On July 12, 2020 incumbent Polish President Andrzej Duda won the second round of the presidential elections with 51.0% of the popular vote (BBC, 2020). Duda had first been elected to office in 2015 and was a rising star in the Polish political party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS). In English PiS translates to law and order and this is a radical right wing populist party in Poland that has rapidly seized power in a formerly center right leaning Republic. Duda and his party have created a radical shift in Polish politics and have eroded democracy by employing stealth authoritarian practices, shifting Poland into an incredibly conservatice authoritarian Eurosceptic state and the most autocratitizing country in the world (Tilles, 2021).
It is arguable that in the later half of the Cold War no country fought as hard to democratize as the late Polish People’s Republic. This iteration of Poland was created as a one party authoritarian Socialist State after the devastation of the Second World War and the Yalta conference which assured Stalin that Eastern Europe would be within his sphere of influence. This communist Polish state was vastly unpopular with the Polish people who had a longstanding history of democratically elected governments. In the late 1980s and early 1990s a movement began in the shipyards of Gdańsk that would later become known as Solidarność or Solidarity an anti-communist trade union and political group that were eventually able to overtake the Polish Sejm their Parliment and create a new democratic Polish republic with free elections and a new semi-presidentail system of government (Goddeeris, 2008).
This transition from forced communist Soviet influenced rule to democracy was incredibly tumultuous since the entire government and economic system had to change but it was successful and the newly created Third Polish Republic joined NATO in 1999 and eventually the European Union in June of 2003. In the early 2000s Poland’s politics were best defined as center-right with a PiS lead coalition in power of the government from 2005-2007 and again having control from 2015 onwards with 2007-2015 having a government headed by the more centrist Civic Platform party (Platforma Obywatelska abbreviated as PO) leaded by Donald Tusk (Smogorzewsk et. al, 2022).
The election of 2015 is incredibly important because that was the year that Andrezj Duda became President and acquired leadership of PiS and started the shift in the party from center right politics to an authoritarian illiberal democracy. When Duda won the presidential election he and his party were able to form the first single party majority government in the Sejm since the end of communist rule in 1989. With this majority in parliament the only part of government that Duda did not control was the judiciary with three judges being up for election that year. President Duda broke both law and precedent in November of 2015 when he refused to allow the PO (civic platform) judge candidates to take their oaths and assume their positions. Instead he packed the court by increasing the number of judges by five and appointed all of these new judges from the PiS party, ensuring his control of all the branches of the Polish government. This is a textbook example of the use of stealth authoritarianism and democratic backsliding since it affected judicial review and political institutions (Varol, 2015).
The party’s “justifications” for the judicial reforms has been along the lines of attempts to modernize the judiciary in a relatively young democracy that has seen tremendous development in the last two decades and is not the same country it was back in the late 90s However,, it is clear that the attack on the polish judiciary is simply to manipulate judicial review and the rule of law to allow Duda and the other elites of PiS do do whatever they please without any legal repercussion. One such example of this is the party’s attack on female reproductive rights and the rights of LGBTQ+ poles. In late 2019 the Polish government declared several zones of the country LGBTQ free, refusing to uphold the equality laws of the European Union. Furthermore in 2020 the polish Justice Minister and the government put a widespread ban on abortion another direct violation of European Union law that not only infringies upon the rights of poles as E.U citizens but shows just how much power Duda was able to obtain that he can confidently publicly go against the European Union (Reid, 2021)
With the use of stealth authoritarianism President Duda further consolidated his power well before he became up for reelection in 2020. Alongside his changes to the judiciary Duda stripped power away from opposing parties by getting rid of independent journalists and news outlets from television ensuring that the media consumed by the Polish people was controlled by PiS and was filled with favorable propaganda (Abramowicz, 2020). Furthermore, Duda uses populist rhetoric to hijack and consolidate his power over the government.
The type of populism that is employed by Duda is an anti establishment rejection of things he believes are not polish and not traditional polish values (things like women’s and LGBT rights) he views change as an enemy and is attempting to appeal to the older, traditional, pius catholic working class by remind them of the struggles they faced during the communism of their youth and he is demonizing all possible change and liberalization as a return towards communism; essentially using his citizen’s generational trauma against them. Duda is fetishizing a golden age of Polish nationalism; wishing to return to the republic to an era where catholic values and slavic culture reigned supreme in unified independent Polish republic an age that has never occurred throughout history and was merely a literary fantasy in famous polish literature throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. There has never been a more democratic Poland and now in an attempt to gain more power Andrezj Duda has jeopardized its entire liberal democratic system (Berman, 2017).
The erosion of democracy in Poland is a serious threat and concern not only to the Polish people but also to the international community due to the domino effect it would likely have on the politics of Central and Eastern Europe. The autocratic and populist governance practiced by Polish President Andrezj Duda are a serious threat to the legitimacy of the Polish State and to the Polish people who have become used to living in a liberal democratic society. If democracy is going to survive in Poland it will become necessary for the people to actively fight against these authoritarian figures and attempt to mitigate the erosion of their fragile democracy.
Abramowicz , Michael. “Poland and Hungary Must Not Be Ignored.” Freedom House, 26 May 2020, freedomhouse.org/article/poland-and-hungary-must-not-be-ignored.
BBC. (2020, July 13). Poland’s Duda narrowly beats Trzaskowski in the Presidential vote. BBC News. Retrieved October 3, 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-53385021
Berman, Sheri. “The Pipe Dream of Undemocratic Liberalism.” Journal of democracy 28.3 (2017): 29–38. Web.
Goddeeris, Idesbald. “Solidarnosc, the Western World, and the End of the Cold War.” European Review, vol. 16, no. 1, 2008, pp. 55-64. ProQuest, http://proxy.binghamton.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/solidarnosc-western-world-end-cold-war/docview/217342833/se-2, doi:https://doi.org/10.1017/S1062798708000069.
Reid, Graeme. “Poland Breaches EU Obligations over LGBT, Women’s Rights.” Human Rights Watch, Gazeta Wyborcza, 24 Feb. 2021, www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/24/poland-breaches-eu-obligations-over-lgbt-womens-rights.
Smogorzewski, Kazimierz Maciej , Dawson, Andrew Hutchinson , Roos, Hans , Wandycz, Piotr S. , Davies, Norman , Jasiewicz, Krzysztof and Kondracki, Jerzy A.. “Poland”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1 Oct. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/place/Poland. Accessed 3 October 2022.
Varol, Ozan O. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review, vol. 100, no. 4, 2015, p. 1673–.
Tilles , Daniel. “Poland Is World’s ‘Most Autocratizing Country’, Finds Democracy Index.” Notes From Poland, 2 Apr. 2021, notesfrompoland.com/2021/03/11/poland-is-worlds-most-autocratizing-country-finds-democracy-index/.