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Viewed until recently as an exemplar of democratic transformation, Poland is increasingly seen as a leading case of democratic backsliding thanks to a series of illiberal measures pushed through by the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party. PiS ascended to power in 2015. It has used to its advantage a politicized conspiracy theory about the crash of a government plane outside Smolensk in 2010; a dual power structure; and a narrative of "sovereign democracy." Since 2015, it has sought to make systemic changes to Poland's political landscape, for instance by weakening institutional checks and balances through changes to the judicial system, pressuring media outlets, and replacing the boards of the country's public companies. Currently, Poland's decentralized political structure remains the most important counterweight to the country's rising illiberalism.

A mere four years ago, Poland was widely viewed as an exemplar of democratic transformation in Central and Eastern Europe and a prodemocracy force on the international stage. Polish democracy was held in such high regard that in 2014 the country's European partners elected then–prime minister Donald Tusk (2007–14) as president of the European Council. By 2018, however, Poland had become the first EU country to be threatened with sanctions under Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty over infringements of the rule of law. A series of dramatic legislative and institutional changes, set in motion by the governing right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, have evoked fears that the accomplishments of Poland's decades of transition are in danger of being reversed.

For many, the magnitude of the change that has occurred over such a short period is difficult to fathom. Is today's increasingly illiberal Poland, politically dominated since 2015 by PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, the same country that burnished its democratic image under former prime minister Tusk? To understand the stakes of the ongoing process of erosion, we must recognize how much Poland has developed since it first embarked on the path of democratic reforms. But to understand the roots of Poland's recent flirtation with illiberal democracy, we must also take into account the existence within Polish society of mutually conflicting, popularly legitimate national narratives.

Today, skepticism regarding the country's record of postcommunist achievements is widespread in Poland. So, too, are doubts about the institutional foundations that have enabled this success. The transition's initial stages were difficult for all, and not everyone who supported it has flourished in the new system. In 1989, the year of the collapse of [End Page 52] the former communist regime, inflation hit 640 percent, and the radical measures that were introduced left many people in dire straits. Some ended up losing their property, especially if they had loans. These unlucky citizens saw their wealth stripped away along with their social status, and their trust in Poland's new institutional arrangements crumbled.

In an effort not only to lift itself up from economic misery, but also to enhance its geopolitical security and fulfill a longstanding dream of returning to Europe, Poland sought to join Western institutions such as NATO (which it did in 1999) and the EU (2004). This, however, entailed accepting painful economic reforms, and these were accompanied by numerous other systemic changes—including lustration, transparency-building initiatives, and reforms of the security apparatus, public finance, and education, among other areas.

From today's point of view, the scope of the postcommunist reform spree is difficult to imagine. We are more familiar with reforms designed to tackle one policy area at a time, and even these often carry a tremendous political cost for the ruling party. Indeed, a number of governments during the transition-era reform process bumped up against a lack of public support. Although many of the same parties and leaders have been present on the political stage since 1989, early elections frequently cut short the ambitions of governing parties or coalitions; until 2011, no government survived such a vote. Yet with the prospects of EU and NATO membership beckoning, political parties across the ideological spectrum shared a commitment to reaching the same goal.

Perhaps the most ambitious reform plan was introduced in 1999 by the center-right government of Jerzy Buzek (1997–2001), later speaker of the European Parliament. This consisted of the so-called four reforms: decentralization of the educational system, the introduction of private pension funds, an overhaul of the healthcare system, and, most important, reforms to the system of local administration. The latter reforms provided for directly elected local governments with significant autonomy, including control over a considerable portion of locally generated tax income. The new local governments were also tasked with delivering public services as mandated by the national government. While subsequent governments later walked back significant parts of the other three reforms, this partly decentralized system of administration remains the cornerstone of Poland's political structure.

Roadblocks and reversals in particular areas notwithstanding, Poland's postcommunist governments consistently supported an overall trajectory of reform—partly in hopes of attaining economic prosperity, and partly to meet the prerequisites for joining trans-Atlantic structures. And these hopes, along with the personal sacrifices of citizens, bore fruit. Since 1992, Poland has experienced continuous economic development, even when global markets took a hit during the 2008 financial crisis. (At the time, the Tusk government, noting the contrast [End Page 53] between Poland's continued growth and downturns in other EU economies, seized the opportunity to promote the country as a "green island.") Poland's per capita GDP (at Purchasing Power Parity) climbed from slightly over $6,000 in 1990 to more than $27,000 as of 2018.

