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In a divided Poland, restoring democracy won’t be easy
Following the defeat of the right-populist PiS government in Poland, analysts have debated the prospects of the liberal government. Among several interesting commentaries, the famous political scientist Adam Przeworski notes that democratic backsliding encourages further backsliding. If a liberal government also packs democratic institutions with supporters, it entails backsliding. If it does not, it may harm its future electoral prospects.
The self-reinforcing logic of backsliding has other dimensions. In liberal democracies, public administrators must aspire to neutrality, notwithstanding practical and philosophical difficulties. PiS saw the state as a means of sponsoring patriotism, appointments reflecting this. Therefore, re-democratization requires a changed approach to governance.
Alas, a return to the neutral state (or, at least, one that aspires to the value) may be difficult. Whilst PiS must take primary responsibility for the deterioration in liberal-democratic governance – 2015-2023 saw a sharp turn from the norms of the Third Republic – liberals have scarcely reacted well. As in the UK and US, partisanship has warped minds and a form of liberalism has emerged which is crude and populist.
The deterioration of Gazeta Wyborcza, the flagship liberal daily, is revealing; since 2015, the newspaper has adopted a sensationalist anti-PiS tone, abandoning objectivity. Recently, Wyborcza appealed to readers to submit the names of local PiS functionaries who the new government might dismiss, subsequently publishing them. This is concerning and evokes lustracja, the chaotic decommunization which Polish liberals fought in the 1990s.
Whilst the new government may restore certain parts of liberal democracy – full reintegration into the EU, strengthening external oversight, is auspicious – the reestablishment of a neutral state may not happen. The fate of TVP, the state television, will be instructive. After 2015, the channel descended into government propaganda and conspiracy theories. A new government might dismiss the channel’s executives, yet the development of an impartial broadcaster requires personnel who are committed to neutrality. But Polish society is acutely divided – as in the US, religion compounds the regular education and urban-rural cleavages – and, even if the government wanted such a channel, it might have trouble finding sufficient personnel.
This will be familiar to Western readers. In recent years, scholars have published work on affective polarization, the division of society into groups who harbour deep, mutual animosities. In an important article, Orhan finds that affective polarization encourages democratic backsliding.
To some extent, the liberal-democratic traditions and developed civil societies of Western societies insulate them against this. Like Wyborcza, newspapers such as the Guardian and New York Times became more partisan after Brexit and Trump, yet this was more limited. Alas, the defence mechanisms of Central and Eastern European (CEE) societies are lower, liberal-democratic traditions being much younger.
Admittedly, the road ahead is uncertain. As a longstanding critic of PiS, I am delighted they were defeated; almost certainly, the incoming government will be an improvement. But there is a chance that negative tendencies within liberalism will become prominent, affective polarization encouraging mismanagement of executive institutions, à la the PiS governments. This would not be a welcome development.
Westerners should not look away. Aside from the importance of Poland in its own right – the country is a major EU member state – the CEE region has been a laboratory for political trends, Orbánism predating Trumpism. If affective polarization remains entrenched in Western democracies, there is a danger that similar developments will occur. For example, a Trump administration which indulged in greater backsliding could lead to a similar problem in a succeeding Democratic administration.
Poland will provide important clues.
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