Young voters’ turnout in Poland showed it’s ‘No country for Old Men’

By Tom Junes, Historian, Assistant Professor, Institute of Political Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Despite PiS winning the election, Sunday’s vote produced an electoral victory for the opposition spurred on by younger voters, Tom Junes writes.

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It was a remarkable sight in Poland on Sunday: in the middle of the night, hours after the first exit polls in the country’s parliamentary election projected a Pyrrhic victory for Law and Justice (PiS), scores of young people were still queueing at polling stations waiting to vote.

Over the past eight years of PiS rule, Polish society has become increasingly polarised and divisions now run so deep making the idea of political reconciliation no longer seem possible at times.

This year’s election campaign was the ugliest and most vicious of Poland’s post-1989 era. Yet, the effect was such that ultimately a large part of the generally non-voting population got motivated enough to take to the polls.

In Jagodno, a district of Wrocław, the last voters cast their ballots just before 3 am. Indicatively, the results from that district echoed a trend among youth. 

In 2019, PiS came first among voters between 18 and 29 years of age with 26.3% of the vote share. Last Sunday, the ruling party of the past eight years finished last with a mere 14.9% — and, in Jagodno, PiS even failed to clear 6%.

The most astonishing aspect of these elections was the record voter turnout of 74% — ten percentage points higher than the elections in 1989 that brought an end to decades of communist rule. 

And although the total number of eligible voters this year amounted to more than one million less than in the previous elections in 2019, a million and a half more people ended up going out and casting ballots.

Against the backdrop of these elections that were perceived as “free but not fair”, the massive voter mobilisation was a clear win for democracy as such. 

This makes the youth vote, traditionally the least prominent voting group, perhaps even more extraordinary. Turnout among voters from 18 to 29 years reached 68.8%, compared to 46.4% in the previous elections of 2019.

An electoral youthquake

In the months before the elections, amidst an ever more polarising climate, media attention started focusing on the younger generation of voters. 

In particular, this was because surveys showed a stronger polarisation and gender divide factoring into their political preferences with a striking dominance of the far-right Konfederacja on the one hand and the Left on the other hand. 

The youth vote was heralding change to come as most young voters have never known any government beyond the Civic Platform (PO)-PiS duopoly fueled by the persisting Donald Tusk-Jarosław Kaczyński rivalry.

Konfederacja’s rise to double-digit numbers and third place in pre-election surveys propelled it to the status of potential “kingmaker” in what was perceived to herald a further swing to the right in Poland. 

The Lewica or Left’s prominence was in turn seen as a consequence of the PiS-led drive to further criminalise abortion and its assault on women’s and LGBTQ+ rights.

But on the day of the vote, the pre-election predictions concerning youth turned out to be far off the mark as neither the far right nor the Left came out on top. 

Voter outflow to the Third Way key?

Both parties arguably fared much better among youth than in older age groups, but it was the Tusk-led PO coalition that held a decisive advantage among younger voters, with the Trzecia Droga, or Third Way, coalition also producing a strong showing.

More so, while the Left is seen as part of the winning camp securing its own voter niche, it lost half a million votes compared to the last elections. 

And though Konfederacja appeared as the biggest flop of the night underperforming by even its least ambitious aims, the far right did increase its overall vote tally by some three hundred thousand votes.

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In both cases, there was most likely a potential voter outflow to Trzecia Droga. Though frequently portrayed in the media in the weeks running up to the election as at risk of not crossing the threshold, the coalition managed to present itself as a credible alternative to the PO-PiS duopoly for voters who favoured a more moderate or centrist approach than the Lewica or far right were offering.

Perhaps the mass mobilisation in the Tusk-led “Million Hearts March” two weeks before the vote or the fact that Szymon Hołownia, one of the leaders of Trzecia Droga, managed to pull off the best performance in the only TV election debate that took place influenced the outcome. 

However, neither during the debate nor in the campaign as a whole did the political parties and their candidates pay much attention to youth.

Yet, the vote ultimately shows that the younger generation voted overwhelmingly against PiS. And young people did so for a variety of reasons provided in the first place by PiS who managed to antagonise the overall majority of young voters.

An opposition victory where caveats apply

Despite PiS winning the election, Sunday’s vote produced an electoral victory for the opposition spurred on by younger voters. 

