The parties of Poland’s democratic opposition have won a substantial victory. The combined vote share of those three groupings (Civic Coalition, Third Way, and New Left) is likely to be just under 54%, with PiS (“Law and Justice), the right wing party currently in government winning just over 35%. The three combined democratic parties are likely to have an overall majority of seats in parliament of perhaps 40 or so.

A victory on that scale – or indeed any victory at all – was something that hardly any predicted a few months ago. Commentators in Western Europe seemed to have been resigned to PiS continuing in power, either on their own or with support from the even more right wing Konfederacja.

Even in Poland, I suspect that most of the leaders of the opposition parties had privately expected a narrow lead in seats at best.

That might be seen as surprising, given the record of the PiS government and the growing number of scandals with which it has been linked. But it’s not so surprising when you bear in mind the unfair playing field on which the opposition parties have had to compete over a long period, and which reached a crescendo during the election campaign.

The political bias of the state TV and radio station, TVP, has already been highlighted in a number of foreign media reports on the election. Any of the failings which some see in the BBC pale into trivial insignificance compared to Polish state TV.

Add to that years of vicious and personal campaigning against the most prominent opposition leader, Donald Tusk, who was portrayed variously as working in the interests of Germany or Russia.

Add also a use of state resources directed at helping PiS, including, in the closing weeks of the election campaign, appearances of government ministers in front of military personnel and equipment in an obvious effort to claim the security agenda. With such an uphill struggle it is a wonder that the democratic opposition was even able to put up a fight, let alone win.

That victory will resonate throughout Europe.

Perhaps the most immediately important reason for it was that the Polish government was seen by many voters to have failed on basic issues of competence and delivery. PiS policy on women’s rights (particularly on abortion) was a major mobilising factor. That was one aspect of a wider distancing of PiS from younger voters, in a society which has become more liberal just as the government has geared up its drive for a socially conservative society.

And behind all those criticisms of the PiS government was an awareness that its policies and actions were undermining the fundamentals of the Polish democracy that was so hard fought for 35 years ago.

That has motivated wide sectors of Polish civil society – organised or informal, national or local – to oppose, over the years, the direction of travel in which the country was being taken by PiS. Sometime those efforts seemed to achieve little, but altogether, hostility to the feeling that Poland was being taken out away from the democratic European path was something that gained wider and wider traction.

What the election did was provide an opportunity for that hostility to be focussed – magnified by the fear that if PiS won a further term of office, there would be no turning back from the path away from democracy. All these factors contributed to the opposition’s success in Sunday’s elections.

Another crucial factor in achieving that was undoubtedly the leadership shown by Donald Tusk. His return to lead Civic Coalition transformed that somewhat tired grouping and his barnstorming series of public events across Poland mobilised and encouraged and lifted the spirits of its supporters countrywide. He displayed a strong belief that the opposition could win, and that confidence was infectious.

Exactly where Polish politics will now go after the elections is unclear. Perhaps PiS will attempt some rearguard action to try and hold on to power. It is hard to see how that will do them much good, given the scale of the party’s rejection by the electorate. An attempt to force a second election would surely infuriate many voters, leading to an even worse drubbing at the polls.

Most likely is that Poland will now see a new government, formed by a coalition of the three democratic opposition party groupings. Some commentators have questioned whether such a diverse coalition could survive but there are a number of reasons why it would be able to endure.

First, they all understand the need to dismantle the structures that PiS has put in place to exert its power over the organs of the state, with the public TV and the courts most urgently needing freeing from that influence.

Second, they also all know that PiS will want its revenge, and any disunity amongst the new coalition’s members will be seized upon by their opponents.

Third, the PiS-friendly president, Andrzej Duda, still has more than a year in office, and has a veto power which could stymie the programme of an opposition coalition. A divided coalition would make it more politically feasible for him to use that power – and such division would also make it less likely that a candidate from the current opposition could win the presidency from PiS – which on Sunday’s figures they would easily be able to do.

Fourth, on the more positive side, the three opposition parties have closely worked together during the election campaign, and can be expected to see the political arguments and advantages for continuing to do so (and also such cooperation would also be in the national interest).

Finally, the hundreds of thousands who turned out for opposition events across Poland, the million who marched in Warsaw on October 1, and the millions who cast their votes for the opposition on October 15 would not take kindly to anyone in the current opposition bloc who did anything to undermine that unity of purpose.

All that is in the future, however. In the meantime Poland can be proud of the way its people have acted to turn the country away from a path which would likely have turned it into an illiberal quasi-democracy.

Mark Lazarowicz is the former Labour MP for Edinburgh North & Leith from 2001 – 2015. He is now a lawyer, campaigner, and commentator. From 2018-2022 he was also chair of the European Movement in Scotland