Poland’s populist ruling party appeared to be on the brink of losing power, after an exit poll in a bitter and high-stakes national election predicted that the country’s opposition has the clearest path to forming its next government.
The poll projected that the Law and Justice party, known by its Polish acronym PiS, would win the most seats after Sunday’s vote.
But it would fall some way short of a parliamentary majority, and the opposition bloc – led by former Polish prime minister and European Council president Donald Tusk – appeared on course to gain control if it struck deals with smaller parties.
Record numbers of voters turned out to cast their ballots, the National Electoral Commission said on Monday, underscoring the pivotal importance of this election. The exit poll suggested that turnout was 73%, the highest in any Polish parliamentary vote.
Both Tusk and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the PiS chairman and Poland’s de facto leader, attempted to declare victory on Sunday night. In reality, however, days of negotiations may lie ahead until the make-up of the country’s new government becomes clear.
“The exit poll results give us the fourth victory in the history of our party in the parliamentary elections and the third victory in a row; this is a great success of our formation and our project for Poland,” Kaczynski told supporters.
But in an admission of the tall order facing his party, he added: “We still face the question of whether this success will be able to be transformed into another term of office of our government. And we don’t know that yet. But we must have hope and we must also know that regardless of whether we are in power or in the opposition, we will implement this project in various ways and we will not allow Poland to be betrayed.”
Tusk appeared buoyant, saying: “This is the end of bad times, this is the end of the rule of PiS.” He said his group’s supporters “have won freedom, we have won our Poland back.”
A smaller coalition called Third Way may end up as kingmakers. The centrist bloc has criticized both major parties, arguing that neither represents Poland’s best path forward. But its leader Szymon Hołownia has long lambasted the performance of PiS, and insisted he would not pursue a pact with the incumbent party.
Another of its senior figures, Dariusz Klimczak, told the Polish Press Agency (PAP) on Monday that the Third Way has ruled out coalition talks with PiS, saying that its campaign was predicated on criticizing PiS economic, health, education and foreign policies.
In post-election appearances, Third Way candidates appeared to indicate that they would seek to enter government in an opposition alliance if exit polls proved correct.
Klimczak told PAP that opposition leaders remained in constant contact but that the first meaningful talks regarding a coalition government would take place shortly after the announcement of the official results.
“If the exit polls are accurate, it means Poles have chosen a stable state that invests in their future, strengthens public institutions, and solves people’s problems instead of creating propaganda and chaos,” Paulina Hening-Kloska said. She called on Poland’s PiS President, Andrzej Duda, not to frustrate efforts to change leadership.
“I hope the president will save us two months of havoc and that he’ll respect the voters’ decision thus making it possible for us to create a new, democratic government.”
Duda praised the record turnout on Monday, expressing his gratitude that so many Poles had participated in the vote.
“We have shown that we take matters into our own hands responsibly,” he added. “These were important elections. We are all now waiting for the completion of the National Electoral Commission’s work.”
‘Poland is back’
The outcome of this election could have major ramifications for Poland’s future direction, the balance of power in the European Union and the future of the war in Ukraine.
PiS, which has been mired in bitter spats with the EU during its eight years in power, was seeking a third consecutive electoral success – an unprecedented feat since Poland regained its independence from the Soviet Union.
The party has been accused by the EU and Polish opposition figures of dismantling Poland’s democratic institutions during its time in power. PiS has brought the Polish judiciary, public media and cultural bodies under greater control, and has taken a hard line against abortion access and LGBTQ+ rights.
The exit poll, which seemed to indicate that the end of their stint in power was likely, was celebrated by some European Parliament lawmakers.
“Poland is back,” Siegfried Mureșan, the Romanian vice-chair of the center-right European People’s Party group, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “By far the most important election in Europe this year is the Polish national election. It ended tonight with a victory for democracy.”
Tusk, by contrast, has presented himself as a leader who would restore and amplify Poland’s standing in Europe. Warsaw has earned goodwill in the West through its response to the Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and smoothing tensions with Brussels could position Poland as a major player in the EU.
During a bitter campaign, PiS shot back at Tusk’s opposition coalition, claiming the former leader would be subservient to Brussels and Berlin if he returned to power.
PiS has overhauled many of Poland’s institutions during its eight-year rule; the judiciary and public media have been brought under greater control, with state-run television outlets essentially becoming government mouthpieces.
Its critics had likened its agenda to that of Viktor Orban, the authoritarian leader of Hungary. Should the opposition oust the party, Warsaw would be expected to reorientate itself towards the United States and Western Europe in terms of foreign policy and reverse many of the domestic changes made by PiS.
But that could be a complicated mission for a coalition government encompassing various ideological groupings. The left-wing party Lewica may be required to prop up a minority Tusk-led government, along with centrists and center-right lawmakers.
High inflation and the security of Poland’s borders have been front of mind for voters during the campaign. Developments were also watched in Kyiv, after a tense period that saw relations between the two close allies sour.
Poland has been a crucial partner to Ukraine as it fights Russian forces in its east, but Warsaw was intensely critical of Ukraine’s government during a dispute over the imports of Ukrainian grain.
Voters were electing members of both houses of Poland’s parliament, with 231 seats in the Sejm – Warsaw’s lower house – needed for a party to clinch power outright.