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Youth has managed to swing elections a few times in Poland’s democratic history. In 2007, young voters helped Tusk and PO beat Kaczyński’s PiS in a snap election, and in 2015, the youth vote came out against the out-of-touch PO establishment propelling PiS to power.

And although the country might now see a political moment reminiscent of 1989 leading to the end of PiS rule, Poland’s democratic history shows that the pendulum can swiftly swing the other way. One should not forget that PiS still has the single largest group of political supporters.

It will thus be important for the opposition to navigate carefully in the coming weeks and months facing probable obstruction and stiff opposition from PiS and the country’s PiS-backed president, Andrzej Duda, while having to keep together a disparate political alliance ranging from PiS-curious conservatives to radical left sympathisers.

Taking a page out of Italy’s book

Over the past eight years, Poland was often compared to Hungary for its illiberal tendencies and democratic backsliding under PiS. But last weekend’s election outcome also shows that Poland is not Hungary. 

Rather, today’s situation is reminiscent of Italy’s in 2006, when a broad but fragile coalition led by former European Commission President Romano Prodi managed to narrowly oust Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing populist government.

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The comparison to Italy should serve as a warning since Prodi’s coalition rapidly fell apart and paved the way for Berlusconi’s comeback. 

Tusk, who was the European Council president himself, and like Prodi, twice defeated his country’s inflated right-wing populist opponent, could learn something from his counterpart and seize the opportunity to address young people’s concerns to galvanise his support. 

Unless it wants to founder to the same flavour of infighting spurred on by a lack of vision for the future, Poland’s opposition has a distinct opportunity to listen to the youth’s desires and help transform Poland into a country not ruled by old men.

Tom Junes is a historian and Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences. He is the author of “Student Politics in Communist Poland: Generations of Consent and Dissent”.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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Are Polish elections taking place on a (grossly) uneven playing field?

By Wojciech Sadurski, Professor, University of Sydney Law School, University of Warsaw

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

The ruling authoritarians have fundamentally subverted democracy, including the electoral process. For the democratic opposition to win, it will almost take a miracle, Wojciech Sadurski writes.

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While it is impossible to predict today who will win the parliamentary elections in Poland in a few weeks, one thing is sure: these will not be fair elections. 

Free, perhaps, but not fair. The right-wing populist incumbents have tilted the playing field so that the opposition is denied an equal opportunity in the electoral contest. And it’s not even close.

The elections to be held on 15 October will determine the future of Poland — and, in the process, of the European Union and Europe more broadly — for many years, perhaps decades to come. 

If the incumbent Law and Justice or PiS party is re-elected, the populist-authoritarian regime in Poland since 2015 will enter into a stage of comfortable consolidation. 

After two consecutive parliamentary and presidential elections over the last eight years, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński will be on a safe road to emulate his role model, Viktor Orbán of Hungary.

Can Pis skew the dead heat race to its own advantage?

As Kaczyński and his closest collaborators have made abundantly clear, his party needs a third consecutive mandate in order to complete its “reforms” — read: capture or disable the last remaining traces of pluralism and institutional independence, such as some recalcitrant judges or private media and NGOs critical of the ruling elite. 

Poland will radically loosen ties with the EU, perhaps all the way down to “Polexit”. 

If one wants to see a blueprint for Kaczyński’s program for the third term, today’s Hungary offers a good insight into — in Kaczyński’s own words — the “Budapest in Warsaw”  scenario. It is not a pretty picture.

The election results cannot be foreseen today: it’s too close to call. PiS, together with its likely government coalition partner, the extreme right-wing Konfederacja or Confederation, scores in opinion polls about the same as the three democratic opposition parties combined: the centrist Civic Coalition, the Left, and the centre-right Trzecia Droga or Third Way.

But the democratic opposition’s marginal lead may be easily wiped out by the peculiarities of the electoral system, which penalises fragmented oppositions — as the democrats in Poland, unfortunately, are. 

More importantly, it is likely to be eviscerated by how PiS has skewed the playing field to its advantage, in a big way.

A referendum amid elections?

The main dirty trick is combining parliamentary elections with a “referendum”: a propaganda hoax and a shameless money grab. 

The referendum, held at the same time and in the same locations as the elections, will have four questions — all loaded, and all based on false factual premises. 

For instance, there is a question about accepting thousands of illegal migrants as a result of “the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy”. The other three referendum questions are similarly disingenuous.

