On Oct. 15, 2023, people in Poland, across the European Union, and around the world waited with bated breath for the announcement of the projected exit poll results of the Polish parliamentary elections. The final vote count, confirmed by the National Electoral Commission, determining the new Polish government yielded a widely unexpected result: the incumbent far-right, populist Law and Justice (PiS) party would be ousted by the liberal Civic Coalition. Why should an election in an EU eastern periphery country be worth attention beyond its borders? With a historic 74.4% voter turnout from the people of Poland, the defeat of PiS has much broader implications for the future of Europe and the EU.
These election results have sent ripples across Europe, challenging the narrative that right-wing populist regimes are destined to keep their strong footholds in Europe since their sweeping successes in recent decades –- an issue the EU has grappled with at length. The victory of the Civic Coalition democratic opposition, led by former European Council President Donald Tusk, not only marks the end of the PiS’ eight-year rule, but also shows potential for resilience in European democracies, even in the face of illiberal challenges. Under PiS, Poland experienced the development of “LGBT-free zones” written into various state and local laws, as well as a “near-ban on legal abortion” since 2020. With similar strong right-wing populist trends in countries like Hungary, Italy and Slovakia, the electoral defeat of PiS is an encouraging feat.
The significance of Poland’s electoral outcome extends beyond its borders, particularly to Hungary- a country that has long been a leading illiberal and anti-Brussels voice, despite its membership in the EU. Hungarian President Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party, with their similar brand of right-wing, populist governance, have faced continued scrutiny and condemnation from the EU for their anti-democratic practices.
For years, Poland and Hungary have acted as mutual shields against EU efforts to intervene in their democratic backsliding, mainly through the notorious Article 7 procedure. This procedure allows the EU to suspend a member country’s voting rights in the EU Council if it continues to violate EU standards on democracy and the rule of law, but only if there is a unanimous vote from the rest. With each having a veto, the alliance between Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczyński and Hungary’s Orbán has helped protect them from such interference.
After a sweeping vote in the European Parliament in 2018 to employ Article 7 proceedings against Hungary, the EU’s attempt to take action was thwarted by Kaczyński’s veto in the European Council and has gone no further. Likewise, the EU attempted to employ Article 7 proceedings in 2017 against Poland for laws threatening the independence of the judiciary by giving the government power to choose the Supreme Court. EU member states have avoided furthering this process to a vote because of the inevitability of Orban’s veto. The Polish election results present a turning point in this dynamic. After more than a decade of democratic backsliding in Hungary, the EU may finally be in a position to assert that there is a “clear risk of a serious breach of EU values” in Hungary with the support of the new Polish government.
The EU, criticized for its perceived inability to rein in illiberal tendencies within its member states, now has an opportunity to assert its commitment to democracy and the rule of law. As the new Polish government begins to move towards restoring the independence of its judiciary and media in alignment with the EU rule of law standards, it sets a precedent for other nations grappling with similar challenges.
The impact of Poland’s electoral shift on Hungary is not merely procedural — it is a symbolic blow to the narrative that illiberalism is an irreversible path. As European Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Pawel Zerka explained, the success of the democratic opposition in Poland demonstrates that, even in the absence of a fully functioning democratic system of checks and balances, an active civil society can safeguard democracy.
Poland’s population showed up to the polls in mass. The nearly 75% voter turnout rate was the highest turnout in the country since 1919 and even higher than the first free elections after the fall of the communist Soviet Union regime in 1989. Poland’s electoral triumph sends the powerful message that “illiberal turns are not one-way streets” and that the influence of populist regimes is not guaranteed. Though populism still prevails in Slovakia and influences parties in leading EU countries like France, the case of Poland proves this trend is not unalterable.
The events in Warsaw are a beacon of hope for those skeptical about the future of Hungary and concerned about the possibility of ingrained illiberalism in other European countries. As the EU navigates this juncture, it must seize the opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to democratic values and the principles that bind its member states together.
Ciara Mullen is a second-year MA student in NYU’s International Relations program, pursuing a concentration in European and Mediterranean Studies. She completed her first year at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, D.C. before transferring to NYU in 2023. Before starting graduate school, Ciara obtained a degree in Political Science and Global Studies from the University of Richmond in 2021, with a concentration in World Politics and Diplomacy. After graduation, Ciara worked for the U.S. Department of State on the Foreign Service Institute’s public diplomacy training team. Outside of her academic and professional life, Ciara enjoys writing and embarking on adventures with her mini dachshund, Bear.