Poland’s ruling rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) party has narrowly won a second term in office, but its grip on power was weakened after it lost control of the upper house and failed to increase its majority in the more powerful lower chamber.
What had looked like a clear-cut victory for PiS turned into a far tighter contest, with final results showing that while the party won just under 44% of Sunday’s vote for the lower house or Sejm, up from 38% in 2015, it secured only 235 seats in the 460-seat assembly – the same total as in 2015.
In the 100-seat senate the opposition claimed victory, with the centrist Civic Coalition publishing on Twitter the names of 51 opposition members and allies who had won seats, dealing a blow to the socially conservative party’s ambitions.
Control of the senate, which has a say in a number of key state appointments such as Poland’s civil rights ombudsman, would also allow the opposition to block or delay legislation proposed by PiS.
Jarosław Kaczyński, the party leader, who had been hoping for a two thirds majority of seats in the Sejm that would have allowed him to reshape the constitution, conceded on Monday that the loss of the upper house meant the government would inevitably face delays in its legislative agenda.
A PiS senator, Jan Maria Jackowski, also said the party had found itself in a “new situation” in the senate and would have to negotiate to pass laws.
Stanley Bill, a senior lecturer in Polish politics at the University of Cambridge, asked: “Could PiS’s high-water mark have passed? Their second term is shaping up as a greater challenge than their first. Parliament will be trickier, with more parties to contest their policies from different directions.” He said the party risked “losing momentum.”
The other main recipients of votes were the main opposition party Civic Coalition (27.4%), the Left, a grouping of leftwing parties (12.56%), the conservative Polish Coalition (8.6%) and a new far-right party, Confederation (6.8%), according to the electoral commission.
Coming on the day that Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, suffered his biggest electoral blow in a decade, losing control of the capital, Budapest, the worse-than-forecast Polish result marked a setback for eastern Europe’s right-wing nationalists.
During its first term in power, PiS gained a reputation for pushing through legislation at breakneck speed, with hastily called late-night sittings of the Sejm, followed by quick approval from the upper house.
PiS’s political strategy was to combine a big increase in social spending in certain areas, made against the backdrop of a booming economy and record consumer confidence, with nationalist and traditionalist rhetoric and an uncompromising authoritarian political style that has exacerbated divisions in Polish society.
Even an underwhelming PiS victory, however, could pose problems for Brussels and other European capitals. In government, the party has been an uncompromising and at times exasperating EU member, as illustrated by a farcical episode in 2017 when it tried to torpedo the re-election of Donald Tusk, a former leader of Civic Platform, as president of the European council.
For years, the European commission has sparred with Warsaw over PiS’s attempts to assert direct control over the Polish judiciary, with several cases referred to the European court of justice.
Under PiS, Poland has emerged as an active opponent of the liberal democratic values that underpin the EU, with European diplomats admitting in private that many in Brussels had hoped the problem would be taken out of their hands by Polish voters.
“There was a hope that PiS would lose, but that has not materialised,” said Piotr Buras, the director of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations thinktank. “This is not just an issue for Brussels, but for several European capitals; they will have to deal with an emboldened partner.
“The dilemma is that Poland under PiS is already a semi-authoritarian regime and it is only likely to deteriorate further. There will be a temptation to turn a blind eye to abuses and normalise relations, but this could come at a cost to their red lines on democratic values.”