Poland’s parliament on knife-edge as opposition takes upper house

(L-R) Malgorzata Tracz, Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska and Barbara Nowacka react during the Civic Coalition (KO) parliamentary elections night in Warsaw, Poland, 13 October 2019. [Pawel Supermak/EPA/EFE]

Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party appears to have narrowly won a second term in power, final results from the parliamentary election on Sunday (13 October) showed, but its drive to push through its agenda may be hampered by its loss of the upper house.

On a day of high drama, what had looked like a clear-cut victory for PiS morphed into a knife-edge contest for the more powerful lower house and an opposition win in the upper house, dealing a serious blow to the socially conservative party which had aimed for a big enough majority to change the constitution.

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Coming on the day that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a key PiS ally, suffered his first defeat in about a decade by losing control of the capital Budapest, Sunday’s result in Warsaw marked another setback for nationalists in the European Union who want to wrest back power from Brussels.

Hungary's opposition wins Budapest election, makes gains in other cities

Hungary’s opposition scored its biggest election victory in a decade on Sunday (13 October) when liberal challenger Gergely Karácsony ousted ruling-party incumbent Istvan Tarlos as mayor of Budapest and opposition parties made gains in other major cities as well.

Final results showed PiS winning 43.6% of the Polish vote, up from 37.6% in 2015. However, under Poland’s complex electoral system the result may not be enough to give PiS a majority and it may be forced to find coalition partners.

The Electoral Commission plans to announce the number of seats each party has won at around 1800 GMT.

In the 100-seat upper house, the 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. [More]

“Senate won back. Thanks to the agreement of opposition parties, the opposition will have the majority in the Senate,” the leader of one opposition party Katarzyna Lubnauer wrote on Twitter.

During its first term in power PiS gained a reputation for pushing through legislation at break-neck speed, with hastily called late-night sittings of the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, followed by quick approval from the upper house.

Control of the Senate would allow the opposition to block or delay legislation proposed by PiS and would also give it a say on nominations to some of Poland’s highest institutions such as the civil rights ombudsman.

PiS, which fought the election with pledges to defend patriotic and Catholic values and further increase welfare spending, had been hoping for a two thirds majority of seats in the Sejm that would have allowed it to reshape the constitution.

Sources from both PiS and the main opposition grouping, the centrist Civic Coalition, agreed that the result for the Sejm was a close call.

Overall, Sunday’s results highlighted increased political polarisation in Poland under PiS rule, with the liberal opposition scoring sweeping victories in some large cities where voters fret over the future of democratic standards in Poland.

‘We saved Poland’

In a further sign of deepening divisions, a group of far-right politicians and activists, the Confederation, won seats in parliament for the first time, securing 6.8% of the vote, just above the 5% threshold needed to enter the legislature.

Critics have accused PiS of fomenting homophobia during the election campaign, with PiS officials branding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights an “invasive foreign influence” that threatens Poland’s national identity.

“We saved Poland. … It is time to complete decommunisation. It is time to stop the LGBT dictate!,” Deputy Digitalisation Minister Andrzej Andruszkiewicz, who is seen as close to far-right politicians, wrote in a tweet.

Despite the uncertainty over the final results, PiS officials said the party would press on with reforms of the judiciary, which critics say amount to a politicisation of the courts. PiS says they are needed to make the system more efficient and fair.

EU leaders congratulated PiS on its election victory, though Brussels has taken Poland to court over the party’s previous judicial reforms and has criticised some of its other policies.

Throughout the campaign, PiS told voters that business and cultural elites should be replaced with people who espouse patriotic values, to weed out what it says is a communist-era web of influence that prevents fair market competition.

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