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The rise of the far right across Europe: is it irreversible?

Following a gruelling election campaign, Poland’s far-right Law and Justice Party has been expelled by the liberal, pro-European candidate Donald Tusk and his party’s coalition with the centre-right Third Way and the Left.

This has come as a relief to many across Europe as Poland re-joins the mainstream and leaves behind its populist agenda. During its time in power, the Law and Justice Party, PiS, introduced a popular child-benefit scheme and lowered the retirement age, appealing to Poland’s rural voters. Many also believed that PiS was responsible for Poland’s economic prosperity, with its GDP growing by 3.2% per year in the last decade (1). The government had invested in poor regions in the East, where most of its electorate lie, and improved rail and road infrastructure across the country. However, alongside these perceived benefits, it had also implemented an abortion ban, encouraged the establishment of LGBT-free zones and attempted to hand over the control of the judiciary to the government.

Its nationalist views and attempts to seize the state have often clashed with the EU, which is withholding $ 37 billion (1) in Covid recovery funds until they reverse the policies. Furthermore, the Law and Justice party has been vetoing EU enforcement actions against rule of law violations by Hungary’s Victor Orban. Now, there is hope that Hungary will be stripped of its EU voting rights until it abolishes what it claims to be an “illiberal democracy”, leaving Orban politically isolated within the union. In an attempt to pacify angry farmers, the government also blocked imports of Ukrainian grain. It announced that it would stop supplying it with weapons, sparking a diplomatic crisis and domestic divide within its own population where support for Ukraine is albeit, very high.

Nonetheless, the fundamental factor influencing the outcome of this election was undeniably voter participation. Election turnout was the highest since the fall of communism, at 74% (up from 62% in 2019) (3), with voters in Poland and many expats abroad standing in hour-long queues to ensure their say. The longer authoritarian rule lasts, the harder it is to eliminate, as those in power (such as in Turkey and Hungary) will gradually begin to restrict the freedoms of independent institutions and media. Although the election was technically free, the state-controlled TV channel pumped out around-the-clock propaganda whilst state-owned companies, such as the national oil monopoly Orlen, spent as much as PiS itself on campaign advertisement. Even so, TVN24 remained fiercely independent, providing invaluable, unbiased information to the electorate.

Parliament also refused to update electoral districts regarding population change, meaning liberal cities, such as Warsaw, had 20 MPs representing them rather than the estimated 34, effectively rigging the election in its favour (3). Many Poles consequently saw this as their last chance to change their future trajectory.

Moreover, young people also had a significant influence on the election result despite neither leader appealing to them greatly. With Tusk aged 66 and Kaczynski at 74, their vote was more of a choice between populism and liberalism (2).

There were, however, other factors that helped topple Poland’s authoritarian government. The system of proportional representation in Poland makes it harder for authorities to dominate than in first-past-the-post systems such as in Hungary, where it is easier to polarise voters and raise the stakes of elections. If authoritarian leaders, such as Orban, gain control of a major party in this system, they can be detrimental to the broader constitutional order for many decades. However, the result must also be credited to the opposition, Donald Tusk, who took part in 3-4 public meetings (3)every week across PiS strongholds for his election campaign.

Despite attempting to employ tactics used by Orban to win the election (by introducing a referendum on Polish sovereignty), the Law and Justice Party failed to get more than a 40% turnout (2), where citizens were asked heavily prejudiced questions about selling off state-assets to foreigners, increasing the retirement age and illegal immigration.

Donald Tusk declared the win as the “third wave of solidarity”, where this election was probably the last to have two major competitors who had both been part of the generation that toppled communism. Whilst Kaczynski dreamt of a pre-war, nationalist and Catholic Poland, Tusk strongly vouched for a liberal Poland, one that aligned more with the political situation Europe sees itself in today. This event has been deemed potentially as significant for the EU as the rapprochement of Germany and France in the 1950s. Could this be what it needs to reinforce its power on the global stage? (2)

For now, Europe’s turn to the right looks less irreversible. However, Kaczynski’s Poland will not disappear, and Tusk must find a way to appeal to both sides of a divided nation.

Sources:

  1. https://www.economist.com/europe/2023/10/05/after-a-brutal-campaign-poland-gets-ready-to-vote
  2. https://www.pressreader.com/australia/the-guardian-australia/20231025/page/50
  3. https://www.pressreader.com/qatar/gulf-times/20231022/page/10

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