None of the questions is asked in good faith, and none seek a popular response about legislation contemplated by either the government or the opposition. 

They are no one’s policies, but the referendum insinuates a stark choice between the government which condemns them and the opposition to which PiS attributes them, falsely. 

In this sense, an intimate connection exists between the electoral campaign and the referendum questions. 

The referendum serves to amplify all the fears that PiS is exploiting in its campaign. It is not distinguishable from that campaign but is part and parcel of it.

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Last-minute changes to electoral rules and overburdened diaspora ballot commissions

Yet, here’s the thing: the referendum opens up virtually unlimited campaign finances. PiS has access to greater financial assets than the opposition, having captured all the key state-owned industries. 

But there are some campaign limits, policed by the Election Committee, which apply to elections but not to referenda. 

So, under the disguise of the referendum campaign, virtually unlimited funds will go to the PiS election campaign.

That is not all. In the eleventh hour before the elections, PiS pushed through a change in electoral district rules, creating many new districts in villages and small towns. 

This is nothing short of gerrymandering: the countryside and small towns are the main reservoir of PiS political support. 

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At the same time, PiS makes it more difficult for the Polish diaspora, especially in the UK and Western Europe, where the greatest numbers of émigré Poles live, to vote and have their votes counted. 

Ballot commissions in places such as London or Dublin will be overburdened with voters, but under the new rules, the commissions will have to proceed in a more time-consuming way — all members of the commission must look at every single ballot, one at a time — and must complete all their paperwork within 24 hours. 

Simulations prove this will be virtually impossible in some districts, especially with the added effort needed to serve the referendum. 

And yes, you guessed it: the Polish diaspora in the UK and other EU member states have voted predominantly for anti-PiS parties in recent years.

‘No one will give you as much as PiS can promise’

Good old-fashioned pork-barrel policies are in full swing: PiS has been throwing gifts at its usual clients since late spring this year, and over time, the speed and the size of those presents have grown exponentially. 

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Upgrading of family subsidies, an extra monthly pension to retirees (aka the 14th pension), a ludicrous cut in interest rates by the subservient central bank, an artificially low level of petrol prices maintained against the worldwide trends by the state-controlled oil company Orlen — you name it, they’ll give it. 

The long-term disastrous effects of these policies don’t count; what matters is instant gratification by the electorate. 

As the saying in Poland goes: “No one will give you as much as PiS will promise”.

The central imbalance, though, is in the media scene. Public media in Poland are “public” only in name and the source of their financing — through taxpayers’ money. 

In their contents, they are one-sided, aggressive governmental propaganda outfits addressed against the opposition.

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The vulgarity and partisanship of TVP — the state-controlled broadcaster, which has a monopoly in some areas of the country — is difficult to describe; especially in pre-election times, it becomes a non-stop electoral propaganda machine. 

‘The Law to Take Out Tusk’

It airs all the PiS official events, including Kaczyński’s speeches, but never goes live for an opposition rally with the leader of the main opposition party, Donald Tusk. 

The Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reports that on a randomly chosen recent date, Tusk was shown five times in the main evening news on TVP, always in a negative light (including a historic photo with Russia’s Vladimir Putin), while Kaczyński appeared eight times, always positively portrayed.

This is a long list, but “The Law to Take Out Tusk” also merits a mention: setting up a kangaroo court tasked with demonstrating that the leader of the main opposition party has been acting under the influence of Russians. 

The venerable Venice Commission has already warned that the new body may become a tool to eliminate political opponents. 

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This is a tool Kaczyński may well activate any time now if the polls look bad to him. Nor have I mentioned the new chamber of the Supreme Court peopled only with judges handpicked by the ruling party, which will have the last word on the legality of election results. 

On top of that, there is also the issue of illegal use by the secret services of surveillance devices, such as Pegasus spyware, against the opposition.

Would opposition victory be a miracle?

So, whatever the outcome of the elections in Poland that you hear about on or just after 15 October, remember that the field will have been badly skewed in favour of the current rulers. 

The ruling authoritarians have fundamentally subverted democracy, including the electoral process. 

For the democratic opposition to win, it will almost take a miracle. But perhaps it’s not hopeless. 

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Miracles happen, especially in Poland.

Wojciech Sadurski is a Professor at the University of Sydney Law School and the  University of Warsaw’s Center for Europe. He is the author of “A Pandemic of Populists”(Cambridge 2022).

