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Poland’s Potemkin Democracy



A core component of liberal democracy is that the opposition must have the right to field the candidate of its choice, giving it a fair chance to oust the government at the ballot box. In Poland, which has become one of Europe’s most important economic and military powers, that axiom is under attack.

At the end of May, the governing Law and Justice party instituted a commission to investigate Russian influence on Polish politics. Given the ways in which the Kremlin has tried to wield power over European political parties, including Germany’s Social Democrats and Italy’s Lega (formerly Northern League), a nonpartisan commission to investigate such links in Poland would certainly make sense. A body with the authority to propose formal charges, to be investigated by independent courts, for people who are suspected of breaking existing laws would be perfectly appropriate.

But this new commission is nothing of the sort. It violates the most basic democratic principles; its composition, exclusively of ruling-party members or loyalists, is wholly partisan; it is empowered to punish alleged culprits as it sees fit, turning the commission into prosecutor, judge, and jury, all in one. Perhaps most shockingly, the commission has the right to disbar anyone from public office for up to 10 years.

This last detail suggests the commission’s true purpose. With parliamentary elections coming up in the fall that are expected to be closely contested, the government appears to be using the commission as a cudgel against the leader of the country’s biggest opposition party, Donald Tusk, who was the prime minister from 2007 to 2014, and the president of the European Council from 2014 to 2019. At a minimum, Law and Justice seems set to use its hold over the commission to tarnish Tusk’s standing in the eyes of voters; many observers fear that it could go so far as to make it illegal for him to run.

Poland, in short, may be poised to turn into a Potemkin democracy, an empty simulacrum of genuine self-government. And that once again reveals the alarming brittleness of democracy, with even the most vaunted democratic success stories deeply vulnerable to authoritarian capture.


Poland has long been seen as one of the great success stories of the past 30-plus years. During the Cold War, when the country was effectively a satellite state of the Soviet Union, it maintained a crushingly authoritarian system and suffered from very low living standards, especially in rural areas. Today, Poland enjoys full sovereignty, a status that had largely eluded the country for three centuries. After Poland gained independence from the Warsaw Pact, it made great strides toward freedom and political stability, joining the European Union and affording its citizens expansive social and political rights.

Even more notable is the country’s economic transformation. One of few countries in the world to have enjoyed continuous economic growth for the past three decades, Poland has seen its GDP increase nearly tenfold since the end of Communist rule. Keir Starmer, the leader of the British Labour Party, recently made headlines by warning that Poland is on track to overtake the U.K. in GDP per capita by the end of the decade.

Although Poland has continued to grow richer and more influential, its political development was upended when Law and Justice swept into power in 2015. Under the guidance of Jarosław Kaczyński, the populist party immediately set out to undermine the rule of law.

Kaczyński placed loyalists on the constitutional court by legally dubious means and gave political appointees power over the judicial process. His party turned the state broadcaster into a tool of government propaganda, used public funds to purchase privately owned regional newspapers, and tried to force the owners of independent radio and television stations to sell their rightful possessions.

In other words, this commission is the culmination of democratic backsliding that has been under way for years. If the new body bars Tusk from running in the fall elections, this highly influential EU member state will no longer be a genuine democracy. That would drag the whole bloc into a crisis of legitimacy.

A significant facet of the developments in Poland, one with special resonance for the United States, suggests that the obvious explanations for the rise of authoritarian populism are at best incomplete—with major implications for any hopes of reversing the trend. Standard accounts of the ascendancy of authoritarian populism tend to focus on cultural change and economic stagnation. The debate has usually centered on which of these two factors is more important—but neither fits the Polish case especially well.

Take the economy. In a single generation, Poland has grown much more affluent. Admittedly, this newfound wealth has come with greater inequality; some rural areas have been left behind compared with the gleaming metropoles—and Law and Justice has expertly exploited the resulting resentments. But in some ways, the improvement of living standards has been most striking in the country’s poorer regions, where people now take for granted amenities such as indoor toilets, which many lacked some 35 years ago.


What’s more, support for Law and Justice is hardly limited to the poor or excluded; the party is also popular with social strata that have enjoyed breathtaking upward mobility. As with Donald Trump in the U.S., Law and Justice in Poland appeals to plenty of people who are doing very well.

The notion of a backlash against cultural change does not fit the facts so well either. In 1989, Poland was a deeply conservative and patriarchal country. Today, women enjoy greater equality and autonomy, and, especially in the cities, sexual minorities are a visible part of the country’s social fabric. Law and Justice has played up fear over “LGBT ideology” and used a rejection of secular urban elites as part of its electoral pitch—moves that have made the party popular among those who feel alienated from the country’s new culture, which is much more liberal and cosmopolitan than it once was. Poland’s transformation, however, has been so deep and rapid that such regressive messaging alone would not be enough to keep Law and Justice in power; the party has been able to win a series of elections only because its appeal extends well beyond that reactionary base.

Take the Catholic Church, which has long played a big political role in Poland. In the last years of Communist rule, Poland was one of the most Catholic countries in the world—a majority of the population attended Mass at least once a week. Now that number has fallen to about a quarter of the population. With the hold of the Church declining so rapidly, and its reputation in tatters after a string of sexual-abuse scandals, any explanation for the success of Law and Justice that relies simply on the theory of a backlash against cultural change is inadequate. Deeply devout voters now constitute too small a share of the electorate to keep Law and Justice in business. The same sort of change has affected other realms of Polish society. Attitudes toward gays and lesbians have, for example, dramatically improved, which means that homophobia cannot on its own account for the enduring appeal of Law and Justice.

The upshot should worry those who think that further cultural change will magically make the problem of populism disappear: Neither a greater secularization of Polish society nor a further liberalization of attitudes toward sexual minorities is sure to erode the party’s popularity.

All of these examples should be a warning for other democracies facing authoritarian-populist challenges, including the U.S. Some American pundits argue that populism’s potency derives mainly from the stagnation of living standards. Although that idea has some plausibility, the experience of Poland suggests that rapid economic growth and widespread prosperity do not necessarily reduce support for authoritarian populists.

The other main school of thought insists that the roots of populism lie primarily in cultural grievances. Politicians like Trump, the argument runs, are especially popular among voters who are whiter and older, so as the population diversifies, and members of Gen Z gradually replace Baby Boomers, support for such candidates is sure to dwindle. Here, too, the Polish experience is sobering: Even as Poland’s culture has become more liberal and progressive, the arc of its politics has not bent toward democracy. The young have, in virtually all major democracies, been more progressive than the old for decades—yet, in part because voters’ values change as they grow older, the moment when progressives consistently win commanding electoral majorities has failed to materialize.

Polish democracy is not dead. Hundreds of thousands of people marched in Warsaw over the weekend to defend democratic institutions and fight for their right to vote for the candidate of their choice. The upcoming elections look likely to be close, even if—or perhaps especially if—Tusk is disqualified from running.


To understand the developments in Poland—and similar ones in such countries as Turkey, India, and America—the simple binary of democracy and dictatorship will not do. Poland, like so many other countries, is evolving into an embattled system that political scientists have described by such names as “illiberal democracy” and “competitive authoritarian regime.” The Law and Justice government has skewed the odds, giving it a big advantage over its political rivals. And yet, elections remain meaningful for now, because the opposition still has a real shot at gaining power through the ballot box.

Poland was already a flawed democracy before the new commission was constituted. The opposition will retain some agency, even if Tusk is barred. But the Law and Justice government has taken yet another fateful step toward turning Poland into a Potemkin democracy.

Source: The Atlantic

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