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Polish parliamentary elections raise stakes for presidential vote

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the Law and Justice political party (PiS), speaks to his supporters.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the Law and Justice political party. Photo: Carsten Koall/Getty Images.

Poland's Law and Justice party (PiS) prevailed this weekend in parliamentary elections marked by a record turnout of 61%, cementing the euroskeptic party's hold on power domestically and potentially impacting democratic trends across the EU.

The big picture: The PiS has presided over fast economic growth (above 5% in 2018), the delivery of generous social programs, and a more conservative course on many issues, such as LGBT rights, that are deeply polarizing. But after an often controversial 4-year term, the party has now received a sign of popular approval.

By the numbers: With 44% of the vote, PiS will hold a slim majority in the lower house of Parliament, though it fell one seat shy of a Senate majority.

  • The liberal opposition block, led by the pro-European Civic Platform, will remain as the biggest opposition party with 27% of the vote, but it was heavily criticized due to a lackluster campaign.
  • The Left is another winner of these elections, coming back to the Parliament with 12% of the vote after four years in the political wilderness.
  • For the first time since 1989, a far-right xenophobic party made it to the Polish parliament. Confederation gained almost 7% of the vote.

Context: The parliamentary elections have been described as the most important since the country regained independence in 1989.

  • They unfolded against an ongoing dispute between Warsaw and the EU over the rule of law. Late last week, the European Commission announced that it was taking Poland to the EU’s highest court for violating judicial independence.
  • Poland's domestic shifts could have ramifications for the broader European project. Its European policy will impact those of its neighbors and the likelihood of reaching an EU-wide agreement on the reform of the block. 

What to watch: The PiS will be empowered to continue its promised reforms, but the opposition control of the Senate will make for a bumpy legislative process.

  • The course Poland takes will depend most on how Jaroslaw Kaczynski interprets his party's mandate.
  • The stakes for next year’s presidential elections have been dramatically raised, as incumbent President Andrzej Duda will now face a united opposition.

Michal Baranowski is the director of the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office.