Poland’s Semi-Authoritarian Slide Is a Wake Up Call for Europe

In the fall of 2015, the Polish political arena was shaken by the overwhelming victory of the socially conservative and nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS). The party has subsequently embarked on dismantling democracy through media control, limits on civil liberties, and paralyzing judicial independence. Poland, once an unquestionable success story in the former Eastern Bloc, is altering its democratic trajectory and threatening its hard-won achievements. If the situation in Poland continues to be ignored, this dangerous dynamic might soon spread to other European capitals, securing PiS-like parties in mainstream politics.

Started at the Bottom … Now Back at the Bottom

The ongoing sense of political exhaustion and stagnation enabled PiS's comeback.Initially a poor Soviet satellite, Poland became one of Europe’s most dynamic economies. Unlike its formerly communist neighbors, Poland underwent the so-called “shock therapy,” a rapid transition from a centrally planned economy to a market-oriented one. In late 1989, many voiced concerns that the “patient” could “die” as a result of taking such a radical path. But the patient not only survived, it prospered, making Poland the poster child for both adopting democratic norms and embracing capitalism. Formerly an example to follow, Poland is now undergoing another surgery.

For almost two decades, Polish political elections looked like a rollercoaster – the government leadership switched party hands after every four-year term. The system finally stabilized with the victory of the classically liberal Civic Platform Party (PO), securing a re-election for a second term of office. Ultimately, however, the party abandoned its initial drive for reforms and embraced an unambitious agenda aimed only at prolonging time in office, which was dubbed “the politics of warm water in the taps.” For years, many predicted that the main PO opponent, PiS, would never rule again. Yet the ongoing sense of PO’s exhaustion and stagnation, with its ministers spending most of their time on crisis management, enabled PiS’s comeback.

Modern Authoritarianism

Since it came to power in 2015, the new Polish government has taken greater control over the state-owned media. Although there was no clear separation between media and the government before PiS’s victory, after they came to power, any previous autonomy the Polish media enjoyed quickly eroded. Besides appointing loyalist media management boards and meddling with free speech protections, the government has increased the scale of censorship in state-owned radio and TV channels.

First, the PiS is using the media to promote its socially conservative, highly religious, and nationalist agenda. Masses from churches are widely broadcast and TV channels refrain from showing movies that could “harm Poland’s reputation,” even if the stories are historically true. This was clear in the authorities’ outrageous attack on the Oscar-winning film Ida for apparently not emphasizing the role of non-Jewish Poles in rescuing Jews from the Nazis. The PiS argued that the movie content might corrupt the minds of those who encounter it. In truth, it is better understood as a suppression of the Poles’ right to think for themselves.

If the Polish case is ignored, this dangerous dynamic might soon wake up in other European capitals.Moreover, the PiS also manipulates the impartiality of the judiciary, leading to the paralysis of the country’s highest court, the Constitutional Court. The Polish Constitutional Court crisis, during which six so-called "repair bills" were passed without providing any tangible relief for the situation, led to wide protests throughout Poland, as well as a condemnation by the European Union and other international institutions.

What is currently going on in Poland is something which the country had not seen since the legendary resistance movement Solidarity in the 1980s. The crises over the Constitutional Tribunal led to the establishment of the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD). This grassroots movement organized a great number of protests all over Poland. Right now, protesters regularly occupy every major city in the country. Moreover, the fight against the PiS’s actions escalated inside the parliament itself. In December 2016, a group of opposition representatives occupied the rostrum in the plenary chamber for a month, which PiS leaders later described, quite dramatically, as an “attempted coup.”

What widely escapes the public notice is the fact that the recent Polish case is harmful both for the country itself and for the rest of Europe. This deeply rooted Polish populism is likely to provide momentum for similar tendencies in other European countries. Therefore, as journalist Remi Adekoya indicates, if the Polish case is ignored, this dangerous dynamic might soon wake up in other European capitals, securing PiS-like parties in mainstream positions. The situation in Poland should be closely monitored. As Adekoya argues, ignoring reality has never made it go away, but rather led to a growing number of people that became more willing to tolerate semi-authoritarian tendencies.