Democracy has certainly been on the rise throughout the world during the past four decades. According to the Pew Research Center, 97 out of 167 countries (58%) with populations of at least 500,000 were democracies by the end of 2016. Only 21 out of 167 (13%) were autocracies. These were both post-World War II records.
This may seem very promising and hopeful, particularly for those who praise democracy as the most ideal form of government we currently have in the world. Whether or not that is true is a separate discussion for later. For now, I want to delve into the legitimacy of democracy in nations that claim to be or are labeled as “democratic.” For any democratic nation, there is a potential for democratic backsliding, which indicates the weakening or elimination of any political institution that sustains an existing democracy (Bermeo). Among the countries that are labeled as “democratic,” I believe Poland is one that is on the path of democratic backsliding. The Law on the Institute of National Remembrance, also known as the “Holocaust Law,” that was passed earlier this year is a case-in-point, particularly due to the effect it has on diminishing the civil liberties of Polish citizens.
According to Reuters, on February 1st of this year, Polish lawmakers approved a controversial proposal for a bill that would impose jail terms on anyone who places responsibility on Poland for the crimes that were committed in the Holocaust during World War II. The draft legislation was approved by the Senate, with 57 in favor of the bill, 27 against it, and 2 abstentions. Poland’s ruling party, the Law and Justice party (PiS), stated that the bill is necessary for protecting Poland’s reputation and making sure historians recognize that Poles along with the Jewish people suffered under the Nazis. The bill would impose three years of prison sentencing on anyone who publicly mentions the term, “Polish death camps.”
As a result of the Polish lawmakers’ approval of the “Holocaust Law,” there has been a lot of negative response and backlash. According to Reuters, the EU officials felt alarmed towards the PiS ruling party. They have said that through this bill, the PiS administration in Poland had undermined the rule of law by forcing pressure on the courts and the media. In addition, the U.S. State Department stated that the law “could undermine free speech and academic discourse.” Ever since coming into power in 2015, the socially conservative, nationalist Law and Justice party has once again sparked debate on the Holocaust as a way to fuel patriotism in the country.
Due to the passing and signing of the “Holocaust Law,” Poland is now placed further down the path of democratic backsliding, which often involves citizens losing their rights to mobilize or voice their demands, as well as reducing the capacity of citizens to make enforceable claims on the government (Lust). And with law, these circumstances are now being placed on the Polish citizens.
On the day that the law came into force, protestors who were taking part in an anti-fascist event in the nation’s capital, Warsaw, attempted to block the far-right marchers that shouted nationalist messages with burning torches. However, similar to many of those that try to stand up against the rising tide of Polish nationalism, the protestors would be coerced by the authorities to stop their activities. Rafael Suszek, a university lecturer who took part in the protest, stated, “They threw me to the ground, handcuffed me, then dragged me into a police van where I was punched in the face several times” (Cernusakova).
The main issue here is not about what took place during World War II, but it is about the Polish citizens’ right to freedom of expression and the excessive use of the law to crackdown on those that have differing opinions from the government. By punishing those that even utter words, write a statement, or post an image of anything that is seen to harm “the reputation of the Polish nation,” the Holocaust Law diminishes the right to freedom of expression, to express one’s views and opinions on a certain issue.
In their book How Democracies Die, Ziblatt and Levitsky point out to four warning signs of a government with authoritarian behaviors. Among those warning signs, three are prevalent with the enforcement of the Holocaust Law, which include rejecting the democratic rules of the game through words or action, tolerating or encouraging violence, and indicating the willingness to take away the civil liberties of anyone that opposes the government (including the media).
In Poland, citizens that organize peaceful protests on the streets in order to express their opposition to the government’s historical revisionism have consistently been targeted by police officials. The Holocaust Law is just an additional means for the Polish government to suppress the opposing views on the issue. And this is at a time when it is already extremely difficult to voice one’s political dissent towards the Polish government. In addition, anyone who openly attempts to challenge the rise of far-right, xenophobic nationalist groups and the unjust restrictions of civil liberties, particularly the right to freedom of expression, is threatened with arrest, detention, and prosecution by authorities (Cernusakova).
The passing of the Holocaust Law by Polish lawmakers and the signing of the law by Polish President Andrzej Duda have placed Poland in state of greater democratic sliding. By cracking down on any public sentiment that views Poland as bearing some responsibility for what ensued in the Holocaust, the Polish government is curtailing the peaceful exercise of the Polish citizens’ human rights, particularly the freedom to express one’s opinions and beliefs. And the Polish authorities are willing to use means of force and violence to silence those with opposing views from the government. If Poland were truly a democratic country and were to believe in the freedom of expression, it would welcome, not silence, the courage of those that choose to take to the streets and protest against what they feel is unjust.
Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 27, no. 1, Jan. 2016, pp. 5–19., doi:10.1353/jod.2016.0012.
Cernusakova, Barbora. “Poland’s Holocaust Law Is a Dangerous Threat to Free Speech.” Time, Meredith Long, 9 Mar. 2018, time.com/5193301/poland-holocaust-law-freedom-speech-amnesty/.
DeSilver, Drew. “Despite Concerns about Global Democracy, Nearly Six-in-Ten Countries Are Now Democratic.” Pew Research Center, 6 Dec. 2017, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/12/06/despite-concerns-about-global-democracy-nearly-six-in-ten-countries-are-now-democratic/.
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. “Fateful Alliances.” How Democracies Die, Viking, an Imprint of Penguin Books, 2018, pp. 21–22.
Lust, Ellen, and David Waldner. “Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding.” USAID, 11 June 2015, pp. 1–2., pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PBAAD635.pdf.
Pawlak, Justyna, and Lidia Kelly. “Polish Lawmakers Back Holocaust Bill, Drawing Israeli Outrage, U.S….” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 1 Feb. 2018, uk.reuters.com/article/uk-israel-poland-usa/polish-lawmakers-back-holocaust-bill-drawing-israeli-outrage-u-s-concern-idUKKBN1FK3ER?il=0&utm_source=POLITICO.EU&utm_campaign=b5d1e8cda7-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_02_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_10959edeb5-b5d1e8cda7-189693569.
*Photo by Agencja Gazeta, Reuters