After the fall of communism in 1989, Poland elected its first non-Communist prime minister since the early post-war years. However, some politicians still seemed to have communist ties. To counter this, Jarosław Kaczyński started a far right movement united in the Law and Justice Party. Recently, the party has gained power and has made attacks on Polish democratic institutions. Currently, the Law and Justice Party holds a majority in the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, but not in the Senate. Incumbent Law and Justice President Andrzej Duda is up for re-election this May. This election is vital for the future of democracy in Poland; a win for the incumbent would mean a continuation of anti-democratic practices by the majority party and erosion of democracy.
The key characteristic of a democratic regime is the competitive struggle by individuals for the people’s vote.  Thus, elections are the foundations for democracy. However, these elections must be free and fair. All citizens must be able to formulate their own preferences, signify their preference to other citizens and the government, and have their preferences weighted equally.  It is generally accepted that elections must be free and fair for both citizens and opponents competing for election. Democracies start to die when citizens are unable to find complete and unbiased information and when civil liberties are curtailed.
Once the conservative Law and Justice Party took control of the Polish government in 2015, press freedom quickly became one of its victims. The public media is now a channel for government propaganda. Gdansk Mayor Pawel Admowicz’s murder in January 2019 was blamed by many on the state-owned TV broadcaster TVP and its hate propaganda. Harassment of the independent media continues to increase daily. According to Ryszard Bankowicz, the head of the Polish Council of Media Ethics, “[T]he TVP spews propaganda which serves to destroy opponents of the ruling party.” One of the key attributes of onset authoritarianism is a readiness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.  When there is no longer freedom of the press, elected officials are not held accountable for their actions. Authoritarian-like leaders can continue to undermine democratic institutions.
This government-induced propaganda has even led to violent attacks in some instances. The Law and Justice Party is openly homophobic and anti-LGBT. The Polish government has recently focused attention on broadcasting their own idea that “LGBT people are predators, likely pedophiles and posing a threat to the traditional family”. This inflammatory rhetoric has inspired attacks on dissident citizens who do not agree with the anti-LGBT attitudes. Przemyslaw Witkowski, a 37-year-old journalist and poet, was cycling around the Polish city of Wroclaw, when he saw homophobic graffiti on a wall. He made an expression of disgust, which was overheard by a group of men. Witkowski kept going, but one of the men caught up to him and asked him if he liked the graffiti. When Witkowski said no, the man broke his nose. This is one instance of violence inspired by the rhetoric and propaganda of the Law and Justice Party. There are limits to dissidents’ own freedom of expression, a basic civil liberty that is key to democracy.
The Law and Justice Party attempts to remove the legitimacy of their opponents. Denying the legitimacy of opponents is another warning sign Levitsky and Ziblatt give for the rise of authoritarianism and the erosion of democratic institutions. The democratic norm of mutual toleration does not appear to impact the actions of current Polish leaders of the ruling party. This norm serves as a “soft guardrail” of American democracy, helping it avoid the sort of “partisan fight to the death” that has destroyed democracies in the past. Although Poland may have different norms than America, it is still useful to look at the current actions in Poland through this lens. By making its opponents seem illegitimate through propaganda, the Law and Justice Party is removing fairness from the upcoming election. As discussed above, free and fair elections are essential to democracy.
As Poland’s 2020 Presidential election approaches, Kaczyński and the Law and Justice Party will continue to limit freedom of the press and the citizenry’s freedom of speech. This is a strategic manipulation of the election that aims at tilting the electoral playing field in favor of the incumbent.  Coupled with other antidemocratic actions, this will erode Polish democracy over time.
These attacks on Poland’s democracy threaten American values and interests. In the midst of Kaczyński and his antidemocratic actions, President Trump has continued to signal his support for the party leader. In fact, this past October, the Trump administration unexpectedly granted Polish citizens the privilege to travel to the United States without having to apply for visas at a local consulate. The United States, a key player in global politics, is supporting a regime with authoritarian characteristics. The Trump administration’s continued support of Poland over the past few years indicates an acceptance of the antidemocratic practices of the Law and Justice Party and a deterioration of democratic norms in the United States.
