October 16, 2023 - 7:30am

On Sunday night, Poland’s opposition pulled off what might be the biggest electoral upset in the country’s post-communist history. Although the first exit polls following Poland’s parliamentary elections on October 15 showed that the ruling Right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) had gained the largest share of seats in Parliament, the leader of Poland’s largest opposition party Donald Tusk claimed that he “ha[d] never in [his] life felt so happy with second place.”

Despite each trailing PiS individually, Tusk’s Civic Coalition party and three other allied Polish opposition parties together appear to have won a clear majority, and left PiS without the viable means to form a majority government. Official results are yet to be announced, but if these indicative results hold, the opposition will have set the stage for Poland to capitalise on its newfound importance in Europe and take the helm as a transformational leader within the EU — a paradigm shift that will likely cement an eastward drift in the continent’s centre of gravity that has been crystallising ever since the start of the war in Ukraine.

During eight years of PiS rule in Poland, the country became a poster child of European illiberalism alongside Hungary, championing strong-arm, nationalistic populism while fighting frequent battles with EU leadership over the rule of law and other issues. When PiS’s Poland emerged as the vanguard of Europe’s collective defence in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its new status made it a force to be reckoned with on the world stage — but nevertheless, PiS remained unable to break through the wall it had built between itself and Brussels and to steer the European ship from the inside. 

Now, all of this may change. Having recently served as the President of the European Council following a previous tenure as Poland’s Prime Minister, Tusk will likely eventually become PM once again — and this time, he will bring with him ample connections and influence in Europe’s halls of power that may well upgrade Poland from a charismatic disruptor to a critical decision-maker.

But despite PiS’s campaign rhetoric, an opposition-led government will hardly turn Poland into a carbon copy of Germany or France. While the opposition will certainly move Poland closer to the European mainstream, it may well continue to carve out its own path — the opposition has pledged to continue the modernisation of Poland’s military, and Civic Coalition has even suggested it may continue to fight for World War II reparations from Germany, a pre-election PiS demand.

Perhaps most consequentially, the opposition’s victory will also be cause for great relief in Ukraine. Although PiS made a name for itself as a staunch supporter of Ukraine’s war effort early on in the war, its recent spat with Kyiv over grain shipments and questions about the future of benefit programmes for Ukrainian refugees in Poland have shaken Ukraine’s once unwavering faith in its Polish ally. 

But being largely untethered to PiS’s agricultural base and insusceptible to electoral threats from the hard Right, the Polish opposition has roundly condemned PiS’s confrontational approach on the grain issue, and has put forward plans to continue to arm the Ukrainian military, support Ukrainian refugees, and stabilise Polish-Ukrainian relations.

Despite the potential significance of this election outcome for Poland, the EU, and Ukraine, the road ahead will be difficult and chaotic. The process of government formation may take months, and even after a new government is sworn in, PiS-aligned President Andrzej Duda will be able to thwart the opposition’s aspirations for two more years until his term ends. 

But the entrance of a new Poland onto the international stage will be enough to rebalance the European order — subtly at first, but much more fundamentally with time.

Michal Kranz is a freelance journalist reporting on politics and society in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the United States.