In Autocracy We Trust – The Erosion of Democracy in Poland

Since the presidential elections in 2015, Poland has been continuously criticised for the dismantling of democratic institutions and chipping away at human rights. At a European level, voices have cautioned the European Union to not stand idly by as this process continues. Meanwhile, the ruling party of Poland, Law and Justice, has managed to divide the country like never before since 1989, pinning one half of the population against the other half. In this article, I map out Poland’s turn to autocracy after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Poland after 1989

The period of political change towards democracy started in 1989, after decades of lacking democratic institutions in all levels of Polish society. In the second half of the 1990s, one could see the first signs of partnerships between authorities and local communities, with a majority of mayors and councillors remaining unaffiliated with regard to a political party. Even though accession to the European Union (EU) was not the sole factor, it was one of the most important influences in the development of the political parties’ system in Poland. 

The accession illuminated more fundamental problems related to the role of state sovereignty, national identity, religious and individual rights. Public support for EU membership can be explained by three factors: utilitarian expectations, the role of values and ideas, along with class partisanship. In the case of Poland, a national referendum revealed that 77 percent of the population was in favour of EU accession. Since 2004, the enthusiasm for the EU has significantly decreased. In 2019, only 54 percent of the Polish respondents expressed that they trust the EU. Relevant factors worth taking into consideration when trying to explain scepticism towards the EU in Poland are many. Among the most prominent ones are: the role of the Catholic Church, populist political parties, and a deep scepticism towards the EU among Polish farmers. Each of these factors has a distinctive explanatory value. Since there are a number of different factors involved, in this article I will focus on the Law and Justice party (Polish: Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc – PiS), its discourse, the significance of the Smolensk plane crash on the Polish political arena, how the party is dismantling democracy and EU’s response to Poland’s increasing autocratisation. 

The Law and Justice party and the Kaczynski brothers

To understand the in-depth history of the Law and Justice party, it is essential to understand the role of its political founding fathers, the twin brothers Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski. In the early 1980s both brothers became active in the trade union movement called Solidarity (which later also became a political party), led by Lech Walesa. When Solidarity came to power in 1989, both Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski began their active careers in government. In the year 1990 they founded a political party under the name Centre Agreement (Porozumienie Centrum), where Jaroslaw was the head of the party until 1998. Both twins won election to the Sejm, (the Polish parliament) but they also held several other government appointments. 

In 2001 The Kaczynski brothers founded the Law and Justice party. The party was headed by Lech from 2001-2003 and after 2003 by Jaroslaw. Some features of their politics included an aggressive foreign policy, many times hostile to the policies of the EU, and being critical of Poland’s historical enemies, especially Germany and Russia. They took a strong stand against the long-lasting corruption in Poland while also having some populist elements in their rhetoric. Moreover, they were for a strong central government but simultaneously advocated both tax cuts and a strong economic safety net. On social issues, the party was conservative and strictly followed the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church with around 87 percent of the Polish population being Roman-Catholic.   

In the 2001 Sejm elections, Law and Justice won 9,5 percent of the votes and later on managed to win the 2005 parliamentary elections, receiving 27 percent of the votes. That same year, in 2005, Lech Kaczynski won the presidential election and in 2006 his brother Jaroslaw became prime minister. This created a political arrangement in which the two most essential offices of the state were occupied by the two brothers. An early election in 2007 was called for, due to an unstable alliance between Law and Justice, the ultra-Catholic League of Polish Families, and the agrarian-syndicalist Self-Defence. Law and Justice received around 30 percent of the votes and came second. The Civic Platform, Donald Tusk’s (former European Council president) party, won the election largely making references to the controversial Law and Justice government of 2005-2007.  

The Smolensk Plane Crash                                          

A huge impact on the Polish political scene was caused by the Smolensk plane crash in 2010. The crash caused the death of 96 people, including the country’s top politicians, military officers, along with President Lech Kaczynski and his wife. The geographical location of the crash, in Smolensk, Russia, resulted in further political divisions.

