Democracy in Poland?


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October 30, 2019

Democracy in Poland?

From Authoritarian Populism to Populist Authoritarianism

Step by step for four years, Poland’s ruling party, the Law and Justice Party (PiS), has been dismantling democracy. Starting almost immediately after it came to power with the assault on the independence of the Constitutional Tribunal in December 2015, a fully consolidated democracy has been deconsolidating. Poland, thus, follows the pattern observed by Zoltán Gábor Szűcs, in his recent post on Hungary, with the important difference: in Poland, the deconsolidation is proceeding much more rapidly.

The intensity and consistency of the PiS attack on democratic institutions came as a surprise to all but the harshest critics of the party. The experience of Kaczynski’s party’s first stint in government from 2005-2007 – when the authoritarian tendencies of PiS were effectively checked by the courts, independent media, civil society organizations, and ultimately by the citizens that voted them out of office – had largely faded away after eight years of boringly stable rule by the center-right Civic Platform party . When Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s most influential liberal daily, published an editorial warning that democracy itself was at stake in the 2015 parliamentary elections, it was ridiculed by a large part of the liberal commentariat as fear-mongering and political partisanship unworthy of a serious newspaper. Few detractors later admitted that the warning was correct, even when Gazeta reprinted their editorial verbatim after two years of democratic backsliding from PiS.

PiS as an Authoritarian-Populist Party

In generic terms, populism may be understood through the definition Anton Pelinka has given of it: “a general protest against the checks and balances introduced to prevent ‘the people’s’ direct rule.’” This definition captures the essential link between populism (the claim to exclusively represent the “will of the people”) and authoritarianism (the dismantling or weakening of institutions that limit the power of elected leaders).

The key democratic institutions weakened by such authoritarianism include not only an independent judiciary, constitutional courts, and independent ombudspersons, but also an independent media, civil society organizations, and local governments. Any organization, institution, or group of individuals can be labelled by populists as “the enemy of the people” if and when it stands in the way of the “will of the people,” which (in populist rhetoric) is the will of the parliamentary majority, a leader elected in direct elections, or the result of a referendum.

Majoritarianism, the idea of the unrestricted rule of the majority (or the “will of the sovereign” as PiS politicians like to call it these days), thus seems to be crucial to understanding how populism in power works. The rule of law is usually the first casualty of populist rule, precisely because, in liberal democracies, the judiciary is conceived as the third branch of government, designed to limit both the executive and legislative branches. This limitation is often felt be an insult to the populist mindset for which “ there are more important things than the law.

Economic Discontent and Cultural Backlash

Any extensive debate on the root causes of the global upsurge of populism must take account of the relative importance of economic and cultural explanations for populism’s enduring popularity among voters in many consolidated democracies. A number of researchers claim that the rise of authoritarian populism is a response to growing social inequality and – more generally – to the neoliberal “Washington consensus,” which dominated government policies after 1989 and resulted in the financial and economic crisis of 2008.

What makes this theory plausible is that populism often draws its support from the less affluent and less educated social groups, especially men, whose economic position has become precarious in a globalized, post-industrial economy. But this claim has been forcefully contradicted by Pippa Norris and Roland F. Inglehart, who argued that “the rise of populist parties reflects, above all, a reaction against a wide range of rapid cultural changes that seem to be eroding the basic values and customs of Western societies.”

As I have argued elsewhere in my analysis of the causes of support for populism in Poland, I tend to agree with the approach of Norris and Inglehart. This is not to say that I refuse to see the role of economic discontent (especially among young voters) as a contributing factor to PiS electoral victories, or that I neglect the role of social transfers and overall continued strong economic growth in explaining the enduring support for PiS in Poland. Moreover, I believe that the debate on economic and cultural factors causing the current democratic predicament is crucial for the successful re-consolidation of the political and intellectual opposition to populist authoritarianism. Nevertheless, I find that focusing on economic factors in our understanding of the upsurge of authoritarian populism can be dangerous as it distracts us from addressing its deeply rooted cultural causes, such as xenophobia and sexism.

