Within the last decade, Poland has become a part of the global trend of democratic backsliding. Poland democratized during the fall of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe at the end of the 20th century. Poland, Hungary, and Turkey, all have similar political histories that include the separation from communism followed by democratic backsliding in subsequent decades. Nonetheless, Poland differs from the other countries in its region due to its’ democratic guardrails. According to Freedom House, Poland is still a free democracy, despite democratic backsliding within the last decade. The 2020 election in Poland and the overhaul of the judiciary system in 2017 have been the most notable attacks on Poland’s previously robust democracy. President Andrzej Duda has been instrumental in both events through amending the constitution and using the public media to his advantage as an incumbent.
The Supreme Court Justices in Poland have historically been appointed by an independent council, but President Duda became more directly involved in their appointment following changes he made in 2017. This political move is highly problematic for the tenants of democracy in several key ways. First, it weakens horizontal accountability within Poland’s democracy, by creating a direct relationship between the judiciary and the executive branch (Mercecia 2019). The judiciary branch is less inclined to hold the executive, in this case, President Duda, accountable because President Duda was directly involved in the process of their appointment. Subsequently, this strengthens the power of the executive branch, which runs in opposition to the longevity of democracy. President Duda was elected through a free and fair election, but he has used his power in order to undermine the very democracy that consented to his authority. Justices that are potentially more partial to the executive branch than they are to the law could create a situation in which the executive branch can further abuse its power without any horizontal accountability. This very scenario did play out in Poland only three years after President Duda altered the judiciary.
In 2020, Poland, along with many electoral democracies, had to confront the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic during an election year. Part of the global trend of democratic backsliding has been accelerated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic due to overreaching government authority and voting rights violations under the guise of public health. President Andrzej Duda partook in these anti-democratic practices during his reelection in 2020. The election was initially postponed due to the pandemic, but when the election took place, election observers and international actors did not condone it. First, the administrative duties of the election were transferred from the National Electoral Commission to the post office. The New York Times also reported that Polish citizens abroad voting via absentee ballot may not have had their ballots even counted. They reported upwards of possibly half a million absentee ballots went uncounted. In addition, President Duda only won his reelection with about 51% percent of the vote, resulting in many challenges to the election’s validity. These challenges were brought to the Supreme Court that President Duda himself had changed in his favor, so when the Polish Supreme Court ruled in favor of President Duda’s election win, the Supreme Court drew the ire of foreign actors and the opposition party alike.
The legal challenges to the election also cited that the public media provided biased coverage in the months leading up to it. The state media had broadcasted rhetoric that was allegedly homophobic and inflammatory in nature. This sort of rhetoric is what President Duda used to energize his voters, by telling running on a platform of “traditional Polish Catholic values”. This type of rhetoric has led many to criticize President Duda as a right-wing populist. A populist being someone that preys on the fears of “the people” to retaliate against “the elite” who pose an existential threat to the people’s well-being and livelihood (Mudde 2019). Homophobia and a reversion to traditional polish values appeal to the fears of Poland’s right-wing electorate, making President Duda a right-wing populist. The dissemination of this rhetoric by the state media is highly problematic not only for its content but because the state media should not be overwhelmingly in favor of one party or candidate over another. The integrity of the media, especially the state media, is paramount in the protection of democracy because media integrity is antithetical to the dissemination of propaganda; a strategy frequently employed by autocrats.
President Andrzej Duba’s actions are characteristic of many democratically elected leaders who partake in stealth authoritarianism. Authoritarians who use democratic institutions to consolidate their power, rather than abruptly usurping power via coup d’état (Varol 2015). President Duba strategically used the state media, the changes to the judiciary system, and his incumbency advantage, to consolidate his power as the executive in Poland. Poland still enjoys a functioning democracy, but with five years left in President Duba’s term, it is difficult to say what the future of Poland’s democracy will look like.