”The crash in thick fog near Smolensk in western Russia was Poland’s worst air disaster since World War Two and stunned the country”

(Marcin Goclowski & Wojciech Zurawski, 2020)

The crash has primarily served as a narrative for the Law and Justice party to further their political agenda, particularly because of the history behind Smolensk. At the time of the crash, the Polish political elite were on its way to Smolensk to commemorate the victims of the Katyn massacre, a massacre carried out in 1940 by the Soviet NKVD (Interior Ministry of the Soviet Union) on 21.000 Polish army officers. 

A large minority of Poles saw the Smolensk plane crash as a plot involving Polish and Russian leaders, mid-air explosions, and Russians executing survivors. The disaster has become a focal point of the Law and Justice party’s political identity. It certainly helped the party in opposition at times when Poland was ruled by the centrist Civic platform led by Donald Tusk. With the encouragement from Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a form of Smolensk mythology emerged, centering around the idea that the crash was no accident. Jaroslaw Kaczynski has repeatedly over the years promised the Poles to reveal ”the truth” behind this tragic event. An event that, in his and many others eyes’, was covered up by enemies from both Poland and abroad.    

Both Polish and Russian official investigations concluded that the crash was an accident caused by human error and thick fog. Law and Justice never accepted this explanation. The party insisted it was an assassination, and that the crash was due to an explosion or faulty information from Russian air controllers. They were never able to provide any conclusive evidence to back these alternative theories up. In an opinion poll carried out by the CBOS (Polish Public Opinion Research Center) in 2015, only 20 percent claimed that the crash had been fully explained. Instead, 31 percent, said that the Smolensk catastrophe was a result of an assassination or attack (the poll did not ask by whom). 

9th anniversary of the Smolensk plane crash in 2009. Jaroslaw Kaczynski on the left holding a speech, behind him  a poster of Maria and Lech Kaczynski. Photo: The Sejm /  Lukasz Blasikiewicz via Wikipedia Commons

Presidential Elections 2015 and the Rule of Law

Since winning the presidential elections in 2015, the Law and Justice party has systematically tried to seize control of state institutions. In said elections, Andrzej Duda won with 55,51 percent against the Civic Platform’s Bronislaw Komorowski’s 48,45 percent, with a turnout of 55,34 percent. A fairly low voter turnout showed that the political landscape did not provide many options for Poles to run to the polls.

The Law and Justice party’s control of state institutions would have serious and negative consequences for both human rights and the rule of law in the country. One such example is that Law and Justice introduced legislative changes which give executive control over the hiring and dismissal of judges at all court levels. In the Constitutional Tribunal, responsible for reviewing the compliance of laws with the constitution, the government has refused several of its judgements since November 2015. Further politicisation of this institution resulted in the government not recognising duly appointed judges, while appointing candidates which would suit their own agenda. 

”These measures have undermined the independence of the Constitutional Tribunal which is an important check on abuse of power by the government and critical to the protection of democratic institutions and human rights.”

(Human Rights Watch, 2017)

Media Freedom 

Apart from blurring of the rule of law and judicial process, several other laws have been introduced that either directly or indirectly could hinder democratic processes. The ruling party has also sought to limit media freedom through more restrictive media laws that allow the Law and Justice party to replace the management of public service media. Under the new legislation, the party is allowed to establish a new media regulator called the National Media Council with politically appointed members.  

On February 10th this year, Polish media staged a blackout protest. Commercial TV channels, radio stations, and web portals went off air in protest of a new tax proposal. Polish private media ran slogans such as ”Media without choice” and ”This used to be your favourite show”. According to the Polish government, a solidarity tax of between 2 percent and 15 percent would help to raise public funds for healthcare and culture sectors, hit by the pandemic. TV and radio stations across the country claim that this would threaten their survival. The media protest took place a day after Hungary’s leading private radio station Klubradio, lost its broadcasting licence supposedly due to infringing on administrative rules. The radio station was often critical of the right-wing government led by Viktor Orbán.

Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Decline 

On a grass-root-level, however, perhaps the most controversial proposals yet have been those restricting women’s and girl’s access to abortions and contraception.

In 2016, the proposed total abortion ban sparked so-called Black Protests and the Law and Justice party ended up withdrawing support for the ban. However, the party still restricted access to emergency contraception. On October 22nd, 2020, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal rendered illegal the termination of pregnancies on the grounds of severe and irreversible foetal defects. As stated in a letter to EU Commissioners from distinct Polish womens’ rights organisations across Poland and abroad, the lack of independence, impartiality, and legitimacy of the Constitutional Tribunal is presenting a huge risk for breaches of EU values, with regards to the respect of human rights and equality. 

The decision of banning abortion on the grounds of foetal defects came with persistent efforts to restrict the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls living in Poland. Efforts included: the decision of the government to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, hate speech and policies prompting intolerance and discrimination towards LGBTQI+ people, the establishment of ”LGBTQI-free zones” across the country, along with the continuous undermining of judicial independence, fundamental rights and rule of law principles. 

While neither Germanophobia nor anti-Semitism formed a part of mainstream politics before the party’s rise to power in 2015, both of these sentiments have historical precedent. On the other side suspicion towards the LGBTQI+ community, can be seen as an entirely new political issue in the country. 

As portrayed by a clip from a leading Polish radio station, RMF FM, Duda led a fierce campaign in which further negative statements towards LGBTQI+ people served as an important element. Duda claimed that LGBTQI+ people are an ideology. The same way in which previously Bolshevism was used to ”ideologise” children, an LGBT ideology now serves as a way to sexualise children in schools, the president said.  

”They are trying to tell us, dear people, that these are people – but it is simply an ideology”  

(Gwiazda, 2020) (Andrzej Duda at a meeting with voters in the city of Brzeg during the presidential election campaign in 2020) (own translation)

Pro-abortion protesters, gathered in Warsaw, are opposing a decision to ban abortion in cases of fetal defect, announced by the Polish Constitutional Tribunal on 23 October 2020. Photo: Jakub Zabinski via Wikipedia Commons

Poland’s Uncertain Future and EU’s Response

The presidential elections during 2020 were more hopeful for Polish democracy. This time the Law and Justice candidate Andrzej Duda got 51,03 percent of the votes, while opposition candidate Rafal Trzaskowski of the Civic Platform managed to get 48,97 percent. The voter turnout increased from 55,3 percent in 2015 to 68,18 percent in 2020. This showed that the country’s political scene is evenly divided between people supporting Law and Justice and those who oppose it. However, Duda only won in four of Poland’s 30 biggest cities, an aspect that suggests a deepening urban-rural divide. 

Although it is hard to establish the precise causes as to why Law and Justice continue to have the majority of support from voters, key aspects have been highlighted so far. Identity politics have been present more than ever during the 2020 presidential election. Strong conservative Catholic values are a pillar for the rhetoric of the ruling party, which has proved itself to be a successful way of dividing the population. While having control over media channels it also becomes easier for Law and Justice to openly discredit the opposition by claiming that they represent foreign interests. Interests that are not in line with what is supposedly best for Poland and Polish citizens.

As emphasized by Anne Applebaum, Poland is an ethnically homogeneous and monolingual country, with the majority of people being Catholics. The Law and Justice party has nevertheless managed to over the past decade create and promote a tribal division. During the election campaign of 2020, the opposition’s candidate Rafal Trzaskowski was being described by the state-owned media TVP as a person not thinking in line with Polish interests. Another remark was made that Germans are sending their candidates for the highest positions in Poland, such candidates being Tusk in the past and now Trzaskowski. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, also stated when speaking to a conservative Catholic radio station, that Trzaskowski lacks a ”Polish soul”. 

