.
He has also said that he intends to bring to justice anyone who violated the rule of law. In short, fierce conflict with the national-conservative PiS is a foregone conclusion.
'Returning to the European path'
Another opposition priority is a reboot of the country's relations with the European Union.
"The objective of the liberal government will be the restoration of the rule of law so that money from the EU's COVID recovery fund, which has so far been withheld, can at last be released," Piotr Buras of the European Council on Foreign Relations told DW. "Under Tusk, the Polish government will become a constructive player in the EU that improves relations with the country's most important partners and restores faith in Poland's pro-European stance."
"Poland is returning to the European path," assured Rafal Trzaskowski, mayor of Warsaw and close ally of Tusk.
Record turnout, especially among youths
At 72.9%, turnout in yesterday's election was the highest in Poland since the fall of communism 34 years ago.
In Poland's first partially free elections in June 1989, which sounded the death knell for the country's Communist regime, turnout was only 62.7%.
The state electoral commission assured voters that anyone who was in the polling station line at 9 p.m. would be able to vote. As a result, people were still standing in line outside polling stations in the country's biggest cities after midnight. Some polling stations in Krakow and Wroclaw only closed in the early hours of Monday morning.
"It was a celebration of democracy," said sociologist Jerzy Flis, who highlighted that young voters between the ages of 18 and 29 turned out in large numbers, which significantly contributed to the result for the opposition.
This article was originally written in German