A change of government is on the cards in Poland, with the ruling right-wing populist and nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) seemingly having no path to retain power, despite trying to skew the election its favour. Three opposition groups have committed to join forces to form a government on the promise of ending the ruling party’s attacks on judicial independence, the rule of law, civil society and women’s and LGBTQI+ rights. The incoming government will face considerable challenges in working with a PiS-aligned president and taking over an administrative machinery packed with PiS loyalists. To restore civic freedoms and democratic safeguards, it will need to work with civil society.

Change should be around the corner in Poland. The results of its 15 October parliamentary election seem to offer no route for the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) to retain power. After eight years of rule by the right-wing populist and nationalist party, change would be good news for all who care about their eroded civic freedoms and for the women and LGBTQI+ people whose rights have been systematically attacked.

Ruling party lacks the numbers

With voters asked to choose among several lists of parties or party alliances, the polls suggested two potential outcomes. One was for the PiS-dominated United Right alliance to remain in government, potentially by forming a coalition with or encouraging defections from the far-right Confederation grouping.

The other was for a coalition of the three opposition alliances to prevail. These are the Civic Coalition, led by Civic Platform, the centre-ground main opposition party headed by former prime minister and European Council president Donald Tusk, the centre-right Third Way and the social-democratic the Left. All three share a pro-European position and a commitment to return to the rule of law.

With the votes counted, the three of them combined command 248 of the 460 seats in the Sejm, parliament’s main chamber. They’re comfortably above the 231-seat majority needed to form a government. United Right, as expected, came first, but having lost 41 seats, it’s now short, and its only potential partner, Confederation, didn’t do as well as polls once predicted, up to only 18 seats.

Unfair playing field

The result came in spite of PiS’s blatant attempts, acknowledged by international election observers,  to tilt the playing field in its favour. Media coverage was heavily biased towards PiS, reflecting years of regression of media freedoms. State media, its independence long compromised, essentially functioned as a PiS propaganda channel. Many formerly independent media companies have fallen into the hands of the state-owned oil company, run by a PiS ally. Ahead of the campaign, the government channelled its advertising funding to supportive media and attacked journalists who didn’t align with its agenda.

The PiS-dominated parliament refused to update electoral boundaries, leaving the major cities where opposition supporters are concentrated underrepresented. At the same time it opened up more polling stations in small towns and rural areas, where more people support PiS. Rural communities were promised increased state funding if they produced a high turnout; no such reward was available in urban areas.

And while a record number of Poles living abroad – over 600,000 – registered to vote, a law passed in January meant that these votes, likely skewed towards the opposition, needed to be counted within 24 hours to be valid – something that didn’t apply to votes cast in Poland.

The government held a referendum alongside the election, with leading questions backed with disinformation. One asked people whether they supported a supposed ‘forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy’ to bring in ‘thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa’.

The intent was clear: to inflame anti-migrant sentiment, position the European Union (EU) as a threat to Polish identity and paint the opposition as pro-migration. State-owned companies were able to use resources in the referendum campaign – something they can’t do for an election.

Civil society and the opposition responded to the referendum by calling for a boycott, since a turnout of under half would cause it to fall. That call was successful, with referendum turnout at just under 41 per cent.

Dismal track record

In a bitter and divisive campaign, PiS tried to make the vote about Polish sovereignty and resistance to the EU and migration, while the opposition pitched the election as being about Poland’s future as a democratic country.

In its eight years in power, PiS systematically attacked the independence of judges who previously offered a vital check on executive overreach. This put it at odds with the EU. In 2021, the EU Court of Justice found that Poland had violated EU rules by giving the justice minister the power to appoint and remove judges. This came on top of a daily fine imposed earlier that year for not complying with a ruling to reform disciplinary processes used against judges.

Poland worked with Hungary to water down rule-of-law conditions the EU tried to put into its pandemic support funding. PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński doubled down on attacks on the EU, last year describing it as a ‘culturally alien’ concept imposed by ‘neo-imperial’ Germany. He recently pledged to further restrict judicial independence.

Seeking to appeal to socially conservative voters and use identity politics to sustain its coalition, PiS constantly attacked the rights of excluded groups. In 2020, a biased constitutional tribunal stuffed with PiS appointees ruled that the country’s law recognising already limited abortion rights was unconstitutional. The ruling came into effect in January 2021, bringing in the EU’s second-strictest abortion regime after Malta. Women have since died from being denied life-saving abortions.

