After the fall of the Soviet communist bloc throughout Eastern Europe many pro-democratic social movements sprung from the ashes of the previously authoritarian regimes. Poland, with the support of their people, began to establish a democratic government in the early 1990’s that has acted as a catalyst and model for other Eastern European nations transitioning to democracy. While Poland became a poster child for new democracies in recent years, we have seen the Law and Justice Party (PiS) gain power beginning in 2014. During their time in power there have been many questionable policies proposed which have called for a further examination into Poland’s democracy.
During the 2015 election in Poland the PiS party had overwhelming support and ushered in officials that would began to institute problematic policy changes. The new president, Andrzej Duda, replaced many of the management positions in the public television and radio stations with loyalists to his party, essentially turning the public news outlets into propaganda machines. Duda has also tried to limit the power of the judiciary by making changes to the Constitutional tribunal. This led to the “Constitutional Court Crisis” which was also a response to the PiS party’s attempt to bar certain appointed judges from taking office. This proposal was met with harsh criticism by both the citizens of Poland and EU member states which coerced Duda to veto the supreme court bill that would have ratified the proposal. There have also been instances of judges resigning from office because of the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court. This court was ordered to cease action after the European Court of Justice (ECJ) believed that it could limit judicial independence. Judges who are critical of the current administration have been faced with sanctions and one of Poland’s top judges, Malgorzata Gersdorf, resigning and claiming that Poland is headed towards an authoritarian state.
Many academics in comparative politics have drawn similarities between Hungary and Poland with regards to their current status of a semi-consolidated democracy. These examples show that the PiS has had some success in rolling back democratic institutions but have been met with opposition. There was a recent article that researched whether Poland and Hungary, while showing signs of democratic erosion, still supported democracies abroad. This article found that the Polish government still funded many democratic programs in Ukraine as well as in other Eastern European nations. However, this may be a smoke screen by the PiS to conceal the funding that they have provided to programs sentimental to their causes like the Solidarity Fund PL. Which implements programs in line with policies of the PiS.
There are many cultural and historical factors that have also played a role in the rise of opportunistic authoritarian leaders. The Catholic Church has a major role in the political sphere because of the traditional Polish values. There have been polls conducted that show Catholic parish priests had “openly indicated the party for which a Catholic should vote, 9 out of 10 said that the party in question was PiS.” (Radoslaw Markowski). This entanglement of church and state is a clear sign of democratic erosion. In the 2015 election Markowski looked at the impact of socio-cultural and economic issues on what party the public voted for. She found that issues like, state and church, abortion, and EU integration were very important to the PiS constituents which also aligned with a movement farther right on the political spectrum. Markowski also looks at a very interesting link between clientelism and political-cultural and ideological traditions. Clientelism is defined as “the proffering of material goods in return for electoral support, where the Criterion of distribution that the patron uses is simple: did you (will you) support me.” (Stokes). In the paper it is theorized that the rise of authoritarian clientelism in Poland is a response to the historical context of the country.
Poland is an interesting case study when relating it to other countries in Europe. It is a larger nation more similar to Germany and France but with closer ideological ties to other Eastern European countries that were under Soviet control. Also, it seems that there has been backlash from the European Union in response to the policies enacted by the PiS party. It is unlike an authoritarian regime to listen and not go through with their policy ideas. However, the attacks on judicial independence and on judges by the PiS is a very dangerous path that the government has set itself on. Continued pressure from the international system needs to continue to ensure that authoritarian consolidation does not occur. Because of the historical context of Poland, being a nation under authoritarian control during the cold war, it does make sense that some older citizens would feel comfortable with a less democratic government. I believe that Poland will not continue its path of democratic erosion and instead possibly remain stagnate in the current position that they are in.