Poland Democratic Erosion by Trevor Wolff @ University of California, Los Angeles
In December 2017, Polish president Andrzej Duda, “signed sweeping legislation…to overhaul the country’s judicial system”. This statement alone is an alarming indication of democratic erosion. Although Poland was once seen as a beacon of hope for Western integration, the government’s recent decisions point to a much darker reality. This shift suggests the surgical evolution towards what Scheppele calls a “Frankenstate” democracy. The executive aggrandizement of this government will only further erode any shred of democracy seen in Poland today. Put simply, the state of Polish government hints at what Norris claims “pose[s] the gravest risk”, which is “populist authoritarian forces threatening to dismantle core values in liberal democracy”.
At the 2015 Polish election, people leaned toward a party that promised drastic change. They were fed up with uneven wealth. Using this grievance, the Polish Law and Justice Party promised change—to toss out what the people considered a self-serving elite that had misruled the country. Initially, Poland appeared democratic because it held a public election. In fact, a party with the people’s interests in mind and a public election make up different checklist items for democracy. However, following its election, the government has been taking control of the courts as a means of cementing its power, all while still claiming the name of democracy—which fits the definition of Scheppele’s Frankenstate.
Recently, the Polish government has done a number of things to move Poland towards the eastern end of the political spectrum. First, the government has put an animal rights bill before Parliament that would effectively ban the kosher slaughter of meat for religious Jews in the country and for export. This would infringe upon freedoms for the Jewish minority in the country.
Next, Poland’s president signed a legislation to overhaul the country’s judicial system. The new laws will put the Polish courts under the control of the right-wing governing party. This legislation in effect will be shifting the government towards authoritarianism. By signing the legislation, President Andrzej Duda ignored a formal warning received only hours earlier by the European Union, which stated that the legislation is a “serious breach” of root values like the rule of law. Unlike the political coups of the past, this form of political aggrandizement is slower and holds the façade of democracy. After all, it was not a military takeover that the country saw; this was legislation passed by a publically elected figure and by members of a government that the people chose. Although they were once seen as a symbol for the successful integration of former Eastern Bloc countries into the West, Poland is now backsliding toward right-wing populism and away from core values like pluralism.
However, the most surprising action by the government was Poland’s senior senator, Stanislaw Karczewski, sending out a statement telling Poles worldwide to, “…document any ‘slander’ of their nation and report it.” This is a bold move by the government because many people view this as borderline dictatorship. Such documentation is only a grey area away from outright censorship, which is the hallmark of dictatorships. The European Union feels alarmed by these actions because Poland is failing to uphold the democratic norms it agreed to upon joining the union in 2004. The harbingering of power through legislative means offers it a legitimate appearance all while limiting checks and balances.
Most imminently, such documentation will most likely lead to unlawful government intervention with freedoms such as that of press and speech. In turn this will most likely involve hampering media access, such as limiting what people can say or report. These actions relate back to democratic erosion because the government is essentially taking away rights and gaining power in a legal manner. Executive aggrandizement is seen in Poland because it, “…takes place precisely where a majority that supports it is already taking root.” This means that a large portion of the Polish government is in support of the government taking power and rights away from the citizens. Unfortunately, these patterns of political aggrandizement will most likely result in strategic election manipulation. This Frankenstate, which uses democratic means to push for an authoritarian agenda, will remain in a cycle; the president, now harnessing legislative power, can democratically pass laws for further personal/political gains.
One of the more blatant decisions made by the current government to stray from its attempts at democracy was seen in the government’s interference with the country’s constitutional tribunal. This is first seen when Andrzej Duda refused to swear in the judges who were appointed by the previous government. Instead, he appointed five judges of his own choice, three of whom were ruled unconstitutional. Following this, eight pieces of legislation were passed that, “appear designed to minimize the ability of the court to hold the government to account.” These laws also served to maximize the influence of the government’s own appointees.
These decisions, along with many other have led to the European Union threatening to toss Poland out if reforms are not made. However, it is unclear whether such threats will have enough impact on the current Polish government to make it want to change its ways or if this will simply further isolate a country already at the tipping point of democracy and authoritarianism/pluralism. As Bermeo states in a rather unhelpful but optimistic manner, “more systematic thinking about how to cope with backsliding will make [democracies] even better”.