Protests for abortion rights were met with police violence and protest leaders publicly smeared by PiS politicians and state media, and threats from abortion opponents duly followed. The government also promised to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe treaty on preventing domestic violence and violence against women.

LGBTQI+ people were in the firing line too, making Poland the worst country in the EU for LGBTQI+ people. PiS attacked them in the run-up to the last parliamentary election in 2019 and the presidential election in 2020, which saw LGBTQI+ rights described as an ideology worse than communism and equated with paedophilia. Multiple PiS-aligned local administrations declared themselves to be ‘LGBT-free zones’. The hostile climate enabled threats and violence against efforts to assert LGBTQI+ visibility and communicate defiance, such as Pride marches.

Other civil society organisations defending rights and trying to uphold judicial independence and the rule of law were attacked, often through smears about them being foreign-funded agents – a customary line of attack for populists everywhere – and threats to restrict funding, which was disproportionately directed towards PiS-aligned groups.

The fightback

But civil society didn’t just quietly accept its fate. Recent years have seen a burgeoning of creative activism from Poland’ more progressive side, along with attempts to bridge divides – including between young and older people, and urban and rural populations.

On the campaign trail, the opposition mobilised huge numbers to communicate that change was possible. June saw hundreds of thousands march in the capital, Warsaw, showing their support for democracy in one of the biggest demonstrations in post-communist Poland. That same month tens of thousands marched in the Warsaw Pride parade to insist they wouldn’t be silenced in an election year. Hundreds of thousands rallied again ahead of the election in October.

Another crucial factor in the outcome was the opposition’s strategy of running three separate lists rather than a combined one. In Hungary last year, a united opposition failed in its attempt to beat strongarm leader Viktor Orbán.

While the Hungarian election was even more skewed towards the ruling party, one of the problems was that the opposition alliance was amorphous and incoherent, compared to the ruling party’s very clear messaging, and Orbán easily exploited opposition rifts. It was a similar story for the united alliance that tried to beat a similar opponent, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in Turkey earlier this year.

In contrast, in Poland each party ran its own campaign, offering a wider range of options, and Third Way in particular likely played a crucial role in attracting former PiS voters.

It was still a high-risk strategy: had the Left failed to clear the eight per cent threshold needed to win seats, the picture would have been very different. Tusk also had to walk a tightrope between promising the reforms his more progressive backers want and broadening his base to win over voters who’d previously backed PiS.

Civil society engagement particularly contributed to increased participation by women and young people.


High turnout appears to have been crucial. Civil society focused on encouraging people to vote, emphasising the importance of doing so. Among multiple examples, one group sought to mobilise women voters through a social media video showing a string of male politicians insulting women, encouraging them to change this.

These efforts, and the sense that this was a pivotal vote, were reflected in the highest-ever turnout in a democratic Polish election, 74.4 per cent, up 12.7 points on 2019. The outcome was shaped by the votes of people who normally stay away, with a much-increased youth turnout. Young people and women particularly backed the opposition, taking a stand for their rights and futures.

Voices from the frontline

Sonia Horonziak is coordinator and Filip Pazderski is head of the Democracy and Civil Society Programme at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a Polish think tank and independent centre for policy research and analysis.


The campaign was vicious, featuring hateful rhetoric, particularly directed at groups such as migrants. Opposition leaders, notably Donald Tusk, were targeted in every speech and interview given by PiS members, even when it was completely unrelated to the subject matter.

Even though the official campaign started only weeks before the elections, PiS’s unofficial campaign has been underway for months, dominating the pre-election narrative. The ruling party extensively used public resources and received support from companies owned or controlled by the State Treasury. During the official campaign period, the public broadcaster exhibited a clear bias in favour of PiS, undermining the chances of any other party. PiS politicians were shown more often and only in a good light. By contrast, opposition party representatives were depicted only badly, and some very badly.

During the electoral campaign PiS introduced the idea of a referendum, which was clearly unconstitutional, on issues aligned with its political agenda. In the referendum, people were asked whether they approved of the privatisation of state-owned enterprises, an increase in the retirement age, the admission of immigrants under the EU relocation mechanism and the removal of the barricade on Poland’s border with Belarus.

The referendum allowed state-owned companies to engage in the electoral race and provide funding to the ruling party. This wasn’t subject to control or limitations, further contributing to an uneven and biased race in favour of PiS.