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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How will women vote in Poland’s next election?

The vote of women in the incoming parliamentary election in Poland could be crucial in determining whether the PiS will hold on to power – or would be punished for restricting access to abortion in the country, experts say.

As a crucial parliamentary election which could weaken the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s hold on to power quickly approaches in Poland, experts are wondering what role women will have in determining the future of the country.

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Less than a month ahead of the 15 October election, the PiS – which has been in power since 2019 – could take home a victory but fail to reach an overall majority.

This opens the possibility of a potential coalition between the PiS and the ascending far-right party Confederation Freedom and Independence (Konfederacja Wolsność i Niepodległość), currently the third party in the country; or another coalition led by the current opposition, Donald Tusk’s Civic Coalition party (Koalicja Obywatelska), currently the second party in the polls.

Women, who have suffered a crackdown on abortion rights sponsored by the PiS with the backing of the local Catholic church about three years ago, might prove a wild card in the incoming election – either supporting the ruling party or turning against it.

According to Simona Guerra, a professor in Comparative Politics at the University of Surrey and an expert on Polish politics, the PiS’ policies after 2019 have taken “a more radical, illiberal and anti-European stance on most social, cultural, and economic issues – and also and above all, on the rights of women and minorities.”

Since the Polish government banned most abortions in the country, “women have died,” Guerra told Euronews. “This election would be important for women, because while there are those who can afford to have abortions abroad, there are those who cannot.”

According to Anita Prazmowska, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and an expert in Polish politics and history, women in Poland are being treated like “animals” and being reduced to only one purpose, “to give birth.” Despite the Polish government’s efforts to promote pregnancy and reduce access to abortion, the country’s birth rate is still one of the lowest in Europe.

“So what is happening? The answer is illegal abortions,” Prazmowska told Euronews. “Educated, wealthy women can go to the Czech Republic and Western Europe to have an abortion, but women in the rural villages don’t have that option.”

A turn of the screw on abortion access

In 2021, the Polish government imposed a near-total ban on abortion which only allowed the procedure in case the pregnancy threatens the pregnant person’s life or health or it’s the result of rape or incest. of But Prazmowska said that things are worse than the strict law would suggest.

“Though, in principle, abortion is legal in cases of rape, incest and foetal abnormality, as well as in proven cases of threat to women’s health, no hospitals are willing to perform illegal abortions,” Prazmowska said, “because hospitals are dominated by local political groups and fearful of accusations by the church.”

There were two cases in the past two years where women were refused treatment in hospital despite carrying a dead foetus inside them and died of septicemia – blood poisoning by bacteria.

A lack of alternatives

While the Polish government’s crackdown on abortion has sparked huge, nation-wide protests across the country in 2020, “that energy has dissipated,” Prazmowska said.

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Educated and working women in Poland’s capital and big cities will certainly think so, she added, “but that’s not enough. Normally, the women’s vote is very conservative, very church-bound. In Poland, the Church controls the villages and the rural areas of the country very, very successfully.”

Prazmowska said that “women’s circumstances in Poland are unbelievable, adding that she wouldn’t know what to compare them with. “Will women see themselves as a group that can actually vote and make their voice matter?,” she asked.

Women who might be unhappy with the way they’ve been treated by the government lack alternative parties who push forward political agendas which actively protect their rights, according to the expert.

“The past rage [over a crackdown on abortion access] has not taken the form of parties creating different programmes fighting this, because everybody talking about abortion, contraception is faced with such a violent reaction in Poland,” she continued.

“State television is now mainly controlled by the ruling party, while independent news media are mostly online,” she added. “On state television, the formal discussion is so violent, so hostile towards women that nobody dares put their head over the parapet,” she continued.

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“It would take a very brave person. There have been, but they have not managed to build a platform.

More female candidates for Tusk

Tusk’s Civic Coalition party has been trying to mobilise the female electorate, with a record 44% of women candidates in the incoming election. The party has plans to send buses of its women candidates around Poland to promote themselves and invite women to vote for their agenda defending women’s rights.

Part of the party’s agenda is overturning the current near-total ban on abortion and legalising the procedure up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Earlier this year, Tusk declared that women’s rights are the country’s “number one” issue.

But the former European Council head has been criticised by feminists in the country for using the issue to promote his party, having done little to promote and defend women’s rights while he was in office as prime minister between 2007 and 2014.

