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Interview | Elections of Hope in Poland, or How to defeat illiberal populism?

As the newly elected Polish government is finally sworn in, Civil.ge-s Kristina Pitalskaya spoke with Zosia Lutkiewicz, the President of the Political Accountability Foundation in Warsaw, Poland, about her analysis of the recent political shifts in the country. From dissecting the strategies adopted by the opposition to exploring the dynamics of generational change among voters and the crucial role played by civil society and the diaspora, Lutkiewicz sheds light on the intricate factors that influenced the outcome of the 2023 parliamentary elections. Join us as we navigate the nuanced landscape of Polish politics and draw lessons that may be relevant for other nations grappling with challenges posed by illiberal populism.


What happened: elections of hope

On October 15, 2023, Poland witnessed one of the most crucial elections in its recent democratic history. The results of these parliamentary elections were eagerly anticipated, given the concerns about the potential third term of the right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS) party, which had returned to power in October 2015.

The 2023 elections in Poland carried immense significance, involving issues such as the nearly complete control of the judiciary and media by the ruling Law and Justice party and, some Poles feared, even the country’s EU membership in the long run. Since taking power in 2015, PiS implemented judicial reforms violating EU law, resulting in strained relations with Brussels and the US, ultimately damaging Poland’s reputation and political stance. In 2020, PiS further tightened abortion laws in Poland, which were already among the strictest in the EU, thus, leading to Poland’s largest demonstrations since the Solidarity movement in the 1980s and further lowering the government’s approval ratings.

Salome Zurabishvili and Donald Tusk during the latter’s tenure as President of the European Council. Photo: European Union

Emotions further mattered in these elections, especially because the government turned to its well- tested mobilization strategy and brought up the immigration topic to the election day referendum, asking the voters their views on whether to accept migrants, keep a new wall on the border with Belarus, raise the retirement age and sell off state assets. PiS has taken a tough anti-immigration stance since 2015, opposing the EU’s idea of redistributing migrants across the EU member states under the so-called mandatory solidarity mechanism. Planned as a voter mobilization effort of PiS, the referendum was invalidated by low turnout.

Voters turnout – a historic high

Somewhat unexpectedly, the record turnout of 74.38% due to the high mobilization of women, youth, and urban voters was the major factor in the opposition’s victory. This was the highest turnout since the fall of communism in 1989 (62.7%) and a 12-p.p. increase from 2019 (61.74%).

The research commissioned by the Batory Foundation summarizes the complex reasons behind the voter mobilization in the final weeks of the campaign. Based on the report, undeniable influences which were accumulating ahead of elections were frustration and anger among voters related to inflation, high prices, governmental arrogance, and disregard for women’s rights. Opposition to PiS also served as a protest against the ruling party’s encroachment on freedoms, imposition of a certain way of life, and intrusion into privacy.

Mobilizing factors included a sense of community among those wanting to change the government and their perception that there was a significant number of highly dissatisfied individuals with the ruling party, highlighted by marches organized by the Civic Platform and long queues at polling stations. Emotional distance from PiS and the perception of its unattractiveness also played a role. The aversion to PiS was so strong that it motivated even those individuals who did not entirely identify with opposition parties to vote against it. Emotionally charged events in the final weeks and days of the campaign, such as the parliamentary debate on TVP, the visa scandal, the pedophilia scandal involving YouTubers, and the actions of parties participating in the elections, also played a significant role in altering the dynamics of the political landscape.

The reports concludes that the multitude of online campaigns and pro-turnout activities led by non-governmental organizations created an impression that the elections were crucial, and everyone should participate. A new social norm seemed to emerge: “one must go and cast their vote” because a vote in the elections truly matters and can bring about significant change.

This has shown once again that Poles are strongly attached to democracy. The Polish diaspora voted in large numbers, too: the diaspora registrations for elections have doubled (608,000) for the 2023 vote compared to 2019 (314,000). And the voters were there to make their point: although polls were scheduled from 7:00 to 21:00, individuals waited in lines, and the final ballot in the Polish city of Wrocław as late as 02:41.

What did the opposition do differently?

