In recent years, we have seen how far-right populism has gained a footing in what many would consider to be some of the world’s strongest democracies. From the United States, to France, to Germany, to Italy, to Poland, etc., right-wing populism is quickly increasing in popularity, and to the detriment of our most sacred democratic institutions. In Populism: A Very Short Introduction, Cas Mudde defines populism to be, “a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite,” and which argued that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people” (Mudde 2017). This belief of the people vs the elite is central to right-wing populist ideology throughout the above mentioned democracies.
In the United States, an armed mob stormed the Capitol Building in an effort to block the counting of electoral votes, a practice required by the United States Constitution, for a presidential election they deemed to be fraudulent. Many of these insurrectionists had ties to white supremacist groups like the Proud Boys, further providing evidence for the fact that much of the right-wing populism present in the United States is rooted in nationalism, xenophobia, and anti-immigration sentiments, as it also is in other Western European democracies.
However, the democracy-threatening actions of right-wing populists are not always as evident as the storming of a Capitol building. In many instances, they are much more insidious, and done while exercising seemingly wide public support. Poland provides a compelling case-study into this phenomenon of populists conspicuously subverting democracy and breaking down democratic institutions from within.
Poland’s current ruling party, the Law and Justice Party (PiS), experiences wide support from rural Poland and conservative Catholics. They espouse a lot of nationalist rhetoric and are unfriendly to the LGBTQ community, with Poland’s president Andrzej Duda promising to, “defend children from LGBT ideology.” The PiS has threatened many of Poland’s democratic institutions like the media and the judiciary, which provides further evidence that right-wing populism can be extremely harmful to democracies.
PiS has destroyed the autonomy of the judiciary system, in fact they have systematically dismantled it. They have done this in many ways, but one of the most alarming actions was in early 2020 when President Duda signed off on a law that would punish any judge who criticizes the government’s changes to the judicial system. This law stripped the judiciary of its independence and placed the executive branch above the judicial branch. According to the First President of the Supreme Court, “this means we no longer are a democracy based on the rule of law, as defined by our constitution.” Before this law was passed in 2020 however, the PiS party had been hard at work trying to purge judges who were unfriendly to the party from the courts. In 2017 a bill was introduced to lower the retirement age, which would have made nearly half of the Supreme Court’s judges ineligible. Judges who try to speak out about these changes are met with harassment by the TVP, a government-funded media program that is supportive of the PiS. They have also filled the constitutional tribunal, which decides whether or not new laws are constitutional with judges that support the party. PiS’ overhaul of the judicial system has worried the European Union so much so that it invoked Article 7 in 2017, which means that if Poland does not comply with EU standards and demands, they may be removed. However, removal from the EU may not be such a blow to the PiS party as part of their platform is being anti-EU and they seek a “Ploexit.”
PiS has also attacked the free press. As recently as August of 2021, PiS introduced a bill that would bar any non-European ownership of Polish news outlets. This would mean that TVN, which is owned by the American company Discovery, would cease to exist, creating a problem as this is one of the most prominent news outlets criticizing the PiS. This bill is emblematic of the party’s desire to purge any media that is unfriendly, therefore threatening free, independent press as well as freedom of speech. Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) have also been weaponized to silence critics of the government. SLAPPs are invoked against journalists and other critics of the government in an effort to silence opposition. Without freedom of the press, it is becoming increasingly hard to hold the PiS accountable and to expose their corrupt and un-democratic behavior to voters.
The democratic erosion that is taking place in Poland right now is especially troubling, as in the wake of the collapse of the U.S.S.R Poland fought hard to institute democracy as well as to support the establishment of democracy in other former soviet countries. It should be concerning to the entire international community that a democracy that is a member of the European Union is so grossly limiting free press and free speech, does not protect the human rights of the LGBTQ community, and is eroding institutions like the judiciary. In Poland, we are seeing in real-time how dangerous far-right populism can be for democracy.