Family, church, and politics

There’s also an issue of reaching women in rural areas, Prazmowska said, where women have historically supported the most conservative parties.

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According to Prazmowska, outside of Poland’s big cities where women can be independent, “women are still very economically dependent on society as a whole, their families, and their husbands.”

Under these circumstances, women traditionally vote conservative, seduced by a political rhetoric that promises to prioritise families, defend women, and take care of their children – even if what they’re doing is solidifying their dependent role in the traditional patriarchal family.

“It is the older women who vote, not the young women,” said Prazmowska, explaining that the process of secularisation ongoing in Poland has not yet reached the majority of the electorate.

“Older women will likely still vote the same party, the PiS, if they’re going to vote at all,” she said, admitting she’s pessimistic about any political change being driven by the women’s vote, though she’d wish for it.

“This government is just giving women money to sit at home and have children. It destroys any economic incentive to acquire skills and find a good job. Women who don’t want to do that are leaving for Western Europe – Italy, Greece, Germany. So, who’s left to change the situation in Poland?”

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Poland said its army will soon be the strongest in Europe. Can it?

Through a series of major arms deals, Poland is set to establish military supremacy in continental Europe – though the high cost of this expansion is a source of concern for some experts.

If everything goes according to plan, Europe will soon have a new military superpower: Poland.

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The leaders of the country’s ruling party Law & Justice (PiS) have recently announced that the country is set to have the strongest army in Europe within the next two years, thanks to the major modernisation of its existing equipment and a massive reinforcement of its troops.

The military has been one of the most important topics of discussion in Poland since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, as the country prepares for the risk of the conflict at its border spilling into its territory.

“The Polish army must be so powerful that it does not have to fight due to its strength alone,” said Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in November last year, as the country celebrated independence from the Soviet Union.

He promised that the country would have “the most powerful land forces in Europe.”

“We want peace, and if we want that we must prepare for war – in connection with that, we are strengthening the Polish Army in contrast to those who governed until 2015,” said Defence Minister Mariusz Błaszczak.

But is this major rearmament programme an objectively realistic goal – or simply a costly promise meant to boost support for PiS ahead of the country’s election later this year?

Poland’s plan for Europe’s strongest army explained

According to the Global Firepower’s 2023 Military Strength Ranking, the strongest militaries in Europe – after Russia – are currently the UK, France, and Italy. The UK’s position is mostly due to its manpower and airpower, while France can count on a strong helicopter fleet and several destroyer warships. Italy had 404 helicopters and two aircraft carriers as of January 2023. Poland was fifth in the ranking.

Poland has already set in motion the plan that will lead it to obtain Europe’s strongest army.

“Poland is in a state of transition, it made orders for hundreds of American, German, and South Korean vehicles, and it has expanded its defence spending to more than 3% of its GDP,” Frank Ledwidge, a barrister and former military officer who has served in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan, told Euronews.

Last year, the president of Poland – a country that has been a full member of NATO since 1999 – signed into law a bill that allowed the government to spend 3% of its GDP on defence from 2023 on – a full percentage point above what is expected of the alliance’s members.

By comparison, Germany has recently pledged to increase its defence spending to reach at least the 2% threshold set by NATO for its members. In 2021, according to the latest data made available by Eurostat, the EU countries that spent most of their GDP on defence were Greece (2.8%), Latvia (2.3%), Estonia (2.0%), Romania (1.9%), France, Cyprus, and Lithuania (1.8%).

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Newly NATO member Finland, which has one of the strongest armies in Europe, plans to spend €6 billion, or 2.3% of its GDP in defence, in 2024 – which is actually €116 million less than it expected to spend this year.

If Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński gets his way, military spending in Poland could be increased to 5% of the country’s GDP in the next decade, as he has suggested.

Poland has also announced a major purchase of modern equipment and a massive recruitment operation that will likely take place in the coming years.

The country wants to recruit about 150,000 troops in the next decade, which will bring its army from the current 128,000 active personnel and 36,000 territorial defence troops to 300,000 soldiers by 2035. With the new troops, the country will create six armoured divisions – whereas France and Germany only have two, and the UK has one alone.

It has also purchased over a thousand new tanks and 600 artillery pieces, mainly from South Korea and the US. These will bring the country’s firepower to be more than that of the UK, France, Germany, and Italy combined.

