Democracy in Peril in Poland

The collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe unleashed one of the most remarkable political transformations of modern times, paving the way for millions of Europeans long subjected to communist rule to embrace democratization and structural reform. The transformation was one that brought the promise of meaningful rule of law to fruition for the same millions. One of the most noted success stories of this transformation has been Poland. Previously dismissed as a hopeless basket case, Poland has experienced 25 unbroken years of economic growth, and through a pragmatic foreign policy rooted in constructive engagement with its large neighbors, it has attained unprecedented levels of influence in EU institutions. Though not without setbacks, Poland’s success story is widely seen as a model for other states presently undergoing transitions, including ex-communist states with rockier track records of reform.

Today, however, the Polish success story is threatened by a new far-right government that has taken unprecedented steps to curtail the rule of law and media freedom. Since coming to power in November on a mandate to expand social benefits for families and struggling youth, the Law and Justice government, headed by Beata Szydlo — but steered behind the scenes by party chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski — has wasted no time consolidating its power at the expense of the country’s democratic institutions. The party has purged the country’s intelligence and security services, passed a bill crippling the Constitutional Tribunal’s ability to scrutinize legislation, and has begun placing public media under the direct control of party-selected officials. The government’s breakneck speed in enacting these reforms — passing many of them literally in the middle of the night — has shocked Poles, who have turned out into the streets by the tens of thousands in protest. Now EU officials in Brussels, demanding that Warsaw explain these maneuvers, have threatened to enact the EU’s “rule of law mechanism” designed to punish member states for assaulting the community’s democratic values. This move comes in the broader context of EU concerns about the democratic health of a number of former communist states.

There is presently a great deal of uncertainty about the pace of these reforms, and where they will lead Poland. Kaczyński and his conservative allies have long complained that Poland’s post-1989 transformation was more or less a shameful failure because it allowed an elite of “post-communists” and “traitors” to undermine Poland’s sovereignty and Catholic identity. Given the emotions unleashed by the 2010 plane crash which killed Kaczyński’s brother, the President of Poland, there is every reason to believe the government will act swiftly to correct Poland’s course. It should come as no surprise that on January 7, Kaczyński unexpectedly met behind closed doors with Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, whose brand of “illiberal democracy” Kaczyński has openly yearned to replicate in Poland.

What happens in Poland over the next year matters greatly for the security of United States and Europe. As the EU’s sixth most populous member and eighth largest economy, Poland’s weight is now felt not only in internal EU affairs, but also in the formulation and execution of its foreign policy. This coming July, NATO will hold a major summit in Warsaw to shape the alliance’s direction in the wake of Russia’s ongoing belligerent actions in Ukraine. Indeed, the deterioration of the West’s relationship with Russia makes Poland’s rapid pivot away from the rule of law even more troubling, since a democratic and prosperous Poland has not only secured NATO’s place in the heart of Europe, it has also long been regarded as tangible evidence that America’s commitment to democracy in Central and Eastern Europe had significance beyond sloganeering. Poland has been a close ally to the United States in a range of military and economic matters for over 25 years. The loss of such an important ally in Central Europe, one of the most challenging security landscapes of modern history, would be catastrophic for America’s long-term interests on the continent.

The United States should convey to Poland’s leaders that although it will work with any democratically elected government, Poland should not waiver from its quarter century-long commitment to democratic values and the rule of law. There is too much at stake both in terms of the United States’ security interests in Europe and the enduring cohesion of the EU to allow a country as large and significant as Poland to undo its remarkable progress. The enthusiastic and growing turnout of tens of thousands of Poles onto the streets in protest of the government’s initiatives sparks hope that 2016 will not see Poland fall from the ranks of Europe’s free and democratic community. 

About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism. This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity. Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).

Adam Twardowski

JD Candidate at the University of Minnesota Law School, Visitor at Georgetown University Law Center