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.