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What’s Next for Poland?

As in 1989, the run-up to Poland’s general election this month was marked by a widespread sentiment that the stakes could not be higher. Now that the democratic opposition has prevailed, despite massive structural disadvantages, it is sure to face additional hurdles, from economic constraints to political foul play.

WARSAW – This wasn’t supposed to happen. With sweeping control over state financial resources and public and local media, Poland’s populist ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), had a massive structural advantage in this month’s parliamentary election. It should have won handily and continued consolidating its illiberal, anti-democratic rule.

Instead, PiS confronted a national uprising, winning just over 35% of the vote, while opposition parties won more than 54%. Poland’s democratic institutions may have been weakened during the years of PiS misrule, but its people have proven more than capable of mobilizing against the threat of an entrenched authoritarianism.

Reaching almost 75%, voter turnout was the highest it has been in Poland since communism’s fall. As in 1989, there was a widespread sentiment that this election would be historic. Still, the opposition’s sweeping victory seems to have surprised its own leaders as much as PiS, whose leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, should now be considered politically armed and dangerous. PiS retains control of the instruments of power, including the body that certifies election results.