Amid huge demonstrations against the populist government, buffeted by legal challenges, the stakes could not be higher.
In 2015, the populist Law and Justice party (PiS) won elections in Poland and put together a majority coalition. The national-conservative government made no secret of the fact that its main intention was to rebuild the state according to the model devised by the PiS leader, Jarosław Kaczyński. It soon launched a revolution to change not only the institutional foundations of Polish democracy but also its entire Weltanschauung.
Systemic ‘reforms’ pursued included packing courts via politicised judicial appointments and merging the post of minister of justice with that of prosecutor general. The Constitutional Tribunal was bent to political will and is now hardly fulfilling its tasks. The independence of judges was compromised via introducing a disciplinary chamber into the Supreme Court (this was nicknamed the ‘muzzle’ law).
On the ideological front came attacks on the rights of women and LBGT+ individuals, and harsh anti-immigration rhetoric. Abortion was technically banned and a fence was built at the Polish-Belarusian border to stop non-European refugees from entering.
The freedom of the media, as well as the independence of scientific debate, have been under constant fire. The public broadcaster became a state propaganda machine, while academic research is punished if it delivers results unfavourable to the minister of education—such as in gender studies or Holocaust research (where any suggestion of any complicity with the Nazi regime is condemned).
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Far from capitulating
As the World Justice Project and Freedom House report, from a structural and institutional point of view Polish democracy has since been significantly weakened. When democratic attitudes are however calibrated, Polish society is far from capitulating.
Marches against the violations of the constitution and the ban on abortion and, most recently, the rally on June 4th in support of the opposition show that the fight is not over. The emergence of independent media outlets and self-help initiatives, as well as growing political engagement, suggest that although the state has become more authoritarian, the practice of democracy and active citizenship is also on the rise.
Unfortunately, however, as in many other countries, there is also increasing polarisation and radicalisation in Poland. The ‘rally round the flag’ effect of political scandals and the diminishing civility of public discourse pose a great threat to social cohesion, leaving society vulnerable to manipulation and tribalism.
Biased messaging is brought into the mainstream by the government-controlled public media. This does nothing to improve tolerance in public debate, which often takes on Eurosceptic and anti-German tones or becomes reduced to personal attacks. On top of that, as a close ally of Ukraine Poland is exposed to malign influence from the Kremlin, only augmenting domestic rows.
Polling conducted straight after the latest huge rally in Warsaw suggests that the opposition could build a majority coalition after elections scheduled for the autumn. Party preferences reveal however two entrenched camps, with fierce competition between the governing national conservatives and their liberal-conservative adversaries. The left survives just above the election threshold. The only winner in this atmosphere of perpetual crisis is the far right, although it has also yet to break through, oscillating around a maximum of 10 per cent.
After eight years, there is growing fatigue in society with the government led by the PiS. The coalition also seems to have lost its grip in certain policy areas and has been plagued with scandals.
During the pandemic, public money was squandered on shady purchases of uncertified medical equipment, as well as on a presidential election by postal vote which never took place. Polish farmers, an important voter group for the PiS, organised massive protests this spring against the mismanagement of imports of Ukrainian grain into the European Union and the poor advice they had received from the minister of agriculture, which led to massive losses. Recently, a national-security scandal dominated the media, when a Russian missile was accidentally discovered in a forest five months after it had been fired—not a good start for the election campaign.
Rule of law
On top of that, there is the continuing clash between Poland and the EU over the rule of law. Not only has this resulted in the freezing of much-needed funds from the Recovery and Resilience Facility, as foreseen by the newly introduced conditionality mechanism. The European Commission has learnt its lesson and now reacts without hesitation to repeated breaches of EU standards.
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Within in the past week, the Court of Justice of the EU has ruled that the judicial overhaul in Poland embarked upon by the PiS-led government undermined access to an independent and impartial judiciary. And, surprisingly quickly, the European Commission opened infringement proceedings against Poland over a new law ostensibly to curb ‘Russian influence’ in the country. Widely perceived as an attempt to marginalise the opposition leader (and former president of the European Council), Donald Tusk, this might result in yet further fines—on top of the accumulated €534 million arising from the interim CJEU ruling—and isolation of the country in Europe.
The Eurosceptic rhetoric of the government, endless blaming ‘Brussels’ for all ills, seems to be losing credibility. If there is anything that unites Poles, it is their positive attitude towards EU membership (85 per cent). Most, according to the opinion data, are ready to undo the judicial ‘reforms’ to unlock EU funds and more blame the government than the EU for the deadlock. Also the existential fear resulting from the war on Poland’s doorstep strengthens the generally pro-western orientation in the society. It is the attitude towards domestic affairs that divides Poland into two unreconcilable camps.
With weakened checks and balances on the one hand, and a revival of active citizenry on the other, where is Polish democracy headed? Will the election be fair and will the result be accepted in the political sphere and by society?
After all the damage done by the relentlessly hostile rhetoric of the last eight years, it will be very hard to renew a spirit of mutual toleration and sense of community. It is not even easy to predict the result yet. The only thing for sure is it will be decisive for decades to come.
Dr Maria Skóra is a researcher and political analyst in Berlin. At the Institut für Europäische Politik, she analysing rule-of-law developments in the European Union. She is also a policy fellow at the think-tank Das Progressive Zentrum, hosting the annual Progressive Governance Summit.