Berlin, babies and borders: What issues shaped Poland's 2023 election?

FILE - A supporter of the hard right Polish party Confederation holds up a candidate's campaign posterin Katowice, Poland, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.
FILE - A supporter of the hard right Polish party Confederation holds up a candidate's campaign posterin Katowice, Poland, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. Copyright Czarek Sokolowski/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Joshua Askew
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Euronews looked at the main issues - and flashpoints - that influenced that pivotal vote.


Poland's opposition won enough seats in nationwide elections on 15 October 2023 to take power from the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS). 

The surprise result saw Poland ditch the right-wingers in favour of Donald Tusk's liberal Civic Coalition, though PiS was still the largest party. 

Ahead of the vote, politicians fought tooth and claw, but what exactly were the main issues - and flashpoints - that shaped the election?  

1. Security

Even before campaigns got underway, security was one of the most important topics in Polish politics, with the country lying on the borders of Belarus and Ukraine. 

PiS leaders promised to ramp up military spending and build one of the strongest armies in Europe, emphasising the risk of Russia's war in Ukraine spiling into its territory.

The populist party was "naturally more sensitive" to this issue because its support base sits in the east and south of Poland on the frontier with Belarus and Ukraine, Wojciech Przybylski, a political analyst at Visegrad Insight, told Euronews.

But the opposition attached the same significance to security concerns, he added. 

Other observers take things further, arguing PiS deliberately over-exaggerated insecurity to influence the vote. 

"They were mostly trying to play on people's fears," explained Filip Pazderski, head of the democracy and civil society programme at the Polish Institute of Public Affairs. "The war was helping the ruling party because of this rally behind the flag effect."

Part of this threat perception was the idea that Poland is being "invaded by strange others", he continues, referring to the country's long-running migration crisis with Belarus. 

FILE - Members of a group of some 30 migrants seeking asylum are seen in Bialowieza, Poland, on 28 May 2023.
FILE - Members of a group of some 30 migrants seeking asylum are seen in Bialowieza, Poland, on 28 May 2023.Agnieszka Sadowska/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

"They used pictures of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea or took clips from riots in France to claim that if Poles voted for the opposition this is what will happen." 

Anti-migrant and refugee rhetoric was aired across the political spectrum in the run-up to the election, with Tusk vowing in a clip posted on social media: "Poles must regain control over this country and its borders". 

2. The EU (aka: relations with Berlin)

Central to debates ahead of the vote were Poland's ties with the European Union (EU), especially its foremost power Berlin. 

Since taking office in 2015, PiS veered towards authoritarianism and undermined the rule of law, bringing it into conflict with Brussels. 

Civic Coalition led by Tusk, a former president of the European Council, positioned itself as firmly pro-European, seeing the EU as the best way of guaranteeing the country's future security and prosperity. 

He proposed reversing erosions to the rule of law to release billions in frozen EU funds, a welcome boost for Warsaw's coffers. 

In contrast, PiS whipped up anti-German sentiment and struck an isolationist stance, said analyst Przybylski. 

"They were capitalising on the older electorate's distrust towards Germany... PiS framed the opposition as agents of Berlin in its supposed big plan to recreate the Second World War in which Germany and Russia attack Poland." 


"These are ridiculous claims," he added.

Poland's then de facto leader, deputy PM Jarosław Kaczyński, repeatedly accused Tusk of planning to sell state-owned companies to German investors, calling him a stooge of Berlin. 

3. Ukraine

Issues around Ukraine played a prominent role in the election campaign.  

As a former satellite state of the Soviet Union, Poland was quick to rally behind Kyiv when Russian tanks steamed across the border in February 2022. 

The country welcomed hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees and provided much military and financial support. 


But relations soured, with Warsaw saying in September that it would stop sending weapons to Kyiv

Poland's hard-right - which was growing in popularity, though did not do as well as expected in the election - tried to inflame hostility towards Ukrainian refugees. 

This came against a backdrop of Polish farmers protesting against cheap Ukrainian grain imports flooding into the country. 

FILE - A dump track unloads grain in a granary in the village of Zghurivka, Ukraine, on Aug. 9, 2022.
FILE - A dump track unloads grain in a granary in the village of Zghurivka, Ukraine, on Aug. 9, 2022.Efrem Lukatsky/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved

"PiS tried to gain additional votes because they had no certainty of achieving a majority like in previous elections," said Przybylski. "They tried to play this [refugee] card that is consistent with their isolationism and nationalism." 

However, supporters of both the main parties were overwhelmingly in favour of helping Ukraine, he continued. 


Refugees were listed as the least important issue out of 12 social problems in a September poll of Polish voters by IBRiS.

"I think the opposition maintained a good line. They saw refugees as a challenge and said they knew how to handle it. That this issue that can be sorted out, rather than played," argued Przybylski.

4. Inflation

As in many European countries, worries about sky-high prices of essentials, like food and energy, were hotly debated.  

"Inflation was very, very important," says Pazderski. "It used to be even more important, but inflation has got a bit less recently." 

"The opposition would use it to attack the current ruling majority, claiming that it's their fault," he added.


PiS blamed price hikes on external events such as the war in Ukraine and the EU's green policies, attempting to imply the problem was out of their control, according to the expert. 

Rising prices were named the second most important problem facing Poles in the IBRiS's September survey. 

Last month Poland’s headline inflation rate slowed to 8.2% year-on-year, below analysts’ expectations of 8.5%, according to a flash estimate by Poland's state statistics agency GUS. 

It was the first time the figure has fallen below 10% since fighting broke out in Ukraine and was the lowest level since late 2021. 

5. Social policies

While perhaps less prominent than others, social issues came up. 


With an ageing population, pensions were fiercely discussed, besides policies around "making babies", such as state support for families with children, noted Przybylski. 

Poland faces a huge democratic challenge with population growth flatlining since the early 2000s, meanwhile, many PiS policies limiting abortion rights drew fierce criticism. 

The conservative party also promised to expand its hugely popular "500+" child benefit programme, introduced in 2016, with Polish families set to receive a 60% increase in payments from next January. 

Przybylski says the Civic Coalition, a catch-all political alliance,  emphasised policies aimed at improving health. Another idea they floated was offering direct subsidies to grandparents who wanted to stay at home and take care of infants. 

"But the main message of the opposition was that they would also cut down the negative emotions and energy that drive so much polarisation and hatred," added Pazderski.

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