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Polish elections 2023: The opposition

In October 2023, Poles will cast their votes in the national parliamentary elections. In the broadest terms, the elections will be a contest between the United Right coalition - parts of which have been in government since 2015 - and the diverse opposition, comprised of various groupings which do not always see eye to eye. Naturally, however, they do share one common denominator: the desire to finally oust the right from power. But a look at the current situation shows that securing victory will not be plain sailing for the opposition. The contrary, rather.

Who’s running?

Commentators were discussing the shape and chances of a united opposition for the 2023 election as early as May 2022, alluding to the possibility of recreating the electoral victory secured by the Czech opposition in 2021. While various formulas were discussed, most did not make it off the drawing board, with the opposition remaining fractured.

The largest opposition party and the United Right’s key competitor is the Civic Platform headed by former prime minister Donald Tusk. Currently at 30% in the polls, the party remains firmly in second place. But the party’s long-term involvement in mainstream Polish politics as well as its government record from 2007-2015, particularly concerning socio-economic policy, has generally rendered it a less than desirable partner for the other opposition parties and their voters.

The desire to create an alternative to the two major parties led to the formation of the Third Way (9%) in late April 2023, the alliance of the centrist Poland 2050 and the Polish Coalition dominated by the Polish People’s Party. The list is concluded by The Left (10%), which is currently the final party to cross the 5% vote threshold into the Polish parliament - Sejm.

Oppositional cannibalism

Recent increases in polarisation on the Polish political scene has boosted support for the Civic Platform by rallying anti-government voters behind a common cause of ousting the right-wing government, with Mr Tusk’s party seeming to be their best bet. However, even the Civic Platform’s potential victory over the Right provides no guarantee of the necessary parliamentary majority. What matters now are not individual polls as much as their translation into parliamentary seats, which some argue the Civic Platform is hurting by monopolising the opposition and suffocating the smaller opposition parties. Due to the workings of the Polish electoral system, the hypothetical victory of the Civic Platform would most likely oust the Third Way from the race entirely with its votes going to waste, in turn increasing the United Right’s majority boosted by increased gains for the far-right Confederation Party. The d’Hondt method used to convert votes into seats favours the largest political groupings to the detriment of those with fewer votes, creating a “winner takes more” situation. The Civic Platform is therefore in a tricky position, needing to continue mobilising voter support while simultaneously supporting the Third Way enough to keep it in the run.

The troubles of the Third Way

While the establishment of the Third Way saw the grouping rise to third place in polls with 14% support, its future has become increasingly uncertain throughout July. The coalition’s polling numbers have dropped to 10%, largely as a result of voters abandoning Poland 2050 after their alliance with the socially conservative Polish Coalition, bringing the Third Way dangerously close to the 8% vote threshold for coalitions to enter the Sejm. While the joint list would provide both Third Way groupings with more seats than running separately, Polish Coalition member Piotr Zgorzelski confirmed his party was prepared to leave Poland 2050 behind and run alone if the polls remain too close to the threshold. Seeing as the Polish Coalition averaged 5% of the vote before joining the Third Way, its chances of crossing the threshold are slim, let alone of securing enough seats to play a role in securing an opposition majority. And while sources from both the Polish Coalition and Civic Platform have confirmed an alliance between the two is a viable option, Polish Coalition politicians claim they would only ally with Mr Tursk as a last resort. Their reluctance to join the Civic Platform is in tune with the party’s long-term unwillingness to join a more general single opposition ballot. This is largely due to the fear of alienating some of its voters looking for an alternative to the two major parties, as well as more rural, socially conservative supporters, especially in light of Mr Tusk’s recent more socially liberal rhetoric.

Nothing is certain

If you have read this far and are still failing to see a clear conclusion, you would be correct. It is quite the paradox, given how early the opposition began discussing strategy and joint ballots, that even now with the election fast approaching, we seem to be no closer to definite answers.

The opposition would have the best chance at victory if the Third Way remained intact, mobilised and secured at least its original position in the polls. The origin of the votes matters, however. An analysis of possible election outcomes by Polityka revealed that the only victorious solution for the opposition would be the Third Way regaining votes at the expense of the Right, most likely in rural regions where they are already competing for power.

Given the diversity of the opposition’s electorate, a single list remains highly unrealistic. But a reshuffle will be necessary if the opposition hopes to make the most of its votes and emerge victorious. If it instead chooses the status quo, the opposition may as well hand over the election to the Right straight away.

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