Polish opposition parties hold clear lead, as over two-thirds of votes reported

Centrist parties set to win majority of seats in Poland’s parliament, but weeks of uncertainty remain, as ruling party aims to form government after getting most votes

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk addresses supporters at his party headquarters in Warsaw, Poland, October 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk addresses supporters at his party headquarters in Warsaw, Poland, October 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

WARSAW, Poland — Poland’s pro-EU opposition led by former European Council president Donald Tusk won a majority in Sunday’s elections, according to partial results on Monday, after 80 percent of ballots were counted.

The results showed the ruling populist Law and Justice (PiS) party in the lead, but without a majority at 37%, while Tusk’s Civic Coalition, the Third Way and Left parties together had 52%.

Opposition parties have promised to reverse democratic backsliding and repair the nation’s relationship with allies, including the European Union and Ukraine.

After a bitter and emotional campaign, turnout was projected at almost 74%, the highest level in the country’s 34 years of democracy and surpassing the 63% who turned out in the historic 1989 vote that toppled communism. In the city of Wroclaw, the lines were so long that voting continued through the night until nearly 3 a.m. Young voters particularly came out in force to flood polling stations.

An exit poll by Ipsos and partial results suggested that voters had grown tired of the governing nationalist Law and Justice party, after eight years of divisive policies that led to frequent street protests, bitter divisions within families, and billions in funding held up by the EU over rule of law violations.

It was among the most important elections in an EU country this year, and the results have been anxiously awaited in Brussels, Berlin, and other capitals by observers hoping that a step-by-step dismantling of checks and balances could be halted before a turn toward authoritarianism that would be hard to reverse.

Another term for Law and Justice would have been seen as a bad omen in Brussels, which has to contend with Hungary, where democratic erosion has gone much further under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. New concerns arose after the leftist pro-Russia and Orbán ally Robert Fico won an election in Slovakia.

The outcome could also affect ties with neighboring Ukraine, which Poland has supported in the war against Russia’s full-scale invasion. Good relations soured in September over Ukrainian grain entering and affecting Poland’s market.

Poland’s conservative ruling Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski gets in a car after voting during parliamentary elections in Warsaw, Poland, October 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk)

The Ipsos exit poll showed that three centrist opposition parties that campaigned on a promise to reverse the illiberal drift of the government had together secured 249 seats in the 460-seat lower house of parliament, or Sejm, a clear majority.

“I am really overjoyed now,” Magdalena Chmieluk, a 43-year-old accountant, said Monday morning. The opposition “will form a government and we will finally be able to live in a normal country, for real.”

Partial official results were being released Monday by the State Electoral Commission. With over two-thirds of voting districts reporting, the partial results showed the opposition parties with a clear lead. Outstanding results are mostly from bigger cities where the opposition is strongest. There appeared to be no path for another term for Law and Justice.

A limited international observation mission led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe said the “historic high turnout demonstrated the commitment of citizens to upholding democracy in Poland.” But it also pointed to the problem of bias by taxpayer-funded public television, which it said ”demonstrated open hostility towards the opposition.”

Douglas Wake, the head of the mission, called it troubling that “the ruling party and its candidates gained a clear advantage from the misuse of state resources, undermining the separation between state and party.”

The governing party also mobilized other state resources to help itself, including by controlling the election administration and by an unfair division of votes in electoral districts, said Jacek Kucharczyk, president of the Institute of Public Affairs, a Warsaw think tank.

“The electoral system was really tilted toward the government,” Kucharczyk told The Associated Press. “You could say that the opposition had to fight this election with one hand tied behind its back and they still won.”

A woman is checking and taking photos of the results of parliamentary elections, in which more than 73% of eligible voters took part of whom majority voted for opposition parties, in Lomianki, near Warsaw, Poland, October 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Still, Poles on Monday were facing weeks of political uncertainty. Law and Justice won more votes than any single party and said it would try to build a new government led by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

President Andrzej Duda, an ally of Law and Justice, must call the first session of the new parliament within 30 days of the election and designate a prime minister to try to build a government. In the meantime, the current government will remain in a caretaker role.

Duda, during a visit to Rome on Monday, would not comment on the next steps, since final results have not been announced. He told reporters that he was happy about the large turnout and the peaceful nature of the election at a time of war across the border in Ukraine and “hybrid attacks from Belarus.”

There were rumors that Law and Justice would try to hold onto power by seeking an ally in the agrarian PSL party, a frequent kingmaker in past governments. Its leader ruled that out, noting it had run in a coalition with the Third Way group promising to oust the ruling party.

“Those who voted for us want change, want a change of government,” Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz said on RMF FM, despite the rumors.

Supporters of the Third Way, a coalition of the centrist Poland 2050 party and the agrarian Polish People’s Party celebrate at the electoral headquarters in Warsaw, Poland, October 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk)

An updated Ipsos poll on Monday afternoon showed Law and Justice with 36.1% of the votes cast; the opposition Civic Coalition, led by former European Council President Donald Tusk, with 31%; the centrist Third Way coalition with 14%; the Left party with 8.6%; and the far-right Confederation with 6.8%.

The electoral commission said it expected to report the final result on Tuesday.

On Sunday evening, Tusk declared that it was the end of Law and Justice rule and that a new era had begun for Poland.

But not all rejoiced over the projected outcome.

“I am disappointed with the results, but I accept the democratic choice,” said Elżbieta Szadura-Urbańska, a 58-year-old psychologist who voted for Law and Justice. “I think my party is also democratic.”

Others were concerned about possible obstacles to a smooth transfer of power.

Cezary Tomczyk, vice chairman of Tusk’s party, urged the ruling party to accept the election result, saying it was the will of the people to give power to the opposition.

“The nation has spoken,” Tomczyk said.

Even if the opposition parties take power, they will face difficulties in putting forward their agenda. The president will have the power to veto new legislation, while the constitutional court, whose role is to ensure that new legislation does not violate the basic law, is loyal to the current governing party, Kucharczyk said.

“Fixing the relations with the EU in particular will require domestic changes, namely restoring the independence of the judiciary, restoring the rule of law, which is a condition for the EU to release the funding for Poland,” Kucharczyk said. “It will be a very, very prolonged and difficult process.”

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