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.
Your article “Democratic Backsliding in Poland and Eastern Europe” is a thorough description of democratic backsliding at the governmental level. You mentioned the need for rule of law, the need for elections, and for better journalist practices. The lack of these factors has caused Democratic Backsliding in Poland.
The acknowledgment of Poland’s Democracy is important, but given the nation’s circumstances, a realist may conclude that Poland is doing well for the volume of external factors the government is dealing with. This Consolidated Democracy has become militaristic and nationalistic, has a conservative society, and has been under a threat of a pandemic. Given these systemic issues, Warsaw is left to manage a Democratic Socialist nation threaten by unsanctioned migration, a disconnect from sociological practices practiced in Nato and EU members, and that at times Poland runs conflict of interest with EU members.
There are some internal factors such as mismanagement, however the systemic problems are likely more heavy causal factors. With that being said, the solutions require Polish Authorities to respond with a liberal solution: Elections, protection of Human Rights, and ensuring political power is shared equally amongst federal branches and that Warsaw adheres to standards set forth by the European Union.
It is most important that Poland conduct elections within the scope of their constitution, although their constitution allows for temporary divergence during times of emergency, martial law, and during a state of natural disaster. In June of 2021, Maciej Skrzypek wrote about this, published in his article, “Democratic Backsliding in Poland on Example Drafts Amendments in Electoral Code During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Where he believed the risk of a Consolidated Democracy increases after canceled elections. Rather, the substitution of ballots with health measures would be most optimal. Although, wise for a pandemic, the author believes mail in ballots may become compromised. It is reported that Poland has utilized the internet for elections. This alteration of democratic election formalities may lead to power grabs as terms are re-defined in a compromised judicial system.
Poland’s democratic system is under threat of further backsliding because of the exective takeover, and this breakdown of rule of law violates Poland’s commitment to adhere to EU standards; therefore, is a perfect example of Democratic Backsliding because standards set forth by the EU are staples of democracy.
On April 3, 2019 the Commission probed an infringement procedure on the basis that the disciplinary regime for judges destabilizes the judicial independence of Polish judges and does not ensure the necessary guarantees to protect judges from political control, as required by the European Council of Justice.
These are both instances of Democratic Backsliding, but these issues go further beyond government mismanagement. The voting populous of Poland may still vote for candidates that don’t value western principles. The Citizens of Poland may have a unique global political perspective. For instances, a 2017 Pew Research has found that only 31% of Polish responders committed to upholding their representative democracy. In this same poll, researchers discovered that 68% of Poles would consider governance by experts, as a replacement for democracy. Afterall, Pew Research has discovered that 67% of Poles believe the government is doing too little for climate change, and that 71% believe it is a priority. Due to Polish Views, the government could reform stricter migration policy, and further lockdowns—moving Warsaw away from liberalism. Polish people have reported declining trust in EU institutions. In Central and Eastern Europe, a majority of countries oppose same sex marriage, including Poland. Where, 62% of Poles oppose it.
Culture identity and world views are slow to change. The social norms of Poland, that are anti-liberal, are exacerbated by xenophobia since nativism is a very mobilizing political ideology. To preserve Polish Civility, one may consider Fortress Europe. However, this comes at the cost of tax dollars and Polish Management of this crisis has left international watchdogs without ability to scrutinize the nation. Journalism is very important, yet so is managing the border. Poland is in a tricky situation, and no dount the PiS party is looking out for the interest of Polish Families. In the past, PiS members have made clear the immigration they seek is from nations with similar identities. There must be a plan, and it starts with international cooperation including media coverage when possible.
In the ABC report, “A New Crusade: Poland’s embrace of Catholicism and Anti LBGT Ideology” you can view more insight to my claim that Poland’s voting base has social ideologies that western nation’s don’t agree with. Therefore, the use of Democracy would not guarantee liberal values of human rights. Many Polish hold a disdain for the Red Army, who some believe brought homosexuality and atheism to their Catholic Society. Likewise, some attribute to the horrendous death camps to abortions. This paradox may be hard to understand as an American, but to fully understand Democratic Backsliding in Poland it is very important to use a global lens and understand the perspective of a significant level of Polish voters. E.g. the influence of Catholic values in institutions of society.
Global Attitudes Survey: https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2017/10/16/globally-broad-support-for-representative-and-direct-democracy/
Polish Beliefs of Science https://www.pewresearch.org/science/fact-sheet/public-views-about-science-in-poland/
Polish Political Beliefs: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/07/10/how-people-in-poland-see-key-aspects-of-their-democracy-ahead-of-presidential-election/
View of Same Sex Marriage Poll: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/11/02/how-catholics-around-the-world-see-same-sex-marriage-homosexuality/
This blog post perfectly demonstrates how President Duda and the Law and Justice Party have been eroding Poland’s democratic institutions through stealth authoritarianism. Restricting voting, weakening the checks and balance system, and controlling the media are all textbook examples of stealth authoritarianism that Varol wrote about. As you stated, the Law and Justice Party garners support through right-wing populist rhetoric. This rhetoric is nationalist in nature and frequently scapegoats foreigners, more specifically, Muslim foreigners. Unfortunately, xenophobic far-right populist parties have grown in support across Europe after the backlash from the refugee “crisis” in 2015. We can see another example of this in Germany which during the 2017 election saw the return of a far-right party in parliament for the first time since the end of World War Two when the AfD, an extremist party that ran on a xenophobic and nationalist platform, gained enough votes to pass the 5.0% threshold needed to have seats. Thankfully the AfD is still a small party in Germany, but in Poland’s case, the Law and Justice Party is the ruling party and has enough power to erode Poland’s democratic institutions. The Law and Justice Party is not just xenophobic but also spouts hateful rhetoric to those who do not conform to the Catholic Church’s doctrine. This usually takes the form of anti-LGBT speech, but it has also led to a strict banning of abortion. Poland is now the only EU state besides Malta that bans abortion. The EU might try to more strictly criticize Poland’s undemocratic practices as Poland is still in the EU and therefore has to conform to its institutions, but it’s uncertain how much the EU can really do to stop the democratic erosion in Poland. Perhaps the greatest hope is an opposition party strong enough to challenge the Law and Justice Party’s dominance.
4. Hi Aaron, I really appreciate your analysis of Poland’s democratic backsliding. I liked how you started out acknowledging the resemblance of its situation to Hungary and Turkey. The democratic backsliding in all these instances is almost eerily similar. It seems that unfortunately, the autocratic playbook is one size fits all. It is especially interesting that in all these cases a critical part of their democratic backsliding was manipulating the courts in some fashion. Viktor Orban in Hungary mandated all judges retire at a certain age, while this may seem unimportant it made it so he could more easily pack the courts with loyalists and solidified his hold on power. Erdogan in Turkey pressured the courts to rule in his favor during a 2017 constitutional referendum that changed the country from a parliamentary to a presidential system. There were questions over the validity of some ballots that lacked proper stamps, but at Erdogan’s behest they deemed the ballots valid. Once again through this judicial manipulation Erdogan reaffirmed his power. It seems like the first line of attack for autocrats everywhere is the judiciary. This phenomenon is reflected in America too, Donald Trump was able to appoint three supreme court justices. The validity of two of those appointments were highly contested. Neil Gorsuch replaced Antonin Scalia on the court, even though Scalia died during the Obama presidency, but Mitch McConnell refused to confirm his pick, Merrick Garland. Amy Coney Barrett was appointed days before the 2020 election, a violation of norms and a contradiction of the logic Mitch McConnell used just four years earlier, when refusing to confirm Merrick Garland. It’s so interesting to see these strategies utilized across the democratic world.