It seems that there is a global trend towards a new form of populism. “Trumpism” emerged in 2016 and is seen as an early U.S. manifestation of a kind of “heritage populism” that can also be seen throughout Europe. The far-right populist National Front party in France, led by Marine Le Pen, faced defeat in the 2017 French presidential election. However, current French President Emmanuel Macron is facing difficulties and grassroots movements expressing their dissatisfaction with current politics. Marine Le Pen will take advantage of this and has just announced her 2022 bid for the Presidential election, putting the threat of a far-right French movement back on the forefront. Clearly, the current anti-democratic practices and the rise of populist movements across the western world indicate that democracy is beginning to erode.
The results of the Polish presidential election this May are crucial and will determine whether the government will continue to threaten the very existence of democratic institutions. Individuals’ freedom of expression, as well as press freedom to report information, is at risk. The actions of the Law and Justice Party are antidemocratic and will continue as long as the party holds a majority in the government. In the face of the upcoming election, Poland, along with the United States and France, is a key battleground in the fight against authoritarianism.
 Dahl, Robert. (1972). Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press.
 Bermeo, Nancy. 2016. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27(1): pp. 5-19
The Importance of the 2020 Election in Poland
This is a well written blog that was published in February 2020 just before the Polish elections in May. The author of the blog maintained that the future for democratic institutions in Poland were riding on the outcomes. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Poland’s transformation from communism to democracy was one of the great successes of European politics, but in 2015 the Law and Justice Party, led by Jaroslav Kaczynski, began eroding the rule of law and restricting institutions. The party became stronger through promises of child subsidies, financial assistance for low-income households, tax cuts, and more. Alas, the results of the May election put President Andrzej Duda and his antidemocratic party back into power for another term. Although they won by a very thin margin… they did win. Is Duda in locked step with Viktor Orban of Hungary? I fear he is. As does Orban, Duda rules by decree, making changes to the constitution without consultation. His controversial laws trigger tension and protests. He now controls key judicial bodies, demeans and threatens members of the LGBTQ community, and controls the media. Recently, a Polish writer who claimed Duda to be a “moron” is facing three years in jail for his humble opinion. Finally, Duda is biting the hand that feeds him, calling out the EU as “an imaginary community from which we don’t gain much.” Yes, I would say he’s following, with little social distancing, directly in Orban’s footsteps. According to the editor of Poland’s liberal daily newspaper (Gazeta Wyborcza), “The destruction of this once democratic state is close to completion.”
Marina, thank you for such an insightful and necessary evaluation of the democratic backsliding in Poland. Specifically regarding Andrzej Duda’s use of political homophobia, it is alarming that his brand of far-right politics has taken hold within an E.U. member state. Nikita Sleptcov, an America-based Russia scholar, has made the argument that Putin is employing political homophobia as a tool to rebuild a Russian national identity that invokes the legacy of the Soviet Union and directly contradicts the liberal values of anti-discrimination that define Western Europe. It appears that what was popularized in Russia has spread through Eastern Europe and into the E.U., threatening the foundation of the world’s greatest coalition of liberal democracies. Today two E.U. member states, Poland and Hungary, are blatantly disregarding the legal protections that exist for LGBTQ Europeans and outwardly encouraging other states to do so as well. President Orban of Hungary has even publicly called upon nations of Central Europe to reject the E.U. embrace of gender and sexual minorities and immigrant communities, joining Poland and Hungary in preserving the roots of what he calls ‘Christian Europe’. Legal protections under Article 21 of the E.U. Charter of Fundamental Rights outlaw discrimination of the union’s LGBTQ citizens, and Article 19 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the E.U. also outlines specific authorizations for intervention when such protections are violated. In the coming months and years, assuming trends in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and violence increase as they have over the past year, it will be interesting to see whether the E.U. initiates action to preserve norms of anti-discrimination or whether it buckles to the pressures presented by Poland, Hungary, and even Russia.
Sleptcov, Nikita. “Political Homophobia as a State Strategy in Russia.” Journal of Global Initiatives: Policy, Pedagogy, and Perspective, vol. 12, no. 1, Jan. 2018, pp. 140–161.