The Left Can Influence Poland’s Next Government

The broad opposition won Poland’s recent election, ousting the far-right incumbents. Left-wing alliance Lewica expects a junior role in the next government — but it must use its influence to avoid the failures of past neoliberal administrations.

Leaders of the opposition stand together as they give a press statement in Warsaw, Poland, on October 24, 2023. (Omar Marques / Anadolu via Getty Images)

Poland’s pro-democracy opposition has finally won a parliamentary election. With all votes counted, the center-right Civic Coalition, Christian-democratic Third Way, and left-wing Lewica, will together command 248 out of 460 seats in the lower house (Sejm) and sixty-five of one hundred in the Senate.

Their October 15 success appears to have ended the rule of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. For eight polarizing years, PiS’s authoritarian tendencies have strained Warsaw’s relationship with the European Union and raised concerns over the Polish state’s democratic integrity. Now, the country waits with bated breath to see what comes next.

While government formation talks may take weeks, if not months, the new government will probably see the return of former prime minister Donald Tusk to the premiership. Hanging over all the negotiations, however, is Law and Justice. Although no longer in power, PiS remains the largest party, with 35 percent support. If the pro-democracy coalition collapses or new elections were to be called, the right-wing might just come roaring back.

But for those on the Left, there is another question — whether Lewica can really have an impact. It could become the first left-wing group to join the Polish government in some eighteen years. But it will do so as a junior member in a new and ideologically diverse ruling coalition.

A Great Moving-Left Show?

Tusk and his party — Civic Platform (PO), the largest faction of the Civic Coalition electoral alliance — already governed Poland from 2007 until 2014, as reliable neoliberals. But in recent years, Tusk, PO, and Polish voters have all drifted leftward — if ever so slightly — on several issues, including LGBTQ rights, abortion access, and welfare spending.

Lewica — an alliance of the center-left/liberal New Left party (Nowa Lewica) and the social democratic/leftwing Together Left party (Razem) — has been at the forefront of these very battles. Several of its candidates and leading figures were heavily involved in the mass abortion-rights protests that have repeatedly rocked Poland in recent years in response to efforts by PiS and its handpicked judges to crush reproductive rights. Others have been outspoken LGBTQ activists, and in parliament, the Lewica alliance has fought for workers’ rights and increased social spending.

Many of Lewica’s proposals — liberalization of Poland’s abortion laws, separation of church and state, and civic partnerships as a bare minimum for LGBTQ rights — were fringe eight years ago. But PiS rule has proven to be a radicalizing experience for many Poles. Today, all three pro-democracy opposition alliances have voiced support for these ideas — either in their platforms or in statements from their leaders. Ipsos polling suggests a majority (58 percent) of Polish voters support civil partnerships and a plurality (48 percent) support full marriage equality.

In many ways, Lewica’s most significant impact has been in moving the Overton window in Poland. This may be little consolation, as this month’s election, in fact, brought worse-than-expected results for the left-wing alliance. Scoring 8.6 percent of the vote (down from 12.6 percent in the 2019 contest), Lewica dropped from the third-largest to the fourth-largest group in parliament.

Yet, Lewica remains a potent political force and offers real hope for those on the Left. As it happens, Lewica’s losses came entirely from the New Left, i.e., the more center-left faction of the alliance. Meanwhile, Together Left increased its seat total in both the Sejm and Senate. It went from holding six of Lewica’s previous forty-nine seats in the Sejm to holding seven of twenty-six — a fifteen-point increase from 2019. The situation is even more pronounced in the Senate, where Together Left now holds two of nine Lewica seats after winning none four years ago.

Together Left’s increased weight inside Lewica will undoubtedly have an impact on the future direction of the alliance as it continues to move toward a more coherent left-wing ideology that knits together the alliance’s liberal and socialist factions. What this will look like is currently unclear, but it may include a strong emphasis on social welfare programs and housing. Already, murmurs from coalition negotiations suggest that Lewica is asking for the Ministry of Education and a not-yet-created ministry focused on the Polish housing crisis.

