Poland has now emerged as the latest European battleground in a contest between two models of democracy – liberal and illiberal. The overwhelming election victory in October of Jarosław Kaczyński’s far-right Law and Justice party (PiS) has led to something more akin to regime change than to a routine turnover of democratically elected governments. Prime Minister Beata Szydło’s new administration has purged the civil service (including public radio and television), packed the Constitutional Court with sympathizers, and weakened the Court’s capacity to strike down legislation.
In response, the European Commission has launched an official inquiry into potential violations of the EU’s rule-of-law standards. Moreover, Standard & Poor’s has, for the first time, downgraded Poland’s foreign currency rating – from A- to BBB+ – and warned of perhaps more cuts to come as it accuses the government of weakening “the independence and effectiveness of key institutions.” Growing doubts about the commitment of Poland’s new rulers to democracy has deepened the slump in Poland’s stock market and contributed to a depreciation of the Polish złoty.
Poland is the largest European Union country to embrace illiberalism; but it is not the first. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government has been at odds with the EU for several years over his open politicization of Hungarian institutions, while Robert Fico’s government in neighboring Slovakia has pursued a similar brand of raw majoritarianism.
What accounts for this contempt for democratic norms in some of Europe’s newest democracies? Throughout the 1990s, the promise of EU membership framed a process of root-and-branch political and economic reform in Central and Eastern Europe’s previously closed societies. And, following these countries’ accession to the Union in 2004, the gap between them and the old EU members seemed to be closing. Indeed, during the eight years of center-right rule that preceded the PiS’s victory, Poland emerged as a model European student, recording the strongest economic growth in the OECD.
Yet the EU’s post-communist members were bound to experience a crisis of liberal democracy sooner or later, owing to a fundamental legacy from their communist past: the absence of the concept of a loyal opposition – legitimate adversaries to be debated, rather than traitorous enemies to be eliminated. Unlike in the West, where, broadly, a left-right socioeconomic cleavage shapes politics, the main split in the post-communist democracies is between proponents of an open versus a closed society.
In a political order defined by the traditional left-right divide, people on both sides, however vociferously they may disagree, rarely question their opponents’ political legitimacy. Thanks to liberal constitutional frameworks – including judicial independence, the separation of powers, and freedom of speech – replacing, say, a left-leaning government with a right-leaning one is unlikely to transform the country or its political system.
But in a political system defined by the open-closed divide, the two sides disagree about which is which: It is always the other who seeks a closed society. The same dynamic that helped Vladimír Mečiar, Slovakia’s nationalist former prime minister, win elections in the 1990s helped former Czech President Václav Klaus, an economic arch-liberal, secure victories in the 2000s.
In practice, however, the open-closed cleavage enables those who actually do espouse illiberalism – including Orbán (who has explicitly called for an “illiberal state” based on the Chinese and Russian models) and Kaczyński (who, tellingly, rules from behind the scenes) – to dismantle the constitutional framework that permits a peaceful rotation of power. A single election can thus transform the entire political system, as appears to be the case in Hungary and now Poland.
The question is what drives voters to support the closed camp. In countries with a weak or long-interrupted tradition of liberal constitutionalism, an explosion of nationalism usually follows the establishment of democracy. The politics of identity prevails, and, unlike that of social welfare, it is not amenable to compromise. The result is a kind of permanent Kulturkampf, in which rigidly binary thinking gives rise to trumped-up claims and conspiracy theories.
Of course, post-communist countries are not alone in their vulnerability to illiberalism. Other factors – such as globalization, economic uncertainty, an influx of refugees, and security risks like terrorist attacks – can cause voters to turn against liberal democracy. All of these factors – not to mention confrontation over Ukraine with Russia, which is financing many of Europe’s far-right parties – are at play today in Europe. Even before the refugee crisis worsened sharply last year, avatars of the closed society – France’s National Front and the United Kingdom Independence Party – won elections to the European Parliament in two of the West’s ostensibly best-developed democracies.
The question now is how to stop this destructive trend from engulfing Europe? The answer is straightforward: cooperation and integration.
When countries fear a loss of sovereignty, whether because of globalization or an influx of refugees, their first instinct often is to turn inward, even if it means renouncing liberal principles and institutions. But no liberal democracy can survive for long without liberals. And no illiberal democracy can succeed to the extent that it closes itself off to cooperation.
The primary purpose of European integration at its inception was to safeguard the continent from war. Today, its main purpose is to protect democratic politics in the face of economic globalization.
A more integrated EU can play a central role in resolving existing crises, safeguarding against future ones, and reinforcing liberal norms. In fact, despite rising nationalism, a move toward increased integration appears to be in the cards. If Poland opposes that tendency, it will find itself on the outside, overwhelmed by economic forces it cannot control and Russia’s corrosive influence.
A new iron curtain in Europe, this time between liberal and illiberal democracies – is a grim prospect. Although Poland is not a regional leader, it does wield influence, owing to its large and healthy economy and its strategic role as a buffer between Russia and Western Europe. This is particularly important with respect to Ukraine, whose independence is viewed by Polish leaders as a precondition of Poland’s own.
But, given the developments in Hungary and elsewhere, European leaders must now draw a line in the sand in defense of Europe’s open society. Today, the EU is testing Poland, and Poland is testing the EU. Poland – and Europe – can win only if the EU does.