The results of the Polish parliamentary elections suggest that a coalition of the opposition will lead the next government. This is good news for civil society, which faced constant threats under the current Law and Justice (PiS) party. However, Akudo McGee warns that challenges still lie ahead for civil society
In Poland, civil society organisations (CSOs) which have focused on topics like the rule of law, democracy, reproductive rights, LGBT+ rights, and migrant rights have found themselves in a difficult spot. Since 2015, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has put intense pressure on them. CSOs have faced targeted defunding, seen the law weaponised against their activists, and have exhausted themselves trying to keep up with new threats to the rights of the groups they support.
Thanks to the opposition parties' recent ‘win’ in the parliamentary elections, however, this reality may be coming to an end. Yet, Polish civil society may still have to wait for significant change.
The results of the 15 October elections show that PiS maintained the largest share of votes (35.38%). However, this is not enough for it to form a majority. The opposition, though, can easily form a majority with a coalition between Civic Coalition (KO), which maintained 30.70% of the vote, Third Way (Trzecia Droga) with 14.40% of the vote, and The Left (Lewica), which attracted 8.61% of the vote.
Polish civil society organisations will have to wait a bit longer before their work goes back to normal
Despite this, it will take some time for the opposition to form a new government. PiS has so far not conceded and will likely have the first opportunity to form a coalition. This means, consequently, that civil society will have to wait a bit longer before work goes back to normal. It also means that some of Poland’s more pervasive issues, like the so-called rule of law crisis, will not be solved overnight.
To understand CSOs’ current realities, one must briefly examine the changes implemented by PiS since 2015. After coming into power with an absolute majority, PiS challenged judicial appointments to the Constitutional Tribunal. This was the beginning of Poland’s constitutional crisis. It resulted in the complete takeover of what used to be the Tribunal, the packing of other courts, like the Supreme Court, and the persecution of independent judges.
At the same time, PiS took over public media. Once a vehicle for information, it soon became a space for spreading hate and disdain for the opposition, CSOs, and minority groups. Social and political discourse also became increasingly hostile.
Some minorities, in particular sexual minorities, became regular targets in political discourse. High-level PiS politicians claimed that ‘LGBT ideology’ was a threat to the Polish nation. Other minorities, like women, found their rights in the stranglehold of legal amendments. The most significant example was the October 2020 de facto abortion ban.
For CSOs, these changes meant increased opportunities for mobilisation but also increased challenges. The de facto abortion ban, for instance, was met with massive national protests. These protests dwarfed even the historic 2016 ‘Black Protests’ which were also a reaction to threats to abortion access. Even judges, who are apolitical, were forced to act. Judges’ associations engaged diverse strategies to bring attention to rule of law backsliding and advocate for repressed judges. They even took to the streets.
The de facto abortion ban was met with massive protests. Even judges, who are apolitical, were forced to act
In turn, CSOs faced increasingly hostile discourse from the local and national government. They endured smear campaigns buttressed by public media, and they were threatened with legal action. All the while, they were squeezed out of government funding schemes, which made their financial situation even more precarious.
For CSOs, a change in government presents new opportunities to improve restrictions on the civic space and threats in their issue areas (e.g. the rule of law crisis). In fact, the plan to restore the rule of law in Poland was drafted not just by opposition parties but by several CSOs, too. Despite this uplifting prospect, however, it will be some time before CSOs see significant changes in the civic space or their issue areas.
President Andrzej Duda is a former PiS politician who maintains friendly relationships with the party. He is likely to give PiS the first chance to form a government. Duda has 30 days to convene parliament and then 14 days to nominate a prime minister. That prime minister then has 14 days to assemble a new parliament and call a vote of confidence. It can take up to eight weeks before the opposition has the opportunity to vote out the current government and propose their own parliament and prime minister.
Even then, the threat of the presidential veto persists because Duda remains in power until at least the 2025 presidential elections. Since their new legislation can be vetoed, the opposition will likely have to focus their efforts on more incremental changes. Additionally, with the ‘Tribunal’ in PiS’s pocket, unpopular law proposals can also be sent to the non-court, where they will simply drift in limbo.
The de facto abortion ban introduced under PiS may not be easy to remedy. The PiS legacy will continue to haunt civil society
Lastly, the systems compromised under PiS are in need of major repair. Difficult issues, like the de facto abortion ban, may not be so easy to remedy. Thus, the legacy of PiS will continue to haunt civil society over the next few years.
Despite these limitations, civil society has reason to rejoice. CSOs will soon no longer face the threat of a hostile government. Gone, too, is the risk posed by the government selectively closing the civic space and implementing laws which restrict the rights, freedom, and safety of the groups CSOs advocate for. These CSOs and others hoping for a sea change in Poland will have to be patient. But we can now say with confidence that Poland is on the right track.