Poland was once the model nation of a communist country fallen apart and in shambles that then came together to become a prosperous democratic country, but now Poland’s democracy is crumbling. The controlling party is discriminating against sexual minorities, tightening up on already stringent abortion laws, limiting free speech and press, using executive aggrandizement to restrict the courts, and much more. Can Poland’s democracy survive such immense erosion, and how is the public reacting to such drastic changes?
Poland has seen drastic democratic backsliding over the last few years, as key figures within the government are outwardly pulling apart democracy within the country. The Law and Justice Party, or PiS, which is currently the controlling party in Poland, has risen to power over the last decade and has therefore become increasingly capable of eroding away Poland’s democracy. The opposition party has been unable to successfully oppose the Law and Justice party, which has encouraged PiS to take full advantage of the situation. Under PiS rule, Poland has become increasingly opposed to the liberal values upheld by the European Union, which has created increasing tension between Poland and other EU countries, but these other countries have been hesitant to act.
Ethical dilemmas such as anti-abortion legislation, intense anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, and limits on free speech are only the beginning of the many instances that provide proof of democratic backsliding with Poland. In January of 2021, the Polish government announced the passing of an unconstitutional abortion law which has banned abortions of a fetus with abnormalities; this means that abortions are only legal under circumstances regarding rape or incest, or if the pregnancy is a threat to the mother’s health. This ban now restricts the majority of abortions performed in Poland, and anyone who is caught seeking an abortion illegally, or is caught assisting someone to obtain an illegal abortion, will be faced with charges. Citizens took to the street in protest, but the government elite dismissed the protests and continued with the legislation. Recent political campaigns by PiS have also included speech with harsh LGBTQ+ rhetoric and discrimination, as the controlling party in Poland has sought after a return to more traditional values. In his election campaign in 2020, PiS member, Andrzej Duda, proclaimed that part of his agenda includes pulling back on LGBTQ+ rights to prevent gay couples from being legally married or adopting children.
Limits on free speech and the media have also been cause of significant problems within Poland. Beginning in 2015, PiS had assumed control of the public media, which resulted in the resignation or firing of a multitude of journalists and broadcasters. The government largely regulates the media and has used it to promote propaganda that portrays the court system in poor way. In attempts to degrade the judiciary, many commercials and ads portray judges as greedy and deeply corrupt to manipulate judges and persuade the public to turn away from and loose trust in the court system. These acts are taking away the basic rights of Polish citizens and allows PiS to control the public’s perception of the party, and the corruption going on with the government.
The most significant instance of democratic backsliding is the limitations imposed on the judiciary by key members of the government, which has made it increasingly difficult for the judiciary to act independently and work as a check and balance on other systems. Executive aggrandizement is a key tactic in eroding a democracy, and the Law and Justice party is working to slowly weaken the judicial branch out of fear that the power of the judicial branch could interfere with the party’s anti-democratic agenda. New laws have been put in place to prevent judges from criticizing the government. Judges who speak out against the government’s new policies are being disciplined or harassed. Judge Pawel Juszczyszyn was suspended without pay from the Supreme Court after becoming known for his open criticism towards the government that were made clear through some of his rulings. Selfish leaders have been using the courts to protect their own self-interest by tilting the playing field in their own favor. This has lead to a continued effort to pack the court to put in more judges that are in favor of the controlling party and the goals of the party. The efforts to pack the court have not been carried out very discreetly but the party has tried to mask unconstitutional actions with a bunch of legal jargon and propaganda that justifies their actions. Many new judges are corrupt, and party elites are using it to their advantage to avoid punishments such as jail time.
PiS has been able to hold its position as the majority party with heavy right-wing ideology, and old-school values that appeal to the older, more traditional citizens. PiS has been capable of providing strong incentives to gain constituents and then keep them in the party for future elections, making it difficult for competing minority parties to stand a chance at winning future elections. PiS has been very successful in following through with promises made regarding socioeconomic issues. Their ‘500 Plus’ program provided additional financial help for low-income families, and proved to be a crucial piece that earned over the trust of many voters. Other initiatives also included increasing the minimum wage to the point where it would double by 2023, in addition to locking down their morals and values. The party’s stance with more traditional values has appealed to their heavily conservative voters. Despite all of the party’s actions that are slowly eroding the countries’ democracy, the party has still maintained a very loyal supporter base. Abuses of the law are either often covered or downplayed in the media, and supporters are quick to dismiss issues or give the party some leeway on the issue because they are more concerned about other things the party is doing to help citizen welfare.
In the most recent election, the margin between PiS and the next largest opposing party, had grown smaller from the previous election, which could be suggestive of the fact that people are growing tired or concerned with the party’s anti-democratic approach. Poland is an example in which there is clear democratic erosion, and yet there is a still a large portion of the public that have become complacent and continues to support the party for various personal reasons. Despite the threatening changes made by the Law and Justice party, these actions are easily masked and downplayed by the media and party supporters. At what point will the PiS overstep and cause their supporters to question the party, and will democracy in Poland be too far gone when that tipping point is finally reached?