Poland’s Pivot toward Authoritarianism

Poland has long been viewed as a shining example of what a peaceful transition from an Eastern European Communist state to a democracy could and often did look like. Starting with the Solidarity movement of the 1980s, the Polish move toward free elections came to a crescendo in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union and its subsequent accessions to NATO and the European Union (EU) in 1999 and 2004, respectively. In recent developments such as media suppression and consolidation of power within the Law and Justice Party seem to signal a rapid slide toward authoritarian rule tempering the optimism that the west once had for this former Soviet satellite state.

Following the fall of Communism in Poland, two primary political parties emerged that still exist today. The Law and Justice Party (PiS) is headed by the somewhat enigmatic Chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski and tends to favor more socially conservative policies. Economically, PiS supports generous welfare programs and introduced a monthly child subsidy in April 2016. Grzegorz Schetyna chairs the Civic Platform (PO) Party which was once led by Donald Tusk who has served as the President of the European Council since 2014. Adhering to moderately conservative social policies and a free-market liberal stance on economics, the PO under Tusk moved to improve the standard of living in Poland gradually by using EU funds. The parties find common ground on defense and national security issues, especially when it comes to Russian aggression and Poland’s NATO and EU memberships.

The PiS victory in Poland’s October 2015 election ushered in the nation’s democratic crisis. Shortly after taking office, the new President Andrzej Duda replaced the management at the public television and radio centers, turning them into mouthpieces for the government to weaken the opposition. Duda has also tried to take steps to limit the power of the judiciary, which is not controlled by PiS, by making changes to the Constitutional Tribunal in order to undermine the rule of law in Poland. In November 2015, a series of events led to this “Constitutional Court Crisis”, including the PiS party’s decision to bar Civic Platform-appointed judges from taking office. The Polish Parliament, also called the Sejm, replaced these opposition-party judges with ones loyal to the Law and Justice Party, sparking widespread protests and international condemnation. These changes fortified the party’s control of the Tribunal and prompted an investigation by the European Commission. Immediately following the crisis, a new controversial “small media law” was adopted which replaced the management and supervisory boards of the national television and radio broadcasters with members directly appointed by the treasury minister. In filling these media outlets with government-appointed individuals, Duda’s administration effectively filtered and controlled the information and news reaching the public.

The PiS government unsuccessfully advanced a new law in 2016 to restrict reporters’ access to the Polish Parliament. Following fierce backlash from the opposition party and civic activists, the proposal was ultimately scrapped but the attempt alone had a lasting, chilling effect on opposition to the government. President Duda also pushed a constitutional amendment calling for the joint appointment of top judges by Parliament and the President, effectively placing the Polish Supreme Court under partisan, political control. This proposal was met with alarm over the compromise of rule of law by a powerful ruling party. The outcry against authoritarian Duda’s attempts to consolidate power took the form of mass protests in the streets and denouncements from the European Commission with the potential to enact the EU’s Article 7 procedure against the member state. This remedy, which can be used to suspend a member state’s voting rights, among other sanctions, has never been deployed and thus illustrates the unprecedented level of tension between Poland and the EU government. Under increasing popular and EU pressure, in July 2017, Andrzej Duda announced his decision to veto the Supreme Court bill, a move that came as a shock to many in the country.

President Duda’s veto may have killed the destructive judiciary bill, but the concern over Poland’s democracy is far from over. An increasingly suppressed and government-controlled media coupled with continued efforts to diminish judicial powers have led many to question the resilience of Poland’s liberally democratic regime. Some have even gone so far as to draw comparisons between Poland’s ruling party and that of Hungary, the oppressive and increasingly illiberal government headed by Viktor Orbán.

Political instability and international condemnation are not the only consequences of Poland’s shift away from democracy. The investigation into the proposed Supreme Court reforms has led foreign investors to question the credibility of the Polish legal system, potentially weakening the nation’s economy. According to European Commission principal Vice President Frans Timmermans, “…international investors are quietly asking ‘is this going to be fixed because we are worried about the security of our investment?’” Further concerns stem from a question of whether or not Poland will be denied post-2020 regional development funds as a result of the investigative probe launched by Timmermans. As a once successfully democratized former Soviet Bloc nation and the fifth largest EU economy, Poland’s descent into authoritarianism is very troubling and points to a larger underlying threat of declining democracy in the region.

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