Written by Charlotte Smith
A trend that became noticeable over the past several years is the democratic erosion of Eastern European institutions. Poland is an especially poignant example, as the country has experienced democratic erosion due to the election of the far-right populist party Law and Justice (PiS) in 2015. Since then, Poland has suppressed LGBTQ+ rights, which have led to Polish institutions being at odds with those of the European Union, especially when it comes to the controversial judicial reforms influencing the independence of the Polish judiciary and violations of the rule of law.
Poland's Government Structure and Function
Poland became a democracy after it transitioned from communist rule in 1989 and currently has a presidential-parliamentary government system under the 1997 constitution. The transitional reforms replaced the Council of State with the president, reinstated the Senate, the legislature's upper house with 100 members, and installed the Sejm, which became the legislature's lower house with 460 members. The constitution of 1997 replaced the interim constitution of 1992 and further changed Poland's government function. Under this new constitution, the president is directly elected for a maximum of two five-year terms, has the power to veto acts passed by the Sejm, and can declare martial law or a state of emergency. In addition, the president nominates the prime minister and has the power to recommend creating the president's cabinet, which can be either approved or denied by the Sejm. Deputies and Senators in the Sejm are chosen via popular elections and serve four-year terms. Both houses of the legislature must approve laws in order for them to be implemented, but with a majority vote, the Sejm can overturn a decision made by the Senate.
Poland's constitution states the importance of an independent judiciary, the National Council of Judiciary. The justice system of Poland includes the Constitutional Tribunal, whose members are appointed by the Sejm, and performs a judicial review of the constitutionality of legislation.
Poland's New Democracy and Subsequent Democracy Promotion
Following the collapse of communism in 1989, Poland and other post-communist countries desired to become a market economy democracy instead of a centrally planned communist economy. Poland also sought to become a part of the wider international community through membership in the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Trade Organization (NATO). In joining the EU and NATO, Poland's best interest was to democratize itself and assist in the democratization of other post-communist states. This process began in the 1980s with the Solidarity movement. The Solidarity movement sought to form alliances with other states fighting against Soviet policy, which was relevant in the strategies to counter Russian power.
To help fight back against Russian power, editors of the magazine Kultura, first published by Polish dissidents after WWII, aimed to bolster the independence of countries such as Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. In the 1990s and 2000s, the ideas outlined in Kultura helped reinforce bilateral relations between Poland, Eastern European countries, and Western European countries, allowing Poland to essentially be the forerunner in democracy promotion as a member of the EU.
Poland's democracy promotion extended to creating and funding democracy projects, those being Polish civic groups and state institutions, which focused on democracy development in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and Georgia (Petrova and Pospienszna 2021, 529). These institutions also allowed Poland to participate in "people-to-people diplomacy" facilitated by the Polish government. NGOs could also freely participate in and manage unique ways of promoting democracy abroad.
Precursors of Democratic Erosion
Due to the communist control that Poland and other Eastern and Central European states experienced in their history, there continues to be democratic deconsolidation and low levels of trust in political institutions in those countries.
In the aftermath of the communist fallout in Poland, the right-wing lost the parliamentary election in 1993. Awareness of the differences between left- and right-wing parties emerged, leading to the creation of a post-communist left-wing and a post-Solidarity movement right-wing. The defeat of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) in the 2005 election deepened this partisan divide. Subsequently, the unpopularity of left-wing parties was taken advantage of by the right-wing parties Civic Platform (CO) and the Law and Justice Party (PiS). Such a development results from a rejection of communist ideas that influenced Poland's history in the last century and the state's historical connection to Christian values and the Catholic Church (Wojtasik 2020, 62). Additionally, following the parliamentary election of 2015, the PiS coalition was the first opposition coalition to be formed.
Electoral determinism has resulted in parties attempting to win elections by changing their message to a more populist stance that encourages anti-government ideas and increases political polarization. In addition, the centralization of political party leadership contributes to general mistrust in party elites, who do not represent people's interests. In fact, in a study done in March 2018, only 2% of Poles surveyed indicated that they trusted political parties. Due to the poor representation of political parties in Poland, the voting behaviors of Polish citizens further complicate what parties get into power. Moreover, because said parties are largely right-wing following the collapse of communism, the right-wing in Poland is more clearly represented despite 25% of Poles reporting they identify with the left-wing or center-left according to a 2014 study regarding representation in Poland.
The Shift Away from Democracy
The Rise of the Law and Justice Party
Poland's support for democracy abroad somewhat lowered after the 2015 election of the Law and Justice Party (PiS). In this vein, democracy promotion became less focused on the political rights of the people but rather on state-run programs similar to those in Poland. The goals of Polish democratic promotion seem to lie in politics, according to Petrova and Pospieszna, who state that "previous work on early Polish democracy promotion finds that although a number of Polish politicians with strong personal commitments to democracy have paid attention to democracy promotion as a matter of principle, such normative efforts have been mostly episodic, ad hoc, and of low official political priority."
Given historical context and current trends, Polish politicians from across the political spectrum have been interested in promoting democracy in foreign countries to bolster defenses against Russia, as democracies are illustrated to make better security and economic trading allies. Furthermore, Polish democracy promotion has focused on democratic civil societies and governing structures in other states, which coincides with Polish democratic institutions supporting Polish democracy-related NGOs.
