Is Poland becoming more authoritarian?

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By Joshua Askew
Police remove one of several protesters who had blocked the entrance of the country's constitutional court in an act of civil disobedience in Warsaw, Poland, on Aug. 30, 2022.
Police remove one of several protesters who had blocked the entrance of the country's constitutional court in an act of civil disobedience in Warsaw, Poland, on Aug. 30, 2022.   -   Copyright  Czarek Sokolowski/The AP

Alarms are being sounded over creeping authoritarianism in Poland.

A damning report published in November said the country's democracy was faltering and that key institutions were "severely backsliding".

This means the government has eroded some of the fundamental rights and freedoms that underpin Poland's political system, according to the report's authors, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). 

Examples are the reduced independence of Poland's media and judiciary system, though policing is a particular area of concern for some.

Wojciech Przybylski, president of the Res Publica Foundation think-tank, said there was an “alarming rise in eavesdropping” – with the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party embroiled in a phone tapping scandal of political opponents and journalists – besides “more and more” violent repression of demonstrators.

“Police control was already high before PiS came to power – especially in terms of internet surveillance and government intervention into online activities – but excessive policing in Poland has only accelerated over the past eight years,” said Wojciech Przybylski, president of the Res Publica Foundation think-tank.

In October, police were criticised for detaining anti-fascist protestors at a nationalist rally, while not reacting to the illegal use of Nazi symbols by other demonstrators. 

But others say the problem should not be exaggerated.

Alberto Fernández,  a senior programme officer at IDEA, told Euronews that Poland was still committed to holding free and fair elections.

Meanwhile, some commentators claim that fierce protests, particularly over the government's restriction of reproductive rights and media freedoms, reflect the health of Poland's democracy.

‘Extraordinary situation on the border’

All of this is set against the backdrop of a regional refugee crisis.

Amid swirling regional geo-political tensions in 2021, Belarus was accused of beginning to push refugees and migrants across its borders into Poland and other neighbouring EU states in an apparent bid to destabilise the bloc.

Although this has had many effects, Przybylski claims it has served as a pretext to pour more money into its police and security apparatus.

“We have a real situation on the border and we require more border police and military given the given circumstances, but the question is whether funding for police actually goes in the direction that resolves these problems,” he said.

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Members of far-right groups light flares as they try to dominate the annual Independence Day on Thursday, November 11, 2021.Czarek Sokolowski/Copyright 2021 The AP. All rights reserved

“At the same time, while the excessive funding in resources and police privileges has been increasing, the rates of homicide and the rates of personal threats against civilians have also risen.

“Something is off here. Either the [police] are not doing their job or something is seriously wrong.”

From 2019 to 2020 the murder rate in Poland did increase, although this follows a long-running fall. Crime rates in the country are comparatively lower than elsewhere in Europe.

‘Keeping power is tempting’

Soon after the PiS formed a majority government in 2015, they began reforming the judicial system, changing how judges were appointed and managed, which led to accusations that the independence of the judiciary -- a key pillar of democracy -- was being undermined.

While the public did want limited reforms to make it faster and more efficient, Przybylski says PiS used this feeling as a pretence to paralyse the existing judicial system and start building a politically controlled alternative.

In 2019, PiS brought in a new law, popularly referred to as a “muzzle law”, which allows the government to fire judges or cut their salaries for speaking out against the legislation.

Judges were not the only ones seemingly in the crosshairs, it's claimed.

"PiS took control of the public media and started using them as their mouthpiece to produce government propaganda,” said Filip Pazderski, head of the democracy and civil society programme at the Polish Institute of Public Affairs.

“They also changed the staff and how journalists were managed in order to control what kinds of messages were being spread."

In 2021, Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog, declared a “press freedom state of emergency in Poland”, citing how the state has brought up regional newspapers and crackdown on independent media.

“We took it for granted that after Communism, Poland would establish democratic institutions, adopt a constitution and new laws, [that] everything would go smoothly,” said Pazderski.

‘Illiberal alliance’

Almost immediately after getting into power, Przybylski claims PiS began imitating the political strategies of Viktor Orban, Hungary’s nationalist leader.

“There is a direct line between Budapest and Poland where governments speak to each other … and actually coordinate their policies quite closely … there is an awfully intensive relationship overall,” he says.

“What we have in Poland is Budapest solutions being copied and pasted into Warsaw.”

Months after Orban won elections in 2011, Jarosław Kaczyński, the current leader of PiS, said: "The day will come when we will succeed, and we will have Budapest in Warsaw.”

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Viktor Orban, left, and Polish PiS party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski with hammer and sickle in Duesseldorf, Germany, Shrove Monday, Feb. 12, 2018.Martin Meissner/Copyright 2018 The AP. All rights reserved.

Many commentators have suggested that Brussels -- with its political and economic influence over Warsaw and Budapest -- is at least partially responsible for allowing this “illiberal alliance” to form and grow.

“The EU has been neglecting the problem of Hungary and democracy for far too long,” said Przybylski. 

It allowed “this level of political success [that] Viktor Orban could start to replicate his formula not only for Poland but also he's been intensifying his relations and advice, political consultancy to others in Western Balkans.”

Still, the EU has taken action. Brussels recommended freezing €7.5 billion in EU funds for Hungary over rule of law concerns at the end of November.

‘There are a lot of misconceptions'

However, others have said care must be taken to avoid overstating what is happening in Poland.

“There are a lot of misconceptions,” said Alberto Fernández of IDEA. “The Polish government does not have the intention to cancel democracy.”

Instead, he said what was emerging in Poland was more like an illiberal democracy which is less open and tolerant than democracies in the west, with leaders initiating culture wars, but still preserving relatively free and fair elections.

Polish leaders have fuelled by taking more hardline stances on issues around ethnic minorities, sexual rights, the LGBTQ+ community and refugees, promoting condemnation from human rights organisations.

According to Pazderski, this is a hangover from Poland’s communist past, which fuelled suspicion between people and cynicism towards political groups.

“The government tries to say that opposition politicians and civil society groups are working against the nation […] they sow mistrust that they are not working for normal people but themselves and their own benefits,” he said.

Though not directly in the USSR, Poland was a satellite state of the Soviet Union. The communist system, which was popularly perceived as corrupt and ineffectual, collapsed in 1989.

‘Polish society is very vibrant, visible and vocal’

The perception of creeping authoritarianism in Poland has resulted in a large number of demonstrations and resistance from civil society groups and opposition politicians.

“There is a very well-organised opposition that has a completely different type of discourse from the government and really opposes its movements”, says Fernández. “Ironically, parts of Poland’s democracy are very vibrant and there is a democratic movement that is actually very difficult to find in other EU countries."

Poland also has a large independent media landscape that offers alternative views to the government.

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A view of dummies in a street to signify women who are suffering because of Poland's restrictive abortion law during a demonstration in Warsaw, Nov, 2021.Czarek Sokolowski/Copyright 2021 The AP. All rights reserved

Fighting in Ukraine has altered the picture significantly, diverting attention beyond Poland’s borders.

“The war in Ukraine has repositioned Poland … and helped realign the country slightly towards a more friendly situation with the European authorities,” says Fernández. “That may change things in the long term”.

Bordering Ukraine, Poland has borne the brunt of the fallout from Russia’s invasion, with hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians seeking safety inside its borders.

For Przybylski, this humanitarian situation is stopping the government and civil society from “pushing against each other as much.”

“It's a ceasefire, maybe,” he adds.

Poland's government did not reply to Euronews' requests to respond to this article.