Economic growth was seen partly as a fulfilment of promises by the country's elites to bring about "normalcy"—one of the leading popular aspirations during the transition—and to lift society out of poverty. Beyond economic indicators, Poland also saw improvements ranging from rising life expectancy (which went from 71 years in 1989 to 78 in 2015) to declining infant mortality and a reduction in CO2 emissions. At the same time, inequality as measured by the World Bank's GINI index rose notably, climbing from an initial 26.7 in 1993 to reach a high point of 35.4 in 2004 before declining somewhat to 31.8 by 2015.

From the very start of the transition era in Poland, political narratives and policy decisions have rested to a large extent on an economic rationale, with the promise of prosperity at its center. During his 1990 campaign, Solidarity leader and future president Lech Wałêsa proposed cutting a check to each and every Pole for 100 million zloty (then about US$2,700), which he suggested could be used to invest in housing or privatized enterprises. These "100 million zloty" became a shorthand for broken political promises. The EU quickly emerged as a key component of the economic rationale in Polish politics: The central premise was that EU financial transfers would find their way to local governments, and would also support such popular projects as new roads and other improvements to transportation infrastructure. Up until 2004, many reforms and adjustments were explained as necessary conditions for joining the EU, regardless of whether this was in fact the case. After membership was achieved in 2004, a new twist on this rationale came into play, with politicians touting their efforts to secure generous EU grants.

"Normalcy" Achieved?

The year 2004 also saw a realignment of the political scene, resulting in a new party configuration that persists in Polish politics to this day. Revelations about a major corruption scandal known as the "Rywin case" tarnished the leftist coalition then in power, and the postcommunist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) found itself sidelined in subsequent elections. The SLD's woes cleared the way for the ascent of two parties that positioned themselves as foes of the newly revealed corruption: Civic Platform (PO), led by Donald Tusk, and PiS, led by Jarosław Kaczyńnski. Both parties have since this time actively taken measures to fight corruption in their own ranks, and they have clashed with each other on an entirely new political playing field.

With the strategic goals of joining the EU and NATO already reached, [End Page 54] political competition in Poland no longer centered on the idea of escaping crisis and achieving normalcy. Rather, parties competed to show that they could best secure for Poland an advantageous position within the EU, as well as help the country to reach higher levels of economic and institutional development. The newly ascendant PO and PiS also traded attacks over the common issue of corruption, a standard feature of Central European politics. But in the most transformative development, both parties consciously fostered polarization between the liberal-conservative and social-conservative segments of society, broadly understood. These camps remain ardent rivals today.

Over time, the two parties have come to draw their primary support from increasingly different social groups. While PO developed its constituencies around major urban areas, mostly in the northwest regions of the country, PiS turned to small and medium-sized towns, generally in the southeast. There is also a socioeconomic dimension to the territorial split, with lower-performing regions typically voting for PiS.

Poland's democratic institutions remained stable through this realignment, and were not shaken when the 2008 financial crisis rocked neighboring states. In 2010, the country suffered a significant shock when a government plane crashed outside the city of Smolensk, Russia. All 96 passengers on board perished, including generals, members of the government, and sitting president Lech Kaczyńnski (Jarosław Kaczyńnski's twin brother and fellow PiS politician, who had been elected to the office in 2005). Yet even this did not turn the political system upside down. New presidential elections and a constitutional succession followed the crash. Meanwhile PO, which headed the governing coalition at the time of the disaster, maintained its lead in the 2011 parliamentary elections and held onto power for a second term, an unprecedented achievement signaling that the transition was complete. Poland had seemingly become a consolidated democracy—resilient in the face of external shocks—and a significant transition success story, encouraged by international interlocutors to promote its model of development among countries seeking a way out of authoritarian rule.

Poland's contributions to several major prodemocracy initiatives helped to establish its emerging position on the international scene. Together with Sweden, Poland developed the proposal that became the Eastern Partnership, an EU program launched in 2009 as a framework for relations with the Union's postcommunist eastern neighbors. Poland also played a significant role in international efforts to assist the nations that experienced uprisings during the Arab Spring of 2010–11. In this context, the election of Donald Tusk to the EU's top job was yet another endorsement by European partners of Poland's achievements. Those sentiments, however, were not shared by everyone at home.

The 2010 Smolensk plane crash was a tragedy on many levels, and it has had lasting consequences despite the initial political stability that [End Page 55] followed in its wake. Perhaps the gravest has been a change in Poland's political culture. Although official investigations by both Russian and Polish authorities found the plane's demise to have been a tragic accident, resulting mainly from human error as pilots tried to land in a dense fog, there arose a number of conspiracy theories alleging foul play. These theories lay the blame in varying proportions on Russia and on the PiS's domestic political rivals—and Jarosław Kaczyńnski encouraged them by establishing a series of quasi-religious commemorative practices around the crash. This was, in effect, a turning point for PiS political ideology: Claims that the investigation results had been fabricated became a cornerstone belief that united the party's hardcore supporters.

Although PiS promised that the truth would be revealed only after a change of government, no new revelations materialized after PiS took power in 2015. On 10 April 2018, Kaczyńnski publicly concluded that, with the opening of a new monument, he and his supporters in the Smolensk remembrances had "reached our goal," and the public commemorative practices with his participation have ceased.1 But over the eight years from 2010 to 2018, PiS succeeded in reshaping its political strategy. It also cultivated among its supporters a determination to question much more than just official reports about the crash. Having gotten a taste of the political power of conspiratorial beliefs, Kaczyńnski began incorporating new conspiracy theories into existing PiS narratives.

These new elements were woven into a core political message that Jarosław Kaczyńnski has pushed with remarkable consistency since the 1990s. Its essence lies in the claim that other parties have been hoarding the fruits of the transition, forsaking social solidarity with those who had reason to resent the new system. Even if he did not want a revival of communist ideology, Kaczyńnski called for a model of centralized power, resembling that which had existed under the previous regime, with more political control from the top and the curbing of more localized decision making.

At the time of the crash, PiS enjoyed the support of 25 percent of respondents in public-opinion polls. Five years later, it garnered 37.6 percent of the votes in the October 2015 elections to the Sejm (the lower house of Poland's bicameral Parliament), a showing that earned the party 235 of that body's 460 seats. It also claimed 61 of 100 seats in the Senate. Earlier that same year, PiS candidate Andrzej Duda defeated PO incumbent Bronisław Komorowski in the presidential election's second round.

But PiS did not score these victories by convincing the voters that made up its additional margin to accept conspiracy theories about the Smolensk disaster. Rather, at a strategically chosen point during the electoral campaign, PiS de-radicalized its message and began hiding its most extreme politicians from the public eye. It thus reaped the benefits of a more moderate appeal to the general public, while continuing to [End Page 56] consolidate a gradually expanding circle of core supporters around the Smolensk conspiracy theory. This dual strategy produced a constellation of factors that has enabled PiS to carry out unlawful changes to Poland's constitutional order: exceptional party discipline coupled with election results that yielded a simple legislative majority.2

The electoral strength of PiS owed much to its support among part of the middle class. Although this support might not be permanent, the troubling fact is that a large segment of society bought into PiS's narrative and has been at best indifferent to the democratic backsliding that has occurred on its watch. The thousands of protestors who took to the streets beginning in the first months after the PiS government entered office had no apparent impact on the party's popularity. In fact, polls indicated an initial rise in support for PiS, which then remained relatively constant over the following years.

Leading from Behind

In part, PiS has benefited from employing an unusual decision-making structure: Jarosław Kaczyńnski, as chairman of the victorious party, refrained from taking any government position and instead decided to control Polish politics from behind the scenes. Since most of the electorate opposed his positions, his choice to use as his proxy Beata Szydło (prime minister from 2015 to 2017) was to some extent a natural one. He had employed the same tactic ten years earlier when he chose Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, a midlevel politician, as prime minister after 2005 elections in which PiS claimed a plurality in the Sejm. In both cases, his surrogates had a clean slate in politics, were well received by the media, and promised to deliver policies designed and ordered by Kaczyńnski and his inner party circle.

