On June 13th 2020, the incumbent Andrzej Duda secured another 5 years in office as the president of the Republic of Poland. After a fierce battle and with a mere 400 thousand votes of advantage, he beat Warsaw’s mayor Rafał Trzaskowski in the presidential run-off. This election opened the way for further erosion of democratic institutions by his Law and Justice (PiS) party. Even though the election was democratic and no manipulation at the ballots was reported, it is not possible to call the race fair. The opposition candidates had to face an uphill battle fighting the government’s propaganda apparatus, namely the public broadcaster TVP, which PiS had politicized and subjugated after coming to power in 2015. The case of Poland teaches us an important lesson about the importance of the ‘fourth branch of government’ in democratic systems.
In December 2015, just a few months after coming to power, PiS passed two new laws allowing the government to directly appoint the board members of the public TVP broadcaster. Additionally, a new body called the National Media Council was established, with the sole purpose of closely controlling the publicly funded television. Ever since, TVP has been accused of heavy bias in favor of the ruling party, with accusations of unfair coverage coming both from home and abroad. By subjugating the public media, PiS has gained its own mouthpiece, with taxpayers’ money funding it. The direct control over the widely watched TVP was first used succesfully during the 2019 election, when PiS used it to help them secure control over the parliament for yet another term. But TVP played its most crucial role in the recent presidential election.
PiS prepared the national broadcaster for the election a couple of months beforehand. In march 2020 a fierce debate in the parliament took place, about allocating new funds to TVP. In addition to its regular budget, a sum of 2 billion PLN (approx. 500 million USD) was proposed to be given to the public broadcaster every year. The opposition parties, knowing this money would later be used against them, proposed to instead allocate those funds for healthcare and combating cancer. Unfortunately, their attempts have failed, and TVP received an enormous injection of funds. It now had its fuel for the upcoming presidential race.
The bias was visible already before the first round, and it can actually be measured in numbers. When we take a close look at the screen time allocated by TVP to all the 11 candidates running for the office of president, the bias becomes apparent. As indicated by the graph below, an overwhelming amount of screen time was devoted to the incumbent Andrzej Duda in the month preceding the first round of the election. All of the opposition candidates combined received less screen time from the public TV broadcaster than the president by himself, who received 68% of time allocated to all committees, leaving the next candidate, Rafał Trzaskowski, significantly behind with merely 7%.
Before the second round of the election, TVP launched a fierce campaign against Rafał Trzaskowski and his Civic Platform (PO) party. The headlines published by the public TVP Info speak for themselves. In between the first and the second round, TVP’s headlines included the following: “Rafał Trzaskowski – lies and manipulations”, “Rafał Trzaskowski broke the law?”, “About Trzaskowski, Polański, and pedophilia”, “Yet another lie of Trzaskowski”, “Trzaskowski speaks of theft, yet he was in the government when theft was happening”. Those are just some examples of direct attacks on the opposition’s candidate. The attacks on Trzaskowski often became surreal, for example when TVP blamed him for rainfall and the subsequent flooding in Warsaw. Additionally, TVP exhibited xenophobia and homophobia when reporting about Duda’s main competitor. Trzaskowski’s connections with people abroad were used to suggest that he is a puppet of foreign powers, and his engagement for the LGBTQ movement was pictured as advocating for a foreign ideology that is “worse than communism”. All of the above are prefect examples of denying the legitimacy of political opponents, which Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt identify as one of the indicators of authoritarian behavior.  Considering how close the result of the election was, it is safe to assume that the direct attacks on Trzaskowski by the subjugated public media might have been the decisive factor for Duda’s victory.
After the election, OSCE published an extensive report assessing the compliance of the electoral process with OSCE requirements and standards for democratic elections as well as national legislation. The report found the election to have been held in accordance with democratic principles and no malpractices or abuses on election day have been found. However, the report does bring up the issue of TVP and its role in the presidential race. As we read in the report: “The public broadcaster (TVP) failed in its legal duty to provide impartial coverage, which could offset the editorial bias of the private media. Instead, TVP acted as a campaign vehicle for the incumbent”. Additionally, OSCE has reported “instances of intolerant rhetoric, particularly by the incumbent’s campaign and the public broadcaster, that was xenophobic, homophobic and anti-Semitic in nature”.
The case of Poland can serve as an example of how important independent media is in preserving a democratic system. As political scientists Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq pointed out, the decrease in quality of information and debate in the public sphere is an important aspect of democratic erosion. While other aspects, such as subjugation of the judiciary or curtailing of the legislative are important warning signs, interference in media, especially when it is funded with public money, should be considered just as important. Thanks to the TVP, PiS was able to secure another 5 years in the presidential palace for Duda, and eliminated the threat of an opposition president vetoing their anti-democratic and unconstitutional laws. It was all possible without any meddling in the electoral process itself. But TVP made it a hardly fair fight for the democratic opposition. Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die. Broadway Books, 2019, pp. 66.
 Tom Ginsburg, Aziz Huq. How to Save a Constitutional Democracy. University of Chicago Press, 2018, pp. 155-160.
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