After years of a shift towards autocracy, Poland’s democracy is making an appearance once again. Even though there seems to be a worrying trend of increased democratic backsliding all around the world, we can look to Poland as something of a beacon of hope. Poland’s recent elections signify a shift from democratic backsliding to a recommitment to EU values and democratic principles. Although they had been experiencing rapid autocratization, Poland has reaffirmed its commitment to a democratic government.
To understand Poland’s democratic resurgence, we must first look at its backsliding in the past couple of years. This period of large-scale erosion began when Poland’s Law and Justice party or PiS party came to power in parliament in 2016. PiS rule was characterized by an overhaul of established judicial and institutional procedures. Before enforcing changes within the governmental system, the party began censoring independent journalists. As a result, the news in Poland became almost complete propaganda for the Law and Justice party. Any efforts to oppose the dominant party gained no ground. This stripping of power from the opposition essentially created a one-party state and made it much more difficult for opponents to win elections. Following this, the party moved towards promoting change within the judiciary. A number of different reforms were brought about to secure PiS’ position of power. Along with allowing courts to investigate opponents of the reforms, closed court cases that had long been decided could be reopened. In addition to this, the assault on the autonomy of the Polish judiciary persisted with the compulsory premature retirement of Supreme Court judges. These vacancies were filled by nominees selected by the president based on the National Council of the Judiciary’s recommendations—a body composed of members appointed by the PiS-dominated Parliament. A number of other rule changes were rolled out during this time as well. Just to name a few, measures were developed that increased federal government oversight and control of local governments, they introduced legislative changes that increased the role of political appointees in Poland’s election-administration bodies, and more.
This transition to autocracy can be classified as stealth authoritarianism. Ozan Varol writes that “stealth authoritarian practices use the law to entrench the status quo, insulate the incumbents from meaningful democratic challenges, and pave the way for the creation of a dominant-party or one-party state.” This form of autocratization sees the dominant party or autocrat using mechanisms that already exist within a democratic system to achieve inherently anti-democratic goals. By going through systems that are already in place, PiS can hope to move towards a one-party state without much pushback.
With such an extensive shift to authoritarianism, it might be difficult to believe how Poland has been able to begin the democratization process. After its recent parliamentary elections, it may be reasonable to assume that the nation’s political trajectory has changed. Poland’s opposition parties won enough seats in the general election to take power from the Law and Justice Party. Even though PiS did win the largest percentage in parliament, it wasn’t enough to form a winning coalition in the 460-member lower house of parliament. The second largest party, Civic Coalition, and two other parties, the Third Way and the Left, have pledged to form a coalition government to oust PiS from power. Combined, they have 248 seats while Law and Justice has 194 seats. After PiS being in power for eight years, this election marks a turning point for Poland’s democracy. The success of the democratic opposition demonstrates the enduring strength of Polish civil society despite government assaults and increasing illiberal tendencies.
Poland has been undergoing backsliding for many years now, so these recent elections are truly a test of the nation’s democratic resilience. There are several areas of government we can look at to measure potential democratic growth or regression. For example, the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Tribunal, led by Małgorzata Manowsk and Julia Przyłębska respectively, are institutionally aligned with the Law and Justice party. In addition to this, the new coalition majority will have to cooperate with Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda. Duda is a staunch supporter of PiS and has the power to veto any legislation passed by parliament. Because of this, this new government must find a way to govern efficiently while collaborating with Duda; otherwise, Poland faces the risk of falling into legislative gridlock and regressing back towards autocracy. As outlined by Levitsky and Ziblatt in Tyranny of the Minority, Poland’s major political parties must practice institutional forbearance. This is the democratic norm that those in power won’t use that power to harm their political opponents or other marginalized people and groups. Poland’s democratic potential will depend on a collective effort to address challenges, strengthen institutions, and ensure that the principles of democracy continue to guide the nation towards a more inclusive and sustainable future.
Abramowitz, Michael, and Arch Puddington. n.d. “Poland and Hungary Must Not Be Ignored.” Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/article/poland-and-hungary-must-not-be-ignored.
Benson, Robert. 2023. “Poland’s Democratic Resurgence: From Backsliding to Beacon.” Center for American Progress. November 14, 2023. https://www.americanprogress.org/article/polands-democratic-resurgence-from-backsliding-to-beacon/.
Cienski, Jan. 2023. “Poland Election Results: Opposition Secures Win, Final Count Shows.” POLITICO. October 17, 2023. https://www.politico.eu/article/poland-election-results-opposition-donald-tusk-wins-final-count-civic-platform-pis/.
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. 2023. Tyranny of the Minority. Random House.
Przybylski, Wojciech. 2018. “Can Poland’s Backsliding Be Stopped?” Journal of Democracy 29 (3): 52–64. https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2018.0044.
Schmitz, Rob. 2021. “Poland’s Government Tightens Its Control over Media.” NPR.org, January 4, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/01/04/951063118/polands-government-tightens-its-control-over-media.
Varol, Ozan O. 2014. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Social Science Research Network. Rochester, NY. April 24, 2014. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2428965.