When European historians write the history of the 1920s, it cannot be ruled out that October 15, 2023 will occupy an important place in it. In all likelihood, this is the day on which the party that has been in power in Poland for eight years, called Law and Justice (PiS), has lost its power. This has to be formulated very carefully – because the results are still preliminary, but also because it is foreseeable that the PiS will try to separate dissenters from the jointly victorious trio of opposition parties. The game is not over yet. But the post-election surveys show a clear and stable majority of this united opposition, even if the PiS formally became the strongest force.

This change of power would not be historical because a socially conservative and partly nationalist government party would be replaced; such parties exist in many European countries. The real danger posed by the PiS was that it methodically and deliberately laid an ax to the cornerstones of democracy. To the independence of the judiciary, to the freedom of the media and to the fairness of the electoral process. The government of the EU’s fifth largest country by population has joined a growing international of illiberals, ranging from Donald Trump to Viktor Orban to Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The defeat of such a party is therefore a victory for all democrats, especially when it happens in a large and influential country. Adam Michnik, founder of the daily newspaper “Gazeta Wyborcza” and once one of the great fighters against communist oppression, put it in perspective on the evening of the election: Once again, as in 1989, it would be the Poles who are leading the fight for democracy the first to have had enough of their gradual erosion.

The fact that this event appears to have happened is a small miracle. Polish state television did everything it could to keep opposition leader Donald Tusk away from the screens during the election campaign and to discredit him. In addition, the PiS had mixed in an absurd and inconsequential referendum on the day of the vote, the sole aim of which was to mobilize voters with xenophobic and nationalist sentiments. This was countered by an uprising of the liberal bourgeoisie, the urban population, the Poles working abroad – all those who no longer wanted to allow the democratic freedoms they had won since 1989 to be taken away. They flocked to the polls in such numbers that voter turnout reached a record high of almost 73 percent.

For a possible future government under Tusk, the PiS’s success over the years also represents a clear warning. The party, as was also clear from its performance on election day, did not just consolidate its power with tricks and media control. She also pursued a policy – especially on economic issues – that brought the more backward parts of the country to her side. The traditionally poorer southeast and east of Poland, but also the rural areas in general. If you ignore the Corona year 2020, the Polish economy experienced an impressive success story under PiS, with growth rates between four and six percent.

This growth did not only occur in the booming cities, but also in the provinces, where streets and houses today sometimes look better than in structurally weak areas of Germany. The basis was money from EU funds. Above all, however, a redistribution by the PiS ensured a large flow of money. The party introduced a generous child benefit that benefited families, doubled the minimum wage and reduced the tax burden on lower incomes.

This extensive social program did little to slow down the Polish economy, but it brought prosperity and approval among large parts of the population. There were even voices in the PiS who asked on election evening whether it wouldn’t have made more sense to put this economic development at the center of the election campaign – instead of getting caught up in cultural bickering, anti-Germanism and conspiracy theories.

This poses a problem for Tusk and his possible coalition: if he wants to re-establish the democratic rules in the country, he will not be able to avoid continuing the social policy of his predecessors, perhaps even expanding them. A government that moves away from redistribution and refocuses on promoting pure market forces may win metropolitan applause but be met with provincial rejection. And not in every election can the higher-earning, liberal bourgeoisie be mobilized to such an extent as in this one.

At the same time, however, Tusk would rule in a time that is more difficult than the boom years after the Corona slump. Poor economic growth of less than one percent is already predicted for Poland this year. To make matters worse, Poland depends to a large extent on the fate of the German economy, which is in recession and will continue to grow at an anemic rate next year. Germany is by far the most important trading partner; German medium-sized companies and large corporations provide millions of Polish jobs. If these companies are doing poorly, then that is not a good signal for the neighboring country either.

So, at least in the short term, there will be less to redistribute in Poland, a circumstance that could quickly turn sentiment against a possible incoming government. Tusk has won an extremely important victory. But the real work is only beginning now.

This article first appeared here in the business magazine “Capital”, which, like stern, appears on RTL Deutschland.