Poland Begins to Look Beyond the Vote, to Unwinding an ‘Illiberal Democracy’

Shocked by exit polls on Sunday night indicating that opposition forces had won enough seats in Parliament to oust Poland’s nationalist governing party, Polish state television briefly halted its nonstop abuse of government opponents as traitors. One previously vicious anchor even called them “my dears.”

But it was only a momentary wobble. By Monday, as the official results trickled in from a critical general election, Poland’s public broadcasting system was back on message. It presented the vote as a triumph for the governing Law and Justice party, despite it falling far short of the majority needed to stay in power, and complained that shenanigans had derailed the government’s efforts to entrench hostility to immigration through a referendum.

The referendum, held alongside Sunday’s vote for a new Parliament, flopped because many voters declined to take part, viewing the exercise as a transparent stunt by Law and Justice to rile its base and preserve its policies no matter what the election result.

With more than 90 percent of the votes counted by Monday evening and mostly aligning with the outcome forecast by exit polls, Poland is on the cusp of what many see as the most significant change of power since voters rejected communism in the country’s first partly free election in 1989.

The big question now, however, is not only whether the opposition can form a government but, if it does manage to take power, can it actually wield it in a system where public broadcasting, the constitutional court, the judiciary in general, the central bank, the national prosecutor’s office and other branches of state have been packed with Law and Justice loyalists who, in many cases, cannot be easily dislodged?

“This is the really important question: How to unwind an illiberal democracy?” said Wojciech Przybylski, the head of Res Publica Foundation, a Warsaw research group.

More alarmist voices on both sides are warning that the opposition, despite winning an apparent majority in Parliament, might not even get a chance to start unwinding anything.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Law and Justice’s chairman and Poland’s de facto leader for the last eight years, made clear on Sunday evening in response to exit polls that he will not give up without a fight.

“Remember that ahead of us are days of struggle, days of tension,” the 74-year-old party leader told supporters. “Regardless of what it will be like in the end, what the final distribution of votes will be — we will win!”

Lech Walesa, the leader in the 1980s of Solidarity, the trade union movement that opened the way to the 1989 election that toppled communism, warned in an interview with Gazeta Wyborcza, a liberal newspaper, that Mr. Kaczynski, a former ally turned bitter enemy, “has definitely come up with something, he has definitely prepared something. He will not want — and will not be able — to give up power.”

Adding to the jitters was the surprise resignation just days before Sunday’s vote of two of Poland’s most senior and respected military commanders. That stirred alarm in some opposition circles that Law and Justice could be tightening its grip on the armed forces in an effort to use force to continue to govern.

But that scenario, said Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, is highly unlikely. Mr. Kaczynski, he said, will use all his considerable political cunning to try and stitch together a majority in Parliament, but “he is not going to bring the army into the street. The army will not follow him even if he tries.”

A more plausible “nightmarish scenario,” he said, is ”constitutional crisis” — a showdown between the newly elected Parliament and Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, an ally of Law and Justice who is responsible for inviting someone to form a new government.

In keeping with precedent, Mr. Duda is likely to first ask Law and Justice to try since it won more votes than any other single party. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who greeted the disappointing exit polls with a declaration on Twitter that “We Won!,” has already stated his desire to hang on in office, announcing that “we will certainly try to build a parliamentary majority.”

The chances of that happening, however, are remote given that Law and Justice is expected to win only about 200 seats in the 460-member Legislature, short of a majority. Its only potential ally, a radical right-wing group, Konfederacja, won only around 15 seats, according to exit polls, and, even if it could help, it has stated categorically that it won’t work with Law and Justice.

President Duda would then have to propose a new prime minister more acceptable to the opposition majority.

The obvious choice would be Donald Tusk, a former prime minister and leader of the biggest opposition grouping, Civic Coalition. But Mr. Duda, in an interview last year, described Mr. Tusk as “a man I do not trust” who should never become prime minister again.

If none of the candidates for prime minister put forward by the president can win the backing of a majority of legislators, Mr. Duda could order a new snap election, restarting the whole process and stoking Poland’s already venomous polarization.

Such a confrontation between Parliament and the president, Mr. Burus said, “would not be violent” like an armed coup “but it could be no less disruptive.”

If the opposition does manage to rally behind a prime minister proposed by the president and form a stable government, the risk of grave disruption should recede. But that will open what could be months, even years, of trench warfare around state institutions captured by Law and Justice.

The public broadcasting system, a nationwide network of radio and television channels that Law and Justice deployed to demonize Mr. Tusk as a German lap dog, should be relatively easy to change. Each new government has the right to appoint top executives.

Far more difficult to remove from the grip of Law and Justice, however, is the judiciary, including the Constitutional Tribunal, whose chief justice, Julia Przylebska, is a longtime friend and ally of Mr. Kaczynski.

Under Ms. Przylebska the court played an important — and critics say illegal — role in pushing Law and Justice’s conservative agenda. Under her, the tribunal has put in place a near-total abortion ban and also ruled that Poland’s Constitution trumps laws of the European Union, of which Poland is a member and whose rules it committed to follow.

The opposition wants her gone quickly, especially as her term, according to many lawyers, ended last December. She and her supporters insist she has at least another year to serve.

The head of Poland’s Central Bank, Adam Glapinski, is also a close ally of Mr. Kaczysnki and, though widely blamed for policies that gave Poland one of Europe’s highest inflation rates, has five years left in his term.

But unlike Hungary, a far smaller country whose increasingly autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orban, has had 13 years to capture state structures, Poland, controlled by Mr. Kaczynski for eight years, has retained many features of a functioning democracy, a vibrant free press separate from state media and an economy not dominated by government cronies.

“Kaczysnki has of course been preparing for what happened on Sunday, but he is not as entrenched as Orban in Hungary” Mr. Przybylski said. And, unlike Donald Trump, he added, Mr. Kaczynski’s most fervent supporters “are not Proud Boys but pensioners.”

Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting.