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Lessons from Poland’s democratic resurgence

''March of Million Hearts," pro-democratic rally in Warsaw gathered up to 1M participants (according to city officials), led by Donald Tusk, former Prime Minister of Poland and President of the European Council - and a leader of democratic opposition in Poland. (Piotr Lapinski/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
''March of Million Hearts," pro-democratic rally in Warsaw gathered up to 1M participants (according to city officials), led by Donald Tusk, former Prime Minister of Poland and President of the European Council - and a leader of democratic opposition in Poland. (Piotr Lapinski/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

For almost a decade, Poland’s democracy was in retreat.

But last fall, Poland successfully elected a pro-democracy government coalition.

What can its democratic resurgence teach the rest of the world?

Today, On Point: Lessons from Poland’s democratic resurgence.


Magdalena Góra, associate professor of political science at the Institute of European Studies of the Jagiellonian University.

Erica Frantz, associate professor of political science at Michigan State University.

Jan Kubik, political anthropologist at Rutgers University who studies the relationship between power and culture, social movements and protest politics, particularly in Poland.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Each year, the Swedish International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance publishes a report about the state of democracies worldwide. Its most recent findings are sobering. The number of stable democracies has shrunk since 2000, the Institute finds. More recently, in the past decade, half of the world’s democracies showed signs of being in retreat, meaning freedom of expression, representative governments, impartial administration of the law, clean elections, personal security, civil liberties, and more are diminishing in those nations.

Case in point, Poland. In 2015, Poland’s Law and Justice Party, a right-wing populist party, took power, winning the parliamentary elections that year. And the new government acted quickly.

(POLISH) Poland’s lower house of parliament has passed a controversial law that gives the government more power over the Supreme Court.

It would mean the removal and replacement of all Supreme Court judges.

CHAKRABARTI: Many Polish people roared in protest, filling the streets to fight against the new government’s push.

“We want a veto! And “free the courts,” they shouted.

Those protests and actions by the European Union helped delay, but not end, the party’s judicial reforms. By 2021, the Law and Justice Party successfully stripped Poland of its judicial independence, replacing all 15 judges on its constitutional court. And judicial independence is one of the hallmarks of a flourishing democracy.

Now, it’s often thought that once a democracy is in retreat, that nation is trapped in an inexorable, decades long slide toward authoritarianism. But Poland is proving that democratic breakdown is, in fact, not inevitable. In late 2023, just last year, the Polish people went to the polls in parliamentary elections and ousted the Law and Justice party from rule. Three parties, civic platform, third way and the left won 248 parliamentary seats.

They’ve pledged to form a governing coalition. The Law and Justice party won 194 seats.

“This result might still be better,” declared Donald Tusk, the leader of the Civic Platform opposition party. “But already today, we can say this is the end of the bad time. This is the end of Law and Justice rule.”

And in December, Tusk became Poland’s new prime minister. So is Poland’s democracy clawing its way back? What can the rest of the world learn as more than 60 nations, including the United States, hold their own national elections this year? Magdalena Góra joins us today. She’s an associate professor of political science at the Institute of European Studies of the Jagiellonian University, and she joins us from Krakow, Poland.

Professor Góra, welcome.

MAGDALENA GÓRA: Hello, thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So I will admit that I do not speak a word of Polish. So could you just properly pronounce the name of your university so that everyone hears it in its correct form?

GÓRA: Meghna, you were very close. It’s Jagiellonian University.

CHAKRABARTI: Jagiellonian University.

Okay, thank you so much. One of the joys of this job is to learn little bits and pieces of all the beautiful languages of the world. So let’s actually start with a deeper understanding of the Law and Justice Party. Can you tell us a little bit about how it formed, who its founders were, and what the party stands for?

GÓRA: Yes, the Law and Justice Party was founded in 2001 by Jarosław Kaczyński its leader back then and now, and who very recently promised that he’s going to stay in the position of a party leader. Jaroslaw Kaczynski is actually closely connected with not only a history of Polish democratic transformation since 1989, but it actually was a figure in a democratic position.

Fighting communist rules in previous decades. His original party formations that he founded in the nineties were actually rather centrist with a little bit of a right-wing agenda to it. But with time, particularly since the beginning of 2000 years, his formation Law and Justice started to slowly developed the conservative right-wing outlook.

The party came into power for the first time, just the really years after Poland joined the European Union on 1st of May 2004. And Law and Justice won, Peace Party won the first elections in 2005. And they were ruling in a coalition with minor partners, the sort of populist agrarian party, self-defense, and the right wing a younger coalition partner League of Polish Families. In Polish it’s Liga Polskich Rodzin.

He was unable, and Law and Justice was unable to keep the power until the full term in office of the parliament. Poland has a cabinet system in which the majority in parliament selects the government and the prime minister. However, in the meantime Jaroslaw Kaczyński and his party was growingly attracting the politicians from the smaller formations.

And in a way, he contributed to ultimate destruction of the smaller parties, which basically were becoming a part of Law and Justice. But in that process, it was actually getting more right wing. The next government that was formed after Law and Justice was unable to govern longer was a civic platform by Donald Tusk.

And in that period, when Law and Justice was in opposition, it was slowly, but surely, moving towards more conservative and right-wing agenda.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. Can you just tell me a little bit more, then, of what the platform or the preferred policies of the Law and Justice Party were and are that makes you clearly describe them as not just right wing, but very right wing now?

What did they aim to do or how did they aim to transform Poland?

