Poland After Law and Justice

Poland After Law and Justice

The defeat of hardline national-Catholic rule was welcomed with euphoria by the big-tent opposition. The outcome for the Polish left is more ambiguous.

Civic Coalition leader Donald Tusk celebrates exit poll results during Poland's parliamentary elections on October 15, 2023 in Warsaw. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)

After eight years of hardline national-Catholic rule, the Law and Justice Party (PiS) has been deprived of the opportunity to continue governing Poland. It squandered the goodwill its popular program of family benefits had built with harsh anti-abortion measures enabled by its controversial takeover of the Constitutional Tribunal. Its defeat in the October elections was welcomed with euphoria by the big-tent anti-PiS camp, and with relief by those victimized by its authoritarian-conservative methods of governance, including LGBTQ people.

The outcome of the election, however, was decidedly ambiguous for the left. As one of three electoral alliances in the “democratic opposition” to PiS, Lewica (the Left) will enter government along with KO (Civic Coalition) and Trzecia Droga (Third Way). It does so, however, as the weakest of the three, with a shrunken bloc in the Sejm, the lower (and more powerful) house of Polish parliament. Lewica’s share of the vote decreased from 13 percent in 2019 to 9 percent in 2023. It lost nineteen of its seats in the Sejm and now has just twenty-six members in its parliamentary club, only six seats above that of the far-right Konfederacja.

There was much that should have worked in Lewica’s favor. The negative reaction to the Constitutional Tribunal’s ban of abortion in October 2020 and growing disillusionment with the Church, especially among the younger generation, was expected to boost the coalition, which is Poland’s most openly feminist and anti-clerical political formation. In the end, however, KO was able to frame itself as the force best placed to defeat PiS. To attract younger voters, KO worked to shed some of its conservative image, softening its stance on abortion. It mimicked Lewica’s position on investment in public services and promised increased pay for teachers. And the return of former Prime Minister Donald Tusk to the helm of PO (Civic Platform), the party which anchors the KO, had a reinvigorating effect on the center right. Tusk became the embodiment of anti-PiS sentiment, helped by the incumbent party’s relentless attacks on him.

Without backing from younger progressive voters or the working class, which largely stands behind PiS, Lewica lacks significant support beyond its hardcore base. This stands in contrast to Trzecia Droga, an alliance between the agrarian PSL (Polish People’s Party) and Polska 2050, founded two years ago. Together, these parties have found an electorate: voters who are conservative but opposed to PiS on economic issues. Adopting a “pro-entrepreneur” program, they won over voters that Konfederacja had hoped would flock to them. PSL and Polska 2050 won thirty-two and thirty-three seats respectively for their parliamentary clubs.

The far greater weight of this right-wing flank of the democratic opposition will shape the character of the incoming government. While PiS’s extreme assault on reproductive rights will likely be undone, the prospect for liberalization beyond the already restrictive law that preceded the 2020 ban is slim. Prior to that decision, abortion was already limited to pregnancies that threatened the life of the mother, resulted from rape, or would lead to a severely impaired fetus. The Constitutional Tribunal eliminated this third exception, which accounted for 98 percent of abortions in Poland.

The outlook for economic policy is not much better. While supporting large spending programs, Tusk lifted the retirement age during his last tenure. He has distanced himself from this position, but KO remains a party of the affluent. Along with Trzecia Droga, it has subscribed to the dubious idea that PiS waged a “war against entrepreneurs” through minor changes in the tax code, such as replacing a lump-sum health insurance contribution with one proportional to a firm’s revenue.

Given the strength of the forces behind social conservatism and economic liberalism, Lewica enters the new government surrounded by perils. And the parliamentary club is itself divided. While its Nowa Lewica (New Left) party will be part of the governing coalition, Lewica Razem (Left Together) has announced it is only supporting the new government in a vote of confidence, not joining it.

Razem gained one seat in this election with the victory of Joanna Wicha, a nurse who ran in the once PiS-leaning Masovian province encircling Warsaw. Wicha took a grassroots approach, talking directly with voters at local markets and in other public spaces. Though just one seat, Wicha’s success has symbolic importance, proving that a party running under an unabashedly left-wing program can triumph in what had been a PiS bastion for the past eight years. Razem therefore has a reason to feel a measured sense of hope going forward.

Nowa Lewica may face more serious problems. Its predecessor, the Democratic Left Alliance, used to be powerful in manufacturing areas such as the southwestern region of the Dąbrowa Basin—nicknamed the “Red Basin” for its left-wing history—which was the center of the coal-steel complex during the Polish People’s Republic but has suffered significant deindustrialization since 1989. Corruption and neoliberal austerity conducted under the Leszek Miller government in the early 2000s largely severed the ties between the region’s working-class voters and the left, even though in relative terms it remains the strongest base of support for Lewica.

In response, Nowa Lewica has attempted to orient itself toward young progressive voters in big cities, and in 2019, it had some success in capturing this electorate. The problem this time is that KO was much more successful in channeling anti-PiS energy. It is possible, however, that both Nowa Lewica and Razem can build a stronger bond with this demographic over the longer term, by holding a principled position on abortion and the separation of church and state, while also pushing for green measures, affordable housing, and labor protections, most importantly banning “junk” fixed-term contracts.

The Polish left faces major dilemmas going forward. There are many reasons to be pessimistic. Nonetheless, Razem’s modest success and the generational potential provide some hope that the left can succeed in widening its appeal in future.

Cyryl Ryzak works as a researcher for a labor union. He lives in New York City.

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