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.