Poland freed itself from communism. Now it’s fighting for democracy.

First Look

Poland freed itself from communism. Now it’s fighting for democracy.

Sunday’s elections in Poland may be the most important since 1989, when the nation threw off communist rule. Those activists who once fought communism are now divided – and many are worried that Polish democracy is at stake.

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Dariusz Stola began working with Poland’s anti-communist Solidarity movement in 1983. He was just 19 but already appalled by the way the regime imposed its harsh censorship, not just on political thought but culture as well.

A member of his church choir would give him a stack of 200 opposition newspapers with uncensored texts on culture and history for distribution to locations where flowers in windows or other signs signaled that it was safe.

Now a historian specializing in the communist era, he sees strong parallels with the current populist government, particularly the way it spreads “systematic lies” and propaganda against its political opponents, using taxpayer-funded public media.

“I have déjà vu,” Mr. Stola said in an interview from his home in Warsaw. “I recognize the patterns which I remember from communist Poland.”

Since the Law and Justice party came to power in 2015, it has sought to imprint its nationalistic, ultra-conservative viewpoint on the country, threatening to deprive independent organizations of funding and creating parallel institutions staffed with loyalists.

Mr. Stola has first-hand experience. As director of Warsaw’s Jewish history museum, he lost his job after he refused to go along with some of the government’s demands. He believes his resistance helped preserve the museum’s independence.

Thirty-four years after the first partly free elections in 1989, many in Eastern Europe are gripped with anxiety.

The collapse of Soviet-backed communist rule triggered euphoria and a belief that a new age of democracy was here to stay. Ex-prisoners of conscience like Lech Walesa in Poland and Vaclav Havel in the former Czechoslovakia became prime ministers and presidents.

The fragility of democratic institutions raises concern for many Poles before they vote in a national election Sunday viewed as the most important since 1989. The democratic erosion of recent years in Poland follows a path first taken by Hungary.

The vote’s significance extends well beyond Poland’s borders. The country is a member of NATO and the EU, staunchly pro-American and one of Ukraine’s strongest allies in the war against Russia.

These elections “will decide Poland’s future for decades,” Adam Bodnar believes. As Poland’s former human rights ombudsman, he sought to hold Law and Justice to account during its first years in power.

This year, for the first time, he’s an election candidate, seeking a seat in the Senate for the opposition Civic Coalition. An expert on constitutional law, Mr. Bodnar says he believes the ruling party is turning Poland into a “semi-authoritarian state,” along the same lines as Hungary.

“Over the last years, different institutional safeguards have been either demolished or politically subordinated to the interest of the ruling party,” Mr. Bodnar said.

Since it won power in 2015, Law and Justice has faced repeated allegations from the European Union and human rights groups that it is eroding democratic norms. The EU has accused the Polish government of undermining the rule of law with an overhaul of the courts and judicial bodies that weakens the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary.

Already, political scientists say the elections will not be fully fair because of the way the party has strengthened control over state bodies, dismantling the guardrails in ways big and small.

Ahead of the election, gas prices have fallen, although the state oil company denies manipulation. The central bank has cut interest rates twice despite high inflation. State TV runs constant negative coverage of the opposition while lauding the government’s programs. Political appointees now sit on the state electoral commission and the Supreme Court, which must certify the election results.

Nonetheless, Poland’s civil society remains vibrant: in the past eight years, protesters have taken to the streets over the changes to the courts, widespread logging in Europe’s last primeval forest, and new restrictions on abortion (and the subsequent deaths of pregnant women).

The EU is maintaining the pressure, withholding billions of euros in funding. The government in Warsaw insists the EU has no right to meddle in its internal affairs, while EU leaders say that Poland must respect judicial independence. The Polish government has reversed some contentious changes but not enough to get the money.

While many judges remain independent, at times ruling against the authorities, others have been suspended for rulings the government disliked.

The judicial takeover has also affected women’s rights.

In 2016, when the party tried to impose a near-total ban on abortion with a new law, mass protests erupted and parliament backed down. Later, the constitutional court, dominated by Law and Justice loyalists, removed one of the few legal justifications for an abortion, cases of fetal defects.

Many were appalled by the way the party used the court to circumvent parliament to push through an unpopular measure. Women led huge protests, despite the COVID-19 restrictions on mass gatherings.

Despite the stirrings of discontent, the ruling party still enjoys considerable support. Many like its promises to defend traditional Catholic values, even though its cozy relationship with the church is also driving away young Poles. A system of patronage in which the party distributes jobs and contracts has won the loyalty of many. Social spending on families with children and pensioners has cemented some support, even though the public health and education systems are in crisis.

Law and Justice’s leaders reject accusations of democratic backsliding, depicting critics as unpatriotic or as elites angry at having lost power. In 2019, it won 44% of votes, but recent polls put its support at about 35%.

Three opposition groups together are expected to win more votes, but are divided by a failure to run on a single ticket. Because of their divisions, they are unlikely get the first shot at forming a governing coalition from the president, who is loyal to Law and Justice.

Meanwhile, a rising far-right party could hold the balance of power.

Mr. Bodnar, the lawyer, worries that if Law and Justice wins another term, it will accelerate its takeover of the lower courts, universities, local government, and private media – plans already in the pipeline.

The party has also sought to harness fears over migration. After tens of thousands of migrants arrived at Poland’s eastern border, the government declared a state of emergency, pushing migrants back into Belarus, restricting asylum claims, and building a fence on the border.

The human tragedy is now the subject of an award-winning feature film that has enraged the Polish government. The prime minister called it “a collection of blatant lies,” while the justice minister compared it to Nazi propaganda.

One of those working to protect the rights of refugees is Danuta Kuron. Now 74, she and her late husband Jacek Kuron were leading dissidents under the communists. She worries that a third term for Law and Justice will allow it to tighten its control of the courts, and judges will start issuing rulings favorable only to the authorities, even when not supported by law.

“This is our great concern,” she said.

Ms. Kuron is appalled by the restrictions on asylum but she doesn’t hold the ruling party solely responsible for the deterioration of politics. Rather, she considers the parliamentary and party system fundamentally flawed, believing it fails to give due weight to social solidarity.

Among the politicians who got their start in the anti-communist Solidarity movement was Jarosław Kaczyński of Law and Justice, Poland’s de facto leader. Mr. Stola, the historian, says the party developed a sense that a government can rule as it wishes as long as it wins elections and serves the majority, even if democratic checks and balances are violated.

“There was a potential in the Solidarity movement for many things,” Mr. Stola said. “Including this.”

On Oct. 10, less than a week before the election, two of Poland’s top military commanders resigned, reportedly over the government’s attempts to politicize the army as well.

For Ms. Kuron, the actions of Law and Justice bring back memories of 1981, when the communists declared martial law to suppress Solidarity.

Poland’s democracy is battered but not broken. But if the election outcome is close, especially if Law and Justice loses, she fears the military could once again be used to quell dissent – with potentially disastrous effects, not just for Poland but the rest of Europe as well.


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