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What's at stake in Poland's fall election?

Jacek Lepiarz in Warsaw
August 11, 2023

Political observers agree that the parliamentary election in Poland on October 15 will be era-defining for the country. Will Poland continue its illiberal course or take a more pro-European line?

A large crowd of people waving Polish and EU flags and holding up banners take part in an anti-government, pro-opposition march initiated by Donald Tusk, Warsaw, Poland, June 4, 2023
Opposition leader Donald Tusk launched his unofficial election campaign in June with a march against the country's populist right-wing governmentImage: Jakub Porzycki/AA/picture alliance

The election campaign in Poland has unofficially been in full swing for months. The leaders of both the ruling right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and the liberal, pro-European Civic Platform (PO), Donald Tusk, have been crisscrossing the country, trying to mobilize their supporters and win over swing voters.

Now, however, things have got a lot more serious. On Wednesday, Poland's President Andrzej Duda finally fired the starting pistol for the official election campaign when he announced that the country would go to the polls on October 15.

While Duda's announcement came before the deadline set out in the constitution, the opposition is of the opinion that the government gave itself an unfair advantage by making the announcement so late in the day.

Polish President Andrzej Duda signs a law on the increase in child benefit, August 7, 2023
Polish President Andrzej Duda this week attended a "family picnic" to mark the signing of a law to increase child benefitImage: Pawel Supernak/PAP/picture alliance/dpa

The reason for this is that all the recent events at which representatives of the government praised both itself and its policies to the skies — such as the "family picnic" that marked the signing of a law to increase child benefit — were paid for out of the national budget, a source of funding the opposition is unable to tap into.

Now that the election campaign is officially underway, every political party has to pay for its own events and account for every Zloty spent.

False start for the ruling party

Despite the head start, the race for government has not begun well for the ruling party: On Tuesday, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was forced to dismiss his health minister, Adam Niedzielski.

The minister was deemed by many to have violated both medical confidentiality and data protection rules by revealing on Twitter that a doctor who had criticized Niedzielski had prescribed psychotropic drugs for himself.

Poland's former Health Minister Adam Niedzielski makes a statement during an informal meeting of EU health ministers, Stockholm, Sweden, May 5, 2023
Major blow to the ruling PiS: Health Minister Adam Niedzielski was dismissed just one day before the date for this fall's election was announcedImage: Christine Olsson/TT/IMAGO

The dismissal was a major blow to the ruling party, which expected Niedzielski to play a key role in its election campaign. The hope is now that his successor, 37-year-old lawmaker and doctor Katarzyna Sojka, will pick up the pieces and, as a woman, burnish the party's image.

Kaczynski plays the anti-European, anti-German card

Given that the ruling party has few economic and social successes to shout about, Kaczynski is once again relying on anti-European and anti-German sentiment to get PiS re-elected.

In an interview with right-wing Polish magazine Sieci, Kaczynski called Tusk an "envoy of the Brussels bureaucracy," which he said is heavily dominated by Germany and is using increasingly brutal means to subordinate Poland. He also said that Tusk is a "Brussels bureaucrat controlled by Berlin." He had previously warned that a Tusk victory would mean the "end of Poland."

In its attempts to keep anti-German sentiment alive in Poland, the government's propaganda machine pounces on every critical comment about Poland that is made in Germany — appearing not to shy away from a degree of manipulation in the process.

Polish PM challenges German politician to TV debate

Its most recent target was German politician Manfred Weber, who also happens to be the president of the transnational center-right European People's Party (EPP), the largest party in the European Parliament.

Speaking to German television recently, Weber described Poland's ruling PiS as an "opponent." Pro-government media in Poland translated the word as "enemy" and launched a stinging attack. "A strike against Poland" ran the headline in the Catholic daily newspaper Nasz Dziennik.

Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki (back) looks on as Italian PM Giorgia Meloni (left) and Hungarian PM Viktor Orban (right) speak at the EU summit, Brussels, Belgium, June 29, 2023
Poland's Mateusz Morawiecki (back), Italy's Giorgia Meloni (left) and Hungary's Viktor Orban are all on the same page when it comes to migration in the EUImage: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/dpa/picture alliance

Weber "called us his enemies. This is not the first such statement. Enough of this!" said an incensed Morawiecki in a video statement. The Polish PM challenged Weber to a TV debate; Weber declined.

Will tanks and jets win over voters?

In addition to Poland's relations with Germany, security policy is a major campaign theme for Kaczynski.

In response to the perceived threat from Russia, Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak has launched a massive rearmament program and is modernizing the Polish army. Poland is currently installing the most modern generation of the Patriot air defense system and has bought F-35 fighter jets and Abrams tanks from the US.

Military parade in Warsaw

Next Tuesday, the Polish government will get a chance to bolster the image of its armed forces. August 15 is a national holiday in Poland, the day on which the country commemorates its victory over Soviet Russia in 1920.

On this day, a military parade will be held in the Polish capital, Warsaw. The hope apparently is that voters will be impressed by the modern weaponry on display and give PiS both their trust and their vote.

Referendum on migration

Kaczynski has also taken a leaf out of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's book in his bid to encourage people to get out and vote: In early July, Polish lawmakers approved amendments to the law, thus allowing a referendum on accepting migrants to be held at the same time as the parliamentary election.

Donald Tusk, chairman of the opposition party Civic Platform (PO), speaks during the meeting of the Civic Coalition political alliance at Hotel Rzeszow, Rzeszow, Poland, April 25, 2023
Opposition leader Donald Tusk is aiming for outright victory for his party (PO) in the election on October 15Image: Artur Widak/AA/picture alliance

Migration was the issue that tipped the balance in PiS's favor in 2015. This time, however, it doesn't seem to be quite as much of a hot-button election topic as it was eight years ago. 

Will Tusk's 'March of a million hearts' be a game-changer?

Ever since opposition plans to have a joint list for the upcoming election fell flat, Tusk has been aiming for an outright victory for his party (PO).

Because the Polish electoral system favors the strongest party, Tusk has said that PO would need to finish 5% ahead of its main rival. Although PiS is still ahead in the opinion polls, its lead over PO has shrunk to just a few percentage points. 

The libertarian anti-establishment Confederation alliance and potential PO coalition partners New Left and the centrist Poland 2050/Polish People's Party alliance are all trailing far behind.

The final pre-election test for the opposition will come on October 1, when Tusk's "March of a million hearts" takes place in Warsaw. The focus of the march is on women's rights. Tusk is also portraying the upcoming election as a battle between good and evil. 

Despite all their differences, old political rivals Tusk and Kaczynski agree on one thing: The election on October 15 will be the most important poll since the collapse of Communism in the country in 1989.

Back then, Polish voters ousted its Communist regime democratically at the ballot box. This time, they will decide whether they want a liberal or illiberal Poland.

Adapted from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

A gray-haired man (Jacek Lepiarz) stands in front of bookcases full of books
Jacek Lepiarz Journalist for DW's Polish Service who specializes in German-Polish subjects