When Polish voters go to the polls in a general election on Oct. 15, the country will still have not enjoyed a fair election since 2015, when the Law and Justice Party (PiS) came into power and promptly undermined constitutional governance. International election observers assessed the 2019 and 2020 elections to be “free but not fair,” meaning that voters cast ballots for candidates of their choice who are genuinely competing but not on a level playing field. But the staid language and technocratic assessments of election observers have failed to keep up with the “autocratization” of elections in backsliding democracies.

Our research identifies several autocratic tactics PiS used in 2019 and 2020, from corruption of campaign finance to politicization of electoral administration. But the most potent way PiS subverts the integrity of the democratic process is the same tactic that made elections all but unwinnable for the opposition in this year’s Turkish election and last year’s Hungarian election: autocratic domination of the media landscape.

In all the ink spilled analyzing how President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan managed to triumph in Turkey’s election in May in the face of a historic earthquake, runaway inflation, and an unprecedentedly unified opposition, one factor that stands out is the egregious disparity in media attention paid to the government when compared with the opposition. According to an opposition member of Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), between April 1 and May 11, Turkey’s national public broadcaster, the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT), devoted 49 hours of airtime to Erdoğan’s campaign, and nearly 29 hours to the campaign of Devlet Bahçeli, Erdoğan’s coalition partner, while covering opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s campaign for a mere 32 minutes. To democracy-watchers around the world, this has become a familiar story: authoritarian leaders so thoroughly manipulate the campaign media environment that they may not need to engage in more direct forms of fraud on election day.

In Hungary, media capture has been one of the primary tools for rolling back any potential competition to the ruling Fidesz Party and its leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Since 2010, Orban and his allies have used their pet regulatory body, the Media Council, to revoke the licenses of disfavored media outlets. This includes any that criticize the regime, but also those that have partial or total foreign ownership, since these are more difficult to coerce into favorable coverage.

Since 2018, though, the Hungarian government has gone further, using the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA) to exercise more direct control over editorial decisions. KESMA was founded by a cabal of oligarchs loyal to the regime who pooled their resources and media holdings into a consortium that was promptly declared exempt from media regulations by Orban himself. The regime steers vast sums of public advertising funds into KESMA holdings, and private advertisers are now afraid to work with the few publishers and broadcasters outside of KESMA for fear of government retaliation. The result was that in the 2022 Hungarian election, the opposition candidate was granted no airtime on public television whatsoever, and Orban’s office gave editorial instructions directly to loyal media outlets. Under this heavily biased media regime, Fidesz went on to “win” the largest majority of any party in Hungary since the fall of communism.

Pincer Attack for Media Domination

The parallels between Orban’s approach in Hungary and Erdoğan’s in Turkey are striking. In both cases, media domination has been achieved through a pincer attack that employs regulatory chicanery to crush the most stubbornly independent outlets while simultaneously flooding the zone with well-funded pro-regime voices backed by oligarchs and cronies who serve as tools of the government. In both Turkey and Hungary, nationalistic sentiment was stirred up to help force the sale of foreign-owned media companies to domestic (and pro-government) interests. And in both cases, this strategy helped the regimes secure victory against unified opposition coalitions that had been expected to fare better.

Nationalistic rhetoric has served not only as a tactic for Hungary and Turkey’s leaders to wrest control of media groups from foreign owners, but also as a tool for cultivating the social divisions on which their electoral strategies rely. In both countries, the nationalism promoted by the ruling parties is an exclusive one that casts large segments of their societies as aligned with hostile foreign interests. In both countries, these alleged internal enemies include LGBTQ people, religious minorities, urban elites, feminists, and, of course, immigrants. Such polarizing narratives push citizens to pick one camp or the other, driving the population toward a 50/50 split. Against that backdrop, autocrats like Erdoğan and Orban can use their captured media institutions to ensure that the small share of voters open to being persuaded breaks for them well above 50 percent.

