With an unprecedented turnout of 74.4 per cent, the 15 October general election in Poland ended the eight-year parliamentary majority held by the ultranationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party.
After the vote, leader of the Civic Coalition (KO) and former prime minister Donald Tusk declared:
It’s the end of the evil times, the end of the PiS rule, we made it!’ Many media outlets echoed his words. Politico described the results as ‘ushering in radical change for the country.
A KO-led coalition government is set to take office in December. Yet Tusk’s party, while cynically presenting itself as saving Poland from a monster it helped create, is devoid of coherent strategy. On 10 November, after weeks of deliberation behind closed doors, Tusk and four other coalition party leaders proudly announced their 24-point coalition agreement. The pact lays out their plan to fix the country. It may just bring PiS back stronger than ever.
It takes 231 seats for a majority in the Sejm, the 460-seat lower house of the Polish Parliament. Before the election, candidates from starkly different political groupings–the centre-right KO; Third Way (TD) and Left (Lewica)–had united in the belief that a PiS victory would complete Poland’s authoritarian slide.
In the event, PiS won the largest vote share (35.4 per cent), but only 194 seats. Even if its leader Jarosław Kaczyński were able to negotiate a coalition with the far-right Confederation (Konfederacja), which won 18 seats, it would still fall short of a majority.
KO won 157 seats. TD, itself an alliance between Poland 2050 (Polska 2050) and the Polish People’s Party (PSL), surpassed all expectations by winning 64 seats with 14.4 per cent of the vote share. With KO and TD at 221 seats combined, Lewica’s 27 MPs—20 affiliated with the New Left (Nowa Lewica) and seven with the Together party (Razem)–could create a stable majority.
The arithmetic places Lewica under intense pressure to be part of the coalition. Assuming that entering a neoliberal, centre-right government is the best way to keep PiS out is a mistake, however. The costs of this assumption have already started to show.
Cooling the triumphs
When the prospective coalition’s party leaders emerged on 10 November, Razem co-leaders Adrian Zandberg and Magdalena Biejat, were not among them. They explained that Razem would not sign the pact because the other parties had not agreed to their most basic demands: decriminalising abortion, guaranteed spending levels on healthcare, education, and housing, and combatting poverty.
From a left perspective, Razem made the right call by opting out–and Nowa Lewica should follow them. The coalition deal falls far short of what Polish workers, women, and minorities need. It shows complete disregard for struggling voters who turned out in record numbers to demand substantial change and material support.
For example, the demand to liberalise abortion was a decisive factor in the election’s record turnout, especially among women. Under pressure from a mass protest movement, KO committed pre-election to legalising abortion on request up to 12 weeks. The announced deal however represents TD’s position: a pledge only to annul the 2020 ruling that brought in a near-total ban in January 2021. Effectively, five men–who generously admit that ‘women have the right to decide for themselves’—have promised to reinstate abortion laws which were still among the strictest in Europe.
By conceding on abortion, KO are sending a clear message to the millions who entrusted them to deliver on their promise. Lewica has proposed new bills in response, but these inadequate, conservative compromises still stigmatise and criminalise abortion past 12 weeks. If passed, they will delay real access and decriminalisation for years to come.
Coalition immigration policy looks similarly concerning. Pre-election, KO largely adopted PiS’ racist narrative on immigration, with Tusk calling on Poles to ‘regain control of their country and its borders’. Fearing bad press and ‘division’, Lewica refused to challenge these politics directly. The deal is silent on immigration, with zero mention of PiS’ infamous wall erected along the Polish-Belarusian border to ‘keep out’ Middle Eastern, Central Asian and sub-Saharan African migrants. At least 55 people have died there over the last two years.
The new government also faces a major economic crisis, now two years in, with inflation reaching a high of 18.4 per cent in February. It is now below ten per cent, but not expected to stabilise any time soon. The deal again offers no real solutions to lift the weight off working-class shoulders. In typically bizarre neoliberal fashion, the pact instead claims that PiS’ rule was ‘marked by war on Polish entrepreneurs’ and that higher wages will not be possible without first ‘rebuilding the entrepreneurial spirit, returning to the path of long-term economic growth’.
Even if Lewica manage to pass some progressive bills in this context, PiS can still block them by staying in control of the presidency–Andrzej Duda can veto bills. Overriding that veto requires three-fifths of the parliament, or 276 votes—jointly, the centre-right, liberal, and left parties have 248 votes, maximum.
Heads they win, tails we lose
Over time, these conditions will likely attract people to parties offering alternatives. PiS, still the largest party by vote share and parliamentary seats, is well-positioned to seize on any new government failings and rally support. After all, a large part of PiS’ rise to power in 2015 was the poor track record and neoliberal policies of the ruling Civic Platform, now the main party in KO.
The situation also provides an opening for the even more dangerous Konfederacja, which has long presented itself as an anti-establishment party. It already enjoys widespread political sympathy among young Polish men despite underperforming in the election.
This is why, by joining the coalition, Nowa Lewica effectively signed a Faustian pact. It means being in government representing interests in direct conflict with those of the working class. It means looking like every other party by pursuing concessions through backroom negotiations. It means associating Lewica with the inevitable failure to improve conditions for people struggling with low incomes and high living costs.
Perhaps most significantly, it means squandering Lewica’s current leverage–a real opportunity to present itself as a consistent and unapologetic force for workers, women, and minorities, against both the far right and the neoliberals.
Protests and strikes will follow new government failures to liberalise abortion and tackle the rising cost of living. This will leave Nowa Lewica in a contradictory position: saying it supports those in struggle while propping up the government that’s failing or outright attacking them.
In contrast to vacuous parliamentarism, Razem can lead the way by continuing to offer a clear political difference and unapologetically advocating its programme. Looking ahead, it should connect its parliamentary activity with strikes, protests and other extra-parliamentary struggles.
This linked activity can force concessions from the government–including from its ostensible allies in Nowa Lewica–and earn workers’ political support to build working-class strength and consciousness.
If it lets short-term wins overshadow real working-class struggle, Nowa Lewica risks sharing the fate of the infamous French Socialist Alexandre Millerand, who participated in Waldeck-Rousseau’s 1899-1902 cabinet.
As the Irish Marxist revolutionary James Connolly remarked then:
[w]hat good Millerand may have done is claimed for the credit of the bourgeoise Republican Cabinet; what evil the Cabinet has done reflects back upon the reputation of the Socialist Party. Heads they win, tails we lose.
Ewa Pospieszyńska is a Polish feminist activist based in London, and co-host of The Polkast, an English-language podcast on Polish politics and culture.