Of course, this model of governance was chosen only partly for reasons of public relations. Already in 1994, Jarosław Kaczyńnski, perhaps jokingly, commented on his future role: "I would like to be the retired saviour of the nation."3 Today, he enjoys an influence over Poland's cabinet that far exceeds his formal authority.

As reported by the Financial Times in 2016, Kaczyńnski keeps his ministers attentive by lauding and chastising them in public. And it was no secret that Prime Minister Szydło "rule[d] on a temporary contract, under the threat of dismissal if she [became] too unpopular—or too popular."4 She proved her loyalty when she cast the sole vote against the reelection of Donald Tusk as European Council president in March 2017—all 27 other EU members voted for him. Szydło stuck to this controversial decision despite her good working relations with Tusk and despite understanding that the move would serve only to damage Poland's reputation among other member states: The order had come down from party headquarters just a few weeks ahead of the vote, too [End Page 57] late for Poland's leaders to influence other EU members. At the end of 2017, Szydło was demoted to make room for Finance Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (an ex-banker) to take over as prime minister; his main task is now to repair Poland's damaged relationship with the EU. Szydło was allowed to keep a seat in the cabinet as a deputy prime minister without portfolio.

A duality of power, with the party standing behind formal government structures, has become a permanent feature of PiS-led Poland. To many, it is reminiscent of the communist-era decision-making structure, in which the Party's first secretary was more important than the official head of the government. In its modern form, this structure gives the PiS leader direct control over both the legislative process and the members of (his) government, including the prime minister.

Poland's foreign interlocutors have tacitly acknowledged the new power structure. German chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, met secretly with Jarosław Kaczyńnski in a castle outside Berlin in July 2016. U.S. secretary of state Rex Tillerson broke with conventional protocol by paying a visit to the chairman's headquarters during his official trip in Warsaw early in 2018.

Tight control over PiS MPs has given Kaczyńnski a rare opportunity to shepherd important laws through to adoption while curbing parliamentary debate and avoiding public consultation. Often, the "efficient" PiS approach to legislating has led to breaches of established parliamentary procedure, with the relevant rules changed after the fact. It is true that the previous government, led by PiS's opponents, also took a majoritarian approach in the Sejm, with limited space for opposition. But under that government Parliament never voted on budgetary laws in a side room with access for opposition MPs blocked, as it has done under PiS. Nor did the PO-led government so often ignore recommendations and proposed amendments from the parliamentary Bureau of Research, which for more than twenty years has provided MPs with reliable information and expertise. This institution's staff was purged of its expert personnel in 2017, and now consists mostly of PiS appointees.

From the very beginning, the PiS government initiated systemic changes. In 2015–16, it clashed with the Constitutional Tribunal after seeking to install its appointees in disputed Tribunal seats and then introducing procedural changes that would make it more difficult for that court to issue rulings. A law introduced in 2016 weakened the freedom of assembly by effectively allowing authorities to give preference to favored groups and gatherings. In 2017, PiS introduced major changes to the education system that substantially reversed the 1999 reforms, doing so despite popular protests and without public consultations. It also prepared measures that will increase central-government oversight and control of local governments. In the same year, it established a new National Freedom Institute under the prime minister's office with the [End Page 58] aim of centralizing control over the distribution of subsidies (including EU funds) to NGOs.

In 2017–18, the PiS government has weakened institutional checks and balances through further changes to the judicial system. Political appointments will now determine the fifteen judges who sit on the National Council of the Judiciary, which in turn selects judges; other changes threaten to push out many of the Supreme Court's sitting justices and make judicial rulings more susceptible to reversal. Finally, the PiS government has begun introducing legislative changes that would increase the role of political appointees in the country's election-administration bodies.

