After almost 50 years of communist rule, Poland solidified itself as a stable European power with bright outlooks in terms of promoting and instilling a strong democracy in the country. In one of the fastest turnarounds of post-communist Europe in 1990’s, Poland made strides towards democracy, joining NATO in 1999 and voting to join the European Union in 2003. Things were looking incredibly optimistic for Poland’s democratic success as well as the promotion of democracy in central/eastern Europe as a whole. So why then, only about 15 years later, do we witness democracy starting to backslide? Unfortunately, post-communist democracies are extremely susceptible to populism, and arguably scarier, a stark lack of political, social, and media pluralism. This is what has led to the erosion of this previously promising democracy.
To begin, it’s incredibly important to discern the catalyst for this lack of pluralism. The first place we must look to is the political system in Poland leading up to the country’s democratic decline. Shortly after their democratic rise in the late 1990’s to early 2000’s, two main political parties have more or less dominated politics in Poland: The Civic Platform and Law and Justice. Prior to 2015, the former held most of the political power within the country, yet often failed to meet the reform requests made clear by the public. Due to the populations outcry for policy change (roughly 70% of Polish people surveyed reported a need for political reform) and The Civic Platform’s lack of response, it was no real surprise that the opposing Law and Justice party saw incredible support in the 2015 election with Jarosław Kaczyński as its primary leader. The party ran with their defaulted popularity, leaning into the demand for reform. They also continued to cultivate mistrust in the current governmental institutions and elites, even going as far as claiming the current checks and balances between governmental branches only served to support said elites.
This is textbook populism, and incredibly detrimental to democracy at that. Claiming to support the interests of the public prior to elections and then slowly making policy decisions to solidify your power directly aligns with the definitions of populism/demagoguery we see in works such as Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Communication by Jennifer R. Mercieca or What is Populism by Jan-Werner Müller. Law and Justice’s rise to power in Poland neatly fits the criteria such as the criticism of elites and being anti-pluralist. This was especially dangerous to Poland’s democracy due to the fact that populist parties and their agendas are often disguised as democratic. A government that listens to is populous and supports their ideals and goals is all Poland wanted, especially after its initial democratic rise. However, once in power, populist parties/leaders tend to reveal their true intentions, which is exactly what happened in Poland.
After their majority vote win in 2015, Jarosław Kaczyński and Law and Justice began to take steps towards a less democratic government in order to solidify their power. Making (often questionably legal) decisions such as implementing “quasi-judges” to weaken the current judiciary, ostracizing minority groups or those who weren’t “truly polish”, and making opposing parties or leaders out to be illegitimate are all incredibly strong pieces of evidence for Law and Justice’s movement away from democracy towards a more authoritarian rule. Furthermore, Law and Justice has made multiple attempts to control and silence the media, firing news personnel and journalists and replacing them with ones that show unwavering support.
So it’s clear that Poland has seen the rise of a right-wing populist party that actively fights pluralism and democratic institutions, but what has this resulted in for the country? Since Law and Justice has been in power, Poland has seen a stark decrease in their Electoral Democracy Index, an erosion of informal norms such as acknowledgement of the opposition and financial transparency, as well as an increase in efforts to undermine civil society and its ability to push back against those in power. Arguably most detrimental, however, is the drastic decline of party competition and political pluralism in the country. Regardless of potential efforts to thwart some of this democratic erosion through protest, there is little that can be done policy wise without a strong opposing party. This is part of the reason pluralism is so important to democracy, as citizens are forced into a corner without any real autonomy over their political decisions. In Poland, for example, the population is essentially forced to choose between the current populist party and the opposing party that failed them extensively in the past. If there were a more diverse selection of strong political parties and coalitions, there would not only lead to more competition and freedom of choice for the public, but it likely would have slowed down Law and Justice’s rise to power.
However, events leading up to Poland’s most recent parliamentary elections may suggest a turnaround for democracy in the country, at least when it comes to elections. Law and Justice still saw a majority win receiving 35.4% of the votes, but failed to form a coalition that would successfully win enough votes from the lower parliament. This decrease in majority support (35.4% in 2023 compared to 43.6% in 2018) has led other parties to form a coalition to oppose Law and Justice. If this coalition government succeeds in removing Law and Justice from power, there is a strong possibility that Poland would return to its pre-2015 level of democracy and be set on a track to further democratize in the future.