In their past eight years of control, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has eroded judicial and constitution checks and balances while centralizing media ownership. These attacks on democratic values have allowed the party to create biased state-sponsored reporting that villainized opponents and removed accessible opportunities for alternative sources of information. Despite the uneven playing field, opposition leaders gained the majority necessary to form a new government in the election on October 15th. This result demonstrates that authoritarian transitions are not inevitable, and the specific strategies and circumstances that allowed this victory are essential to understand how democratic backsliding is preventable in similar cases.
While in power, the populist PiS party used nationalist rhetoric to justify the structural erosion of unbiased public media, by first introducing legislation in 2015 that eroded the National Broadcasting Council’s (KRRiT) authority over public media. This act transitioned KRRiT to a partisan organization with no responsibility to fund or distribute unbiased reporting, allowing the PiS to use the state-owned Telewizia Polska (TVP), the largest and most accessible broadcasting service, to create campaigns that villainized opposition parties and spread xenophobic and homophobic messaging. Later, in December of 2020, state-controlled refiner PKN-Orlen bought the Polska Press, a publishing firm that catered to over 17 million readers with 20 regional newspapers, over 100 local weeklies, and over 500 online websites. These acts have allowed PiS to replace journalists in previously unpartisan positions with Law and Justice allies who villainized opposition allies under the veil of seemingly trustworthy state media conglomerates. This has eroded the Dahl requirement of accessible alternative sources of information, yet most other requirements of democracy remain. Therefore, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) published a report that found the elections were competitive and fair, but PiS held an advantage with their assaults on free and unbiased media.
Clearly, this is not a position where Donald Tusk, the leader of the Civic Coalition and other opposition groups should have expected any electoral success, never mind forcing the PiS party to lose 41 seats in parliament compared to the 2019 election. So, what happened leading up to October 15th that will allow Tusk and allies to form a government and slowly begin to rebuild the Polish democracy that PiS challenged?
Arguably the most essential factor of the election results was the voter turnout rate. Voting started at 7 a.m. on Sunday and polling stations stayed open until 5 a.m. the next day to accept all who were in line at the 9 p.m. scheduled end. The turnout rate was so unexpected that new ballots needed to be printed, and many waited in line for up to eight hours that night. This resulted in a rate of nearly 75%, which is higher than the first elections that led to the fall of communism in 1989, and the highest since 1919. One of the most essential demographic shifts was the youth turnout rate of 68.8% compared to 46.4% in the last election of 2019. More people under the age of 29 cast their ballots than those over-60s which is extremely rare in prior Polish elections. Additionally, in younger cities, opposition parties performed better compared to older and rural areas.
The proportional representation system is another element of Polish politics that gave opposition leaders an advantage in upending the authoritarian PiS party. Unlike the US and many other states, voters have more than two main choices. In the 2023 election there were five main electoral alliances that each promoted candidates. The opposition consisted of the centrist Civic Coalition (KO), including two different parties, the Civic Platform being the largest opposition party since 2015, and other more liberal parties that will likely form a government with the KO in the following weeks. Each party has different priorities and policies that voters can individually identify with, yet they are all unified in opposing authoritarian advances from the PiS party. Because pluralism is essential for democracy, and the PiS party has not been successful at claiming complete representation of the Polish people, the opposition has taken advantage of the multiple party system. Naturally, the different parties can accommodate a variety of liberal and centrist views that are all opposed to the current populist government.
Although the opposition parties all had different platforms, their unifying messaging focused on a hopeful democratic future while simultaneously criticizing the PiS party; this was another key aspect of the Civic Coalition’s unexpected victory in the October elections. In the primary debate televised by the state-owned TVP, Donald Tusk of the Civic Coalition claimed, “as I vowed in front of millions on the streets of Warsaw: we will win together, we will settle accounts, we will repair wrongs, and we will reconcile the nation.” This type of rhetoric was common on the campaign trail: unspecific, hopeful, and powerful. According to Kendall-Taylor and Frantz’s accounts of the ways democracies turn to autocracies, stopping populist rulers “will require vigilance and coordination among broad segments of at-risk societies,” and the campaign approach achieved this through specifically recognizing the pattern of “authoritarianization” and focusing on an alternative positive future. While PiS spewed homophobic and xenophobic rhetoric to incite fear, the opposition chose carefully when to villainize the government, as the populist leaders had heavy influence over the public narrative.
The final aspect of the October elections was the unpopularity of the many Law and Justice Party’s positions on key issues. According to a study by Polish researcher Adriana Sas, over 60% of Poles surveyed were in support of legalizing abortion in Poland, and 70% want the government to liberalize the current abortion bans in the country. The conflict between the Catholic Church involvement in politics is also clear, where 64% of those polled are in favor of same-sex marriages, whereas the PiS party has created “LGBTQ-free zones” and is against equal rights and protection. This differentiation between voter desires and the populist party’s platform demonstrates the possible weakness of anti-pluralist rhetoric. The PiS party was unable to convincingly promise the “folk theory of democracy” proposed by Müller, where the polish people were united under conservative Catholic values, and therefore the ideal of mass clientelism failed. When a party’s platform is directly opposed to the opinions of voters, there is room for massive uprisings. Millions of women have protested the bans, also contributing to the high turnout rates in the recent election. Because Poland still retained electoral legitimacy, the natural consequences proposed in Schmitter and Karl’s definition of democracy remain. Their theory recognizes the importance of interest associations and social movements to protect rights and to “reflect the different intensities of preference that exist in the population and bring them to bear on democratically elected decision makers.” Because the biased media coverage in Poland was unable to suppress the unrest surrounding these issues, opposition parties were able to form a majority in the October elections.
Although this victory seems like a win for democratic advocates in Poland and internationally, some argue that the 2023 elections do not prove that Poland can return to pre-authoritarian governance, and the unique factors and strategies of the campaign are not applicable to other nations. According to Foreign Policy, a return to pre-populist Poland is “wishful thinking or just plain wrong.” The report cites the systematic deconstruction of the liberal democracy over the past eight years that cannot be reversed easily, especially with PiS placing allies in many judicial and media positions. However, the election does allow for the new government to stop the continuation of executive aggrandizement while they are in power and slowly create more democratic proceedings as Tusk promised. And although the combination of all circumstances present in the Polish election are unlikely to simultaneously occur in another, the messaging of unity in the face of authoritarianism promoted by the opposition is a transferable campaign strategy applicable to other parties that oppose populism. Tusk’s declaration that “Poland has won, democracy has won. We have removed them from power!” after the election demonstrates the goal and ultimate success of the opposition and highlights the importance of hope to combat fear.
The 2023 Polish election was decisive in creating the possibility for democratic returns in Poland. Although the PiS party has used populist rhetoric to pass authoritarian legislature in their eight years in power, opposition parties were able to find a way to at least temporarily stop the assaults on liberal rights and distributed power. Additionally, aspects of the opposition’s success are not exclusive to Poland. Recognizing the conditions and campaign strategies of the opposition is essential when applying strategies to other cases of executive aggrandizement and democratic erosion worldwide.
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