Illiberal Measures

When the opposition or the EU Commission has questioned such legislative initiatives, the PiS government and its defenders have responded by invoking a narrative of "sovereign democracy." According to this argument, a party that has won the majority of seats in Parliament represents the sovereign will of Poland. Once the election results are in, the new government's democratic legitimacy places its actions above question. This fallacy has not been successfully countered in parliamentary or public debate, and so it has served to legitimize a new set of rules of the political game.

The concept of "sovereign democracy" was first formulated in 2004 by Vladislav Surkov, a close aide to Russia's President Vladimir Putin, as a means of providing democratic window dressing for a political system that did not meet Western democratic standards. The "illiberal democracy" erected by Viktor Orbán in Hungary since 2010 could be considered the little brother of Surkov's sovereign democracy.5 And Poland's government, since 2015, has looked to the Hungarian model. It has done so while simultaneously benefiting from conspiracy theories and broader anxieties involving Russia—seemingly unfazed either by the parallels between Hungary's illiberal democracy and the Russian system, or by the growing Russian influence in Orbán's Budapest.

The illiberal slide has involved more than just legislative maneuvering, as the PiS government also has made use of disruptive administrative and political tactics. For instance, while working to pass unconstitutional legislation that would undermine judicial independence, PiS also used procedural obstructions to hamper the announcement of court vacancies by the Ministry of Justice. Due to this obstruction, the court system could operate only with limited effectiveness—the very same state of affairs that PiS had used to make the case for its proposed changes.

In 2015 the government named as minister of defense Antoni Macierewicz, a leading right-wing promoter of conspiracy theories. Macierewicz remained in office until January 2018, and his actions over this period threatened to infringe upon the constitutional powers of President [End Page 59] Duda, who is supreme commander of the army. Without consulting the president, the Ministry of Defense dismissed experienced, NATO-certified army officers, and it has blocked presidential nominees. Security concerns have emerged regarding Macierewicz, including troubling reports of Russian intelligence and mafia connections. Moreover, despite announcements of ambitious modernization plans, no defense contracts were signed. At a time when the public is increasingly worried about perceived threats to Poland's security, the absence of a well-functioning defense establishment may weaken trust in democratic institutions and provide a pretext for fear-mongering.

In addition, all media outlets that do not directly support PiS have come under pressure. The tactics used have included limiting access to parliamentary proceedings and even cutting off ad purchases and subscriptions by all major public companies. Representatives of PiS have also discussed changes to the media law that would force some outlets currently owned by foreign companies to submit to takeovers by domestic actors. By late 2017, the government was preparing a law on "de-concentration of the media" that would enable investors certified by the government as "Polish capital" to take control of major parts of this sector (these plans were put on hold as of December 2017). Last but not least, at the end of 2017 Poland's largest TV station TVN24 (which had been acquired by the U.S.-based conglomerate Scripps, itself later acquired by Discovery) was fined the equivalent of about US$400,000 by the National Broadcasting Council for allegedly "promoting illegal activities and encouraging behaviour that threatens security," although this decision was later reversed.6

At the same time, the state-owned Polish TV (TVP)—whose new chairman, previously an MP for PiS, had recently replaced much of its staff—initiated smear campaigns against civil society organizations, demonstrators, and the opposition parties. The station's own public records reveal that it has introduced a new degree of bias into its programming, with 66 to 79 percent of the broadcast time it devotes to politics allocated to government supporters—a notably higher share than under previous governments.

PiS's parliamentary majority also has allowed it to replace the boards of Poland's public companies and fill all available vacancies with party loyalists. Although such positions often become political spoils wherever public companies exist, PiS wielded its authority in ways that went beyond the norm: These companies were soon drained of their funds, with the new management ensuring that they would in the future support only those media and civil society organizations aligned with the current government.

Another point of contention has involved efforts to erase old political rivals of Jarosław Kaczyńnski from official historical narratives. Government publications and events have deliberately omitted such key figures [End Page 60] as Lech Wałęsa (leader of the communist-era Solidarity movement and president of Poland from 1990 to 1995), who had come into conflict with Kaczyńnski in 1991 and removed him from the cabinet. The newly built Museum of the Second World War in Gdańnsk, which Donald Tusk had hoped to leave as a legacy of his time as prime minister, was taken over by a PiS nominee and its exhibits were modified.