Although the Law and Justice party won most votes, it failed to retain its governing majority. In contrast, the mainstream opposition, comprising the Civic Coalition, Third Way, and the Left, secured enough seats (248) to form a new government. Their recipe for success involved a straightforward strategy: the parties decided against creating a unified coalition, opting instead to present distinct programs to voters. At the same time, they demonstrated their ability to collaborate by mutually agreeing not to compete in the individual mandate Senate districts.

In 2023, the opposition increased its vote share by 8.5% compared to 2019, while PiS fell by 8.2, granting the opposition a majority of seats. The role of smaller opposition parties was decisive, sharing credit for a significant swing.

In a sign of unity and hope, on October 1, 2023, two weeks before the election day, the opposition drew an estimated one million people to a rally in Warsaw called by the Civic Platform – the largest opposition party. Donald Tusk, addressing the crowd at the “March of a Million Hearts,” said: “When I see this sea of hearts, when I see these hundreds of thousands of smiling faces, I feel that this breakthrough moment is coming in the history of our homeland.”

Many heralded the Polish election results as a failure for autocratic populism, offering hope to the EU member states such as Hungary and Slovakia. Reflecting on the pre-election period in a highly polarized country, questions arose about how the electoral victory was achieved through joint efforts of the opposition, civil society, and voters, which the interview below aims to explore.

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Zosia Lutkiewicz is the President of the Management Board of the Political Accountability Foundation in Warsaw, Poland. She is an expert on elections and civil society development. She participated in and coordinated observation missions in Poland and abroad, including in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan.


Kristina Pitalskaya, Civil.ge: In hindsight, what was the formula for change used by the Polish opposition? Are there best practices that could be relevant to other countries battling illiberal populism?

Zosia Lutkiewicz: It is important to note that such an outcome and record-high turnout took us all by surprise. Before the election, you could hear a lot of discussion among ordinary Poles about the recipe for electoral success – whether the opposition parties should unite or run separately. Reflecting on the Polish opposition’s success, we can now distinguish several key factors that contributed to the formula for change, and these practices could indeed offer valuable insights for other countries grappling with illiberal populism.

One of the critical elements of the Polish opposition’s strategy was the decision not to form a united coalition while still showing the potential for post-election cooperation. However, the parties still managed to agree on a set of shared goals for a would-be government and refrained from running against each other in electoral constituencies in the Senate elections. This unity in diversity allowed them to consolidate votes and present a formidable challenge to the ruling party.

Despite being distinct parties with different programs, [opposition] strategically aligned on a set of shared goals sending a clear message to voters that they are ready to work together in case of an electoral victory.

Another important factor was ensuring differentiation but not beyond partnership. Civic Coalition, the Third Way, and the Left all have very distinct programs ranging from progressive left to ideologically conservative, economically liberal center-right – forming one coalition and seemingly putting all these differences aside for the sake of an electoral victory would not have been credible for Polish voters. Not doing so allowed the opposition parties to maintain their individual identities and programs. This approach ensured that voters had diverse options to consider within the opposition while not being “forced to” vote tactically, sometimes referred to as voting for the “lesser evil” – a party they do not agree with but which has the biggest chance of winning the election. It also helped to attract more voters representing a range of political, economic, and ideological preferences – allowing for a different, less polarized framing of the electoral goals.

The opposition prioritized direct interactions with voters, both online and offline, including the diaspora. Physical engagements, meetings, and outreach efforts helped establish a personal connection with the electorate. This approach was particularly crucial in the Internet age, demonstrating that despite the prevalence of online communication, face-to-face interactions remained significant. This helped foster the sense of voting for a specific candidate – someone to represent the voter’s interests in Parliament – instead of just a political party.

Early and sustained civil society engagement played a pivotal role. Several NGOs started planning their activities and campaigns many months ahead. No formal coalitions were formed here either, but regular – weekly – meetings, which started almost 16 months ahead of the elections, allowed for better cooperation and the creation of joint activities. The engagement included working together on educational materials, get-out-the-vote campaigns, sharing content on social media, and joining each other’s offline and online events. This early involvement proved effective in mobilizing support and disseminating information. Still, more importantly, it allowed for trust and understanding to be built between CSO leaders, which turned out to be crucial in the pre-election period when things got heated.