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In July, Poland received 33 new M1 Abrams tanks as part of a €4.5 billion ($4.9 billion) order of 250. The country is also waiting for most of the nearly 1,000 K2 Black Panther main battle tanks it has bought from South Korea, of which it has received the first 10. Some 180 K2 will be delivered to Poland by 2025 for €3.16 billion, while up to 820 of the tanks will be produced in Poland under the licence obtained by South Korea for the next 10 years.

In terms of artillery, Poland has spent €9.2 billion ($10 billion) to purchase 468 HIMARS rocket launchers of the same kind that helped Ukraine’s forces with its successes against the Russians last year.

Can Poland really achieve its ambitious goal?

With these orders in line, “there’s no doubt” that Poland can become Europe’s strongest army, said Ledwidge.

“Is it an electoral promise? Maybe, but they’re going to be left with an awful lot of egg on their face if they don’t go through with these orders, and I suspect massive contractual issues as well,” he said.

However, some concerns remain among experts and observers, especially over the costs of this military expansion.

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The expansion of the training of new troops and the recruitment pipeline will be a “challenge”, Ledwidge said, that will have a logistical and financial burden on the country. “But we should remember that Poland is getting richer, unlike countries like the UK, so they can probably afford the expenses.”

The issue of the gargantuan cost of this expansion of the Polish army has been raised by Polish military expert Robert Czulda, a Resident Fellow at the Casimir Pulaski Foundation, who in a recent article said that the country will have to face a “gun or butter” dilemma as it tries to secure long-term financing.

“It seems highly likely that such a large scale of planned orders is largely driven by a political populism, aimed at gaining popularity here and now, rather than to be a real, comprehensive, and well-thought-out plan for harmoniously strengthening the armed forces,” he wrote.

“Poland should ensure that these procurement programmes are sustainable and affordable in the long term. The country should avoid a risk of overspending, which now seems very high.”

Sławomir Sierakowski, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement and a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, warned that the impressive arm deals made by the Polish government “were made without government tenders, from a weak bargaining position, and without offset obligations from contractors.” 

How is this going to change the political equilibrium in Europe?

As the strongest army in Europe, Poland “will be more than capable of defending themselves and the Baltic states with what they’re going to get, assuming that the investment comes through,” Ledwidge said.

“The incentives to go through with this are both political and strategic. Poland needs to have a very strong army because it has become the bulwark of NATO,” he added.

This would likely put the country in a new position within Europe and NATO.

“It’s very probable that Poland then will become either the primary or secondary continental European power after France,” said Ledwidge.

“And that will mean that the UK will lose in due course its role as second commander of NATO, which would be a big blow for the country, but it’s deserved.”

The new position of Poland within NATO and Europe will push countries like the UK or France “to ask whether it’s worth even having their ground forces as a priority,” Ledwidge said, “or whether they should instead reverse to their natural speciality, which for the UK is being a naval power – something that’s being lost as we try to do all at once.”

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Open the doors to NATO and the EU, says Poland’s President Duda

The European Union and NATO should open their doors to all countries who want to join, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda says.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Polish president said countries such as Moldova and Georgia should enjoy the same welcome as his country did.

“Poles are in favour of an open door policy to both the European Union and NATO,” he told Euronews’ Sasha Vakulina. “Why? Among other things, because we ourselves once experienced this policy. If we are supporters of democracy, in the best sense of the word, then it is the nations that have the right to decide whether they belong.”

Watch the interview in the video player above

Interview Transcript

Sasha Vakulina, Euronews: We’re getting close to the 24th of February, the date that would mark one year since Russia’s full-scale invasion into Ukraine. Poland has been at the forefront in so many aspects during this year. I want to ask you, how has Poland changed during this year?

Andrzej Duda, President of Poland: Poland has changed a lot. Poles spontaneously drove to the border, opened their homes, came in their cars, took refugees, those who were fleeing the war, those who had taken refuge in Poland. As many times as I am in Ukraine, as many times as I meet defenders of Ukraine, soldiers, commanders, as many times I say: listen, fight calmly, defend the state, fight against Russian aggression. Your wives, your children, your mothers, your sisters who have come to us, to Poland, are safe. Today, the Ukrainian language can be heard everywhere in Poland, in every public institution, in every shop, on the tram, on the bus, on the street, everywhere. This is our reality today. We live together, we feel good together. We are, one could say, two friendly or even brotherly nations. And for us, in terms of military security, it is a great demonstration, not only to us as a society, but also to the whole world, that independence, freedom, is not given once and for all, that independence can be lost as a result of aggression. A free, sovereign, independent country has been brutally attacked; the brutal Russian invader destroys houses, fires missiles at civilian settlements, kills people. This is a huge shock to the world. For us, all the more mobilisation to strengthen our security.

