Poland’s pro-European opposition seems set to oust populists, but tense days lie ahead

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Poland’s opposition is on course to remove the populist ruling party from power, the final results from a tight national election have confirmed, setting the stage for weeks of high-stakes negotiations to form Warsaw’s next government.

The incumbent Law and Justice party, known by its Polish acronym PiS, won the biggest share of the vote with 35.38%, but lost its parliamentary majority, according to official results released Tuesday by the National Electoral Commission after all ballots were counted.

PiS finished ahead of opposition party Civic Coalition (KO), led by former Polish Prime Minister and European Council President Donald Tusk, on 30.7%. The close result made the centrist Third Way and left-wing Lewica parties kingmakers; both groups are resoundly opposed to the hardline PiS and have indicated they will seek to form a new coalition government with Tusk’s bloc.

The situation points to an end to PiS’ divisive eight-year rule, which saw a drastic overhaul of Poland’s democratic institutions and grave warnings that the country was lurching towards populist authoritarianism. Tusk had promised to restore democratic norms in Poland and cooperate with Western European allies, among whom Warsaw was fast becoming a pariah.

But a nervy few weeks may lie ahead. Poland’s PiS-aligned President, Andrzej Duda, is expected to give the PiS every chance to form a government before turning over proceedings to Poland’s new block of opposition lawmakers. Tusk must also cement an ideologically broad coalition of politicians in order to present a workable alternative.

“We will definitely try to build a parliamentary majority,” incumbent Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said, despite PiS seemingly having no avenues through which to find one.

According to the Polish constitution, the president must call a new parliamentary session within 30 days of the election. Then, he has 14 days to nominate a candidate for prime minister, after which the nominee has 14 days to win a vote of confidence in parliament.

PiS’ only obvious potential partner is the far-right Confederation party, which turned in a poorer than expected electoral performance after a summer of gaining momentum.

Sunday’s election saw a record turnout of 74%, underscoring the intense polarization that gripped Poland over recent years, as well as the high stakes of the vote.

Tusk had painted the election as a last chance to save Polish democracy. “Democracy has won,” he told supporters after Sunday’s exit poll pointed to the election’s outcome. “This is the end of the PiS government.”

If Tusk does eventually take charge of Poland, he will face a monumental task in reversing PiS’ illiberal reforms of the country’s judiciary, public media and cultural bodies.

He will also seek to re-establish Poland as a major player in the European Union, and likely look to smooth over tensions that emerged between Warsaw and Kyiv over the imports of Ukrainian grain.

But before then, a period of instability appears likely at the heart of Poland’s government, at a pivotal moment in the war in neighboring Ukraine.

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