Since the fall of the Polish United Worker’s Party in 1989, Poland has been a model democratic nation. It’s vibrant press, political parties, and free-market economy, combined with its clout as an EU and NATO member, have made the formerly communist nation a poster-child of democratic success.
But recent changes to Poland’s democratic system are cause to reevaluate these assumptions. The nation’s “Law and Justice” party (PiS), which won a parliamentary majority in the 2015 elections, has passed a series of sweeping reforms targeting the state’s democratic institutions. These changes have been largely aimed at limiting the independence of the judiciary and free press, which have faced increasing regulation at the hands of PiS.
Immediately following the elections, Law and Justice voided the nominations of five Supreme Court justices by the previous government, naming five judges of its own. The party later enacted legislation requiring a two-thirds majority for court rulings, making it exceedingly difficult for the judiciary to overturn parliamentary legislation. In 2017, parliament passed a bill that terminates the term of office of existing members of the National Judiciary Council and forces all judges over the age of 65 to retire, allowing the government to nominate a majority of their replacements. This reform is especially significant, considering over 40% of the judges currently in office are of retirement age. In addition, the legislation includes a new mechanism for “extraordinary appeal,” in which any case adjudicated since the adoption of the Polish Constitution in 1997 can be reopened by the government and considered by the new judges that PiS has installed. Given that the Supreme Court is responsible for validating elections in Poland, the new reforms make it possible for PiS to contest every election that does not favor its own party.
In 2016, PiS passed legislation that gave the government greater control over state broadcasters. The laws allow parliament to appoint and fire executives in charge of public television and radio stations, a power that was once reserved for politically independent bodies. These stations have operated independently from the government since the country’s transition to democracy, and are the stations of choice for the majority of Poles. Since the passage of “the small media law,” public broadcast stations have expressed predominantly positive views of PiS, meaning the majority of Poles engage with media outlets that favor the party. Moreover, PiS has attempted to curb media access to parliament by banning all recordings of parliament sessions, save for those produced by five stations hand-picked by Law and Justice.
Critics of PiS, among them voices in both Poland and Brussels, have accused the party of attempting to consolidate power by eroding core democratic principles such as checks and balances and freedom of the press. The party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, on the other hand, claims that PiS is simply “cleaning house” by correcting years of meddling by corrupt liberal elites. Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in response to PiS reforms, both those in favor of the party’s agenda and those against it.
The EU has grown so concerned about the state of democracy in Poland that it launched an unprecedented investigation of the country’s new laws. In December of 2017, the European Commission concluded “there is a clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law in Poland,” and has threatened to revoke Warsaw’s voting rights in the EU if it does not take the recommended steps to remedy the situation. Whether Poland will respond positively to these recommendations is unclear. Considering its ally, Hungary, would likely veto any sanctions against Poland, the state has little incentive to act.
Still, the actions that the EU has taken against Poland speak to the severity of democratic backsliding in the nation. While Poland remains a free state and its citizens have been vocal in their protests of PiS legislation, Freedom House has classified its media as only “partly free” and has noted a number of other issues with PiS reforms, including the party’s movement to stack state-owned companies, the civil service, the military, and diplomatic posts with party loyalists.
A number of factors may explain the recent backsliding of democracy in Poland. Probably the most significant would be that the country, which only recently made the transition from communism to democracy, might have been more democratic in appearance than at heart. From the 1990s to accession, the EU employed its influence to shape the governance structures of formerly communist states. Although its efforts to endow Poland with democratic institutions were successful, the EU may have failed to couple institutional reforms with policies aimed at instilling democratic norms in the Polish citizenry. These norms include individual liberty, political equality, and civic tolerance, all of which take time to develop and cannot be imparted through the mere process of attaining EU membership.
That being said, the mass demonstrations that have been taking place throughout Poland would indicate that democratic values have taken root to some extent. Thus, other factors must be at play, such as rising xenophobia and economic uncertainty. The recent influx of refugees into the nation has only served to deepen the nation’s political divide. Combined with recent economic instability, it is no wonder that PiS managed to gain such wide-ranging popularity among the public. The party’s agenda, which has been classified as “hostile to immigrants and refugees” and “euroskeptic…but deviating from the right-wing script with redistributionist economic policies,” allays the fears of Polish citizens who might be threatened by the consequences of globalization.
Another explanation for democratic backsliding in Poland may have to do with the country’s increasing levels of political polarization. As research demonstrated a growing partisan bias in the media, government, and public, in the years leading up to the 2015 elections, it is possible that voters were willing to trade their democratic values for partisan interests at the polls. It is also feasible that Law and Justice could have further exploited these tensions to manipulate the democratic process to their favor.
Whatever the reason for the recent decay of democratic institutions in Poland, the country’s case bears significance for the entire region. It shows that democratic progress cannot be taken for granted in Central and Eastern European countries, even in nations that have achieved membership in the EU.