The Return of Poland’s Anti-Government Opposition
Fabio Turco 19 June 2023

In Warsaw on June 4, the air was electric, in a way it had not been in a long time. From the early hours of the morning, the streets of the Polish capital had been unusually lively for a Sunday. Trains and buses streaming in from every corner of the country, underground stations overflowing with people and relatively slow traffic all signaled that it would be a day like no other. Thousands of EU flags, flying alongside Polish ones, marching towards Na Rozdrożu Square, at the centre of the city. The plan was to all meet at 12.

Donald Tusk, leader of Civic Platform (PO), had set that time a few weeks before. The idea was to go on a long march, about 3.5 km, all the way to Castle Square. The demonstration, originally intended solely for Tusk’s party, was meant to protest the policies of the conservative nationalist government led by Law and Justice (PiS), but it would also function as a way to measure Civic Platform’s strength in anticipation of the upcoming autumn elections. It would also, perhaps, send a message to the rest of the opposition.

The chosen date was highly evocative. On June 4, 1989, the people of Poland took part in their first partially free elections since the post-war period. At the time, the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) faced Solidarity, the trade union turned political movement that had been fighting the regime for a decade. Out of 100 contested Senate seats, Solidarity won 99 (an independent candidate won the remaining seat). Out of 35 contested seats in the Sejm, the Polish parliament’s lower house, Solidarity won 33. The remaining 65 seats were assigned to the PZPR, in accordance with the Round Table Agreement signed a few months earlier.

This was a moment of triumph in the history of Polish democracy, still remembered and celebrated today. As a further nostalgic gesture, Civic Platform also made a meaningful choice of iconography: the same election poster Solidarity used in 1989, featuring Gary Cooper as the sheriff in High Noon, striding forward with an electoral ballot in his hand.


How to Explain This Success?


All of this is insufficient to explain the enormous success of the demonstration Tusk summoned. According to its organisers, half a million people joined from all over Poland, while well-attended demonstrations also took place in other cities. It is difficult to find accurate estimates, but attendees say that number seems reliable.

The event that transformed one party’s demonstration into a gathering in defense of democracy had taken place a few days before, when President Andrzej Duda approved a law the government promoted as “against Russian influence”. Under this law, parliament must establish a commission to investigate whether or not Moscow interfered with Polish affairs between 2007 and 2022. The commission’s members to hold investigative and judicial powers, and would be granted immunity. Those found guilty of furthering Russian interests could be banned from public office for 10 years.

This law triggered the fury of the opposition and of a significant fraction of the public. Aside from its timing – elections will be held in four months and the earliest results are scheduled for September – the law’s constitutionality has also been called into question, given that it creates an administrative body whose powers are nearly unlimited. Donald Tusk himself, who served as Poland’s Prime Minister between 2007 and 2014, might be a target. More recently, Law and Justice and its leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, have repeatedly accused Tusk of being in Berlin’s pocket, cultivating friendly relations with Moscow in order to please Germany: for example by not opposing the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

According to opposition media, fearful they might lose their main figurehead not long before the elections, the new law, nicknamed “Lex Tusk”, constitutes nothing less than a coup. This was the alarm bell that rang across public opinion and explains the great success of the June 4 march. Duda himself appears to have realised his mistake, albeit too late: a few days after signing the law, he proposed amendments that would deprive the law of its least palatable elements, such as the commission’s power to issue public office bans. Instead, a kind of stigma would fall on the “guilty”, but otherwise they would suffer no practical consequences.

A first draft of “Lex Tusk 2.0” has already obtained parliamentary approval. The replacement of the original bill would also the Commission to delay the publication of its initial findings, which would now take place after the first electoral round.


As Elections Loom, the Opposition Returns


The June 4 demonstration was the largest in Poland since 1989, but above all it marks the reappropriation of a public space – the square – by an opposition party, for the first time in many years. Between 2015 and 2016, the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) took to the country’s squares to defend justice and oppose Law and Justice’s attack on public television. More recently, the general public had lent their support to the feminist collective All-Poland Women’s Strike (Strajk Kobiet). Between 2020 and 2021, the latter had defied anti-COVID measures to demonstrate against the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling that drastically limited access to abortion in the country. However, none of these demonstrations had rallied around a political party.