As the smallest group in any new potential government, Lewica will need to grab any advantage it can. Its political strengths will derive from the popularity of its ideas, the charisma of its leaders, and its ability to act as a unified bloc.

Lewica may also try and leverage its connections with extra-parliamentary groups to increase pressure on its coalition partners. Labor unions who struck against the PiS government may be eager to have allies in parliament who voice their concerns. Reproductive and LGBTQ campaigners have clear demands and a proven track record of mobilizing the public. Supporters of these movements would seem to be motivated by their own agenda and not just disgust with PiS. Regardless, they could represent a potential reservoir of much-needed political heft for Lewica.

Still, it is unlikely that Lewica will be able to act uncompromisingly without threatening to bring down the government. The alliance will then need to walk a fine line. It is indispensable to forming a government, but it also risks being subsumed by the whims of its larger partners. This is especially true in the Sejm, where Lewica’s twenty-six votes can make or break the coalition’s proposals. Without Lewica’s support, the Civic Coalition and Third Way would need to win votes from either conservative or far-right parliamentarians.

Chances for Influence

Lewica’s best opportunity to influence a Tusk government will then probably come from issues where there is already wide agreement between parties, like education or the separation of church and state.

Polish teachers have repeatedly protested against the Law and Justice government. Complaints have included low pay, inadequate resources, and curriculum changes they argue try to indoctrinate students into supporting PiS. Civic Coalition, Third Way, and Lewica have all called for increasing teachers’ salaries by between 20 and 30 percent, as well as guaranteeing that education funding stays above a specific percentage of Poland’s GDP.

There has also been a popular push to end state funding for Catholic catechism classes that are staffed by church-appointed teachers but held in public schools. In recent years, a growing number of Poles have voiced resentment with what they see as overly close ties between Law and Justice and the Catholic church. In the wake of Poland’s abortion protests and continued clerical sexual abuse scandals, there have been louder calls for a clearer separation between the church and public life. On this issue, Civic Coalition, Third Way, and Lewica are again in broad agreement.

If Lewica were put in charge of the Ministry of Education, they would not only be able to work on implementing the opposition’s proposals but would also become the face of these efforts. The same holds true when it comes to housing.

As the smallest coalition partner, Lewica risks forgoing public recognition for accomplishments while absorbing the shared blame for any failures. By pushing for a distinct domestic ministerial portfolio, Lewica can impact government policy in clear and public ways.

The alliance, having its own accomplishments, will also have the added benefit of strengthening Lewica’s hand in coalition negotiations later over abortion liberalization and LGBTQ rights.

In many ways, abortion justice and LGBTQ equality are defining issues for Lewica. One of the alliance’s leaders — Robert Biedroń — is one of the few openly gay Polish politicians, and both New Left and Together Left have strong institutional ties to LGBTQ and abortion rights groups.

During the campaign, both Civic Coalition and Third Way joined Lewica in calling for action on abortion and civic partnerships. However, neither issue is particularly at the top of their minds. It will be up to Lewica to maintain the pressure necessary to force the government to act. Enacting its educational or housing policies might be the most comprehensive impact Lewica may make in government. But forcing the government to fulfill its promises on abortion and civic partnership would undoubtedly be its greatest success.

Lewica will need to find its place in Poland’s new government. The campaign season already proved that the alliance has succeeded in influencing the political conversation and expectations of voters in Poland. Furthermore, seeing his party spend eight years in the political wilderness does seem to have changed Tusk. In addition to taking a firm public stance in favor of reproductive rights and civic partnerships, Tusk has also focused on unlocking EU funds that were withheld from Poland due to PiS’s illiberalism. These are all areas that Lewica can agree with Tusk on and work to push him in a more progressive direction.

While governing represents a new challenge for Lewica, it is one that the alliance’s supporters believe it is capable of meeting — even as part of such an uneasy coalition.