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Reversing the Road to Unfreedom: The Polish Elections are Finally Some Good News for Democracy

Those in America looking for a way out of the toxic Trumpian cycle should look to Poland as a starting point 

The Civic Coalition’s Leader Donald Tusk on election night in Warsaw on 15 October 2023. Photo: ZUMA Press Inc/Alamy

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Over the past few years, especially since the election of Donald Trump, there has been an increased interest in the ways in which a democratic system can crumble and ‘strongmen’ can take over. 

Many of these discussions have pointed to real life examples of how countries have descended into authoritarianism. Hungary is often cited as a key example of illiberalism. Other nations like Poland, Slovenia, Russia, and even the United States, also have seen their own turns toward autocracy.

Unfortunately, when analysing these countries, good news is often hard to find, as many of them continue to decline deeper into authoritarianism, as democratic systems are slowly whittled away. 

However, those seeking to reverse this trend finally got some positive news after the recent Polish elections. While the Law and Justice Party again received the most votes, opposition parties received enough votes to form a government. Turnout was 73%, in what some have called the most important election for Poland since voters rejected the continuation of communism in 1989. 

A centre-left coalition will take power for the first time since 2015, with Donald Tusk, the head of Poland’s largest liberal opposition grouping Civic Coalition (KO), a likely candidate for prime minister. Its next task, rolling back nearly a decade of system rigging, will not be easy.

Authoritarian Slide

The Law and Justice Party has been in power since 2015 and has overseen a steady decline in Poland’s democratic institutions.

Every year since 2015, the country’s democracy score has declined according to the NGO Freedom House. From 2017 to 2021, Poland saw an even bigger decline in its democracy score than the notoriously illiberal Hungary. 

A 2021 report from Freedom House noted the striking similarities by the two governments in taking power. 

“The ruling parties in Budapest and Warsaw have long been emulating each other in cracking down on judicial autonomy, independent media, the civic sector, and vulnerable minority populations,” the report said. “Recently, however, they have moved from attacking the liberal principles that underpin democracy to setting new norms themselves and openly spreading anti-democratic practices.”

The Law and Justice Party also took some cues from the Republican Party by dividing the electorate and demonising certain groups of people. Polish President Andrezj Duda was re-elected in 2020 after running on a campaign that demonised LGBTQ people and abortion. 

The country virtually banned all abortions in 2020, using these laws to go after women who have had medical care for issues such as miscarriages. Again, this is straight out of the Republican playbook.

“Polish authorities’ ruthless pursuit of people trying to get or provide basic healthcare can only be described as a witch-hunt,” Hillary Margolis, a senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, observes. “The Government is misusing police and courts to advance its anti-rights agenda, taking its abusive policies into private homes, hospital rooms, and doctors’ offices.”

And as usual, the Government has used its authority to crack down on the one institution that can hold those in power accountable: the media. The Polish Parliament passed a law that restricted media outlets from being owned by entities outside the European Economic Area. Using this pretext, the state-owned oil company Orlen bought up 20 of the 24 regional newspapers and employed more staff who were sympathetic to the Government. 

As a result, Poland fell to 66th in the World Press Freedom rankings in 2022. It moved up to 57th this year, the first time that its position has increased since the Law and Justice Party came to power. 

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Even though utility companies joined the propaganda blitz, putting pro-government messages directly on to people’s energy bills. 

Another strategy that will sound familiar to an American audience is the total capture of the judiciary. Since 2015, Law and Justice has dedicated itself to regaining control of the courts.

According to Freedom House, Law and Justice Leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has “built his political career on the assertion that Poland’s democratic transition after 1989 led to a shadowy post-communist ‘system’ that controls Polish institutions”.

This rhetoric is eerily similar to the current messaging from the Republican Party, which derides any court proceeding against Donald Trump as a “witch-hunt” by a shadowy “deep state”.

Freedom House goes on to explain, “the crisis began in late 2015 when President Duda refused to swear in five Tribunal judges appointed during the last sitting of the outgoing Parliament (Sejm) – despite the fact that he had no legal authority to do so”.

The roots of this takeover are nearly identical in tactics to the ones that Republicans used in 2016, when they refused to even give Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland a hearing.

While Law and Justice will no longer govern the country, these institutions will still be there to thwart attempts at progress, making the new opposition coalition’s job of restoring democracy to Poland, far from over. 

Next Steps

The task for Tusk will be tough, but he has an early opportunity to deliver for voters. He is set to go to Brussels next week and attempt to convince the European Union to unblock nearly €100 billion that had been frozen because of Poland’s attacks on the judiciary. If he can do so, it will be a key tangible victory for voters. 

But many problems still exist as this new coalition tries to undo eight years of damage. Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, noted that the new coalition will face divisions over social issues like abortion, along with economic problems. 

“The leaders of this new coalition will also face tough economic conditions, including low growth, high price inflation, and a debt problem made more complicated by its plans to keep some of the more generous social benefits offered by the outgoing populist government,” Bremmer wrote.

While the challenges will be tough, Poland now offers voters in Europe and the United States a path to reversing the road to unfreedom that so many far-right governments have put their countries on. 

Grzegorz Kwiatkowski, a member of the Polish art-rock band Trupa Trupa, summed things up well in an interview with Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a scholar of authoritarianism: Kwiatkowski said that the usual playbook of divisive and hateful rhetoric and demonisation of others did not work this time. Voters were able to see past it. 

Let that be a lesson for other countries, particularly the United States, where hateful rhetoric is likely to increase as the 2024 election cycle gets underway. Those in America looking for a way out of this toxic cycle, should look to Poland as a starting point. 

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