Polish Democracy: Dancing with the Wolves
1989 was a year like no other in recent memory for many countries in Eastern Europe, and this was especially true in Poland. The Iron Curtain was falling, and negotiations for the establishment of a democratic government were underway. A year later, free and democratic presidential elections were introduced for the first time since 1926. Everyone at the time embraced the euphoria of this liberal whirlwind, yet Poles perhaps more than anyone understood the price it took to get there.
Just like 1989, 1918 marked the fall of empires and a time of democratic change. After a period of 150 years of occupation, a new Second Polish Republic had been declared, and the new government pursued the democratic values and ideals famously espoused by the then-American President Woodrow Wilson. However, constant instability brought about by invasions, infighting, and economic calamities led to the May Coup of 1926, when the country became a military dictatorship. This form of government would last until 1939, when invasion from both East and West began a period of long authoritarian rule by foreign powers, first under a Hitlerite menace and second under the direction from a Soviet red banner. This all ended in 1989, yet no one at the time could say for certain if this democracy would last.
Thirty years later, these fears may have been realized. While not a direct military coup, submission to occupation by a foreign power, or the installation of political puppet by a foreign government, authoritarian tendencies still remain a threat to democracy within the country.
Polish Constitutional Reforms, the Judiciary, and Renewed Authoritarianism
Democratization and the Constitutional Reforms of 1989-2009
With the Fall of Communism in 1989, work on a new democratic constitution began almost immediately. This reform was slow but seemingly effective, starting with a set of amendments adopted by the legislature in April of that year. Using the 1952 Constitution of the Polish People’s Republic as a basis, the Polish parliament was transformed from a de-facto one-party state into a bicameral institution, replacing the Council of State with the office of President. Furthermore, free and democratic presidential and legislative elections were held in 1990 and 1991 respectively for the first time since before World War II.
While these were great strides towards democratization, this did not satisfy the growing demands by Polish society for more reform, leading to the creation of the “Small Constitution” in 1992. Rather than being a definitive replacement for the edited 1952 version, this constitution served as a guideline, setting fundamental rules and regulations relating to the executive and legislative branches. Most importantly, the 1992 document paved the way for the adoption of the 1997 constitution, which is still the currently binding version as of 2020.
The 1997 Constitution is a perfect example of a political compromise reached after long, often difficult discussions and debates between left-wing and right-wing parties. The five years of negotiation were marred by constant fighting between both sides, with the former generally advocating more democracy and more checks and balances while the latter advocated for a more pronounced role of the executive branch. The fundamental disagreements persist even today, yet up until recently, the Polish political elite have been able to forge difficult but necessary compromises, exemplified no better than the fact that the Constitution has only been amended twice since 1997, both times concerning Poland’s admission and membership in the European Union.
Stealth Authoritarianism and Constitutional Crises of the Judiciary (2015-2020)
While the country had been able to go 26 years with relative constitutional stability and political compromise, Poland’s first real challenge that precipitated a crisis occurred in November 2015, immediately after the opposition party PiS (Law and Justice Party) won an absolute majority in Poland’s parliamentary elections. A Euroskeptic, right-wing populist party, the PiS victory had just initiated the erosion of a democracy that had taken so long to build.
The constitutional crisis can best be described in two stages. The first stage occurred when the new Parliament attempted to cancel the earlier appointment of five Constitutional Tribunal judges and tried to pack the Constitutional Tribunal with new judges. They also attempted to commandeer the Constitutional Tribunal by enacting six bills intended to paralyze its operations. Andrzej Rzepliński, the Head of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal at the time, played a crucial role during first part of the crisis, doing everything he could to prevent the appointment of pseudo-judges from sitting on the Constitutional Tribunal panels, strongly criticizing the PiS government for undermining the rule of law. This first stage only ended in December 2016, when the new head of the Constitutional Tribunal was appointed by the President of the Republic, facilitating the second phase of the crisis. Starting in early 2017, this phase consisted of the successful political takeovers by PiS of the Polish Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary, which is responsible for ensuring the independence of judges as well as their appointment and promotion.
The ‘stealth authoritarian’ attacks on the independence of the Polish judiciary by PiS continued. In 2018, the government adopted measures that some claimed limited the scope of judicial independence; A development which drew strong criticism from some legal experts, NGOs, and international organizations, including American representatives of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. These representatives sent a letter to the Polish Prime Minister in 2019 stating,
“…[W]e cannot ignore the corrosion of Polish democracy. The curtailing of judicial independence and politicization of the judiciary, attacks on freedom of speech…are examples of eroding democratic principles that threaten to undermine all of the sacrifices Poles have made to build a modern, democratic Poland.”
Most recently, however, was the forceful implementation of dramatic changes to the country’s electoral system through the lower chamber of Parliament in 2020, only a few weeks ahead of the then-planned May 10 presidential election. Opposition forces decried this move as a ‘coup’, affirming that the 1997 Constitution states that it is illegal to change electoral laws six months before a ballot. Unfortunately, in the chaotic times of Covid-19, this condemnation more or less fell on deaf ears, being largely ignored by Polish election authorities. The election did end up being postponed until July 2020, in which PiS candidate Andrzej Duda was declared the winner. The results were challenged by the opposition, as many questioned the legitimacy of the election itself given its questionable circumstances. Nevertheless, in August of 2020, the Polish Supreme Court ruled the election valid.
Polish political history is a complicated one. It was one of the few Eastern European nations to experiment with democracy at the time of Wilsonian self-determination, yet it was not long after that it eroded into dictatorship and nearly seventy-years of authoritarian and totalitarian torment. Given this history, it should come as no surprise that the nation is still at threat to democratic erosion. Despite Polish political elites’ best efforts for compromise throughout the 1990s and 2000s, it only took a few legislative and presidential elections for one party to capture the judiciary, which now threatens the creation of a semi-authoritarian state with a democratic façade. This “stealth authoritarianism” has been a repetitive occurrence across the Western world in the past few years, and it is important for the voting populace to be aware of these developments in order to ensure the continued existence of democracy in their respective countries.