Former Imperial Boundaries and Population Density in Poland’s 2023 Election

Poland’s October 2023 election saw a sharp rebuke to the country’s illiberal, governing right-wing coalition. The United Right (ZP), led by the Law and Justice Party (PiS), saw its vote share* drop from 44.6 percent in 2019 to 35.4 percent, undermining its ability to form a new government. But this election was not a victory of the left, but rather of the center, or perhaps even the center-right, depending on how one classifies some of Poland’s political parties. The democratic-socialist Lewica Party (“The Left”) also saw a sharp decline, its vote-share dropping from 12.6 percent to 8.6 percent. In contrast, a sizable gain was realized by the main oppositional group, the centrist Civic Coalition, whose vote share rose from 27.4 to 30.7 percent. The biggest change, however, was the rise of the new Third Way (TD) coalition, which secured 14.4 percent of the vote. Although Third Way is usually regarded as centrist, the Wikipedia classifies it as center-right. Such discrepancies arise from the fact that this coalition’s various factions are ideologically diverse, some being much more centrist than others. But as Third Way overall is pro-EU and favors renewable energy, it is perhaps most accurate regarded, at least in the Polish context, as firmly in the center. It is also noteworthy, however, that Poland’s extreme-right did relatively well in this election, with the anti-EU Confederation for Liberty and Independence taking 7.2 percent of the vote, up from 6.8 in 2019, and the new There Is One Poland (PJJ) gaining another 1.6 percent. The PJJ party, which claims to be the “true right,” grew out of opposition to COVID restrictions and vaccine policies; it also seeks to increase coal mining.

Cartographically informed analyses of this election typically note that the imperial political boundaries that were imposed after the partition and annihilation of Poland in the late 1700s are still visible on the country’s electoral map. As The Economist’s article and accompanying map (see below) show, areas that were under Prussian (subsequently German) rule tended to vote for centrist, pro-EU parties, whereas those that were under Austrian and Russian rule were more inclined to support Euroskeptical, populist-nationalist parties. The same correlation was present in several earlier Polish elections. As The Economist explains:

[M]ost of the east belonged to tsarist Russia, where serfdom remained legal until 1861. By 1900 incomes in what is now western Poland were five times higher than in the east. This gap remains today: Poland’s four eastern provinces are all among the EU’s poorest 20 sub-national regions. Young people growing up in the east quickly move to larger cities, seeking education and private-sector jobs. Those who feel left behind have flocked to PiS, which offers both nationalist rhetoric and monetary hand-outs.

Such analysis is complicated, however, by the fact that most of the areas that had been under German rule had also been mostly populated by ethnic Germans. They were expelled after WWII, replaced mostly by ethnic Poles who had lived in the Russian-ruled east. The Economist explains this seeming paradox as follows:

The Soviet Union claimed a chunk of eastern Poland as the spoils of victory, while Germany was forced to relinquish its own eastern borderlands to Poland. The Polish government responded by resettling millions of people from the territory it lost to the areas it gained. Separated from their families’ fields and villages, these “repatriates” developed a more open and cosmopolitan identity, and grew less receptive to fist-thumping nationalism. Meanwhile, Catholicism remained strongest in Poland’s historic eastern heartland, which developed a fiery sense of pride and suspiciousness of change.


But while Poland’s former imperial divisions are an important factor in its current electoral geography, the situation is not a clear-cut as it might seem. The Economist’s featured map, for example, is based on administrative divisions at the powiat level; if one dives down to the more local gmina level, however, the correlation is no longer as obvious (see the maps below). Nor is The Economist’s economic generalizations about these former imperial divisions entirely accurate. As the Statistics Poland regional GDP map posted below shows, the Warmian–Masurian Voivodeship, formerly the southern half of Germany’s East Prussia, has Poland’s second-lowest level of per capita economic production. Another challenge to the imperial-legacy model of Polish electoral geography comes from comparisons of voting behavior and population density. A X-poster Thorongil notes – and maps (see below) – “a normal map shows the historical partition borders but the truth is that the opposition coalition’s most powerful vote centers are in Poland’s cities, big and small.”

As Thorongil’s map is difficult to interpret, I have tested his assertion by making a series of simpler maps. The first simply locates Poland largest cities on a detailed map of the 2023 election. As can be seen, urban gminy** gave a higher level of support to the centrist Civic Coalition than surrounding areas, but the correlation is by no means overwhelming. Comparing the electoral map to one of population density allows more precise assessment. To do so, I extracted spatial information from a detailed density map (below) and overlaid it on the 2023 electoral map; I also added dotted lines to roughly show the old imperial divisions. The first of these maps outlines Poland’s most sparsely inhabited areas, those with fewer than 50 persons per square kilometer. As can be seen, many of these areas in the former German zone supported United Right, seemingly upholding Thorongil’s density thesis over the imperial-legacy model. The next map outlines high- and medium-high density areas. As can be seen, high-density areas, marked with red and pink borders, had relatively high levels of support for the political center, but this linkage is stronger in the German zone than in the former Russian and Austrian zones. The correlation is not as close, however, in areas of medium-high density (200-100 persons per square kilometer). As can be seen, such areas surrounding the city of Poznan in the former German zone voted strongly for centrists, but most of those in the Katowice area, also in the former German zone, supported the United Right. A number of medium-density gminy in the Krakow (former Austrian) and Warsaw (former Russian) regions also supported United Right.

Both population density and imperial legacies were important factors in the 2023 Polish parliamentary election. But the situation is more complicated than it might appear, and other issues, many of which are of a more local nature, must also be considered. The next post will try to tease out some of them.

** This post considers only the election returns for Poland’s Sejm, its more powerful house of parliament, ignoring the senate vote.

** “Gminy” is the plural form of “gmina.”