Quarterly Concerns

Sep 28, 2023

Poland’s Election and the Populist Playbook

Can an unfair election campaign produce a fair result? After Hungary and Turkey, Poland, too, might drift deeper into illiberalism.

An Illustration of a Polish eagle picking at an EU flag
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On a warm evening in October 2015, an elderly politician climbed onto the stage. Dressed in a black suit and mourning tie, he stood in front of members of his party, Law and Justice (PiS), which was celebrating a somewhat unexpected election victory. It was Jarosław Kaczyński. His face did not radiate the joyful exhaustion of a victor, though. “There will be no revenge,” he said mysteriously, referring to the former government.

Revenge or not, eight years later the PiS government has significantly changed Poland in many areas. Its critics point, in particular, to the processes that have turned the once liberal democracy into a hybrid system. These include the attack, unprecedented in the Third Republic established after 1989, on the independent judiciary and media, the discrimination against minorities, e.g., LGBTQ+ people, and the restriction of women's rights.

In 2018, Kaczyński, all-powerful but not officially part of the government for most of the party’s time in office, revealed that, in order to change Poland, he wished for at least three parliamentary terms. No wonder that today, after two terms, both sides of the political conflict in Poland—the government and the opposition—are agreed on one thing: The parliamentary election that awaits Poland in a fortnight’s time will decide everything. For the Polish “zebra,” which in recent years has displayed in turns both an authoritarian character and democratic remnants, the possible scenarios are twofold. Either Poland will permanently slide into an authoritarian era, or the reconstruction of the previous political system will begin.

The Precedents

What to expect exactly from the vote on October 15? Before we answer in detail, let us recall two elections in countries politically not so distant from Poland.

On April 3, 2022, elections were held in Hungary. At the time, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was seeking a fifth term in office after an uninterrupted 12 years in government. This time there were many indications that Orbán’s long era soon might be a thing of the past. The opposition formed a single coalition and chose a common candidate. The polls looked promising, and many Hungarians hoped for a profound change in their country. Until the day after the election, when it emerged that the Orbán-led Fidesz had won as many as 135 seats out of the 199 available in the Hungarian parliament.

Just a few months ago a similar story played out in Turkey: First the opposition’s high hopes, backed up by favorable polls, and finally a bitter electoral defeat of the opposition and another term in office for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Could such a scenario be repeated in Poland? In theory, the two main parties contesting the election—Jarosław Kaczyński’s PiS and Donald Tusk’s Civic Coalition (KO)—are head-to-head. Most polls give PiS support of 30 percent or more. The difference between PiS and KO, however, is only a few percentage points, and there are occasional polls in which the opposition leads. Additionally, the number of undecided voters or those refusing to answer is as high as 10 percent in some of the surveys, thus one would assume that the scales of victory could tip to either side. The election day could deliver a surprise—as can happen in any functioning democracy.

What makes the future so difficult to predict is that PiS’ populist revolution has changed so much in the dynamics of the Polish polity. One of the great theorists of revolutionary change, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote about the “dark depths of the future.” In Poland’s case, it applies both ways: A KO win would also mean the first step onto an unknown path.

Flooded with State Money

Contemporary mechanisms of democratic backsliding bring more surprises than the authoritarian regimes of the past. First, populists do not try to rig elections—they rig the election campaign instead. The one unfolding in Poland now is neither fair nor based on equality of opportunity between the opposing political parties. Huge quantities of state money are being spent on the election campaign of the ruling party. Examples? The police and the military are being used in government-organized picnics to pose for social media material. At a recent picnic in Sarnowa Góra, a small town in central Poland, a Black Hawk police helicopter was called in for a demonstration. The machine flew several times over the heads of the gathered onlookers and then snapped a power line, causing an eruption of collective panic.

This is not the only way PiS is using public money to fund its potential success. On election day, a referendum will be held, too, following the Hungarian model from last year. It is a legal ploy to use a vast amount of state money to promote this vote, and indeed to the ruling party’s advantage. Each of the four vaguely-worded questions gives the impression of an additional plebiscite on the effectiveness of government propaganda. Just to quote one of the questions: "Do you support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, in accordance with the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy?" Needless to say, there is no doubt that a question posed in this way will frighten enough citizens to give a negative answer.

The Anti-Scandal Media Shield

Second, instead of censorship mechanisms based on restricting information, national populists are happy to use too much information. Their own message is thus multiplied in national and social media. When it comes to the former, they have been transformed into a 24/7 election spot for the ruling party, while the opposition's message has been so limited as to be literally invisible to parts of the public.

