Democracy has been specified as the fundamental reason for the long-unseen historical record of the reign of peace. Today, the world is experiencing a major threat to democracy after the third wave of democratization. This threat may occur in the form of a military coup, or foreign invasion but mostly the democratic erosion happens after a chief executive is elected with democratic principles and means, which will be whittled away in a slower process by the elected ruler. This process is called autogolpe or “stealth authoritarianism” (Varol, 2014). The third wave of authoritarianism creates concerns in the international arena because when the one who has disloyalty towards a democratic regime,take the control of the government with an election, it may not be cited as s/he puts the country’s regime in danger immediately since democracy is not something that can be dismantled quickly.
Poland, an EU member state, is one of the states that transitioned to democracy after the collapse of the USSR in 1989. However, since the Law and Justice Party (PiS) took the power of the state, the values of freedom and democracy are under major attack. The path Poland is following resembles the strategies of Viktor Orban in Hungary.
How was the rise of the Law and Justice Party?
Jarosław Kaczyński started spreading conspiracy theories and stated that the Polish democracy was built with the members of the Communist Party secretly so at the time Poland’s institutions were under the influence of them. Then, he formed PiS with his brother under a far-right movement and created the idea that the party was the only chance to defend traditional Polish values and culture, and the identity of Poland. In 2005, they held power until the time another party PiS trusted lost its parliamentary majority. In 2015, Jarosław Kaczyński came back to power which is the first time in Poland’s history that a party won the presidential election and also acquired a majority in the Poland Parlamento.
Kaczyński started intervening in the independent democratic institutions which are particularly media, judiciary, civil society and election. Media transformed into propaganda for the government which supplied the control of the information for the government. Poland’s Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) brought a series of cases opened against independent newspapers and media. Indeed, this action of the Poland government was criticized by the International Press Institute as the Polish media has been threatened by the government and tried to silence the government criticism in the media. Secondly, PiS implemented a massive attack on the judiciary. The Polish government saw judges as enemies of the state (Csaky, 2021). Freedom House demonstrated a decline in its Judicial Framework with the reason of “…continued sidelining and discipline of independent judges since the so-called muzzle law came into effect.” PiS started taking control of the judiciary system Thirdly, civil society and NGOs became more suppressed by the restrictions of rights, especially for society’s particular segments like women, and LGBT+ people. Such actions brought people to the streets to protests, which are pro-EU. Lastly, Freedom House declined the score of the Electoral Process of Poland because of abusing state resources and silencing media which restricts the access of information to the electorate.
The government’s attack on democratic institutions, norms and values lasts until there will be no checks and balances so it can make sure of its ensuing election results. Under such regimes as flawed democracies as in Poland, democracy can preserve its only cornerstone, which is elections, and suggest that the outcome of it makes the government’s actions such as capturing institutions legitimate (Abramowitz and Puddington, 2020). In the path of non-democracy, the Polish government’s activities such as manipulating the electoral process, and capturing the media provided an unequal playing field for the opposition which is why the PiS launched a series of trials against the opponents.
Such regulatory measures on the media, constraining the judiciary, and dominating the economy intensified the tensions in society. Poland is divided into two parts: one of the part living in the urban, well-educated, knew the worth of the opportunities the state has gained since it emerged from Communism and the other lives in rural areas, living traditionally, more conservative and nationalist, has doubts about the economic transition in case it underestimates them.
Social cleavages became activated and divided society even more with the closer relationship between the Catholic Church and the government. This cooperation struggles with some parts who are not Catholic and who do not live as the Church suggests. Discriminatory policies, such as LGBT or abortion rights, have been implemented with this alignment between religion and the government. Poland faced an increase in nationalist sentiment, homophobia and more tendency towards discriminatory practices.
During the power of PiS, what did the opponent try to do to cease the democratic backsliding in Poland?
Poland’s electoral system gives more advantages to the largest political force which increases the likelihood of the PiS remaining in power and continuing its attacks. However, despite the Law and Justice Party’s unsupported conspiracy theories, attacks on minority groups regarding culture and sexual preferences, and criticisms the government received from international institutions, the opposition failed to cooperate. The opposition side ranges from the center-right to the leftist groups which is a fact struggling them to agree on a charismatic leader with the capability of appealing to a positive image for the country. At one time, they managed to form a coalition called the “European Coalition” which ended up being defeated in the election against the PiS. One of the explanations regarding the failure of the opposition is the perspective of the opposition to the supporters of the PiS. The opposition has seen them as religious fanatics, incorrigible, coming from an uneducated rural segment of society.
Contrary to international criticism coming from ECtHR or EU institutions, the Trump administration sent its support to Kaczyński, giving the privilege of Polish citizens to travel to the US without visas to raise the chances of Kaczyński’s reelection (Mounk,2019). Moreover, PiS has been good at delivering benefits to its electorate.
As Mounk stated Poland with a history of fighting for its liberty with courage and determination in the 1980s encountered a series of threats to its democracy but it seems the country has no concern, no interest in that erosion. Therefore, the populist right-wing Law and Justice Party won its second term and ended up securing 235 seats in the 460-seat assembly.
Abramowitz, M., & Puddington, A. (2020, May 26). Poland and Hungary Must Not Be Ignored. https://freedomhouse.org/article/poland-and-hungary-must-not-be-ignored
Csaky, Z. (2021, November 3). Capturing Democratic Institutions: Lessons from Hungary and Poland. https://freedomhouse.org/article/capturing-democratic-institutions-lessons-hungary-and-poland
Freedom House. (2021). https://freedomhouse.org/country/poland/nations-transit/2021
Mounk, Y. (2019, October 9). Democracy in Poland is in Mortal Danger. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/10/poland-could-lose-its-democracy/599590/
Religion, Politics, and Oppression in Poland: A Call to Action. (2021, April 28). Columbia University Libraries. https://journals.library.columbia.edu/index.php/cswr/announcement/view/409
Tilles, D. (2022, October 6). Poland violated judge’s rights through “unlawful” disciplinary chamber, finds European court. https://notesfrompoland.com/2022/10/06/poland-violated-judges-rights-through-unlawful-disciplinary-chamber-finds-european-court/
Varol, O. O. (2014). Stealth authoritarianism. Iowa L. Rev., 100, 1673.
Yingst, H. (2020, December 14). Poland’s Rise in Populism. https://sites.uab.edu/humanrights/2020/12/14/polands-rise-in-populism/
I will be focusing on Poland for my case study, and it’s awesome that you focused on them as well here. I think it’s interesting that, as you said, Poland doesn’t seem very interested in its own democratic backsliding. There have been protests and such but it seems as though it should be a bigger deal for opposing parties that PiS is changing so many rules. Furthermore, it’s a bit intimidating to hear that Trump endorsed the PiS party, knowing how controversial he was in US politics. I’m wondering if that uninterested attitude will continue, and what actions would be needed to change it. Would something be able to change it at this point?
It is very interesting to hear and learn about about how Poland has trended towards authoritarianism after becoming a poster child of post-communist nations turning democratic in the 1990s and 2000s. I assume Poland has a majoritarian style system in their legislature, which would explain the continued dominance of the PiS. I am a bit curious to hear more about where this fatigue in the opposition stems from. Is it the lack of coalition building between the center-right and leftist parties in the legislature that you mentioned. Or maybe in the people themselves feeling that they can’t do anything to stop the PiS, or a mix of both? It’d be very interesting to expand on where this fatigue stems from.