Home / Europe / Reversing Poland’s Illiberal Turn

Reversing Poland’s Illiberal Turn

14 October, 2023

by Oleksandra Zadesenets, Research Assistant

After the collapse of the Socialist Block and the emergence of new sovereign states on the world map, Poland was considered one of the most prosperous and rapidly developing democracies. Regardless of the extended period of being controlled by a Soviet puppet government and experiencing politico-economic isolation, the country managed to preserve the core of national consciousness, which helped to restore Polish statehood and embark on the path of democratic transformation.

The nationally oriented policy of Poland in the post-Soviet period and the substantial resistance to the Soviet-era elites, labour migration to European countries, alongside the access to the scientific and technical base of European universities and industries, served to attract capital into the economy. Poland started to integrate into the international community and became an intrinsic component of its cooperative structures. Poland aspired to strengthen international security, bring its interior affairs in order, and overcome the post-Socialist legacy that manifested itself in economic disaster and inflation, which reached 640 per cent and led to challenging social conditions. This resulted in the implementation of a set of radical internal reforms such as the reconstruction of the security apparatus, as well as lustration, public finance, education and transparency-building initiatives. These helped to facilitate membership of Western democratic institutions such as NATO and the EU, which themselves acted as agents to further and embed reform.

This holistic approach helped Poland to reshape its illiberal political post-communist system, qualitatively advance democratic values and institutions, stimulate economic growth and allow for huge diplomatic leaps. The democratic progress earned the high trust and endorsement of the European community to the extent that Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who served the country from 2007 to 2014, was elected as the president of the European Council.

However, 2010 was a milestone for Polish democracy: the tragic demise of much of the national elites, including President Lech Kaczyński, in a plane crash polarised society and spawned the urgent need for reinforcing national security and investigation capabilities, since the circumstances of the Smolensk catastrophe were ambiguous and unclear. The dissatisfaction with the new CP government and the support for the Law and Justice (PiS) party – renowned for conservatism and the opposition to liberal democracy – soared, bringing PiS to power anew in 2015.

It is important to emphasise that this party earned public favour and stably stayed afloat due to the implementation of successful welfare campaigns and comprehensive responses to the threats of those geopolitical times. Specifically, the PiS government introduced the welfare programme Family 500+, which provided long-term monetary benefit and systemic support for families with children, which in turn impacted positively on the budgets on households with children and considerably enhanced the circumstances of low-income families. Furthermore, PiS adopted a more protectionist economic stance assisting in the maintenance of a strong economy with the rise of GDP, wages and pensions.  As a result, the nation’s budget deficit decreased from 2.7 percent of GDP in 2015 to 0.4 percent in 2018, and the level of public debt fell from 51.3 percent to 48.9 percent.

On the background of the Russian war on Ukraine which commenced in 2014 and posed a direct threat to Polish national security, the PiS government strengthened the defence sector of the country and considerably contributed to the collective security within the NATO alliance. Poland’s defence spending has also risen dramatically, and in 2023 has hit 3.9% of GDP, almost twice the NATO 2% minimum target. The expansion of the defence industry included increased military spending and armament, placing an emphasis on missile and air defence systems, military infrastructure and modernisation of the Polish Armed Forces, including participation in joint NATO training deployments.

Speaking about the social factor and PiS government, it is crucial to underscore that Poland is one of the most religious countries in Europe. The PiS government started their campaign with the revival of nationalist, religious and conservative values, which coincided with the sentiments of the majority of voters and quickly conquered their favour.

Apart from effectively addressing social issues and flirting with populistic moods, the PiS government is credited for the most dramatic erosion of the democratic institutions of Poland in its modern history.  According to the Liberal Democracy Index, Poland transitioned to autocracy further  than any other country in the world over the last decade. Among European Union member countries, Poland, in 63rd place in the index, comes second only to Hungary, which is in the 89th position.

There are two sides of the same coin: amidst the successful stabilisation of social welfare and reinforcement of state security, Poland got closer to a regime model defined by scientists as a flawed and illiberal democracy, where authoritarian and democratic features coexist. Thus, the violation of the fundamental democratic checks-and-balances principle, reconstruction of the judiciary branch of government and capturing of the media, infringement of human rights and freedoms became the components directly associated with current Polish political affairs.