In a country as homogenous as Poland, it becomes easier to mobilise support through the use of historical trauma, especially since around 31 percent of the population thought that the Smolensk plane crash was no accident. When the Polish political elite went to Smolensk to pay tribute to Polish army officers murdered there by the Soviet NKVD, this gave birth to a whole range of conspiracy theories. Hence, when the plane crashed in Smolensk, Russia of all places, the Russians became a primary target of blame, along with the Polish opposition under the leadership of Donald Tusk. A similar rhetoric of ”Anti-Polish” sentiment was being used on Trzaskowski in the presidential elections of 2020. 

The case of the Law and Justice party and its rise to power provides a perfect example of how a homogenous nation can still be divided through the use of history, identity politics, and successive dismantling of core democratic institutions such as the independent media and the Constitutional Tribunal. However, an increase in voter turnout from 55,34 percent in the 2015 presidential elections to 68,18 percent in 2020 can be related to an increase in pro-democratic mobilisation in the country after the presidential elections in 2015. Law and Justice will have to come up with a different narrative, as dividing and conquering while having half of the country against its rhetoric and policies will prove hard.

Graph showing the two indexes of liberal democracy and mobilisation for democracy in Poland over the years 2000-2019. For full citation, see bottom of page.

The voter division in Poland’s 2020 presidential election showed that wealthy, urban, younger, and better-educated voters voted for the Civic Platform’s Rafal Trzaskowski, while Andrzej Duda received more support from people in the rural Polish hinterland. The Polish opposition will have to work hard to win back the trust of communities that associate greater economic security with the cultural conservatism of the Law and Justice party. 

The autocratic turn in Poland has led to issues on the international arena, not least with the EU. No matter the play on anti-semitism and germanophobia in interior politics, Poland’s trade ties are with Europe, especially Germany. The EU is an important source of development funds that the country still needs. As a result of this, the EU managed at the beginning of December 2020 to solve a dispute with Poland and Hungary in order to salvage Europe’s 1,8 trillion euro budget and coronavirus recovery package. The budget was held hostage by the two countries when the EU tried to link the disbursement of funds to respect for the rule of law. This new mechanism is seen as an attempt to slow down the autocratic development in Poland and Hungary. However, this mechanism won’t be used until at least 2023, as member states will be able to appeal to the European Court of Justice to test any rule of law procedures. 

The EU will need more tools to be able to intervene quicker when its member states are perceived as becoming autocratic. This event also showed the need for a more united opposition, along with the need to address democratic erosion in Poland. Law and Justice has over time shown willingness to oppress the population the same way Orbán does in Hungary. One thing is clear, the EU will need to develop further strategies if they do not want Poland to end up as yet another long-term autocracy in Europe.

Full citation for V-dem Institute Graphs: Coppedge, Michael, John Gerring, Carl Henrik Knutsen, Staffan I. Lindberg, Jan Teorell, David Altman, Michael Bernhard, M. Steven Fish, Adam Glynn, Allen Hicken, Anna Luhrmann, Kyle L. Marquardt, Kelly McMann, Pamela Paxton, Daniel Pemstein, Brigitte Seim, Rachel Sigman, Svend-Erik Skaaning, Jeffrey Staton, Steven Wilson, Agnes Cornell, Nazifa Alizada, Lisa Gastaldi, Haakon Gjerløw, Garry Hindle, Nina Ilchenko, Laura Maxwell, Valeriya Mechkova, Juraj Medzihorsky, Johannes von Römer, Aksel Sundström, Eitan Tzelgov, Yi-ting Wang, Tore Wig, and Daniel Ziblatt. 2020. ”V-Dem [Country–Year/Country–Date] Dataset v10”. Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Project. https://doi.org/10.23696/vdemds20 

Magdalena Kamont

Master student of the "International Administration and Global Governance" programme at the University of Gothenburg. Currently writing her master thesis on democratic decline in Poland. Former intern at Sida.

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