This time, however, a political party held everyone’s attention, including that of the other democratic opposition parties: Poland 2050, the Polish People’s Party (PSL), Left (Lewika). Although the leaders of these parties have all denied the possibility of balloting together at the next elections, they are reportedly open to the formation of a coalition government. This is not an unrealistic scenario. A poll Kantar carried out in the days following the march suggests that, if the election were held today, Civic Platform would obtain 32 percent of the vote, surpassing United Right, the coalition led by Law and Justice, which would obtain 31 percent. The Third Way, an alliance between Poland 2050 and the Polish People’s Party, would obtain 10 percent, and six percent would go to Left. The opposition parties, then, would obtain a little under 50 percent of the vote, while Law and Justice would lag behind even if it formed an alliance with the extreme-right party, Confederation (polling at 10 percent).

Even more notable is the fact that, compared to other electoral campaigns from the last eight years, this is the first time the opposition has attempted to at least compete. The last time was during presidential elections of spring 2015, when incumbent Bronisław Komorowski squandered his enormous lead in the polls, paving the way for Andrzej Duda’s victory. Law and Justice benefited from the situation by obtaining a supermajority of two-thirds of parliamentary seats. A similar scenario played out in 2019, though with a smaller gap between parties. Law and Justice once again obtained a solid majority in the Sejm (though not two-thirds of the house) while in the Senate the opposition parties won by two seats.

The following year, the dynamics that allowed Warsaw’s liberal mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, representing Civic Platform, to almost beat Andrzej Duda’s re-election, derived more than anything from the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic, which delayed the first round of voting and allowed the party to change its candidate mid-campaign. Trzaskowski had replaced Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, who, polls suggested, might not have made it past the first round of voting.

The next parliamentary elections, as already mentioned, will be held in the autumn. President Duda has until the beginning of August to announce the date, which will have to fall on one of the last three Sundays of October or the first in  November. Leaving aside the consequences of the “Lex Tusk”, from this moment on Civic Platform’s main challenge will be choosing a candidate for prime minister who will be open to engaging with the other opposition parties. The party’s chances are solid, but they are predicated on an extremely fragile balance. And there is no tactic that Law and Justice will not try.


Warsaw and Brussels: Checks and Balances


Internal Polish politics is closely tied to European politics. A few days after the “Lex Tusk” was approved, the European Commission launched an infringement procedure against Poland. The Commission expressed a concern that the new law might taint the validity of the upcoming elections.

Around the same time, the European Court of Justice ruled against Warsaw’s 2019 judicial reform, particularly condemning the proposed justice evaluation mechanism. It almost goes without saying that Warsaw and Brussels have clashed for years over the concept of rule-of-law, particularly in matters of justice.

The court in Luxembourg has essentially concluded that Polish justices have lost their independence, and there is no longer a separation between judicial and executive branch. The ruling therefore sided with the European Commission, which appealed the reform two years ago. In his response, Poland’s Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro, the reform’s architect and greatest champion, expressed his contempt for EU justices, calling them “corrupt”. For further context, it is worth recalling that Brussels has yet to release the 35.4 billion euros from its Recovery Fund earmarked for Poland, precisely because of Warsaw’s violation of the rule of law. The Commission is waiting for the Polish government to enact a series of reforms it requested last year when it approved the recovery plan for Poland. One of these reforms, which would affect the functioning of the Supreme Court, is currently under discussion at the Constitutional Tribunal.

Meanwhile, Duda looks to the future. In the first semester of 2025, Poland will take on the Presidency of the EU Council. This represents an important milestone, not long after the 20th anniversary of Warsaw joining the EU, in May 2024. On these bases, the Polish president has expressed a wish for greater dialogue among the nation’s institutions.

In order to improve cooperation between the Presidency, the Sejm and the Senate, Duda has proposed a law that nevertheless includes a rather controversial element. In practice, it would allow the president to veto Polish candidates for the main EU offices. Duda’s critics see this as significant overreach, but it might also be a sign that Duda believes that the country might well witness its first change of government in eight years in autumn.


Cover photo: Donald Tusk leader of the opposition party Civic Platform during an anti-government march in Warsaw called on the anniversary of the first democratic elections on June 4, 1989. Warsaw, Poland, on June 04, 2023


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