Crises have always created opportunities for undemocratic leaders to consolidate power. Hitler used the Reichstag fire, Alberto Fujimori used the threat of communist violence in Peru, and Vladimir Putin took advantage of the chaos in post-communist Russia. Most recently, the global COVID-19 pandemic has provided opportunities for leaders to consolidate control of their countries’ governments – most notably in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was granted emergency powers to suspend existing law and rule by decree indefinitely. In the case of Poland, the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed its leaders to take their own steps toward consolidating their power in ways that would have been unthinkable under normal conditions.
Often democratic decay occurs gradually, and a system is created which may have all the trappings of a democracy, but is actually what Kim Scheppele refers to as a “Frankenstate” – a state where bits and pieces of democratic institutions are combined to create an authoritarian whole. A Frankenstate is one form of stealth authoritarianism – that is, authoritarian systems wherein authoritarian leaders do not openly repress opponents with violence or harassment, but perpetuate their power by cloaking repressive practices under the rule of law. The systems became more common as changes in global norms following the collapse of the USSR made transparently authoritarian practices less acceptable. New stealth authoritarian practices – those modern day “Frankenstates” – have enabled leaders to hide authoritarian practices by gradually subverting and undermining democratic institutions. Poland is one example of a state on track to becoming a Frankenstate. It has long been trending towards authoritarianism – Jarosław Kaczyński, current leader of the Polish Law and Justice (PiS) party, publicly stated that he wanted to make a “Budapest in Warsaw”, referring to Orbán’s authoritarian takeover in Hungary. However, these efforts have been largely thwarted by external factors – including robust civic opposition.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented an unprecedented opportunity for the growth of authoritarianism in Poland. Incumbent Polish President Andrzej Duda and the PiS party have been able to use the crisis to cripple their opposition and consolidate their own power. Upcoming Polish presidential elections are currently scheduled for May 10, 2020, and despite social distancing guidelines from the World Health Organization, Duda has been travelling around Poland visiting key sites involved in combatting COVID-19. While this may seem benevolent, his political opponents fear that he is taking unfair advantage of his position to campaign while they are trapped inside – Poland’s COVID-19 restrictions ban gatherings of more then 50 people, making it almost impossible to conduct political rallies or campaign by traditional means. Opponents claim the crisis has therefore created an unfair playing field – Duda has a drastic advantage in the polls as he is the only candidate with the ability to communicate reliably and at a large scale with the Polish people. This is reflected in public opinion polls, which have Duda at 46.4% – placing him within reach of the 50% needed to win outright in the first round of the Polish elections.
Opposition candidates have been pushing for delaying the election, but the PiS has refused to acquiesce. Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, the leading candidate for the opposition Civic Coalition party, even suspended her campaign in protest, stating on her Facebook page that, “Today in Poland there is no other task than the battle with the epidemic and its consequences. In these circumstances, organizing presidential elections would be a criminal action.” Kidawa-Błońska called for her fellow opposition candidates to boycott the election were it not postponed.
The crisis has also allowed Duda to consolidate his party’s power in other ways. Like Hungary, Poland closed all of its borders with other EU countries, stranding thousands of Europeans. Furthermore, Poland has made mandatory an app designed to track users’ movements and ensure that citizens are maintaining quarantine, along with legislation which allows the Polish government to retain that data for up to six years. Such an app – in addition to the imposed quarantine – will make it nearly impossible for opposition members to organize any kind of mass protest against PiS.
These developments indicate that Duda is using the COVID-19 crisis to take more decisive action towards consolidating his party’s power in Poland, beyond what he and his party would be capable of doing outside of a crisis. Most insidiously, Duda is using his power as President to create an uneven playing field for the upcoming election by refusing the opposition the chance to campaign, and in so doing all but ensures his reelection. The refusal to allow competitive elections is particularly concerning in terms of democratic decay, as the erosion of competitive elections is one area which scholars have identified as being a sign of incremental regression away from democracy towards authoritarianism.  Poland’s slide away from democracy has been slowed in the past by robust civic opposition. However, given the current crisis, Polish leaders have been presented with an unprecedented opportunity to shift their country towards authoritarianism while its opponents are, quite literally, trapped inside. Scheppele, Kim Lane. 2013. “Not Your Father’s Authoritarianism: The Creation of the ‘Frankenstate’.” European Politics and Society Newsletter (Winter).
 Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(4): pp. 1673-1742. Parts I, II and III.
 Huq, Aziz & Tom Ginsburg. 2017. “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy.” Working paper.
 Steven Levitsky and Lucan Ahman Way. 2020. “The New Competitive Authoritarianism.” Journal of Democracy 31 no 1, pp 51-65.
This is a fascinating development and one can’t help but wonder what closed borders will mean for resistance efforts. One of the problems for resistance against Orbán’s gradual state capture was that those who opposed the regime could simply vacate the country through the EU’s open borders. That isn’t an option in Poland right now, and it might be a counterintuitive factor in keeping opposition members engaged. Restrictions on movement are definitely an obstacle to citizens’ ability to rally and protest, but they are temporary unless PiS goes fully authoritarian. Hopefully their experience now will be constructive for building resistance strategies and building greater solidarity between opposition parties.
On the other hand, Levitsky and Way make it clear that competitive authoritarianism can be surprisingly resilient without external pressure. It’s somewhat remarkable how Poland is carving out this space considering how much political and cultural leverage both the U.S. and the EU have (maybe had) over it. The U.S. has been quiet for some time and the fact that borders have closed across the Schengen Area speaks to how entirely unprepared the EU is to even consider action under these circumstances. Unfortunately, it looks like Poland will be on its own for some time, and its opposition will need to find ways to mount effective resistance through domestic networks.
Poland’s Covid-19 response appears to be quite similar to how other countries are acting. They are closing borders, cancelling large gatherings, and requiring self-quarantine. However, it is interesting to see how they are weaving in the PiS party’s anti-democratic agenda into these policies. This crisis definitely appears to be a way for the party to act on consolidating their power. I do not see the opposition’s inability to campaign as an inherently antidemocratic action as that is what must be done to combat the virus, however I do see Duda’s actions as wrong. Him continuing to travel around the country weeks before a crucial election does create an uneven playing field in the election. The opposition must find other ways to protest the actions of the PiS party if they want to maintain democracy however this might not be possible at all given the circumstances. It will be interesting to see how this all develops leading up to the election and what will happen to democracy in Poland because of the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 policies.
Hungary offers a great case study for Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s article “Why Autocrats Love Emergencies.” While Orban had been eroding Hungary’s institutions for some time now, it is fascinating to see how shifted away from a periodical approach of degrading democratic and liberal norms to capitalizing on this emergency to out-right grab power. It will be interesting to see how the European Union reacts to this development following the conclusion of this crisis considering they are already subjected to Article 7 sanctions. Additionally, it will be important to look at how this will sustain after the pandemic.
Polish politics is fascinating, thank you for the post. I am beyond perplexed by the proclivity of former soviet nations and satellite states toward unequal and anti-democratic measures, as by principle, communism is supposed to represent a more equal society. It appears that George Orwell’s famous quote in Animal Farm that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” rings true. The recent polish ban on nearly all abortions and the nation’s rating as one of the worst places for the LGBTQ community reinforces this statement.
Would Jarosław Kaczyński and Duda’s actions be considered authoritarian reversion or constitutional retrogression? Huq and Ginsburg point to constitutional retrogression as the more subtle and incremental erosion of democratic institutions in How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy. I would not call his actions slow in moving to undermine Polish democracy, but I would also not deem them a near-complete collapse of democratic institutions required to define it as Authoritarian reversion. Despite it not being a definite collapse, it certainly does lean towards Authoritarian reversion. In addition, the Polish election and the PiS’s control of the judiciary not only demonstrate the manipulation of the judiciary for political gain but the relationship between institutions. When the world is able to recover from COVId-19, will we as members of the international community observe more democracies and an expansion of democratic principles?
It is believed that Trump’s election loss will weaken Eastern European autocratic and democratically backsliding states by eliminating support in Washington and replacing it with a hostile Biden. What does this mean for Duda and Poland? Will the PiS be able to survive if the trend towards “strong men” and autocracy is reversed on the continent?