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Pro-Europe, civic rights coalition wins in Poland, but change will be hard

In a country still divided after Sunday's parliamentary elections, Poland's new coalition will face many obstacles, say observers.

Women and youth fuel record turnout in national election

People stand and cheer in a large auditorium.

The first thought that flashed through Marta Lempart's mind when she saw the exit polls in Poland's national election on Sunday was: "We were right all along, there are more of us than them."

Then came a surge of relief.

Lempart is co-founder of the All-Poland Women's Strike, a movement formed to protest Poland's drastic abortion restrictions passed under the outgoing nationalist, Catholic Church-backed Law and Justice Party.

Along with death threats, Lempart is facing 116 legal charges related to her activism brought by the right-wing government and supporters.

But if Sunday's national election exit poll results prove accurate, those legal threats may now evaporate, she says. And for the majority of Poles, so, too, will worry over weakening ties to the European Union and a slide toward authoritarianism under the current government.

Still, observers say, the new government will face obstacles leading a divided country.

The exit polls show the ruling Law and Justice Party won 36.1 per cent of the vote, the highest of all Polish political parties, but fell far short of what's needed to form a majority, even with the support of the Confederation party, whose 2019 five-point program was: "We don't want Jews, homosexuals, abortion, taxes and the European Union."

A person smiles as they hold a microphone with other people in the background.

The opposition Civic Coalition, led by Donald Tusk, took 30 per cent. With support of the centre-right Third Way and The New Left, it garnered enough votes to form a solid majority, exit polls show, and appears set to soon govern.

"The democratic forces are the clear winner of this election," said political commentator and author Jacek Palasinski, with the independent Polish media site Natemat, adding that after eight years of misgovernment and violation of Polish and European law, people were fed up

It was a fierce campaign. The pro-EU opposition coalition insisted democracy itself was at stake. The Law and Justice Party depicted the race as a choice between Poland being strong-armed by the EU to open its floodgates to illegal migrants and adopt "LGBTQ ideology" and a sovereign government that would enforce Poland's borders and bolster its Christian traditions.

"They have … a lot of power, backing of uniformed officers and strategies to instil fear," Lempart said, referring to Law and Justice, its supporters and the Catholic Church hierarchy. "But there are more people willing to do good and to vote."

Women and youth fuel record turnout

The record high turnout since the fall of communism, 72.9 per cent, saw an historic swell of female voters, 73.2 per cent compared to 61.5 per cent in 2019 — a 12 per cent increase.

A surge in young voters was even more marked: from 46.6 per cent in 2019 to 68.8 per cent, a 22.2 per cent spike.

"For women, it was lack of reproductive rights and safety in Poland [that motivated them to vote]," said Lempart, referring to 100 days of abortion rights marches in 600 cities in 2020. "But for young people, it was the protests themselves that were a formative experience."

Tusk, the opposition Civic Coalition head who is also a former Polish prime minister and president of the European Council, has made a list of 100 tasks for the first 100 days in power.

No. 9 is access to abortion, not as part of a human rights package, but under health care.

Along with health-care reform, other top items for reform include reinstating judicial independence; the legalization of same-sex civil unions; paid leave for the self-employed; pay rises for teachers and the separation of church and state.

A person puts a large paper into a clear box as other people stand behind them.

A rapprochement with the European Union is also a top priority for the new governing coalition, as Poland copes with the tensions and dangers related to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The hard-right Confederation Party, the only explicitly anti-Ukraine party that many feared would be king-maker if Law and Order neared a majority, finished last among the parties that entered parliament.

That result all but guarantees Poland will continue to play a crucial role in the West's response to the Russian invasion. Since the start, it has taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees and supplied the embattled country with German-made Leopard 2 tanks and Polish MiG-29 fighters.

Law and Justice's defeat will also likely prevent Poland from being part of an obstructionist authoritarian and anti-EU bloc with Hungary and Slovakia.

But in a country still divided, and with judiciary independence eroded and rampant nepotism in state companies, the new coalition will face myriad obstacles, say observers.

An adult holds a child as they put papers into a clear box.

"Many public institutions and important institutions are still in the hands of the Law and Justice Party," said Ewa Kulik, director of the Batory Foundation Democracy and Civil Society, a non-governmental organization based in Warsaw.

"So it would be very difficult to show … a visible change in a short period. The opposition will block their decisions and some of the reforms. And people could be disappointed if the changes will not come fast."

She said Tusk's new government will have to pinpoint key changes to push through within the first 100 days to keep the faith of voters and focus especially on the needs of low income people.

A major obstruction could be President Andrzej Duda, a Law and Justice ally whose term ends in 2025 and who has veto powers in parliament.

Abandoning the Catholic Church

Still, observers say there have been seismic shifts in Polish society over the last few years that will lend momentum to the new pro-democracy ruling coalition.

One of the most notable, they say, is the quickening abandonment of the Catholic Church.

Between 2011 and 2021, the percentage of Poles identifying as Catholic dropped from 88 per cent to 71.3 per cent, according to the Polish census.

"It's unbelievable," said Palasinski, who covered the Vatican when the Polish John Paul II was pope and a unifying force in Poland.

"We also now have one of the biggest abandonments of the church by young people anywhere in the world."

A person wearing a mask looks ahead.

The Catholic Church stranglehold on abortion rights along with its hierarchy's ongoing defence of sexual-predator priests, said Lempart, have been a major impetus for people leaving.

Palasinski said the symbiotic relationship between the Polish Catholic Church and the Law and Justice Party helped keep them both powerful for eight years.

"Every parish and every priest created right-wing propaganda," he said. "They are really part of that party. And wherever the Law and Justice Party gets more votes is where the church is still very influential."

Now, he said, the growing rejection of the Catholic Church in Poland may have also helped erode support for the party it champions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Megan Williams

Rome correspondent

Megan Williams has been covering all things Italian, from politics and the Vatican, to food and culture, to the plight of migrants in the Mediterranean, for more than two decades. Based in Rome, Megan has also told stories from other parts of Europe and the world and won many international prizes for her reporting, including a James Beard Award. Her radio documentaries can be heard on Ideas and The Current. Megan is also a regular guest host on CBC national radio shows.

    With files from Reuters

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