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Polish democracy’s key test
The Polish election raises crucial questions about democracy in Poland and Europe
On October 15th, there will be an election in Poland, the right populist PiS party aiming for a third term in government. The vote has unusually high stakes. Following their initial 2015 victory, PiS have attacked liberal democracy. Successive reforms have undermined judicial independence; state television has descended into Fox News style propaganda; cronyism has motivated public appointments. Often, democratic backsliding is exaggerated – many overstate damage to British democracy – but the expert V-Dem dataset returns an unflattering verdict on Poland. Since 2015, liberal democracy has regressed halfway to its level during communism.
We might reflect on the institutional foundations of this process. By the early-2010s, Central and Eastern European (CEE) democracies appeared to have settled into equilibriums. After the end of communism, the influence of international organizations and capital generated pressures for democratization. Though domestic conditions could have been better – rather than liberalism, nationalism is the dominant regional ideology – CEE civil societies had embarked on a democratic trajectory. Ten years ago, liberal democracy seemed established in Poland, the country playing a leading role in the EU and the moderate Civic Platform party dominating politics. These realities underpinned claims that Polish democracy was strong enough to resist PiS.
Whilst such prognoses were mistaken, we might be wary of assertions that democratic backsliding has no bottom. PiS face significant domestic opposition; high proportions of voters distrust the government and opposition is vibrant, the contrast with Hungary being marked. Such resistance echoes historic patterns, communism and neoliberalism finding it difficult to penetrate Polish society, compared to other CEE countries. Poland remains a key EU member state. The European Commission has taken a hard line against authoritarian reforms, initiating legal challenges and suspending Coronavirus support payments. European politicians such as Frans Timmermans have become PiS hate figures.
Intriguingly, European developments may be a key contingency. Though the EU has been a crucial sponsor of democracy in the CEE region, this reflects the liberal-democratic profile of member states. But in two of the five largest member states, Poland and Italy, far-right parties lead governments and in the remaining three, Germany, France and Spain, such parties may soon enter government.
Recently, thought-provoking accounts have argued that a far-right EU may emerge. One notes that the far right has become less Eurosceptic and the centre right more concerned with identity, encouraging cooperation. Another remarks on the pragmatism of a new generation of far-right leaders, such as Giorgia Meloni.
Conceivably, a reverse complementarity may emerge, the EU supporting a drift to authoritarianism. Should Trump win the next US presidential election, the wider context would reinforce this form of integration. At the very least, such an EU would drop sanctions against the Polish government.
But it seems unlikely that all these cards will fall into place. Whilst the far right is on the rise and may increase its influence in the European Council (the inter-governmental organ which sets the EU agenda), this will be far from uncontested. Across Europe, majorities of voters oppose the far right and taboos remain against deals with these parties.
Liberal democracy is in the European Commission’s DNA, reflecting the path dependency of integration. Were the far right to dominate the Council, the Commission would mount significant resistance. The EU should remain an ally of Polish democracy, maintaining pressure on PiS. The waning of Russian influence is relevant. In recent decades, Moscow has been the key sponsor of CEE authoritarianism – once, there were concerns that PiS would strengthen links with Russia – but the Ukraine debacle has undermined this.
Of course, October’s election is crucial. The record of PiS is lamentable and a third term would entail further damage to democracy. But the vote may not be existential.
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