The opposition parties focused on addressing specific issues that mattered most to their constituencies, such as economic and social policies, foreign policy, women’s rights, LGBTQI+ rights, climate, and the role of the church in society. By aligning their programs with the people’s concerns, they created a positive, issue-based campaign rather than encouraging people to vote against Party A or B. This really appealed to young voters, who do not necessarily find themselves in the binary of Polish politics and thus were able to vote for an issue they care about and a person who would champion this issue in the Parliament on their behalf.

By aligning their programs with the concerns of the people, [opposition] were able to attract voters, including young voters, who were voting for issues that mattered to them rather than just against a political party.

Utilizing social media and influencers had a critical impact. Recognizing the significance of online platforms, the opposition leveraged social media extensively. Influencers and social media campaigns relied on political humor, helping make politics more accessible and engaging for younger voters. Political humor emerged as a powerful tool, providing both relief and insight. Pages like “Make Life Harder” were channels for political news, memes, and… memes about political news. This fusion effectively alleviated the intensity of the election period, offering a respite for all voters (including politicians and civil society). Striking a balance between serious content and lighthearted humor became crucial, acknowledging the taxing nature of elections while simultaneously educating and entertaining the audience.

Many of the campaigns we’ve seen ahead of election day were not planned beforehand – they emerged from the need of the moment – and thanks to that spontaneity and the ability to understand and address the mood, they seemed genuine. Another key aspect of the credibility of these campaigns was their peer-to-peer nature – you saw Gen Z talking to Gen Z using a language this generation understands – instead of a bunch of boomers or even millennials trying to create content that they think would appeal to “the youth.” This inclusive and innovative use of digital platforms contributed to increased voter participation.

Based on all these factors, my main message to political parties and civil society would be:

“Stay true to who you really are. If you’re an NGO – use your platform in a credible way: if you’re an animal rights organization, you can assess the parties’ programs from your perspective and thus guide people’s voting preferences from a policy rather than politics perspective. As a politician, it is important that you find your unique voice, a cause that you would be championing if you were elected. As a voter, find the thing that you care about the most, and vote. Make this election about your needs, hopes, and dreams for your life and your country.”

While each country’s context is unique, these practices emphasize the importance of unity in diversity, direct engagement, and addressing specific issues to build a successful, credible opposition against illiberal populism. The Polish experience provides a case study for adapting and implementing similar strategies in different political landscapes.

  • The role of civil society is pivotal yet delicate in its engagement with political processes. What were the primary objectives of Polish civil society, and how did it ensure a positive impact on election participation while maintaining its credibility?

Going into this election, we knew that civil society would have a big role to play – educating voters, mobilizing them, and monitoring the conduct of the electoral process. At this moment, it is important to note that Polish civil society suffers from similar polarization as the political scene – thus, some organizations were more open to working with political parties than others. But I think we all understood that we could not wait for political parties to act – especially since, for many months, it seemed like we were more ready for this election campaign than they were. At the same time, we knew that no matter what we do, we would not be able to influence the strategies employed by political parties.

Of course, there have been interactions between civil society and political parties – some more successful than others, but I would not call this a partnership. This was evident in the recruitment of poll workers and election observers. It was largely NGOs who took on the burden of raising people’s awareness that they can contribute to how the election day is conducted, processing their data, and even training them. Approximately 25,000 people applied through this NGO-led portal, where you could choose the role you want to play and pick the political party you want to nominate.

However, once the applicants were handed over to political parties, the contact stopped for weeks on end, causing concerns and demobilization in previously very motivated citizens. This lesson showed us that even if civil society cooperates with political parties, we cannot assume responsibility for their flaws and failures (without damaging our own credibility).

Even if civil society cooperates with political parties, we cannot assume responsibility for their flaws and failures without damaging our own credibility).

