Poland: Eastern Europe’s Trendsetter? by Justin Van Beurden @ University of California, Los Angeles
Once viewed as a source of inspiration for countries transitioning to democracy, Poland now appears as if it is representative of another political trend in Eastern Europe: democratic backsliding. Poland, along with Hungary and other countries in the region, is experiencing a wave of right-wing populism that is threatening its only recently established democratic institutions. In Poland, this shift from liberal democracy toward authoritarianism has manifested itself in the form of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) which won both the Presidential and Parliamentary elections in 2015. Since taking power, PiS has taken a multitude of actions directly aimed at scaling back democratic checks and balances causing concerned reactions from not only Polish citizens but also the European Union.
Perhaps the most alarming evidence for backsliding has been PiS’s nearly constant assault on Poland’s judicial system. Starting just weeks after taking power, the Law and Justice party has sought to eliminate a critical democratic check on its power and despite multiple protests within the country and warnings from the international community, PiS is still committed to turning the Polish judicial system into a partisan political weapon. In a bill passed at the end of 2017, PiS was able to assume control of the body that makes judicial appointments as well as create a new judicial mechanism allowing for the reopening of any court case since 1997. These changes, coupled with the prior stacking of Poland’s Constitutional Court effectively give PiS complete control of the judicial branch. With judicial independence now in question (if not abandoned), it appears as if the Law and Justice has successfully consolidated power across all branches of government.
Another telltale symptom of democratic backsliding caused by PiS is partisan control of the election process. In January, PiS proposed a law that would alter the manner in which officials for the Polish National Election Commission are nominated. This seemingly innocuous law would allow the Sejm (the lower Polish parliamentary house) to have greater control over nomination as opposed to former members of top-level courts. Although this change may appear democratic on its surface, it actually serves to help PiS deconsolidate democracy, contributing to what Kim Scheppele refers to as a “Frankenstate” where seemingly healthy laws combine to form an undemocratic regime. In this case, the sinister reality is that since PiS controls a majority of the Sejm the new law would essentially grant the party control over who is on the election commission. Clearly, this would be hugely problematic for the integrity of future elections and signifies a regression toward the corrupt elections seen in communist-authoritarian regimes.
A country’s media has a critical role in how citizens view and react to the actions of its government. It should therefore come as no surprise that the Law and Justice Party has been attempting to gain more control over the media since taking control in 2015. In fairness to PiS, it is common practice in Poland for a newly victorious government to appoint it own members as the heads of media and communication, but PiS was particularly aggressive about the process. One PiS legislator remarked that the duty of the press was “creating a media shield for the Polish national interest”, hinting at the desire for more press censorship in Poland. Furthermore, PiS recently attempted to pass laws limiting the level of foreign-owned media in Poland potentially granting more authority to the state-owned media. Given the authoritative changes that have already occurred within the government, it appears as if free press is one of the few remaining democratic checks in Poland. Only time will tell if it will survive.
A recent alliance with Hungary and its right-wing leadership poses a significant threat to the EU and its goals of promoting democratic values. The increasingly cozy relationship between the two countries is legitimizing the viability of populist rule, Euroscepticism, and anti-immigration policies. Combined with Italy’s recent election results, it is fair to say a dangerous movement is developing throughout Europe and Brussels is struggling to react. Since the Law and Justice Party took power, there have been multiple instances where the EU has considered invoking Article 7 against Poland but this option is now essentially off the table since Hungary will prevent the unanimous vote required to activate Article 7 from passing. If the new Italian government chooses to ally with this populist coalition, it is likely that the European Union will be under immense pressure to take dramatic action against these anti-democratic forces.
Poland’s Law and Justice Party checks all the boxes for what constitutes executive aggrandizement. As soon as it took power after the 2015 elections, Poland’s democratic institutions have been under siege. PiS has been systematically chipping away at all political obstacles through means that are technically legal, but are markedly undemocratic. Furthermore, PiS has been able to utilize populism in order to generate huge momentum for its authoritarian goals. By highlighting corruption, undermining the media, and stirring up fear of the refugee crisis, the Law and Justice Party was able to capture the hearts and minds of many Polish people. According to Pippa Norris, these actions constitute the greatest behavioral threat to democracy.
It is clear that Polish democracy is severely endangered. In order to rebuild its democratic institutions, it is likely that Poland will need assistance from outside actors. Unfortunately, the EU is struggling greatly in attempting to manage authoritarian populist governments and there is no clear solution in sight. For the time being, it feels like all that can be done is to wait and see if Poland again becomes a political trendsetter for Central and Eastern Europe.