Poland’s elections next weekend will be the next big test of this strategy. In Poland, the march of democratic decline is less advanced than in either Turkey or Hungary, but the forcible consolidation of media voices into the hands of regime loyalists suggests that it is following the same dire path. Party leader Jarosław Kaczyński said as much in 2011, when he declared, “the day will come when we will have Budapest in Warsaw.”

In 2015, PiS passed a law that neutered the constitutionally mandated regulator that oversees Polish TV and radio and transferred its public media appointment powers to a new council of loyalists. PiS has even adopted many of the same rhetorical bogeymen as the Turkish and Hungarian ruling parties: ethnic and sectarian minorities, immigrants, foreign powers/European Union bureaucrats, and the LGBTQ community. State media routinely alternate between fawning coverage of the government and fearmongering aimed at blaming these groups for the problems facing Poles today.

Polish state media can also be fiercely personal and can even have deadly consequences. For example, in 2019, Paweł Adamowicz, the liberal mayor of the port city of Gdansk — the birthplace of the Solidarity movement that challenged Poland’s then-Communist government — was assassinated after a months-long smear campaign by Telewizja Polska.

The Polish government has worked to shape — and failing that, stifle — independent media coverage, just as the regimes in Turkey and Hungary did. PiS uses fines issued by the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT) to pressure outlets into covering the administration favorably. In the past year, the privately-owned Radio ZET was fined for reporting that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy transited through Poland on his way to Washington, DC, without the knowledge of the Polish government (on the basis that this was “disinformation” that was “contrary to the Polish national interest”), while the privately-owned TOK FM was fined for criticizing the contents of a textbook commissioned by the Ministry of Education. PiS, via the KRRiT, also use the threat of non-renewal of broadcast licenses to pressure independent media: TVN Group, which owns TOK FM, needs a license renewal in 2024, and KRRiT has refused to consider the renewal proposal until after the elections.

Are Such Elections Really `Fair’ or Even `Free’?

International observers and democracy advocates worldwide have strongly criticized media-capture strategies in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland. But most have stopped short of declaring the elections in these countries unfree. This is precisely what makes these strategies so effective: a hopelessly lopsided campaign environment can secure the needed result for the government without the global opprobrium or delegitimization that comes with naked voter intimidation or obvious ballot stuffing. This provides a path forward for autocratic leaders to maintain functional relations with the community of democracies while facing no real threats to their power at home.

But even though victory by the opposition being technically possible is clearly not a reasonable threshold for calling a system “democratic,” the international community has largely failed to develop a strategy, or even a vocabulary, for describing or addressing the threats of competitive authoritarianism. Fareed Zakaria questioned the utility of the “free, but not fair” framing used by so many, even as he relied on it (“Are such elections free? Technically, yes — but they are also profoundly unfair.”) in his analysis of the results of the election in Turkey. This cage of weak words illustrates how effective autocrats’ approach has been.

In Poland, PiS currently leads the polls against its closest competitor, Civic Platform (PO). When Poles go to the polls on Oct. 15, they will do so after months of indoctrination by an unrelentingly pro-regime media ecosystem, much like those endured by Turkish and Hungarian voters in recent months and years. This election will test Poland’s commitment to competitive democracy, liberalism, and European integration, but it will be far from a fair test. Meanwhile, the election will serve as a test for the communities of democratic governments and the ecosystem of international organizations that observe elections and advocate for democracy.

Instead of falling back on rhetoric that ultimately serves to obscure, rather than highlight, efforts by competitive authoritarians to illegitimately secure their own reelection, Poland’s allies and organizations that stand for democracy should openly discuss media capture and other tools of domestic election interference before the election takes place. This is essential not only to help outside audiences contextualize the results on election night, but to ensure that media regulators and the politicians who control them recognize that there is a price to be paid, in credibility, legitimacy, and geopolitical capital, if not in votes, for degrading their democracy and national institutions with wanton media manipulation.

IMAGE: Thousands of people protest outside the Polish president’s palace in Warsaw, Poland, on Dec. 19, 2021, calling on the president to veto a new media law that critics said was aimed at silencing the country’s main independent news channel. (Photo by WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images)