Moreover, amendments to Poland's law on historical memory, introduced in February 2018, led to a heated controversy with U.S., Jewish, and Ukrainian groups. These laws make punishable by imprisonment "accus[ing], publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in … Nazi crimes" or other war crimes.7 They not only potentially limit freedom of speech regarding the Holocaust, but also have introduced a new legal concept: the defamation of the Polish nation.

Poland in Central European Context

Historical memory helps to shape the trajectories of many Central European societies. Decades of Soviet propaganda have had a lingering impact, weakening democratic principles in a way that continues to affect the social fabric of these postcommunist countries. Even where educational systems have been reformed, the danger of prejudice arising in connection with national historical experience remains.

In connection with the 2015 migration crisis, the "Antemurale myth" of Central European nations as the bulwark protecting Christian Europe from foreign invaders emerged as a central element of the dominant political ideology in Hungary. As it took on this role, the myth also underwent a revival in Poland and spread easily to Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere. This narrative presents refugees and migrants as something close to military forces mobilized and on the march through Europe. Since the indifferent elites of the spoiled West will not repel them, Poland and Hungary must do so. This myth may partially explain the paradox that many people in the region remain pro-European (70 percent of Poles see EU membership as "a good thing"8) while at the same time backing their governments' illiberal turn.

For the moment, significant differences remain between Hungary and Poland, putting limits on the consolidation of illiberalism in the latter country. Poland is generally believed to be less corrupt than other Central European countries; while Hungary, for instance, ranked 66th among countries worldwide in Transparency International's 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, Poland stood thirty places higher. Should the illiberal trend in Poland continue, however, and lead to the dismantling of checks and balances, perceptions of corruption may rise as citizens become increasingly mistrustful of the institutional order. In addition, whereas the 2008 crisis dealt a blow to Hungary's economy in general and public [End Page 61] finances in particular, eventually facilitating Orbán's rise to power, no such shock preceded the illiberal turn in Poland.

But the most important difference between Poland and other countries of the region lies in the pluralism embedded in Polish governance structures, a function both of the country's large size and of the 1999 reforms. Strong local governments with directly elected representatives, responsible for public-service provision and directly supported by tax revenues, serve as an additional check on any central government seeking political domination. While the current government in Warsaw is trying to limit the autonomy of local administrations, for the time being at least, they represent a sphere of political independence unique in the region.

Defending Poland's Democracy

Ideas have consequences. Just as it was pointless during the Cold War to accept the terms "socialist democracy" or "people's democracy" as descriptions of states that were neither socialist nor of the people, and were certainly not democracies, so today should we reject the use of terms such as "illiberal democracy" and "sovereign democracy." Poland is clearly still a democratic country, yet it is in danger of damaging or destroying some of its democratic institutions under the false pretext of reforming them.

Trust in the liberal institutional framework has suffered due to several broader trends, among them securitization and confusion about the state of democracy in countries once viewed by Poland as democratic exemplars (including the United States, the United Kingdom, and other EU member states). Against this backdrop, the influence of Poland's international partners will be limited unless they can take a unified position and avoid hasty generalizations—for instance, lumping together threats to the rule of law with questions of migration, culture, or abortion rights, which the EU has often put on its agenda. These distinct issue areas should be addressed separately, and via separate agencies.

Judicial reforms are a topic that neither party should be allowed to politicize: The state of Poland's legal system can be most effectively addressed under the EU's legal framework by the European court system. A case before the EU's Court of Justice, brought by an Irish court weighing the extradition of a suspect to Poland, is already requiring the EU body to address key concerns about the Polish justice system and to formulate an opinion on the rule of law in Poland. As of this writing in June 2018, a ruling was expected by the beginning of July. The outcome may determine whether courts in other EU member states will continue to accept Polish court rulings. It may also influence the decisions of other EU member states regarding whether to invoke against Poland Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty.9 The European court system is highly [End Page 62] trusted by Poles, and a verdict in this case will be more likely than alternative types of criticism to create effective pressure for the Polish government to meet its international obligations. International court rulings may empower the independent resistance of Polish civil society, which has proven itself able to influence both the government's policy calculations and the confidence of judges (particularly during large protests in mid-2017). But more important, it will affect the climate for those seeking to do business in or with Poland, creating an important pressure point outside of partisan politics.

