Polish voters called time on Jarosław Kaczyński’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) this weekend, with the right-wing party failing to win a majority in Sunday’s parliamentary election that may mark the beginning of the end of its eight-year stint in power.
The liberal opposition Civic Coalition (KO)—led by former Polish prime minister and former European Council president Donald Tusk—appears, with the cooperation of two smaller parties, to have a path to power.
PiS Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said his party is also ready to try to form another government if asked to do so by President Andrzej Duda.
The outcome of the nascent coalition bargaining will decide the political trajectory of a fulcrum of the European Union-NATO response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, at a time when American and European voices are warning that political and military assistance for Kyiv is finite.
Officials in Kyiv were perturbed by rising Polish acrimony in the run-up to this weekend’s election, with a dispute over Ukrainian westward grain exports devolving into a wider spat with PiS leaders.
The standoff came as a shock given PiS’ role as one of Kyiv’s most hawkish backers during Russia’s invasion, with Poland serving as a key provider of military aid, a conduit for NATO weapons heading east, and a loud pro-Ukrainian voice within the EU.
The ruling party’s acrimony was interpreted by some observers as an effort to stave off the electoral threat of the far-right Confederation party, which has been explicitly hostile to the Ukrainian government and around 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees living in Poland.
But Ukraine-skeptic PiS-Confederation rhetoric does not appear to have swayed enough Polish voters, among whom there was record turnout. An Ipsos exit poll published on Monday showed PiS with 36.6 percent of the vote, which would translate into 198 seats in the 460-seat lower house of parliament. Confederation is on course to win a lower-than-expected 6.4 percent of the vote.
Though PiS is set to emerge as the largest single party, Tusk’s KO coalition has a path to a parliamentary majority with the cooperation of the center-right Third Way and the leftist Lewica parties.
Tusk was critical of the PiS’ disputes with Ukraine ahead of the election. The former prime minister said maintaining good relations with Ukraine was “an existential issue” for Warsaw. Though Tusk acknowledged the difficulty of the agricultural export issue, he added: “There is no alternative to a pro-Ukrainian policy.”
Poland’s long suffering under, and opposition to, Russian imperialism—whether tsarist, Soviet, or 21st century—meant there is no danger of a pro-Russian administration coming to power in Warsaw.
“Both of those forces support Ukraine in our fight against Russian aggression, and they favor Ukrainian European integration,” Yurii Banakhovych, a correspondent with Ukrainian news agency Ukrinform, said about the PiS and KO at a Monday briefing.
Any Tusk-led coalition, Banakhovych said, “will probably be trying to smooth those sharp edges that emerged in relations between Ukraine and Poland during the elections campaign.”
Poland’s role in EU expansion, Piotr Buras—the head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)—told Newsweek, could prove an important foreign policy litmus test for a new liberal administration.
“I would expect that this government would significantly improve relations with Brussels, with Germany, with other European powers, and it could potentially become an important player in this debate about the EU reform and enlargement in general,” Buras said.
Poland under PiS has spent more time fighting with its EU partners than coordinating with them on the bloc’s future shape. “Poland is in fact quite indispensable for this debate to move forward,” Buras said. “And I think the Ukrainians probably know it quite well.”
Newsweek has contacted the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry by email to request comment.
No Guarantees for Kyiv
Still, a hypothetical Tusk government is not necessarily good news for Kyiv. “To us, if the PiS leaves government it’s not good news,” Oleksandr Merezhko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament and chair of the body’s foreign affairs committee, told Newsweek.
“I hoped that after the elections, if PiS stayed in power, it would restore relations prior to the emergence of the grain issue,” said Merezhko, who is a member of Ukraine’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and, along with PiS politicians, is part of the body’s European Conservatives Group and Democratic Alliance.
“I’m biased,” Merezhko said, noting his work with PiS colleagues at PACE. However, Merezhko added he is not yet convinced that Tusk will be as strong in supporting Ukraine as the PiS administration has been.
“Of course, we would like to keep ‘bipartisan’ support of Ukraine in the Polish parliament,” Merezhko said. “At the same time, PiS was very supportive of Ukraine from the first hours of the full-scale invasion. I’m not sure that [Tusk’s Civic Platform—or PO—party] would have been supportive in the same way as PiS.”
Tusk’s ties with Germany formed a key plank of the PiS attack strategy against the opposition in the election. Tusk made clear his intention to repair Warsaw-Brussels and Warsaw-Berlin ties damaged by eight years of PiS anti-EU agitation.
“To me, PiS is pro-American, whereas PO is pro-German,” Merezhko said. “I prefer pro-American…If Germany someday changes its policy towards Ukraine, I don’t know where the PO will go.”
“PiS wants the U.S. to take leadership on the Ukrainian issue and is ready to support the U.S. efforts, whereas PO will be much more EU-oriented on this issue,” Merezhko said. “I saw the difference between PiS and PO in the PACE. PiS was much more resolute in the struggle against Russia.”
Some bilateral issues will not be resolved by a change in leadership. Morawiecki’s September announcement that Poland would no longer send weapons to Ukraine prompted a flurry of headlines but was more a reflection of Poland reaching the end of its export capacity rather than a sudden drop-off in support.
And on the issue of agricultural exports, Tusk will have to be seen as standing up for Poles and the country’s influential farming sector, regardless of any sympathy with Kyiv.
Polish election authorities are still counting the votes cast this weekend. Coalition negotiations will have already begun, though it may take some time before there is any significant resolution. As the single party with the most votes, PiS will likely be offered the chance to form a government first. Tusk will only get his chance if PiS fails.
“This means that the PiS will likely remain in power at least until mid-December as a caretaker government with full control over state institutions,” Buras said. “The real test of whether and how the power will be transferred to the new government will come at the end of the year.”
A fall of stagnation might prove problematic for Ukraine as it seeks to shore up Western backing ahead of another difficult winter. The next administration in Warsaw will have to juggle difficult economic and political questions, particularly if it is led by Tusk and his allies, who have made clear their intention to overhaul many of PiS’ anti-democratic policies.
“The problem is also that after this election and having high polarization, Poland might plunge into internal political struggle and pay less attention to Ukraine,” Merezhko said.
A PiS in opposition will bring its own challenges, Buras said, especially if supported by Confederation. The party, he explained, “was actually quite skeptical about Ukraine even before the war, but it became for Ukraine because of the Polish security interests in the first place, and also because of the fact that this Ukrainian stance and Poland’s central role in supporting Ukraine elevated Poland’s position in Europe, and especially in relation to the U.S.”
“That was the foundation of the strong Polish-American bond in the last two years,” Buras added. With PiS out of government and ties with the White House no longer its problem, “its position could evolve,” Buras said.
“It will not affect the government’s position and policy so much, but it will affect the overall political debate on Ukraine in Poland with indirect consequences for the government.”