And credibility is something that was a concern for many of us. In an increasingly polarized society, the image of non-governmental organizations has suffered as they’ve been increasingly perceived as serving one side of the political scene or the other instead of benefitting all of society. I know Georgian civil society faces similar issues and struggles to assert its independence from political parties. In the Polish case, CSOs often preferred to emphasize their independence from politicians, despite some shared goals, to try to maintain credibility in the long run.

Poland’s highly polarized political system posed challenges for civil society – sometimes maintaining independence required an unwavering commitment to engage with both ends of the political spectrum. Often, these efforts were not reciprocated, invitations were ignored, and emails were left unanswered. Still, we believe that the mere fact they happened could be seen as a building block for future interactions after the elections.

Often, efforts to engage both sides of the political scene were not reciprocated, but we believe that the mere fact we tried could be seen as a building block for future interactions after the elections.

In such a polarized society, attempting to build bridges becomes a significant endeavor. Although results may not materialize immediately, the long-term impact is crucial. It is essential to engage in dialogue, even when the other side remains unresponsive. By persistently trying to communicate, civil society contributes to a future where efforts at mutual understanding and collaboration are remembered, potentially fostering change in the political landscape.

  • Generational change among voters was evident as a significant narrative shift occurred before and after the elections. Initially, there was a prevalent belief that young people were indifferent and uninterested in voting. However, post-election, it became apparent that the youth played a substantial role in determining the outcome. Can we attribute this to cultural and religious factors among Polish youth, and if so, how did it influence their behavior?

Undoubtedly, Poland is experiencing a decline in religiousness. As evidenced in the 2021 census, the number of people who identify as Catholics has declined by six million since 2010. While this shift is noteworthy, what proved more influential for the mobilization effort were discouraging opinion polls depicting young people as disengaged and apathetic towards politics. They showed that young males favor the far-right libertarian Confederation party, while young females might abstain from voting altogether. These negative forecasts also created a sense of urgency among civil society.

What proved more influential for the mobilization effort were discouraging opinion polls depicting young people as disengaged and apathetic towards politics.

Consequently, considerable efforts were invested in connecting with young voters. Crucial to this outreach was conveying that elections were not abstract events but had tangible implications for people’s daily lives and the country’s future. This realization dawned during the 2020 pro-abortion protests when the state’s intervention in people’s lives became palpable, challenging the notion of living in a self-sufficient bubble. That is when people realized that even if they do everything in their power to escape from the state (use private healthcare, benefit from private education and go on holidays abroad), the government would interfere with their lives if it wanted to anyway.

Thus, a change as to how people perceive elections was on the horizon. The message underlining many civil society activities was that the elections transcend individual political parties and that they are about issues that directly matter to the people. And the conversation followed – more and more people were making these elections about issues of their own choosing.

People realized that even if they live in a self-sufficient bubble, the government would interfere with their lives if it wanted to anyway.

Utilizing social media, different outreach strategies and the omnipresence of various get-out-the-vote campaigns made voting trendy. They aligned it with causes such as climate change and women’s rights. The impact of influencers and platforms like TikTok, where messaging was driven by young people themselves, further reshaped the political landscape.

Grassroots efforts and taking those important conversations to social media ensured that first-time voters, students, and their peers led youth engagement efforts on their own terms, avoiding a sense of imposition from older, sometimes more established groups or organizations.

The plethora and sheer diversity of get-out-the-vote campaigns (like “Silent we already were”) and educational content (like that presented by “Orientuj się / Orient yourself” on TikTok and Instagram) showcased the creativity and innovation behind citizen-led initiatives. Spontaneous endeavors initiated by groups of friends (“Dziewczyny na Wybory / Girls to Elections”) demonstrated that citizen engagement did not require significant budgets and that everyone had a part to play. The “marriage” of online and offline strategies and the extended campaign period into the holiday season, and enabled diverse forms of participation and outreach – such as at music festivals.

While planning initially aimed for a more structured approach, the dynamic nature of activism led to spontaneous, complementary efforts initiated by different groups and individuals. If I had to share one unwritten message with voters, I would encourage them to speak up and engage because even small actions can have a substantial impact on those they reach. As for civil society, the key takeaway would be to try to strike a balance between planning and flexibility – recognizing that unforeseen events may unfold during the campaign, requiring adaptive responses to changing realities and opportunities.