However, following the election of the Law and Justice party in Poland, there was a subsequent change in focus regarding Polish democracy promotion abroad. Like other post-communist states, Poland's focus shifted from democratization to protecting national interests. Such ideas were fueled by the PiS, elected in 2015, which claims to represent the typical Poles and emphasizes traditional religious and cultural values. The PiS's recent judicial reforms resulted in the erosion of the possibility of having an independent judiciary. The party's policies also led to the erosion of a pluralist and liberal political culture that ultimately promoted ideas resembling populism and that viewed opposition and minorities as the enemy.
Moreover, the PiS promoted more conservative economic values and often found itself at odds with membership in the European Union, seeing the international organization as violating the country's sovereignty. Ultimately, while democracy at home is eroding, democracy promotion abroad in countries such as Ukraine and Belarus, which had once been a focus of Polish foreign policy, had also diminished under the PiS. This trend coincided with a shift from supporting democratic civil society groups toward political modernization. Even more concerningly, Polish democracy-promoters associated with the PiS are more likely to get funded by the Polish government than groups associated with the liberal Solidarity movement of prior decades.
Symptoms of Democratic Decline
Limitations on Privacy and Restrictive Judicial Reforms
Surveillance laws authorized by the legal system after 1989 were implemented in Poland under the titles "procedural surveillance" or "operational surveillance," the former of which used in criminal proceedings and the latter of which used in crime prevention. However, said laws prohibited the use of information collected from surveillance outside of criminal proceedings, and law enforcement authorities supervised their use.
The election of the PiS in 2015 made it the first party elected since 1989 to have a majority in both houses of parliament, which allowed it to introduce several surveillance laws that violated the privacy of its citizenry. Since coming to power, the PiS has reduced the legal safeguards regarding surveillance laws, introducing bills that amended the current surveillance laws and added new laws. One of the new laws, the Surveillance Law, allowed unlimited access to data collected by electronic communications service providers; thus, the data collection was not simply limited to crime prevention purposes.
The PiS government also introduced an Anti-Terrorism Law, granting the Internal Security Agency information on Polish citizens' social insurance and personal data, once again without limit on the amount of information provided. Further, the Anti-Terrorism Law permitted the Internal Security Agency to order operational surveillance of foreigners in the country, limiting it to a maximum of three months. Even more worryingly, the PiS has used the laws to expand the once limited use of justifiable surveillance, jeopardizing citizens' and foreigners' right to privacy and eliminating the need for judicial review of the constitutionality of such measures.
Nearly unlimited surveillance of citizens is not the only way in which the rights of Poles and the power of the government have been altered. According to data from Freedom House, between 2015 and 2021, Poland has experienced a democratic decline of 20 points, currently ranking as a semi-consolidated democracy at 60 points. Freedom House notes that the PiS's policies are the reason for the drastic decline. For example, the PiS legislated the "muzzle law" in 2019, which penalizes judges who question the legitimacy of the state's judiciary system or the way judges are appointed.
Corruption and Biased Media
Further, the Polish government has abused state resources and public funds for the Covid-19 pandemic. While smaller companies suffered financially due to the pandemic, state-owned companies raised their public relations budget to fund pro-government media. In addition, biased media overwhelmingly favors the incumbent party and restrictions on freedom of press, speech, and association. For instance, the radio station Channel Three amended the lyrics of a song that criticized the chairman of the PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński, after the song topped the charts. Moreover, the website OKO.press illustrated that the biggest news site in Poland, WP.pl, was given funding from the Justice Fund if it published content that framed the government positively. In addition, there have also been physical attacks on journalists and government critics. For example, during the Independence March, police abused protesters and arrested a journalist for photographing a police officer.
LGBTQ+ Discrimination and Restrictions on Abortion Rights
Poland has also been widely criticized both by its citizens and the European Union for its anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and restrictions on abortion rights and women's rights. The PiS and other Polish politicians have implemented "LGBT-free" zones and have espoused hostile homophobic rhetoric. However, the PiS expressed their willingness to retract the "LGBT-free" zones after the European Parliament threatened Poland with financial punishments. Further, a parliamentary debate scheduled for April 2020 suggested criminal penalties for sex education in schools and would restrict access to abortions. In addition, justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro called for a ban on "LGBT ideology" in schools and universities, and the Prime Minister of Poland suggested that universities that enable student protests over the abortion ruling may not receive funding. As of July 2020, Ziobro also announced a plan to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, which was formed to prevent violence against women.
Eastern European states such as Poland are experiencing a right-wing authoritarian development that coincides with the erosion of democratic rights, especially among those who identify with the LGBTQ+ community. Research indicates that this trend could be a backlash to Poland's communist history, which was facilitated by the country's post-communist legislation regarding the formation of political parties and the unpopularity of left-leaning parties. In recent decades, the subsequent rise of the far-right PiS party led to the implementation of policies that have eroded the rights of its citizens. However, despite the tightening control the PiS government has over the states' government and courts, Poland is willing to retract policies such as the "LGBT-free zones" when faced with the prospect of financial punishment from the European Parliament. Thus, the threat of profit loss could be a potential solution to the growing authoritarianism and assist in the complete democratic consolidation of some EU countries, as these are usually the same European countries that require developmental assistance.