As Russia has gained worldwide attention in recent months through engaging in inflammatory and aggressive authoritarian action, it has brought to light the important role that democracy has in global peace. Democratic institutions have long been cited as being responsible for a reign of peace unseen in historical records. However, the reality of these institutions–like all regimes and government types–is that they evolve overtime and change in sometimes unforeseen ways. Democracies are no stranger to change, but typically the changes that occur lean further into democratic practices, and increased freedoms and liberties. However, recently, this has not been the case in many notable democracies around the globe, and many of these states face democratic backsliding. This reversion against democratic principles is dangerous for the democratic institution and must be addressed and analyzed in various states around the world to grasp and understand the consequences backsliding may impose.
In Eastern Europe, a region historically known for being less than friendly to democratic practices, the fall of the Soviet Union marked a turning point for the region’s previously authoritarian nations to transition towards a different form of governing. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union communism, Poland, along with many Soviet adjacent states, was quick to democratize. Since then, Poland has been a champion of democracy and has earned its place on the world stage as a leading force to expand democracy in the east. However, Poland is now currently the fastest autocratizing democracy in the world, which presents a big problem for the trajectory of the institution. To understand how such a beacon state for democratic values has now created itself a record of rapidly consolidating democratic values, it’s important to examine two events in recent Polish history–the rise of the Law and Justice Party and subsequent overhaul of established judicial and institutional procedures. Both of these occurred post-2015, which is the year that the Law and Justice Party, or the PiS Party, came to power, and democracy in the nation since has been on the decline. Upon coming into power, the PiS Party moved to consolidate many rights granted to the Polish people under the guise of reform to the system. However, much of this reform has been strictly revolved around stripping power from opposition and making it more difficult for opponents to get into office. The party first started with the censoring of independent journalists on national television. As a result, the news in Poland has become almost complete propaganda and dissent gains no traction. With the media in their pocket, the PiS Party then moved to produce reform in the judiciary system. This blatant example of stealth authoritarianism saw the party participate in increased judicial review and modification of electoral laws. One such example of authoritarian structural change was a transformation of the state’s judiciary, which would allow courts to investigate opponents of the reforms. Additionally, closed court cases going back twenty years could be reopened under the new reforms. This undoubtedly will cause a great burden on the system in coming years if these democratic institutions are used for authoritative purposes. To continue, Poland faced another backslide from democracy during their 2020 election, which saw increased societal cleavages propagated by the PiS Party. Leading up to the election incumbent President Andrjzej Duda and his party fostered populist views amongst the public and increased division amongst the people on several previously-uncontroversial issues. Amongst these policy points, Duda and the party instigated radical populism and class divisions, as well as anti-LGBT sentiments. Further, during the election, voting discrepancies and inaccess to voting stations became prominent problems for minority groups in the country, and many felt they had been negatively targeted by the party. Most of this authoritarian behavior was done under a misleading promise to remove any remnants of communism and Soviet-era influence from the nation. However, the practices the current administration are participating in are more reminiscent of the Soviet-era than any issue the party is claiming to combat.
The objective is unmistakable. The current ruling party in Poland is actively participating in anti-democratic practices in order to consolidate their power over the Polish people, while attacking dissent from political opponents. Through means of manipulation of the judiciary, media platforms, and electoral systems, the PiS Party tries and hopes to expand its power and influence. This must be combatted by the Polish people if they hope to maintain the liberties they have grown accustomed to having.
Noah, I really enjoyed reading your post and learned a lot. I am not up to date on my Polish politics and found your article to be both surprising and thought-provoking. My main question is about how Russian aggression in the region will affect the autocratic consolidation in Poland. On the one hand, I can imagine how an existential threat such as an aggressive Russia at your border could exacerbate autocratic consolidation. People living under all regime types are far more willing to cede power to the government, and quickly, when there is a crisis. On the other hand, if Poland’s ruling party is concerned about Russian encroachment it is likely that they will look to the west for aid. If Russian aggression pushes Poland to reinvigorate its commitments to NATO and the European Union, which requires adherence to democratic principles and institutions, Poland may see a slowing of the authoritarian consolidation it is experiencing. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out.
I really enjoyed reading this blog post as I found it very similar to mine on democratic backsliding in Hungary. Both countries have a very similar history as they both democratized after the fall of the USSR and were considered leading democracies in Eastern Europe after. I would be curious to know the reasons the Law and Justice party were able to come to power. In Hungary the semi authoritarian regime was able to gain support because of the lack of development in the economy, is this similar to Poland? The Hungarian government also has increased societal cleavages like class divisions and anti LGBTQ sentiment. One of their main divisions is with immigrants, is the Polish government hostile towards immigrants as well? An interesting comparison that I noticed is that Poland used the media as a way to spread propaganda to gain support and then reformed the judiciary system. In Hungary, the first thing they did was reform the judiciary system, then followed with media manipulation. I am curious about how the Polish government has handled the war in Ukraine and what they have done for Ukrainian immigrants. I am also curious to learn more about how they have changed the electoral system and manipulated elections. I know you said there were voting discrepancies and a lack of access to voting stations for minorities but I am curious as to what this looked like. What do non government organizations have to say about what is happening in Poland? Are there significant efforts by them to slow the changes towards authoritarianism? Overall, I really enjoyed reading your post and would be super curious to learn more and do a deep dive into what is happening in Poland right now.