Model for Central Europe: Why Poland's Elections Will Change More Than Just Polish Politics

Thursday, 19 October 2023 — , Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine (2014 - 2019)
Credit: Beata Zawrzel/Reporter/East News
Voting in the parliamentary elections in Poland. Krakow, 15 October 2023.

Poland has made its point. The record-high voter turnout in the parliamentary elections on 15 October only confirms it.

I'm inspired by how even seemingly apolitical people understood that the future of Poland depends on them and turned out to vote.

The results of these elections are now known. The opposition parties have a good chance of forming a coalition and ending the eight-year dominance of the Law and Justice party. However, there are still many challenges ahead given the differences there are within the opposition. The coalition of three parties is essentially a conglomerate of various parties and movements.

Nevertheless, the verdict of these elections is clear: people want change.

This is especially true of young people, as only 15% of young Poles voted for the ruling party.

The election results were greeted with relief in Brussels – and in Washington too, even though their focus is currently elsewhere.

Most relieved of all was Berlin, as German-Polish relations had been in freefall. Consider the diplomatic note demanding reparations for World War II that Poland submitted on 3 October, Germany's national holiday. Some in Poland saw this as a clever piece of mockery, but in Germany, it was perceived as an unfortunate lack of manners.

Many in Kyiv were also relieved, as the emotional outbursts of the past few months have been very concerning, eroding the unique atmosphere of solidarity that characterises our relations with Warsaw. The emotional crisis quickly began to take on political dimensions.

This solidarity is crucial for us now and in the future.

However, those who hope that everything in Poland will change overnight, as in a fairy tale, are likely deceiving themselves.

The Law and Justice party technically won the elections and has many supporters. Moreover, its representatives hold many important positions, from the president and governor of the central bank to judges in key courts, including the Constitutional Court.

The main battle still lies ahead. The elections are only the first round.

There will be very complex debates on issues that are significant for Ukraine, including grain exports, because Donald Tusk’s personal interests and the stability of the future coalition directly depend on the votes of Polish farmers.

All of this is important, of course, but the results of the Polish elections raise at least two strategic questions – for the EU and for Ukraine as a future EU member.

Firstly, the politics in Central European countries, including Poland, Czechia, Hungary and Slovakia, are increasingly seen in terms of confrontation and rivalry between two tendencies: democratic-centrist and autocratic-populist.

The latter represents a cocktail of autocratic tendencies, media restrictions, populism, negative nationalism, and an attempt to blame "external forces", including the EU and the US, for the desire to limit national policies.

The outcome of this cocktail varies greatly in each country – Viktor Orbán, Robert Fico (who is returning as the Prime Minister of Slovakia), Andrej Babiš and Jarosław Kaczyński are indeed very different politicians, but they all embody this trend in one way or another and enjoy substantial support in their respective countries.

As a result, a stable political model has formed in Central Europe that is difficult to imagine without such politicians.

This creates a strategic challenge for Ukraine’s European integration, because these forces will raise their issues with Brussels and with us consistently and pragmatically – at our expense.

Furthermore, they will attempt to influence the changes that the European Union needs for effective expansion in their own interests.

A detailed understanding of "who’s who" in Central European countries is becoming no less important to us than knowing who’s who in the US or Germany – literally.

Of course, it is just as critical to create new formats involving "new" and "old" EU members – here, it's worth starting by "rebooting" the Weimar Triangle of France, Germany and Poland and adding Ukraine to the mix. The Polish coalition led by Tusk provides almost the ideal moment for this.

Secondly, it is evident to everyone that Ukrainian politics will not be the same as before. Everything will change, from the social contract and constitution to the very understanding of what it means to represent citizens.

Simultaneously, Ukraine is beginning to be a part of Central Europe – geopolitically, economically and, most importantly, historically and mentally.

For many in the European Union, and in the wider world, this raises the question of whether Ukrainian politics in the future will operate on the notional Central European model, that is, based on confrontation and rivalry between the democratic-centrist and autocratic-populist tendencies.

That is an oversimplification of the reality, of course, but this is indeed a subject of discussion in the European Union.

It is clear that the choice is up to us, but this choice will have a decisive impact on our path towards the EU.

As we join the European Union, Central Europe will become a separate centre of influence, but this should not hinder the effective decision-making process within it. Moreover, it should not lead to problems with the rule of law, as has already been the case with Hungary and (still) with Poland, otherwise the European Union will be paralysed.

The "old" EU members critically understand this danger and will try to have us as a reliable and predictable partner within the EU and not push the pre-accession process until they are convinced that the future EU will function effectively. They have more than enough tools to do this.

The Polish elections have become a kind of mirror that should show what the political model of Central Europe will be and how it will impact our prospects.

This question, as well as the future security model for Ukraine, will ultimately determine the speed and quality of Ukraine's European integration.


Articles in the 'Expert Opinion' section are not editorials, and the views presented are solely those of the authors

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