The End of Democracy in Poland

After a narrow victory in presidential elections on Sunday, the populist government has three more years to destroy Polish democracy. It will probably succeed.

For three decades, Poland has been the biggest democratic success story of the post-communist world.

While many other fledgling democracies were captured by dictators, got mired in corruption, or suffered prolonged economic stagnation, the biggest country in Central Europe remained best in class. Over the course of thirty years, its economy grew almost tenfold. And while extremists always enjoyed a loud say in Poland’s raucous public sphere, the government changed hands through free and fair elections on multiple occasions. By the early 2010s, political scientists were convinced that the country’s democratic system had become “consolidated.”

But with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that Poland’s status as a consolidated democracy was a naïve illusion. The country’s divisions were more dangerous, and the population’s attachment to the values of liberal democracy more tenuous, than scholars realized. And so Poland has, since the election of a populist government under the leadership of Jarosław Kaczyński five short years ago, gone from the most prominent case study of the benefits of liberal democracy to the most important exemplar of its perennial brittleness.

Sadly, the outcome of yesterday’s elections raises the threat to Polish democracy to an even higher level. After a nasty and bigoted campaign, Andrzej Duda managed to win reelection as the country’s president by the narrowest of margins. This leaves the Law and Justice party, which already enjoyed a parliamentary majority, free to continue its attacks on the media and the independence of the judiciary. With legislative elections that might put a real check on the government’s power over three years away, Kaczyński and his allies are likely to succeed in destroying Polish democracy.

The Playbook of the Elected Autocrat

The Polish government stands for many things I abhor. In the last weeks of the campaign, Duda warned that homosexuals were seeking to corrupt Poland’s children, and claimed that his opponent would do the bidding of Jews out to take revenge on the Polish nation.

But what the shameful propagandists of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and Jarosław Kaczyński’s Poland—who sadly include many supposedly serious American conservatives, from Patrick Deneen to Michael Brendan Dougherty—miss is that this is not what makes the government antidemocratic.

In a liberal democracy, we have to tolerate profound disagreements over values, even when we are firmly convinced that our adversaries are bigots. But what we cannot tolerate is attacks on the institutions that are supposed to ensure a fair chance of displacing the government when the next elections roll around.

Despite the willful blindness of people like Deneen and Dougherty, this is precisely the principle that Poland’s government has systematically broken. As the Rutgers political scientist R. Daniel Kelemen has pointed out, elected autocrats tend to follow six steps: win elections; capture referees, such as courts and other independent bodies; attack or seize control of the media; demonize and undermine the opposition; change the rules of the game; and win new elections that are no longer free.

Even before yesterday’s vote, the Polish government was well on its way towards accomplishing these goals. When Law and Justice swept to power, the party promised cultural restraint and economic largesse. But while it did pass a popular child benefit scheme, it also set about polarizing society and punishing adversaries.

The first order of business was a large-scale attack on the independence of the judiciary. As soon as it was in control, Law and Justice curbed the power of the Constitutional Tribunal; changed the composition of the Supreme Court, filling it with partisan loyalists; abolished the independence of the body that nominates lower-court judges; founded a parallel court system to oversee elections; and forbade judges from criticizing government policy. According to the latest country report by Freedom House, the country’s judiciary is no longer independent.

The second order of business was an equally effective attack on the country’s public broadcaster, Telewizja Polska (TVP). Like the BBC in the United Kingdom, the network is meant to strive for political neutrality. Instead, the Law and Justice government transformed an admittedly flawed institution into a shameless outlet for racist and homophobic propaganda that makes Fox News look like the New York Review of Books.

Its control over public television has allowed Law and Justice to demonize the opposition with abandon. Over the last weeks of the campaign, TVP variously accused Duda’s challenger, Rafał Trzaskowski, of planning to sell Poland out to Jews, Germans, or the LGBTQ lobby. As the supposedly neutral presenter of a primetime news show intoned a few weeks before the first round of the elections: “Experts have no doubt [that] the stream of money that currently flows from the state budget into the pockets of Polish families will dry up if Trzaskowski, after his possible victory in the presidential election, will seek to satisfy Jewish demands.”

Now that the government’s power is secured for another three years, the fear that the government will further undermine free speech and independent institutions is not a hostile assumption: it is a promise the government itself repeatedly made over the course of the campaign. The most immediate step will likely be to capture those remaining newspapers and television channels that are free to criticize the government. Since many of them are owed by companies based outside the country, the government has vowed to “re-Polonize the media.”

In the final step towards authoritarianism, Kelemen warns, the government is likely to start attacking the integrity of the electoral system itself. The opportunities to do so are many: Law and Justice could try to get the electoral commission under tight control, make it harder for Poles who live abroad to participate in democratic elections, and take away powers from big city mayors, who tend to belong to the opposition party.

In The People vs Democracy, I warned that opponents of populism usually have only one chance to vote aspiring autocrats out of office. In their first four or five years in power, populist governments tend to skew the playing field in a dangerous way, but don’t usually succeed in completely capturing independent institutions such as electoral commissions. If they have another four or five years at their disposal, the takeover of the political system becomes complete.

I fear that this is the fate that will now befall Poland. Yesterday’s elections, though no longer fair, were largely free. There is no guarantee that this will still be true when Law and Justice next has to face the electorate.

Poland’s Lesson for Other Countries Ruled By Populists

Scholars are always tempted to believe that events that contemporaries failed to predict had nevertheless been predestined to happen all along. Nobody saw the French Revolution coming, for example, and yet successive generations of historians have triumphantly identified its deep and incontrovertible causes. (Needless to say, each successive generation of historians has identified different deep and incontrovertible causes.)

But the truth is that history is full of critical junctures in which countries and societies are set on divergent paths because of small, contingent factors. The election in Poland was one of these junctures. With the country deeply divided between west and east, young and old, urban and rural, Duda’s margin of victory was extremely close. A slightly different set of campaign tactics, a heavy storm over the country’s eastern part, or simply a more independent media could very well have made a decisive difference to the outcome.

These events did not materialize, however, and so Poland has now set out on the path towards dictatorship. Over the next three years, demographic changes are likely to favor the opposition. But by the time the precarious balance of public opinion shifts against the government, the vote is no longer likely to be either free or fair.

Circumstance has conspired against Polish democracy. Whether the structural factors that favor the opponents of authoritarian populism can overcome the tremendous power now enjoyed by the government is, at best, an open question. Anyone who is doubtful about the urgency of voting out authoritarian populists in other countries—from Brazil to the United States—before they can consolidate their hold on power would do very well to take heed.