Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party, in power since 2015, was punished by voters in the October 15 parliamentary election, termed one of the most consequential since the fall of communism in 1989. The party, known by its Polish acronym, PiS, ran a campaign that it could protect Poland’s traditional values and its independence from the European oligarchy, while the Donald Tusk-led centrist opposition Civic Coalition said the election was the last opportunity to arrest the slide into autocracy. In the past eight years, PiS has shifted Poland’s polity towards the right and often clashed with the European Union (EU). Its government was also accused of squeezing liberal democracy, stifling the free press, undermining gay rights and seizing control of institutions, mainly the judiciary. It emerged as the single largest party with 35.38% of the votes (200 seats), but fell short of a governing majority in the 460-strong lower House of Parliament. The Civic Coalition won 30.70% of the vote, but with potential coalition partners (the Third Way and Left party), the centre-left alliance, which has the support of 248 legislators, has a way forward to government formation.
The result is an opportunity for the centrist coalition to right the wrongs of the PiS government. Mr. Tusk has already promised to make amends with the EU, strengthen democracy and institutions, roll back the near-total ban of abortion and restore gay rights. An area where there would be continuity is Ukraine. PiS had offered staunch support for Ukraine against Russia’s invasion, though there were quarrels over economic issues between Warsaw and Kyiv. Mr. Tusk, a former EU bureaucrat, has promised to continue support for Kyiv and to coordinate better with NATO and the EU in this regard. But Mr. Tusk faces many challenges that begin with the formation of the government itself. There is no certainty that Polish President Andrzej Duda, who is from PiS, would invite Mr. Tusk to form the government first. If the PiS is invited first, it could lead to horse trading. Even if Mr. Tusk manages to form the government, he will have to reach a consensus with President Duda, who wields a legislative veto, to initiate critical reforms. There is a consensus on social issues within Mr. Tusk’s coalition, but members have different views on economic and climate policies. Tackling Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, which has raised Poland’s strategic profile in Europe, without a spillover is another challenge. What is awaiting Mr. Tusk is a tough balancing act straddling the spheres of economy, politics and foreign policy.