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What went wrong with Poland’s democracy

Poland had been one of the most successful of the European states that embarked upon a democratic transformation after the fall of Communism. After joining the European Union, Poland has been held up as a model of a successful European democracy, with a reasonably consolidated rule-of-law based state and well-protected individual rights. And yet, this all radically changed in 2015 when a populist party PiS (Polish acronym for Law and Justice) won both the presidential and parliamentary elections. After its double victory the party began to dismantle all major checks and balances characteristic of the separation of powers in a democratic state. Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, its regular courts including the Supreme Court, its National Council of the Judiciary, as well as its electoral commissions, civil service and public media have all been subordinated to the executive – single-handedly controlled by the party’s leader. In the process, political rights such as the freedom of assembly have been restricted, and the party has captured the entire state apparatus. The speed and depth of anti-democratic changes took many observers by surprise.

Poland’s anti-constitutional breakdown triggers three major questions: what exactly has happened, why it has happened, and what are the prospects of a return to liberal democracy? These answers are formulated against the backdrop of current worldwide trends towards populism, authoritarianism, and what is sometimes called “illiberal democracy”. The Polish variant of “illiberal democracy” is an oxymoron. By undermining the separation of powers, the ruling party concentrates all power in one hand, thus rendering any democratic accountability illusory.

Poland’s anti-constitutional, populist backsliding uncovers a broader issue with manifestations in the United States and the Philippines, Italy and Hungary, Turkey and Russia. Each of those countries is different from others but all have some common features: populism everywhere is, in its aspirations if not in practice, anti-pluralist, anti-deliberative, and exclusionary.

The question about whether the European Union (and, to some extent, the Council of Europe) can and ought act in response to non-democratic changes in a member state such as Poland is a deeply contested issue  For my part, I do not have any problem in giving an emphatic “yes” answer. The EU must (both for practical and principled reasons) intervene more decisively in the case of Poland’s systemic and ongoing breach of EU values proclaimed in article 2 of the Treaty on European Union. These are foundational values: the rule of law, democracy, and the protection of human rights. Both the union and all member states must observe them, and the breach by Poland especially of the rule of law cannot go unnoticed, and without a sharp legal response. The EU cannot afford having one of its member state violate with impunity its values, voluntarily endorsed by member states.

Despite the grim subject matter, there is nothing inevitable about the decline of Polish democracy. Poland has the strong societal and political resources necessary to arrest and reverse the negative trends, and then unravel all the nefarious institutional changes brought about by PiS rule, difficult though it will be. There is still a vibrant and resilient civil society, there are strong even if rather ephemeral social protest movements, there is an independent body of commercial media, both electronic and print, and there are passionate debates in social media.

In the run-up to the parliamentary elections, which will take place this October (a precise date is not yet determined) these “democratic assets” may turn decisive to help the pro-democratic forces prevent the re-election of PiS. Otherwise, the future is very grim indeed.

Featured Image Credit: March of Freedom, Warsaw, Poland Photo by Kris Cro

Recent Comments

  1. Wide Boy

    Poland immediately started reneging on democracy in 1989, with proven Communist agent (evidence in his own handwriting) Lech Walesa agreeing to falsify the partially-free election results in 1989.
    The Communists set up a state within a state through maneuvers like the FOZZ scandal, when finance minister Balcerowicz oversaw 1/4 of the state budget being diverted to Panama. The funds were then used to set up a myriad of companies, including commercial media – so there would be highly-controlled media messages.
    Starting to get the message?
    The judiciary was largely led by one old Commie family – all of whom had different surnames. That worked pre-Internet.
    And all these lovely “Liberals” – surely they looked after the poor? Oh no! Poor trash … emigrate or die! Dickensian social security and no child benefit. Poor mothers were sterilized.
    Since these fascists were voted out, Big Business started to pay tax and poverty levels have been slashed. And Russian mafia activity has been slashed too – to the relief of the oil majors running petrol stations. Well-known conspiracy theorists!!

  2. David Brandt

    This echoes Trump populism:

    So goes Poland
    So goes the USA

  3. Wide Boy

    So, are Poland’s “Liberals” actually liberal in any meaningful way?
    Well, you can’t fault them on LGBT+ issues, which in the Polish context includes inciting violent attacks on Catholic Church staff and property. We’re talking beatings and knifings of priests. The warm-up (Jezdzewski) to Donald Tusk’s keynote address in the recent Euro-elections declared they could have no dialog with Catholic swine who love wallowing in their own muck.
    Cue thunderous applause, pat on the back from the Donald.
    I suppose Goebbels had his Liberal side too …

  4. Przemyslaw Winski

    This anti-Polish madness in the media has to stop. Poland is a free and perfectly democratic state. I really don’t understand what is this nonsense about. Please people, do not listen to this crap. Just book your holiday in Poland and see for yourself what a friendly, open and welcoming place it is.