The Anger Industry and the Politics of Parallel Reality

There is, however, the third factor, besides economic anxiety and cultural backlash, which made possible the upsurge of support for authoritarian populism: the revolution in social communication and the corresponding rise of “alternative,” internet-based, media. Populists, in Poland and elsewhere, have been most effective in turning social media as well as using the crisis of the so-called traditional media, to their advantage, while the left and liberals have largely been left behind this fundamental change, mainly because of their refusal to give simple answers to complex social questions. In Poland, Kaczynski’s party’s electoral victories would not have been possible without the creation of a highly effective “anger industry,” which systematically fueled and amplified the discontent of both individuals and social groups. Right-wing media, both traditional and internet-based, contributed to what I would call a “politics of parallel reality.”

Perhaps the best illustration of this form of politics is PiS’s 2015 campaign slogan: “Poland in ruins.” This slogan gathered real and imagined indignation at alleged economic mismanagement, at social injustices, and at political malpractices while simultaneously side-lining both experts and moderate political voices by labeling them agents of the intolerable status quo. It was, in fact, these same communication channels which were used to create moral panic related to the advances of what conservatives have called “gender ideology” and, later on, to the prospect of Poland’s receiving a limited number of refugees under the EU quota system. In the 2019 European and national elections, PiS successfully used this strategy, targeting “LGBT ideology” as a mortal threat to children, “traditional family” and national identity.

Asymmetric Polarization and its Consequences

Populists such as Kaczynski’s PiS party aim to destroy political consensus around key societal issues and replace it with deep, multi-polar, polarization. Such polarization is not just a pre-condition for the rise of populism; it is an instrument used to rally supporters and – perhaps even more importantly – to delegitimize, divide, and weaken the opposition. As Joanna Fomina put it in her insightful study of the polarization in Polish politics and political culture:

The political polarization in Poland is asymmetric and populist. There is a visible asymmetry between the two rival camps: whereas the PiS camp is ideologically cohesive, tightly knit, and politically mobilized, the opposition is fragmented and mobilizes primarily in reaction to the government’s policies and rhetoric.

The asymmetric polarization of Polish society refers to the populist concept of “true Poles” and “treacherous liberal elites.” The former is ethnically Polish, Catholic, heterosexual, and, most importantly, supporters of the ruling party. Ruling party propaganda consistently uses nativism, sexism, and homophobia as instruments for what is called the “redistribution of dignity.” Attacking “the elites” and “political correctness,” pro-government media tell their followers not only that they need not be ashamed of their xenophobic or homophobic prejudice but, on the contrary, that these feelings are the cornerstone of their national and Christian identity; something to wear with pride as their “patriotic duty.”

The so-called “ politics of historical memory ” is, therefore, crucial to the populist project of polarizing Polish society. During its four years in power, PiS has invested in remaking existing institutions (such as the Institute for National Memory ) and building new institutions that would propagate the “ only correct” concept of national identity. One of the most dangerous consequences of this ideology is the mainstreaming of both far-right ideas and movements, some of which are openly fascist or promote Kremlin-sponsored propaganda – a tactic I have described elsewhere. In fact, in recent months, new compelling evidence has come up indicating the participation of the Kremlin’s security services in the so-called recording scandal, which nearly toppled the Civic Platform government and paved the way to PiS’s victory in 2015.

Social research clearly indicates that the populist claim of a new political consensus, shared by a supermajority, and built around a powerfully communicated, a new sense of collective national identity, is blatantly false. Not only is a society more pluralistic and complex in terms of their values than the tired cliché of ‘conservative Polish society’ indicates; its values are quickly changing, and a large section of the society adheres to both open and closed values.

Landscape after the Battle: Polish Democracy After October 13th Parliamentary Election 

The results of recent parliamentary elections mean that the future of democracy in Poland hangs in the balance. Kaczyński’s party came first and will have the same majority of seats (235 out of 460) as it won in 2015. It will allow the party to form the government, have its own Speaker of the lower chamber and legislate in the same majoritarian fashion as it did in the first term of parliament. Still, the party has come far below the constitutional majority (307), and even the majority needed to overturn presidential vetoes (276). This latter factor may be important because of the forthcoming presidential elections in 2020.

