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.
 Schumpeter, Joseph. (1943). Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers.
 Dahl, Robert. (1972). Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press.
 Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. (2018). How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.
 Bermeo, Nancy. 2016. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27(1): pp. 5-19