Poland was once seen as a model post-Soviet transition to democracy. Between 1989 and 2014, Poland built democratic institutions, joined the EU, NATO, and the OSCE, and experienced significant economic growth. The number of NGOs also grew and flourished during this period: today, there are about 8,500 nonprofit organizations. However, since 2015, the quality of democratic governance in Poland has been in decline, coinciding with the rise of the right-wing, populist Law and Justice (PiS) party. In addition to their extremist, nationalist rhetoric, the party has worked to erode civil liberties, judicial independence, institutional checks and balances, and space for independent media.
Why are we now seeing democratic erosion in Poland, a country that saw consistent democratic gains over the past three decades? One answer may be that far-right political parties spread their ideologies through Polish civil society organizations.
This explanation runs counter to mainstream thinking on civil society. The idea that a strong and vibrant civil society fosters democracy has been a guiding principle for both scholars and policy makers alike. The basic reasoning behind this theory is that civil society provides a means for citizens to work together to petition the government for essential services. Additionally, when citizens join these associations, they move beyond just thinking about their private interests and more readily identify with community needs and goals. Both processes are central to a strong democracy.
By contrast, some scholars have cautioned that a strong civil society can also spread autocratic ideologies. For instance, in the Weimar Republic in Germany, political scientist Sheri Berman argues that fascist ideology spread through civil society networks. The Nazis first infiltrated these associations by focusing on lower ranking positions, and then gradually captured leadership roles. Civil society organizations are especially equipped to socialize people into certain ideologies through their social ties and networks, and the Nazis were able to use these organizations to present their ideas in ways that would be most appealing to their communities.
If civil society can be neutral—meaning that these associations can both support and erode democracy—the dominant narrative on democracy in Poland is missing the effects of a broader range of civic action over the past few decades.
Paradoxically, liberal reforms in Poland may have helped to create space for right-wing civil society organizations to emerge. When the country began its transition to democracy in 1989, democratizers derided the old civil society organizations as distorted and corrupted by their association with the prior communist regime. They delegitimated these pre-existing forms of social activism as “the old third sector” and saw the challenge for modernization as needing to build a new civil society.
However, liberalization severed many of the old societal networks, which made creating a new civil society more difficult. For much of the 1990s and 2000s, observers characterized civil society in Poland as passive and underdeveloped. Political scientist David Ost argues that when liberal elites marginalized the old organizations and instituted neoliberal marketization reforms, Polish people felt an increasing sense of economic precarity and a lack of solidarity and community. This loss of solidarity, he contends, left an opening for right-wing groups.
Since 2015, the Law and Justice (PiS) party has built support in three keys ways: high social spending, advocacy for social conservatism, and nationalist messaging through young intellectuals. New research suggests that the Law and Justice (PiS) party recognized the role that civil society could play in mobilizing broader support for right-wing ideologies. Seeing that liberal NGOs that were able to attract foreign funding that might put them on unequal footing, the party set out to create a “counter-elite” that could espouse the values of “the nation.”
Targeting existing civil society organizations with right-wing ideologies, PiS created the National Freedom Institute–Center for Civil Society Development in 2016. Through this Institute, the party gave grants and institutional support to pro-PiS organizations and media, nationalist associations, organizations that promoted Christian and conservative ideals, and right-wing youth groups. These grants amplified their ability to mobilize Polish people into their organizations and spread their ideology.
PiS’s redistributive economic policies have also won them the support of many of the trade union confederations. For example, even though the trade union Solidarity historically advocated for employee rights and socio-economic equality, today, it is a right-leaning confederation with strong Catholic and nationalist values. In the 2005 and 2010 parliamentary elections, Solidarity openly supported PiS. Because the main liberal party, Civic Platform (PO), is economically right-leaning with an anti-union stance, three of the main union confederations (Solidarity, OPZZ, and FZZ) recently joined together in opposition to the liberals.
Recent scholarship has highlighted that farmers associations, volunteer fire brigades, and church groups are actively building networks between community members, particularly in the rural areas of Poland in the east and southeast, which are Law and Justice (PiS) strongholds today. These groups have mobilized people for strikes, protests, and other forms of religious and anti-EU activism, which then builds support for PiS. The fire brigades have been particularly important for community integration in rural areas through their role in organizing festivals and local celebrations. They also are powerful arbitrators of political life as they often recommend candidates for local elections.
New civil society groups have significant ties to the Catholic church, and the church has become increasingly involved in Polish politics. For example, the Institute of Public Affairs director Jacek Ducharczyk says, “Since the Polish Pope John Paul II died in 2005, the church has become anti-European and reactionary. It wants a total ban on abortion in Poland and objects to the Civic Platform’s law (in September 2015) that made in-vitro fertilization broadly available.” Of the people who belong to Polish civil society organizations today, 75% are members in religious organizations and communities. This overlap illustrates how traditional cultural attitudes permeate Polish social life.
Right-wing forms of civil society, often with anti-system and anti-minority programs, play a large role in spreading conservative and nationalist ideologies in Poland. The spread of these ideologies through these networks then shapes citizens’ political preferences for right-wing parties. As most analysis on Polish civil society narrowly focuses on formally organized NGOs whose actions promote liberal values, observers often miss the effects of a more diverse range of social activism.
One key takeaway from this research is that civil society is not always a safeguard for democracy. Instead, activists can also spread illiberal ideologies through associational ties that can corrode democracy. When we consider Poland’s wider spectrum of associational life, particularly around Catholic religious groups, youth associations, trade unions, and agricultural associations, new questions emerge on how right-wing ideology circulates through these groups. We might also explore how the ideologies of these organizations might shift over time or interact with pre-existing cultural attitudes and different historical legacies of imperial rule. This wider view of civil society and its relationship with political society is critical for understanding rise of illiberalism in once stable democracies like Poland.
Image credit: “File:042 Premierminister Jaroslaw Kaczynski der Partei Recht und Gerechtigkeit (PiS) in Lesko.JPG” by Silar is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0