The highest ever (except for the breakthrough 1989 elections) electoral turnout allowed PiS to gain record-high support of 8 million voters. At the same time, the democratic opposition together gained almost 9 million votes. However, due to the fact that the opposition entered the election campaign divided into three different political platforms, it will have just have 213 seats under the electoral system awarding the biggest winner. On the other hand, the opposition managed to agree on common candidates to the Senate (the less powerful upper chamber), which produced a narrow victory of 51 to 49. If the majority holds (Kaczynski’s envoys are working hard to persuade some newly elected Senators to cross over), it will mean that the opposition will be able to slow down the legislative process and have more impact on the agenda.

It also should be noted that the left will again have its parliamentary representation after four years in the wilderness, albeit rather small, with just 40 seats. What is perhaps even more important is the fact that a number of young, articulate, and idealistic MPs will enter this parliament (some of them also from the Civic Coalition platform). Both developments bode well for the prospects of more progressive politics in Poland.

At the same time, for the first time since 1989, there will be a parliamentary representation of the far-right in the Polish parliament. Openly anti-Semitic, pro-Russian, and ultra-conservative all-male Confederation caucus (11 MPs) will provide PiS with some additional votes on many issues but at the same time put pressure on the ruling party and push it towards more radical policies, e.g., on abortion.

While large social transfers have undoubtedly helped PiS to maintain and even increase its support basis, the elections themselves were only partly democratic: free but not fair. This is mainly because of the unprecedented use of state resources to prop up the campaign of the ruling party, which clearly exceeded campaign finance limits. The most egregious example of this was the use of the public media, which under PiS became a tool of government propaganda. Another important factor was the vocal support of the powerful and influential Catholic church.

However, the opposition has failed to make full use of its many existing assets, including strong support in urban areas and control of many local governments, as well as dynamic civic organizations and a critical media. Lack of positive vision and decisive leadership were often pointed out as key problems of the biggest opposition group, the Civic Coalition, which in result failed to benefit from higher voters mobilization and turnout significantly.

The opposition also failed to fully benefit from the PiS government’s poor track record in healthcare and other public services, which are plagued by underfunding, cronyism, and incompetence and are now in a state of almost permanent crisis. Neither did it manage to speak clearly about the abuses of power under this government, including a string of corruption scandals. Although the citizens are concerned about this state of affairs (especially healthcare), the opposition still needs to capitalize on these concerns by meaningfully engaging with these pressing societal issues.

Conclusions: resisting the slide towards populist authoritarianism

After four years of populism in power, Kaczynski and his party have managed to take control of and to overhaul key democratic institutions. In so doing, they have laid the foundations for a one-party authoritarian state. Using the instruments of state power (public media, pro-PiS NGOs, Internet troll factories, etc.), the PiS government has managed to re-consolidate its voting base. The 2019 European and national elections show that the type of populist mobilization remains even more effective today than it was in 2015. But this process is incomplete; both the Polish opposition and an organized civil society can still stop – or at least slow – the deconsolidation of democracy and the subsequent consolidation of authoritarianism.

Political polarization has become so entrenched and multi-dimensional that it makes it virtually impossible to conduct informed and meaningful dialogue with representatives of the party in power. At the same time, conducting a vigorous debate between different groups and factions of the opposition has never been more important. This is why I strongly endorse Jeffrey C. Goldfarb’s assertion that defeating populist authoritarianism “requires a democratic opposition in which differences are addressed through a political contest, compromise, and collaboration, not through ideological assertions and judgments.”

At the present moment, I see two such ideological/political threats that can tear the opposition apart. On the center-right, there is a dangerous temptation to use the reactionary appeal of populist propaganda to capture part of its electorate. At the same, for part of the left, the tendency to perceive right-wing populism as an ally against the liberal status quo remains.

What Polish democratic opposition needs, however, is to resist these temptations and instead enter into a sustained debate between a democratic left and right, a debate that would critically examine both fallacies. At the same time, such dialogues should aim to establish the opposition’s commitment to the key challenge: stopping Poland’s democratic backslide and rebuilding its democratic institutions while reflecting political pluralism and other key democratic rights and values.

Poland’s democracy is under grave threat, but it is not yet lost. The electoral victory of the democratic opposition, if and when it comes, will be only the beginning of the reconsolidation process, particularly because the new government will face immense challenges from a politicized judiciary, media, and security services. Reconsolidating Polish democracy through the democratic practices of debate and genuine civic engagement must be the Polish opposition’s highest priority both today and in the foreseeable future.

Jacek Kucharczyk is the president of The Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw, Poland.


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