While the COVID-19 pandemic has stalled out many aspects of life, including elections for over sixty countries, dozens of others such as Poland have forged ahead with elections. This past July, Polish voters came to the polls in record numbers, despite the ongoing pandemic. The incumbent president Andrzej Duda of the Law and Justice part (PiS) clinched a narrow victory, capturing 51% of the votes. Here are four key takeaways from the Polish election and what it means for the state of democracy in Poland and in other similar CEE states.
1. Poland’s election controversy reflected actions that trend towards stealth authoritarianism.
This election has sparked concern from the opposition party, particularly given the narrow victory pulled off by PiS, which was looking to once again solidify its power. While the Supreme Court of Poland ruled the election results legitimate, concerns over this ruling stem from the PiS party’s takeover of the National Council of the Judiciary, which appoints Poland’s judges. This clearly relates to one of Ozan Varol’s key signs of stealth authoritarianism: Judicial Review and namely Bolstering Democratic Credentials.  The PiS party legitimized their election through judicial review, even though they previously packed the courts in their favor. An additional sign of stealth authoritarianism is Electoral Barriers to entry. Opponents point to limited voting access for Poles abroad as one key component of voting restrictions, particularly in a race that was so tight. PiS leadership point to high turnout in response to these claims, however.
2. Executive aggrandizement by the hands of the PiS was enabled through state media.
Opponents to the PiS party have pointed to their use of public media to both enable an expansion of the Law and Order Party’s powers, and have additionally accused the outlet of biased coverage of the 2020 election. TVP, the largest media outlet in Poland, is a government-funded public media broadcaster that the PiS party used in their seizure of the National Council of the Judiciary to target judges who dissented to the expansion of the party’s power. Additionally, regarding the most recent election, the OSC released a statement detailing the bias in the public media outlet. Nancy Bermeo details how manipulating elections is often paired with backsliding. She notes, “It too is on the rise, being often joined with executive aggrandizement. Strategic manipulation denotes a range of actions aimed at tilting the electoral playing field in favor of incumbents.”  While E.U.’s highest court ruled Poland must suspend disciplinary panel for judges, it remains to be seen if the PiS will retain control of the National Council of the Judiciary.
3. Backsliding can still occur in the absence of inequality and ethnic division.
Interestingly, while Poland has been observed to have some of the general trends of democratic backsliding, it does not have the same casual patterns observed in many other backsliding countries. Recent research in democratic erosion point to factors such as social inequality or ethnic division as key drivers of backsliding, however this is not the case in Poland. There are a number of causes that have been postulated, although no one hypothesis has been able to fully account for the case of Polish backsliding. These potential causal factors include the influence of Russia, economic struggles following the Eurozone crisis, and the growing instability of the E.U. 
4. Long standing, stable democracies are not necessarily strong democracies.
While there are many potential causes for their backsliding such as Russia’s influence or the EU’s ineptitudes, one particularly salient observation is that the faith in democracy in Poland was premature. Since 1989, Poland’s democracy has enjoyed relative peace and stability, leading some to believe that Poland’s democracy was stabilizing and strengthening. Many of the vulnerabilities already existed in the Polish political system, and these loopholes as well as a lack of robust norms are weaknesses that preceded the PiS party.
These lessons are particularly important, not only for countries going into elections such as the U.S., but also have important implications for studying Poland’s CEE neighbors such as Hungary, as they sort their way through democratic backsliding. Additionally, Ellen Lust notes how international factors such as a backsliding neighbor can lead neighboring countries to fall to authoritarianism as well, which is all the more reason to pay attention to the fate of Poland following the continued leadership of the Law and Order party.  Varol, Ozan. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100 (n.d.): 1673–1742.  Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding” Journal of Democracy. (2016);13.  Cianetti, Licia. “Rethinking “democratic backsliding” in Central and Eastern Europe – looking beyond Hungary and Poland” Journal of East European Politics. 2018.  Lust, Ellen. “Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding” USAID. (2015): 40.