In the face of rising illiberalism, the fourth estate has a crucial role to play in defending society from disinformation peddled by both international and domestic political actors. To this end, media pluralism and quality are essential. The present ownership structure of media companies in Poland, which includes the ownership of certain outlets by U.S., German, and Swiss companies, guarantees that pluralism. In Hungary, the government gradually put pressure on such owners, pushing them out of the market by unfair taxation or by limiting their opportunities to do business with public companies. This allowed Viktor Orbán to prepare the ground for his illiberal transformation, helping him not only to secure electoral victories but also to protect members of his circle from any backlash over corruption scandals during their terms in office.

So far, the Polish media landscape remains much more diverse and allows for a great deal of independent reporting. Its current business models are under threat, however, and journalists are increasingly insecure about their career prospects. To safeguard access to trustworthy and independent information, it is important that media outlets find a way to manage their transition to digital models (a process already underway in Poland), while ensuring the continued sustainability of careers in journalism and resisting any temptation to lower standards.

Civic education and questions of national memory are also vital. Radical right-wing groups have actively moved into the space left open by the lack of civic education in schools, and have also taken over the agenda for national celebrations on occasions such as Independence Day (November 11). Other civil society groups need to bring to high-school and university students attractive messages about democracy and democratic values such as diversity and compromise.

But the most important counterweight to rising illiberalism in Poland lies in the country's decentralized political structure, with its strong local governments. This built-in pluralism stands in the way of any single party's efforts to impose a monolithic and centralized narrative. The principle of subsidiarity, if upheld and developed over time, will be the key element in curbing authoritarian ambitions on the part of any central government.

Even in what now seems the unlikely event that PiS suffers a defeat in the upcoming parliamentary elections (to be held by 2019) and that [End Page 63] PO is able to form a coalition government, the legacy of Kaczyńnski's dramatic changes to the Polish political system will remain an issue. Indeed, Kaczyńnski's opponents could well view the more centralized system built up under PiS as a prize for the election winner, an instrument that they might use to construct a new variety of "democracy with adjectives": a "liberal" democracy in which liberalism becomes a pretext for disregarding democratic norms. That scenario would be equally disastrous for genuine democratic openness and competition.

Saving Polish democracy will require unyielding pressure against illiberalism, but it will also depend on maintaining openness to debate and compromise. While finding the right balance will not be an easy task, it is a vital one for the future of democracy in Poland.

Wojciech Przybylski

Wojciech Przybylski is editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight, a biannual analytical and opinion journal, and chair of the Res Publica Foundation in Warsaw. He was previously editor-in-chief of Eurozine. His coedited volume Understanding Central Europe was released in 2018.


1. "Poland 'Reaches Goal', Monthly Smolensk Marches Called Off: PiS Leader," Radio Poland, 11 April 2018,,Poland-reaches-goal-monthly-Smolensk-marches-called-off-PiS-leader.

2. See also Joanna Fomina and Jacek Kucharczyk, "The Specter Haunting Europe: Populism and Protest in Poland," Journal of Democracy 27 (October 2016): 58–68.

3. Henry Foy, "Jaroslaw Kaczynski: Poland's Kingmaker," Financial Times, 26 February 2016.

4. Foy, "Jaroslaw Kaczynski."

5. Péter Krekó and Lóránt Gyõri, "Hungary: A State Captured by Russia," Heinrich Böll Stiftung, 11 October 2017,

6. Quoted in James Shotter and Evon Huber, "Polish Broadcaster Fine Sparks Press Attack," Financial Times, 11 December 2017.

7. "What's in Poland's New Memory Law," Economist, 19 February 2018.

8. "Democracy on the Move: European Elections—One Year to Go" (Part II), Eurobarometer Survey 89.2, 2018,, 37.

9. Colm Keena, "ECJ to Rule Speedily on European Arrest Warrant Case," Irish Times, 16 April 2018,; "The Irish Times View on Poland's Authoritarian Drift: A Big Question for the Judiciary," Irish Times, 1 June 2018,

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