As Polish Ombudsman Adam Bodnar observed, ‘the legal environment in Poland is become more and more difficult to exercise political rights’. The PiS government is responsible for the weakening of institutions essential for human rights protection, including the transformation of the legislative branch in the dominant party’s favour. For example, the PiS government ignored rulings and later took control of appointments to the Constitutional Tribunal, effectively ending the independence of this institution.

Moreover, Polish domestic law witnessed a collision with the principles of international law, which led to the chain of cases before the European Court of Human Rights regarding the systematic appalling treatment of asylum-seekers by Polish border guards. More specifically, the ECHR Article 3 (prohibition of degrading and inhuman treatment), Article 34 (admissibility of individual applications to the ECtHR) and Article 4 of Protocol 4 (prohibition against the collective expulsion of aliens) were violated.

Above all, the restoration of conservative values and infringement on women’s rights in modern Poland has led to dramatic consequences. Women who were denied abortions by doctors in Poland are known to have died after the tribunal ruling that introduced a very narrow right for abortion. The rallies against the implementation of this law were severely suppressed by the police in 2016. This case explicitly showed that Poland had taken an inappropriate turn in the democratic transformations.

In addition, the independence of media is significantly struggling under the rule of ‘Law and Justice’. Pre-existing problems have been exacerbated in the run-up of the upcoming parliamentary elections, where much of the free press and independent journalism has transformed into a political campaign in support of the government. All media outlets that criticise and do not directly support the leading party face pressure. PiS filled the main state media outlets with their loyalists. The PiS government is criticised for monopolising their influence of the main public broadcasters, such as TVP (Telewizja Polska) and Polish Radio, which has hindered fair and unbiased media coverage, opened the window for propagandistic narratives and limited the freedom of speech.

The new parliamentary elections are about to take place on 15 October 2023. Examining the current poll results, where the right-wing ‘Law and Justice’ party notably outstrips the liberal party ‘Civic Platform’ of Donald Tusk, it is possible to suspect that the majority of Poles are indifferent to the infringement of civil freedoms since the high level of support of this party remains stable.

One should not forget that Poland still remains a democratic country. However, the consistent democratic backslide happening in Poland ultimately poses a threat to the EU because it hinders cooperation with the organisation in various areas, especially when it comes to the collision of international and domestic law and nationalistic tendencies, creating a democratic deficit which undermines the EU’s core values of peace and prosperity.  Thus, in case of the PiS party victory, all the members of the EU should take these risks under deeper consideration and start building a dialogue with the Polish government to address areas of concern. Beyond regular matters, there has also been an alarming change in tone in the government’s attitude to providing aid to Ukraine, with the PiS party threatening to decrease their support following the recent grain disputes. The security of Ukraine and its victory is a guarantee for long-lasting peace and security in Europe, which is why it is crucial to continue unhesitant arm supply to Kyiv.

Negotiations with the newly elected leaders, seeking compromise, and, if attainable, architecting the way out of democratic reverses should urgently take place once the results of the elections are announced. If a compromise with the new government can be found, and if the new leaders will be predisposed to the democratic advancement and eradication of authoritarian mechanisms, there should be room for internal institutional change. As proposed by scholar Wojciech Przybylski, the change should start with the decentralisation of the political system and the building of strong local governments. He argues that it will be a key counterweight to illiberal practices since it will obstruct the single-party effort to impose a monolithic narrative. In addition, the transparency of the Constitutional Court should be revised, and a middle ground between nationalistic and European values should be set. Following this, Poland will be capable of reversing the democratic backslide and moving back into the position of prosperous democratic government.

Image: Anti-government protests in Poland in June 2023 (Source: Bartek z Polski via CC BY-SA DEED)

About Oleksandra Zadesenets

Oleksandra Zadesenets is an undergraduate student at the University of Glasgow, where she is pursuing a degree in International Relations. During her recent internship with the School for Policy Analysis at NaUKMA, she co-authored an analytical article on the socio-cultural aspects of the transformational processes in Ukrainian society following the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, which was presented at a scientific conference. Oleksandra's research interests cover a broad range of issues that shape international landscape. She is particularly drawn to the constructivist theory of international relations, and her area of research interest encompasses democratic transformations in post-Soviet countries, competitive authoritarian regimes, post-Cold War international affairs, closed autocracies, nationalist and dissident movements, human rights and human security, R2P, cultural diplomacy, war making and peace making.