Sasha Vakulina: Do you think these calls for stronger security and more security concerns will be reinforced after you speak at Davos and after this message being so loud here at the World Economic Forum?

Andrzej Duda: The truth is that this economic forum, which has always had this kind of mostly economic profile, today is hugely dominated by security issues. Of course, this security is also observed not only through a military, purely military prism. We do, of course, talk about the fact that Ukraine needs to be supported, and that it is essential to send arms aid to Ukraine all the time if it is to defend itself and fend off Russian aggression. This is why we spoke so much yesterday about the Polish initiative to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine, so that, as part of allied aid from various countries, we could gather together these Leopard tanks and create at least an armoured brigade for Ukraine. We are also talking about energy security, we are talking about Europe’s energy independence, and we are talking about the fact that the Russian policy, as we now all see, was brutally designed and aimed at domination over Europe, hence Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2. This is also the reason for our Polish protests against Nord Streams, as we saw in it a path to Russian hegemony in the European energy market, in terms of gas. We have been diversifying gas supplies to Poland for years, because we saw the danger. Unfortunately, our warnings were ignored. That’s why today we are talking in Davos about building energy security with our heads held high, because we have been doing it for a long time.

Sasha Vakulina: There are lots of warnings that have been voiced by Poland in the past when it comes to energy security, when it comes to economic dependence, when it comes to the whole security situation. How do you think the war in Ukraine has changed Europe’s geopolitical security dynamics for Poland and Eastern European countries?

Andrzej Duda: Firstly, something that certainly surprised Putin and the Russian aggressors. Unity, the unity of the European Union, the unity of NATO. Something that has not been so clearly present until now, because the Russians did not encounter such unity either in 2008, when they attacked Georgia, or in 2014, when they actually attacked Ukraine for the first time. Now they have collided with a wall of unity from the European side and from the North Atlantic Alliance. Secondly, this war has also shown that there is no security today really without close Euro-Atlantic, or transatlantic, ties, that the United States plays a huge role when it comes to building this, this European security. Today, the biggest aid to Ukraine is from the United States. I am very proud as president of Poland, because we are in an absolutely leading position as far as this military aid to Ukraine is concerned. For this military aid we’ve already spent over $2.3 billion. So, for us it is a huge expense and a huge sacrifice, but we know that we are doing this to build the security of our part of Europe, and we are doing it and will continue to do it.

Sasha Vakulina: We have seen the EU not expanding much over the past years. Is this also something to rethink, including Ukraine, including Moldova and other countries that could be there in Europe joining the bloc.

Andrzej Duda: We, Poles are in favour of an open door policy to both the European Union and NATO. Why? Among other things, because we ourselves once experienced this policy. If we are supporters of democracy, in the best sense of the word, then it is the nations that have the right to decide whether they belong. It is nations that have the right to decide in which direction they want their states to go, in which direction they want their regimes to go. If the Ukrainians, our neighbours, want to belong to the European Union, if they want to belong to NATO, if the same is true of the people of Moldova, if the same is true of the people of Georgia, they have the right to do so. This war shows that that is what Putin does not accept. This is what Putin, with his authoritarian character, with his will to enslave other nations and his own society is trying to take away from the Ukrainians, to take away this opportunity, to take away their freedom, to take away their opportunity to belong to the communities of the West, to NATO, to the European Union. We can never agree to this. Today, Volodymyr Zelenskyy expects concrete steps from NATO.

Sasha Vakulina: After almost eighty years of peace in Europe, the war is back in the continent. In the bigger picture, how can the current generations avoid the repeat of past tragedies? From the point of view of Poland.

Andrzej Duda: First of all, Russia must be stopped. That is why today we, as the free world, should support Ukraine with all our strength, including supporting it militarily. But, on the other hand, the war crimes must be punished. The whole world must see that we do not let go of the crimes committed by the Russians in Ukraine. That the perpetrators of the crimes are held criminally responsible. It was Russia that invaded Ukraine without any reason. And the punishment it should suffer for this should be absolutely severe.

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