  5. Lukasz

    What the author of the article failed or chose to omit, is the participation of Polish Catholic Church. PiS together with Church cooperate in the disintegration of democratic values in Poland. Hate speech, branding gay people as enemies of the state, pretty much encouraging to violence towards minorities, protecting pedophile priests, transfering public money to Rydzyk via various grants… and that is just tip of the iceberg. What is worst, is that’s just the beginning. PiS will undoubtedly win the next elections.

  6. Łukasz Sędzielowski

    The issue is that it’s all according to the democracy. Poland have terrible law and there were cases that the Constitution was not taken by courts as a supreme law. Changing badly working system with the support of majority of the citizens is not something you can call un-democratic. I voted for other party, but I don’t run around crying for help from EU because I wasn’t in the majority.

  7. Seb

    I cannot understand, why other countries can say, what is best for Poland. Polish people don’t like changes and don’t need all Western crap. Left side in Poland is dead for sure.

  8. Nico

    Dear Mr. Sadurski, It really looks like you are out of touch with what”’s going on In Poland in regards to a political landscape but how you can know what’s going on if live in Sidney, Australia, Poles decided that they don’t want neoliberal and antipolish politicians and overwhelmingly gave their votes to “populist” Law and Justice. Even more, election polls indicate that Law and Justice is going to win easily in the fall because they serve people.

  9. Desmond Byrne

    So many polish people who lived in the uk and
    went home would not
    Want Poland to end up with the same immigration levels as the uk and problems that go with it


    A typical BS comment by BS prof of BS UNIV.UE CENTER,rather ,typical BS POSTREGIME BANTUSTAN.BS readers will buy it.

  11. Bastian

    Bullshit. Book your next vacation in Poland and see by your own eyes how is here. We have beautiful and safe country nowadays. We work hard, because we were 50 years under Russian communist ocupation. WWII ended for us in 1993 when the last Russian soldier gone away. We have 3th GPD growth now, the 1st in Europe. That’s why the shadows of the communist barks like that. The moon doesn’t care for barking dogs. See by your own eyes.

  12. Janusz Przybysz

    Antisocial sociaty without emotional ties 😎plus fast deteriorating education😊 still, some nice people live there

  13. […] Sadurski, What went wrong with Poland’s democracy, […]

  14. Nie cenzurze!

    When the Establishment wins elections it is called democracy. When the Establishment loses democratic elections it is called lack of democracy…
    Until 2015 the Establishment (often post-Communist Establishment) controlled 95% of media, security services and judiciary. Law & Justice won despite the concerted efforts of both the public and private media outlets.
    Voters were fed up with the Establishment thieves, crooked privatizations, forcing foreign values on Poland, forcing Poles to pay for the Western European colonialism in Africa, etc.
    Don’t believe BBC/CNN/NYT and the above author.

  15. Luke Strange

    Anti Polish article written by a Pole. Just come back from Poland and this country has blossomed under PiS. It’s one big building site and people are optimistic. There is no way PO will be back in power. Under Liberal PO millions emigrated now it’s Poland that people immigrate to.

  16. […] Copying the “Budapest Model” of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary, PiS mounted a frontal attack on liberal democracy, which included weakening the independence of the judiciary and […]

  17. […] Copying the “Budapest Model” of the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, in Hungary, PiS mounted a frontal attack on liberal democracy, which included weakening the independence of the judiciary and […]

  18. […] Copying the “Budapest Model” of the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, in Hungary, PiS mounted a frontal attack on liberal democracy, which included weakening the independence of the judiciary and […]

  19. […] the “Budapest Model” of the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, in Hungary, PiS mounted a frontal attack on liberal democracy, which included weakening the independence of the judiciary and […]

  20. Wolność, równość, solidarność

    You are very optimistic about Polish society.

    SOMEONE voted for PiS.

    Those same someones are commenting now, hysterical about “anti-Polish propaganda” when the world turns its eyes to what their party is doing.

    These same people are now claiming the catholic church is being oppressed by LGBT people to excuse their mistreatment and the further legal protections constantly being issued to the money-hungry Church which has a stranglehold on our government

    NO to theocracy. NO to hypocrisy.

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