Landmark parliamentary elections were held in Poland on Sunday, with eight years of national-conservative rule set to end as the liberal opposition claimed victory at the polls. Polish society, meanwhile, remains sharply divided.
Sunday saw record turnout at the polls, in which Polish voters elected members of both houses of its bicameral parliament — the 460-seat Sejm, or lower house, and the 100-seat Senate, or upper house.
Society, meanwhile, remains sharply divided, with people from differing camps not speaking to one another and living in their own respective media bubbles.
Sunday's elections were won by the Law and Justice (PiS) party, but as their coalition partners didn't fare as well, the Polish government is on track to be formed by liberals once again, via a coalition led by former European Council president and Civic Platform (PO) party chair Donald Tusk. The Civic Coalition (CO) has promised to turn Poland back toward a pro-EU course.
Members of the Civic Coalition celebrated the increasingly imminent victory on Election Day night already.
"The poll shows that we really have, at the moment, a chance to rebuild a democratic, European and happy Poland," PO Sejm member Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz told ERR. "And we're really glad about those results. Those results show that Polish citizens don't want PiS in power anymore."
Democracy and a return to the previous state of affairs were recurring themes among those interviewed, and Poland's legal system is certainly one of the key issues borne in mind in terms of such a reversal. PiS has been accused for years of bending the latter under political pressure, and judges say the situation has gotten worse by the year.
"Around one-third of judges in Poland weren't elected in the legal, valid procedure," highlighted Polish Judges Association "Iustitia" member Lukasz Mrozek. "They are giving judgments — hundreds, thousands of judgments each week, each month, each year — and parties to those cases are in trouble; they don't actually know whether those judgments are legal, could be executed — whether those judgments are valid. So it's like a snowball."
Judges are now hoping for positive changes, but this snowball cannot simply be turned back into snowflakes, and it's difficult to turn back the clock following countless rulings and appointments. Poland's legal system is broken, and getting it back anywhere may prove challenging, warned European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) Warsaw director Piotr Buras.
"The process of introducing an illiberal regime happened, for example, through the creation of completely new institutions which would take away the competences of institutions anchored in the [Polish] Constitution," Buras explained. "This is how, for example, the political takeover of [Polish] public television happened. And now to reverse it will be difficult, because you need to pass a law — but the president has to sign this law; he can veto it."
The president is an ally of the ruling party, he pointed out. "And there is no independent constitutional court which would be able to say that this law was unconstitutional," he continued. "So this is a Catch-22 situation — a Gordian Knot, which the new government will have to cut somehow. But it may not look very nice."
One of PiS' hallmarks has been the strengthening of its grip by appointing loyalists to offices in public authorities, companies and the media.
A new player in Polish politics, for example, is the fuel retailer Orlen, which lowered fuel prices ahead of the elections, called on people to participate in the ruling party-initiated referendum and recently bought up local news outlets. Orlen itself claims that they won't restrict freedom of speech and that their activity is unrelated to the elections.
"And these regional newspapers now support the ruling party," Buras noted. "And they, for example, refused the publication of the [ads] of opposition candidates. So this is a clear example of how it can work."
On Election Day night, journalists from Polish public broadcaster TVP had to try to snag interviews with the opposition party on the front steps of their building, as the journalists were not allowed into the building. This is a good indication of the degree to which Polish society has become divided.
The divide has grown so deep that people in different camps no longer speak to one another and consume media only from their own respective outlets. There are even several different journalists' associations in Poland, as it has become impossible for them to belong to one single organization together.
"There's the old association, called Polish Journalists Association (SDP), who are very pro-government," explained Society of Journalists (TD) foreign relations chief Krzysztof Bobinski. "And they have their heroes, and they have their enemies. And I'm afraid our association, which was set up about ten years ago — which is for a free, democratic, rule of law state — but we also have our enemies and our heroes. And we don't talk to each other at all."
"When I was elected chair of the association, then the group that lost formed their own association, because they could not accept the results of a lost democratic election," SDP president Krzysztof Skworonski said.
Regardless, such sharp polarization is nonetheless regarded as a problem by all, and during the campaign leading up to this month's elections, this polarization was reflected in the fact that virtually no substantive debate whatsoever takes place anymore.
"The articles in the newspapers, or on the television — they explain how bad the other side is," Bobinski said. "And this is powered by the government, which has control of the public media. The public media is totally propagandist; they are just delivering the ruling party line. And so the opposition media are reacting to this. Which means that we're getting a very — there's a kind of desert, actually."
"When Citizens' Platform was previously in power, the private media and public media at the time all said the same thing," Skworonski recalled. "This was a reaction to that, and with the change of power, different views began reaching there; that led to greater diversity."
At the same time, PiS has long since been a favorite of many voters in Poland.
"First of all, the arguments [in their favor] are dignity, then social issues, economic growth and security," the SDP president cited.
How, then, can this Gordian Knot be cut or snowball melted in such a way that Poland's public broadcaster won't soon simply end up liberal leaders' propaganda wing instead?
"Nobody who hasn't broken a law or its obligation has to be afraid about their post or position," Gasiuk-Pihowicz reassured. "Those who broke the law have to be afraid. Because we will do everything on the basis of law, on the Polish Constitution and on European treaties."
Ehand: Tusk managed to rally opposition
Reporting from Poland, ERR correspondent Epp Ehand told ETV foreign affairs program "Välisilm" that the opposition coalition managed to rack up more votes than the ruling PiS in Sunday's elections thanks to two key aspects — Citizens' Platform leader Donald Tusk rallying the opposition and the charm of PiS' novelty beginning to wear off.
"Maybe those who always vote for one camp or the other still made the same choice, but for those people who maybe had doubts, one key factor was certainly Donald Tusk, who managed to unify the opposition and offer some kind of vision of his own and a positive platform, not just in the form of criticism," Ehand explained.
"And the charm of PiS' novelty wearing off certainly played a part in this as well," the foreign correspondent continued. "And inflation and economic difficulties impact the people of Poland as well, and at the same time, they saw that it isn't possible to increase social benefits by very much anymore."
PiS' election campaign was dogged by scandal as well, and not to their benefit, Ehand highlighted. "And maybe they overdid it a bit themselves too, like by bringing up the Ukrainian grain dispute," she added.
Editor: Aili Vahtla