Despite PiS winning the election, Sunday’s vote produced an electoral victory for the opposition spurred on by younger voters, Tom Junes writes.
It was a remarkable sight in Poland on Sunday: in the middle of the night, hours after the first exit polls in the country's parliamentary election projected a Pyrrhic victory for Law and Justice (PiS), scores of young people were still queueing at polling stations waiting to vote.
Over the past eight years of PiS rule, Polish society has become increasingly polarised and divisions now run so deep making the idea of political reconciliation no longer seem possible at times.
This year’s election campaign was the ugliest and most vicious of Poland’s post-1989 era. Yet, the effect was such that ultimately a large part of the generally non-voting population got motivated enough to take to the polls.
In Jagodno, a district of Wrocław, the last voters cast their ballots just before 3 am. Indicatively, the results from that district echoed a trend among youth.
In 2019, PiS came first among voters between 18 and 29 years of age with 26.3% of the vote share. Last Sunday, the ruling party of the past eight years finished last with a mere 14.9% — and, in Jagodno, PiS even failed to clear 6%.
The most astonishing aspect of these elections was the record voter turnout of 74% — ten percentage points higher than the elections in 1989 that brought an end to decades of communist rule.
And although the total number of eligible voters this year amounted to more than one million less than in the previous elections in 2019, a million and a half more people ended up going out and casting ballots.
Against the backdrop of these elections that were perceived as "free but not fair", the massive voter mobilisation was a clear win for democracy as such.
This makes the youth vote, traditionally the least prominent voting group, perhaps even more extraordinary. Turnout among voters from 18 to 29 years reached 68.8%, compared to 46.4% in the previous elections of 2019.
An electoral youthquake
In the months before the elections, amidst an ever more polarising climate, media attention started focusing on the younger generation of voters.
In particular, this was because surveys showed a stronger polarisation and gender divide factoring into their political preferences with a striking dominance of the far-right Konfederacja on the one hand and the Left on the other hand.
The youth vote was heralding change to come as most young voters have never known any government beyond the Civic Platform (PO)-PiS duopoly fueled by the persisting Donald Tusk-Jarosław Kaczyński rivalry.
Konfederacja’s rise to double-digit numbers and third place in pre-election surveys propelled it to the status of potential "kingmaker" in what was perceived to herald a further swing to the right in Poland.
The Lewica or Left’s prominence was in turn seen as a consequence of the PiS-led drive to further criminalise abortion and its assault on women’s and LGBTQ+ rights.
But on the day of the vote, the pre-election predictions concerning youth turned out to be far off the mark as neither the far right nor the Left came out on top.
Voter outflow to the Third Way key?
Both parties arguably fared much better among youth than in older age groups, but it was the Tusk-led PO coalition that held a decisive advantage among younger voters, with the Trzecia Droga, or Third Way, coalition also producing a strong showing.
More so, while the Left is seen as part of the winning camp securing its own voter niche, it lost half a million votes compared to the last elections.
And though Konfederacja appeared as the biggest flop of the night underperforming by even its least ambitious aims, the far right did increase its overall vote tally by some three hundred thousand votes.
In both cases, there was most likely a potential voter outflow to Trzecia Droga. Though frequently portrayed in the media in the weeks running up to the election as at risk of not crossing the threshold, the coalition managed to present itself as a credible alternative to the PO-PiS duopoly for voters who favoured a more moderate or centrist approach than the Lewica or far right were offering.
Perhaps the mass mobilisation in the Tusk-led "Million Hearts March" two weeks before the vote or the fact that Szymon Hołownia, one of the leaders of Trzecia Droga, managed to pull off the best performance in the only TV election debate that took place influenced the outcome.
However, neither during the debate nor in the campaign as a whole did the political parties and their candidates pay much attention to youth.
Yet, the vote ultimately shows that the younger generation voted overwhelmingly against PiS. And young people did so for a variety of reasons provided in the first place by PiS who managed to antagonise the overall majority of young voters.
An opposition victory where caveats apply
Despite PiS winning the election, Sunday’s vote produced an electoral victory for the opposition spurred on by younger voters.
Youth has managed to swing elections a few times in Poland’s democratic history. In 2007, young voters helped Tusk and PO beat Kaczyński’s PiS in a snap election, and in 2015, the youth vote came out against the out-of-touch PO establishment propelling PiS to power.
And although the country might now see a political moment reminiscent of 1989 leading to the end of PiS rule, Poland’s democratic history shows that the pendulum can swiftly swing the other way. One should not forget that PiS still has the single largest group of political supporters.
It will thus be important for the opposition to navigate carefully in the coming weeks and months facing probable obstruction and stiff opposition from PiS and the country’s PiS-backed president, Andrzej Duda, while having to keep together a disparate political alliance ranging from PiS-curious conservatives to radical left sympathisers.
Taking a page out of Italy's book
Over the past eight years, Poland was often compared to Hungary for its illiberal tendencies and democratic backsliding under PiS. But last weekend’s election outcome also shows that Poland is not Hungary.
Rather, today’s situation is reminiscent of Italy’s in 2006, when a broad but fragile coalition led by former European Commission President Romano Prodi managed to narrowly oust Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing populist government.
The comparison to Italy should serve as a warning since Prodi’s coalition rapidly fell apart and paved the way for Berlusconi’s comeback.
Tusk, who was the European Council president himself, and like Prodi, twice defeated his country's inflated right-wing populist opponent, could learn something from his counterpart and seize the opportunity to address young people's concerns to galvanise his support.
Unless it wants to founder to the same flavour of infighting spurred on by a lack of vision for the future, Poland’s opposition has a distinct opportunity to listen to the youth's desires and help transform Poland into a country not ruled by old men.
Tom Junes is a historian and Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences. He is the author of "Student Politics in Communist Poland: Generations of Consent and Dissent".
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