The course of events in Poland may lead to the ultimate unraveling of Democracy as We Know It
When Cyclone Daniel made landfall in the early hours of Monday 11th September 2023, it unleashed a calamity of immeasurable scale on the unsuspecting community of Derna, Libya. The wake of the subsequent inundation was further exacerbated by the erosion of political stability: after more than 4,000 souls washed away into the Mediterranean sea, the Mayor’s family home was burnt down to ashes by a mob of angry survivors, in retaliation. This is a story that, as sad as it is real, serves a stark reminder of the dire implications that arise when regional unity fails, democratic values are washed up, and populist political movements stoke humanitarian contempt.
The aftermath of the storm, the widespread destruction and loss of life, hands us a spyglass into the time to come, as its fallout bears down on the state of the existing political status quo. This unfortunate event also exposes the lingering disregard for democratic values in the region. All this is massively affecting not only the region’s stability but also the collective focus on addressing humanitarian issues. Yet, the need for cohesive action and a steadfast commitment to democracy and humanitarian efforts has never been more evident.
Another Storm Brewing
Brace yourselves! A tempest of unprecedented proportions is about to engulf Central Europe. But this time, it is not your typical blizzard in the Tatras or a raging Baltic gale; it’s a perfect storm of political ravaging, with Warsaw at its epicenter. The Law and Justice party (PiS) has been steadily consolidating its power, capitalizing on the deep-seated ‘us against them’ mindset of large portions of the population. Furthermore, economic inequality, cultural anxieties, and a deep-seated mistrust of establishment politics have created a fertile ground for the party’s populist message to take root. With its controversial policies, rhetoric and accosting the Polish Curia, the PiS has fervidly shoved a foot in the door of Poland’s political landscape, leaving many to wonder what the future holds for democracy in the region.
As the storm gathers momentum, the stakes could not be higher: PiS, led by Jarosław Kaczynski, is seeking to maintain its grip on power in the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2023. This party has been accused of undermining the rule of law, suppressing dissent, and eroding civil liberties. The European Union has also expressed concerns over Poland’s deviation from democratic norms, and has initiated several procedures against the country for violating EU values. Any outcome of the elections will not only determine the future of Poland’s democracy but also have far-reaching implications for the region’s stability and the EU’s ability to uphold its values.
How Populism Has Eaten Away at Democracy in Poland
Once a beacon for democratic ideals in Eastern Europe, Poland has taken a concerning turn towards populism and authoritarianism in recent years under the far-right Law and Justice party (PiS). The party’s rise to power reveals weaknesses in Poland’s young democracy, but also shows how populist movements can exploit fears and divisions to rapidly consolidate control. To understand the current democratic backsliding, we must first understand Poland’s unique history. Poland has long stood at a geopolitical crossroads, frequently invaded and partitioned by foreign powers. After regaining independence in 1918, Poland enjoyed only two decades of sovereignty before Nazi occupation, followed by decades under Soviet domination.
This tumultuous past shaped a fierce nationalism and wariness of outside influence. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Poland peacefully transitioned to democracy and embraced Western institutions like NATO and the EU. But the rapid economic disruption after communism’s collapse also created winners and losers, breeding resentment. In the 1990s, many felt the benefits of economic liberalization flowed mainly to an urban elite who seemed detached from ordinary citizens’ concerns. Left behind were older generations, rural farmers, the unemployed, and pensioners struggling with price hikes. This disconnect between the liberal establishment and the disaffected masses created fertile ground for populism.
The 2005 elections brought the conservative, Eurosceptic PiS party to power, foreshadowing today’s politics. But they lost to the pro-EU center-right Civic Platform party in 2007. However, Civic Platform also ignored the left-behind, helping stoke a populist resurgence. Then the 2008 financial crisis hit, sharpening economic anxieties. PiS retooled their message, promising generous welfare to struggling workers, farmers and pensioners. When a Civic Platform corruption scandal erupted in 2014, PiS seized the moment and returned to power in 2015 on a populist platform.
Once elected, PiS moved swiftly to consolidate control. They enacted reforms letting them pack courts with loyalists and turn state media into propaganda outlets. PiS derided critics as traitors to Poland. With key institutions captured, PiS appears to have eroded checks on its authority.
This Year’s Stormy Election is a referendum on PiS’ s polarizing agenda
In the final week of campaigning before Poland’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, the opposition Civic Coalition (KO) and smaller parties are rallying their crowd and battling to gain voter support and defeat the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS). Polls show PiS holds a slim lead over KO, but likely not enough to maintain its outright majority in parliament. KO, a coalition of centrist and liberal parties led by former Prime Minister and European Council President Donald Tusk, pledges to reverse PiS’ changes to the judiciary and public media, as well as improve relations with the EU and Germany. Meanwhile, PiS, covertly led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is defending its economic and social record and vision for a Catholic, sovereign Poland. The election outcome holds major implications for the future of democracy and rule of law in Poland, as well as its role in Europe and the east, where war rages in Ukraine.
A Call to Protect Democracy in the Region for the Sake of European Integrity
The political crisis unfolding in Poland serves as a stark warning that democracy itself is under threat in Central Europe. As Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk recently expressed in an interview with The Guardian, the opposition must commit to progressive causes and safeguarding democratic institutions. The ruling Law and Justice party’s systematic dismantling of judicial independence and free media has strained Poland’s bonds with its European Union allies. This erosion of democratic norms risks igniting a domino effect across the region if left unchecked.
The cautionary tale of Poland is a reminder of the urgent need to foster inclusive governance and transparency, not just in Europe but worldwide. The fate of democracy in Central Europe hangs in the balance, with consequences that will ripple far beyond its borders for years to come. In the face of this gathering storm, we must summon the courage to defend democratic values through meaningful dialogue and decisive action. Failure to do so could enable the irreversible unraveling of the democratic foundations we often take for granted.
As Poland’s democracy is tested, so too is the entire region’s commitment to the principles that underpin freedom and civil liberties. With determination and solidarity, this populist tempest can be weathered. The destiny of democracy lies in our hands. Heeding the plight of Poland, let us shore up democracy’s foundations before this storm sweeps away the progress made since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The time to act in defense of democracy is now, before it is too late.