For many years, Poland was regarded as the leading pro-democracy nation within Eastern Europe. Its seamless transition from communism was an example for other countries to follow. It soon became the success story for democratic transformation as it was the first country to gain independence from the Soviet Union and establish a liberal democracy. Recently, however, the democracy has been falling a part. Since the election of the right-wing Law and Justice party in 2015, Poland’s progress is being dismantled. Also known as the PiS, the party came to power promising radical change after eight years in opposition. The party offered simple policies that included tax breaks and more child-care benefits for the less wealthy. The party has since used its majority in parliament to push through controversial laws.
Of the four points Juan Linz stated in his Modernization Theory, Poland’s new party rejected democratic rules, and curtailed the civil liberties of opponents including the media. The first target was Poland’s Polish Constitutional Tribunal, the body assessing whether laws agree with the constitution. The parliament first nominated five new judges to the Constitutional Tribunal in a move that the Law and Justice did not agree with. Soon after, three laws were passed to completely undermine the judiciary: firing 15 members of the court and allowing the party to pick their replacements, giving the Minister of Justice the power to fire, and the ability to sack Supreme court judges. The new government refused to swear in judges nominated to this tribunal. Since then, the PiS has put more pressure on the tribunal, making their work more difficult. It has refused to publish the tribunal’s rulings in the official paper-a procedure generally followed to ensure the rules are binding. The party has also changed the rules so that the tribunal needs a two-thirds majority to make a ruling with at least 13 out of 15 judges having to rule on every decision, making it nearly impossible for the court to reach decisions on anything. By these new rules, the new government can now interpret the constitution in any which way they please. It can then easily control the press, restricting freedom of expression as it has done with the media.
Other proposed reforms include limiting mayors to two terms and shifting the length of local, county and regional legislative institutions from four to five years. Further reforms aimed at centralizing power and eroding Poland’s checks and balances would move Poland one step forward in its deconsolidation of democracy. Following these events, Poland’s membership in the EU is also at stake. The EU largely functions as a trading union with the countries cooperating on foreign policy while following certain democratic values. The Article’s of the EU even state that the Union is founded on the values of respect for democracy and the rule of the law. Poland’s new government, however, after having taken many detrimental steps dismantling their democracy is in trouble with the EU. The EU has invoked Article 7 of the treaty, which could strip Poland of its voting rights as a member.
The country’s legislative, executive, and judicial powers will now be controlled by the party and administered by the justice minister. Without the check on powers and the government being controlled by one group of people, Poland’s democracy is failing. One of democracy’s main goals is to maintain equality in the government. The system of Checks and Balances plays a very important role in the government and each branch of government checks the power of the other branches to ensure that every branch has equal power and to prevent tyranny. Any interference in this aspect of democracy will directly lead to a collapse. This new legislation gives the justice minister the discretion to appoint, fire, and discipline presidents of courts. The changes also bring the National council of the Judiciary, a former self-governing body, under control of the parliament.
Since coming to power, PiS has systematically captured state and public broadcasting institutions and privatized them to portray only PiS’s positions and ideology. Not only has the Law and Justice party stripped the judicial branch of its control, but has also tightened its grip on the media. The party has restricted state broadcasters in an attempt to only send a nationalist message its citizens. They have also begun to appoint heads of state to TV and radio outlets in an attempt to avoid media criticism. Freedom of expression is crucial for a successful democracy, allowing it to let the public participate in making decisions. Without this, information that is sent out to the public is filtered, only sending out what the government or party in control wants.
Poland’s new Law and Justice Party has checked one too many boxes leading the country to democratic downfall. Along with dismantling the judicial system and controlling the media, PiS has been able to use populism to further its authoritarian goals targeting the media and focusing on corruption. Due to the lack of support from the EU, Poland’s rebuilding seems rather unlikely. It is possible that Poland is looked at as a trendsetter again, but now in a different light.
“Photo by Reuters, Stop Democracy and Dictatorship Sign, Creative Commons Zero License”
Great post. Poland is a fascinating case study. Poland avoided a recession in 2008, and has seen strong economic growth since the fall of communism in 1989. Beginning in the mid 2000s, Freedom House ranked Poland highest in freedom and democratic strength, moving Poland down slightly following the 2015 election of PiS. What I find interesting is Freedom House in 2018 still maintains Poland is largely a free and democratic society, notwithstanding much of the data you cite regarding the judiciary and the media. So far, it seems, Freedom House believes the measures taken by PiS do not signal a substantial threat to freedom and democracy.
I wrote my report on Poland and, while I mostly agree with Freedom House, I would argue more de-democratization has occurred (consistent with your post). I think much will depend on the next election and whether PIS maintains an absolute majority. What are your thoughts on Freedom House’s 2018 report on Poland?
Great post! You have really highlighted all the main factors of PiS’ influence towards Poland’s backslide. I agree that freedom of speech is an important role in democracy and hopefully we can see how it makes a difference in the 2020 elections.
Well thought-out post that covers all the relevant aspects of Polish democratic decay without skimping on detail. I’ll admit I’m interested in researching PiS’s domestic and sub-regional proposals you mentioned such as the child-care benefits which would of course go over very well in a majority Catholic country as well as the mayoral term modifications. While the Judicial destruction is gaining most of the international attention, as it should be, I’d be interested in seeing how the “average” Pole views PiS’s actions. The NYTimes had an article with a few choice quotes from pro and anti-PiS citizens, but I’d love to see more of that ground-work examination of attitudes, especially to see what parallels could be drawn from our own experiences in the US. In a similar manner, I’ll be interested to see what the next Polish administration tries to do to reverse the damage, especially on the rhetorical front as PiS will still be a force to be reckoned with on the right. Their consolidation of smaller right-wing parties seems like it could be another permanent change in Poland’s political landscape post 1989. What do you think?