However, the results favoured opposition parties, which secured enough seats to form a coalition excluding PiS. This indicated that people had grown tired of the hateful rhetoric and propaganda spread by the government. An IPA survey carried out earlier this year showed a significant increase in dissatisfaction with the country’s political and economic situation. It was particularly high among young people and women, which contributed to their views being expressed at ballot boxes and the final outcome of the elections.

Civil society played a crucial role in ensuring the fairness of the election. Several organisations conducted extensive training for thousands of people who volunteered to become electoral observers, empowering them to oversee the elections and ensure compliance with the law. Civil society educated voters on election participation and organised several extensive campaigns to encourage turnout, especially dedicated to women and young people, resulting in a remarkable 74.4 per cent voter turnout, a record in Poland.

Civil society engagement particularly contributed to increased participation by women and young people, with turnout among young people 20 per cent higher compared to previous elections. We did our best to increase people’s engagement because it’s essential to achieve a truly representative democracy.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Filip and Sonia. Read the full interview here.

Challenges ahead

The government that’s likely to result can be expected to restore its backing for Ukraine, which PiS rowed back from, in part to try to stop voters switching to Confederation. There’s also a big change ahead in relations to the EU.

With Hungary’s Orbán continuing to attack the EU as part of his nationalist strategy – he recently compared EU membership to Soviet dominance – and a pro-Russian populist heading Slovakia’s new government, another PiS term could potentially have seen the creation of a bloc able to resist pressures to comply with EU human rights standards. The result in Poland breaks the chain.

But there are challenges ahead. President Andrzej Duda is allied with PiS and will remain in office until 2025, making for an uncomfortable relationship, given that he has a presidential veto the coalition will lack the votes to counter.

Duda has just used his powers to delay the opening of parliament until 13 November, almost a month after the election, and has previously said he intends to give PiS, as leader of the alliance with the most seats, the first shot at forming a government. This may be an attempt to buy time in the hope that PiS can persuade other members of parliament to defect. It means that even if PiS were to lose a no-confidence vote when parliament opens, a new government might not be formed until December.

Even then, the administration is packed with PiS allies who can be expected to try to obstruct the new government. It may take years to unpick the politicisation of the courts.

The three groups willing to form a new government – themselves made up of diverse parties – will have to find ways of managing their differences, and compromise will likely disappoint some of their supporters’ expectations. For example, many women who backed change expect to see progress in rolling back abortion restrictions. But while Tusk has promised to allow abortions up to 12 weeks, one of Third Way’s leaders has expressed reservations. The parties will likely also disagree on how best to target social welfare spending as they seek to unravel PiS’s approach of directing funding towards its core supporters.

Precedents abound of political coalitions coming together to oust populist leaders only to crumble soon afterwards. That happened in Slovakia, where a unity government characterised by infighting and seen as ineffective plummeted in popularity, enabling the former prime minister to make a comeback. The Czech Republic’s united opposition prevailed in the 2021 election but has faced large-scale anti-government protests since.

It may also be the case that the opposition has benefited less from active enthusiasm than from rejection of incumbency, which means this shouldn’t be mistaken for a turning point in the trajectory of right-wing populism and nationalism in Europe. Under conditions of high inflation, incumbents around the world are losing elections as voters embrace alternatives. But if the political beneficiaries of this turnover are seen as failing to do better, they can quickly fall out of favour. Local and European Parliament elections next year will offer an early test.

But for now there’s a moment of opportunity. The parties that should eventually enter government have pledged to work with civil society. They need to make good on that. Civil society is cautiously optimistic but knows a long struggle lies ahead to reverse regression. The new government and the EU – which Polish people have consistently shown they overwhelmingly support – need to recognise that an enabled and effective civil society is a indispensable guarantor of democracy and civic freedoms. As the government sets out to undo the damage caused by PiS, civil society stands ready to partner.


  • President Andrzej Duda should give the go ahead to the formation of a new governing coalition at the earliest opportunity rather than delaying to benefit the current ruling party.
  • The new government, with the backing of the European Union, should develop a strategy to respect civic space and enable and partner with civil society.
  • Polish civil society should advocate for the new government to reverse regression in the rule of law, judicial independence, media and civic freedoms and women’s and LGBTQI+ rights.

Cover photo by Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images