For victorious Polish democrats, restoring democracy is top challenge
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Autocrats can be beaten at the polls, Poland’s recent elections showed. But the longer they have been in power, the harder it is to restore democratic rule.
But it matters, and not only for Poles. It has implications for Poland’s partners in the European Union and the NATO military alliance, including the United States.
And it carries twin lessons: that autocrats can be defeated at the ballot box, but that the longer they are in power, the tougher it becomes to restore a functioning democracy.
Along with two other NATO allies on Europe’s eastern flank – Hungary and Turkey – Poland had become part of a distinctly 21st-century phenomenon known as “electoral autocracy.”
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Their rulers didn’t seize power. They were democratically elected.
Yet step by step, they set out to undermine democratic norms and institutions – judicial and media independence, freedom of association and dissent, free and fair elections – with a view to remove any serious prospect that they might be voted out of office.
They also buttressed their hold on power, especially at election time, with narrowly nationalistic messages painting political opponents, and minority communities, as alien and untrustworthy.
And the playbook seemed to be working.
Despite a united push by opposition politicians ahead of Hungary’s election last year and a similar effort during Turkey’s election campaign last spring, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan again prevailed.
But now Poland has spoken with a fervor that surprised not only pundits but also opposition politicians themselves.
It wasn’t easy. The ruling Law and Justice Party, also known by its Polish acronym PiS, used the full force of state-funded news media to amplify its campaign messages and to denigrate dissenting voices when they were heard at all. It portrayed opposition figures as not truly Polish – beholden to Germany, Russia, or the European Union, which has been withholding funds in response to the way PiS has packed the judiciary with pro-government judges.
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Still, while PiS remained the largest single party, it got barely a third of the vote.
The three opposition parties – one of them in the center-right, another on the left, and the largest in the middle – won 54%, giving them a parliamentary majority.
How did they do it?
To start with, they decided against forming a single party, as opposition leaders in Hungary and Turkey had done. Instead, while adopting an umbrella commitment to rescue and restore Poland’s democracy, they ran separately to maximize the breadth of their appeal.
But the main reason was that they galvanized a huge surge of grassroots opposition to the PiS autocracy, especially among women and younger voters.
Overall voter turnout was over 74%, topping Poland’s first post-communist election in 1989.
The first lesson from the result was indeed that voters could slam the brakes on the PiS drive to dismantle democratic norms and institutions.
And the prospect of an assertively democratic Poland, which borders Ukraine, was especially welcome in Washington, amid concern that Western backing for Kyiv might flag in the months ahead.
Yet the second lesson – how much harder it becomes to repair the damage to democracy, the longer the autocrats have been at the helm – is also becoming evident.
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The opposition alliance has wasted no time in declaring its readiness to form a government, led by Donald Tusk, a former prime minister and head of the EU’s council of ministers, who heads the centrist Civic Coalition party.
But Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, is a PiS supporter. He has indicated that he will give PiS the first shot at assembling a majority coalition, even though it now lacks the parliamentary seats to do so. That could push back the transition until as far as December.
Even then, a Tusk-led coalition will have to reckon with the president’s power to veto legislation. And PiS has also embedded hand-picked judges throughout the court system and put party loyalists in other key institutions, including the news media.
The pro-democracy parties will hope that the scale of their election victory will discourage the president from trying to block policy changes – especially since those changes would help persuade the EU to start unblocking the billions of dollars in support it has been withholding.
The hurdles that the opposition alliance will face in restoring democracy underscore the challenge facing other countries where democracy’s foundations have been eroded.
Still, Poland’s example may also suggest something else: that voters eventually tire of the angry divisiveness that is a key tool in the electoral autocrats’ toolbox.
Significantly, the party that outperformed election expectations most dramatically was Mr. Tusk’s center-right alliance partner, the Third Way.
Its central message? That Poles must step back from the polarization and division that PiS promoted, and rebuild national unity.