  • Does this dynamic also extend to the Polish diaspora?

The diaspora played a significant role, demonstrating a distinct engagement by self-mobilizing to vote and organizing the elections themselves. Voting from abroad is no simple feat – one can only vote in person and must actively register and find your polling station.

While the cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs left something to be desired, diaspora-led groups took matters into their own hands.  Diaspora organizations and ordinary citizens in places like Norway, the UK, and the US worked to establish additional polling stations in communities with a substantial diaspora presence. They identified venues, recruited polling station personnel, and even organized training sessions. All this ensured easy accessibility and dispelled any excuse of inconvenience for those reluctant to vote. Politicians themselves actively campaigned abroad, recognizing the importance of engaging with people beyond the confines of social networks and traditional in-country pre-election campaigning.

Beyond organizational efforts, something very distinctive was that people genuinely believed they could make an impact – they took the initiative and tried until they made the decision-makers listen.

  • Reflecting on the post-election results, what is the main challenge shaping the dynamics for the new government under Donald Tusk, foreseeing a potentially bumpy path ahead?

Firstly, managing expectations and outlining different post-election scenarios should be a crucial part of any communication strategy as it helps prepare and reassure voters about what’s to come. We did not excel at that, partly because the result took everyone slightly by surprise but also because of the complexity and unpredictability of the political landscape.

Despite the opposition’s victory, the reality is that the situation has not undergone a complete 180-degree transformation. The existing presidency of Andrzej Duda (who has veto power) adds a layer of complexity to Tusk’s government, indicating a potentially challenging road ahead, at least until the 2025 Presidential election. In this case, it became paramount to communicate this to the electorate, especially considering the anticipation among mobilized voters who expected immediate and sweeping changes. Transparency about the ongoing nature of the work is essential.

Managing expectations and outlining different post-election scenarios should be a crucial part of any communication strategy.

From the perspective of the first month of the Tusk government, one could foresee President Duda obstructing certain government initiatives. Right after the election there was hope that the President could see beyond his personal interest and the demands from Law and Justice and show that he is capable of the nuanced collaboration and compromises required among different branches of the government. Unfortunately, the current scenario brings Poland to the brink of a political standoff marred by the persisting consequences of the rule of law crisis.

One area that has not been largely affected by the change of government has been foreign policy. Regardless of the election outcome, the general commitment to the Transatlantic Alliance, Ukraine, and regional stability remains steadfast. The Tusk government will naturally try to resolve the tension between Brussels and Warsaw regarding the rule of law and rebuild Poland’s image as a reliable partner and a shining example for other countries in the region. However, overall, this continuity is a positive aspect and mitigates concerns about a drastic shift in political direction.

Despite the euphoria surrounding the opposition’s victory in the Polish Parliamentary elections, it is essential to acknowledge, from a civil society perspective, that the real work is just beginning. The focus now is on holding the winner accountable, meticulously monitoring the work of the new government, to foster a more effective and cooperative partnership in a new setting.

Despite the euphoria surrounding the opposition’s victory in the Polish Parliamentary elections, it is essential to acknowledge, from a civil society perspective, that the real work is just beginning.

What now?

On December 12, nearly two months post-election, Donald Tusk secured a vote of confidence in the Polish Parliament, affirming the pro-EU path for the government formed under the banner of the “Coalition of the 15th of October,” as Tusk aptly termed it. It is reasonable to assume that a primary objective for the new Polish government will be the unraveling of numerous reforms implemented by Law and Justice. However, fulfilling this commitment may encounter obstacles given the current President, Supreme Court, and the Constitutional Tribunal (notably, all 15 current judges on the Constitutional Tribunal were appointed by the PiS).

The complexities of navigating these challenges lie ahead as President Andrzej Duda – still seen as loyal to PiS, and PM Donald Tusk are already in visible conflict over endeavors to reinstate the rule of law in Poland. Only time will reveal the government’s ability to meet its promises in the face of these hurdles.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)

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