A good example of the consequences of this state of affairs is the visa scandal recently exposed by journalists. The government stands accused of having sold hundreds of thousands of visas to visitors from Asia and Africa, amidst gigantic corruption. Although the scandal is getting more and more coverage in the opposition media, government-friendly new outlets are silent on the subject, instead constantly showing images of the humanitarian tragedy in Lampedusa. When it comes to social media, PiS has already spent approximately 1.5 million zlotys (around €325,000) on an online campaign. Just by comparison, KO has only spent around 70,000 zlotys (€15,000) to date.

Illiberalism Made in the EU

Third, populists see no point in restricting freedom of assembly. Admittedly, classic definitions of authoritarianism, such as Juan Linz’, refer to civil society being undermined, through arrests, physical attacks on demonstrators, criminal sanctions, and so on. In contemporary populism, however, protests are beneficial for populists because they release a certain social frustration. This was the case in Poland over the last few years, for example, on the issue of reproductive rights. Polish women and men demonstrated en masse for the first time as early as 2016, and then in 2020 and beyond.

The strategy of the populists is to call these protests often, either to eventually exhaust or radicalize them, which in turn carries favorable material for propaganda. Also, freedom of speech is theoretically not restricted. The authorities can be criticized at will, except in one case: when someone has a strong foreign channel of communication—such as director Agnieszka Holland, who has recently been ruthlessly attacked by the incumbent justice minister, the president, as well as by an online troll campaign, for her film “The Green Border.” Though hard to believe, Holland has been accused of being the heir of Nazi propagandists, and her viewers have been denounced as similar to Nazi collaborators in occupied Poland during World War II. (The authors of this article have had a similar experience, following the publication of one of our essays in The New York Times, in which we criticized Poland’s lacking rule of law.)

Reluctant Democrats?

So, is it impossible for the Polish opposition to win? Not necessarily. Taking the share of undecided voters into account, as well as the scandals surrounding PiS that have emerged just before the elections, it’s not a scenario that should be ruled out. There is also the government’s sudden U-turn with regard to Ukraine, which has outraged a lot of voters.

Particularly noteworthy at the moment is Donald Tusk, who is informally standing at the head of the opposition parties. This exceptionally experienced politician, former Polish prime minister and former president of the European Council, decided to return to Polish politics in 2021 in order to try to beat Jarosław Kaczyński once again.

Yet, his balance sheet after two years on the Polish political scene is ambiguous. On the one hand, there is no doubt that Tusk has succeeded in fundamentally increasing the support for his own party. When Tusk returned in the summer of 2021, KO stood at barely 16 percent in the polls, and the centrist grouping of former TV star Szymon Holownia was among the dark horses in potential elections. Currently, Holownia’s grouping, the Trzecia Droga (Third Way), formed together with Władysław Kosiniak Kamysz’s Polish People’s Party (PSL), is in a relatively distant fourth place in the polls, while KO is scoring close to PiS. Tusk is a great speaker, skillful on social media, and in recent months has more than once been able to get the better of PiS’ key players. On the other hand, even well-meaning observers have been critical of Tusk’s political strategy. He is a politician who is intolerant of competitors either within his own party or on the wider opposition scene. Hence, he limits the activities and popularity of others, concentrating all the power in his own hand.

Back to the ABC of Democracy

But what might happen after the elections? Many observers believe that if the opposition were to win, the situation would somehow normalize, and the pre-2015 political system would simply be reestablished. However, things are not quite so simple. First, it is not so clear whether the party that wins the elections will be the same one that forms the government. PiS may need the help of the Confederation, a party with fascist tendencies, which will push Poland even further toward authoritarianism. KO may not get along with Trzecia Droga, after many campaign misunderstandings and the humiliation of the leader of the smaller party. Second, PiS has made changes to the Polish third estate in an unconstitutional way, while the opposition wants to fix it in accordance with the 1997 constitution. This is an arduous process, during which there may be pushback that the electorate will not like, and which may be torpedoed by President Andrzej Duda (PiS), who will remain in office until 2024, and by the Constitutional Tribunal and the Supreme Court, which are subordinate to PiS, too.

In their new book, Tyranny of the Minority, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that populist victories in recent years are linked by a bizarre paradox. They occur at a time when a given democracy is just facing a historic opportunity to be the best, the most effective, the most pluralistic in the history of a given country to date. This was the case, the authors point out, in the case of Donald Trump’s 2016 win in the United States and the same, we should add, in Poland in 2015. Unfortunately, after serious damage done to state institutions and the delicate fabric of democracy, getting out of this place will be difficult and require creativity, patience, and a vast amount of time.

Jarosław Kuisz is the editor-in-chief of the Polish weekly Kultura Liberalna and author of The New Politics of Poland (2023).

Karolina Wigura is a board member of the Kultura Liberalna Foundation and a senior fellow at the Center for Liberal Modernity (LibMod) in Berlin. Their book Posttraumatische Souveränität [Posttraumatic Sovereignty] will be published by Suhrkamp in October 2023.

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