GÓRA: I think it was already visible when they regain power in elections in 2015, that on top of the reforms that you’ve mentioned earlier, the sort of judicial overhaul and a set of reforms that were promised to the electorate in terms of reforming the system wasn’t perfect in the first place. But their reforms were aiming at I think changing the position and somehow controlling the judiciary as a ruling party by executive. But they were also promoting a conservative agenda that was specifically, I think, visible in their anti-pluralist approach which is very typical for populist and right-wing movements in Europe and elsewhere.

And two areas, I think, were very specific to illustrate this. The first was the decision to limit women’s reproductive health rights. And that was a constant process in which those rights were gradually limited in Poland.

CHAKRABARTI: Can you tell me a little bit more how, what specifically was done?

GÓRA: I think, again Poland, one needs to remember during the communist period after the end of the Second World War, under the communist rule, had a very specific relation to the women’s equality. But at the same time, bringing some of the progressive one would say solutions, but at the same time it was a conservative society with a very dominant position of a Roman Catholic church.

So after the turn. after the democratic transformation in 1989, from the beginning of the ’90s. In Poland, more or less, existed so called abortion consensus in which abortion was only permitted in cases of serious threat to the life or health of a pregnant woman. And that consensus was on top of the agenda and electoral promise of Law and Justice to be changed.

And in 2017, the party put the motion to the constitutional tribunal that they in the meantime took control of, which was already explained, to assess the constitutionality of abortion in the case of a high probability of a severe fetal impairments or incurable disease. And the constitution and the tribunal in October 2020 ruled that such eugenic cases are unconstitutional.

And that resulted in the law change, and since that period, the Polish law permits abortion only to safeguard the life or health of the women or where a pregnancy results from rape or incest. However, of course, what followed, which also depicts the conservative agenda, was that this followed with growing cases of criminalization of those helping in access to abortion, as well as casualties among the women who were in the troubled pregnancies and searching for help, that actually their health was not prioritized in hospitals.

So that illustrates the sort of agenda that is not only formal legal changes, but it also was reflected in the specific policies.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. Retraction of women’s reproductive rights, politicizing the judiciary, which we talked about, Law and Justice also wanted to take control of Polish public media.

We have about 30 seconds before our first break. So I want you to just quickly describe another interesting thing. It seems like they were not very keen on the European Union either.

GÓRA: Yes, I think one of the interesting things that happened is that the Polish society overall, which Poland joined the European Union in 2004. And Polish society, also the voters of the right wing formation is actually quite positive about the European Union.

And then what the conflict on rule of law depicted is the growing politicization of what do we mean by belonging to Europe?

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: I want to spend a little bit more time trying to deeply understand the Law and Justice Party, because I think we can’t really fully understand if Poland is clawing its way back towards a truly flourishing democracy before we understand, again, from an American audience, understands what the Law and Justice Party was actually all about.

So you said that they had raised the question of what does it actually mean to belong to the European Union? It’s a fundamentally important one because in many other EU countries, that same question is really up for debate. Brexit being the primary example of a nation deciding they didn’t want to be part of the European Union.

So how was that question answered by Law and Justice in Poland?

GÓRA: I think the Law and Justice started to build the narrative around the European Union that it is fine, very few parties in Europe after Brexit are really rejecting European integration or its benefits, but they were locating themselves in a position that we sometimes refer to as a sovereigntist, one in which the nation state in that case, Poland, needs to be strong and protected. And the integration is to some extent, an addition to it. That brings benefits but the core structure is a national sovereignty where the decisions supposed to be held and union cannot tell you what to do.

In reality, of course, many people refer to European Union as a federalized order, right? In which, of course, it’s not a federation, but in many areas, policy areas, the union, of course, together with member states and its citizens, but decides on things that the government needs to implement later on.

And in that area, Law and Justice stood on a position to keep as many competences and a national level. And allow European Union institutions to do only what is really necessary to keep primarily economic benefits.

CHAKRABARTI: So can I just jump in here for a second because this is really important. I know in Europe’s oftentimes critics of the European Union speak of Brussels in the way that Americans when criticizing our federal government speak of Washington, right?

It’s shorthand for centralized rule that’s disconnected from the good of people far away. But honestly, I want to ask this again, from the Polish perspective, is not that criticism of an overreach of centralized lawmaking in Brussels, a totally legitimate one. What’s wrong with what the Law and Justice party was saying that we need to maintain national sovereignty, but while at the same time gleaning any benefits we can from EU membership.

GÓRA: I think it’s actually the playbook of most of the Europe skeptic actors that they are blaming EU of having or being too bureaucratic, having too many resources into this stuff, technocratic ruling, if you wish, whether that is true, I think many disagree. I’m talking about the researchers, but for Law and Justice and other parties of this type, it is also a very useful other.

You can put a lot of blame on Brussels to say, oh, they did it wrong. Many governments and ruling parties are actually playing with this game that whatever is good is actually our sake or thanks to us. And whatever goes wrong is blamed on Brussels, and you don’t need to be a populist right-wing party to do it in Europe.

But the Law and Justice or peace I think the major, a critical point when it comes to it was a long rule of law crisis between EU institutions and particularly European Commission and the government. And what it showed is also that they question, in many instances, the foundations of the European Union and that in itself through contesting the fundamentals of liberal democracy.

And through that, I think that conflict is very important to understand how you deal with the actor who is basically rejecting the foundations of a project. And you can imagine clearly that other countries could be concerned. Because that’s the order too, their national legislations are to the same extent impacted by the fact what Brussels can or cannot do in a way.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So is there also an age divide in Poland regarding EU skepticism?

GÓRA: I think overall it is characteristic by the education or age. And the young people, particularly urbanites living in the rural areas, they are having tendency to be more conservative, pro-European. But I think the Polish society is pro-European even across these typical indicators.

What I think is interesting is how they are locating themselves in terms of judging. What’s the most important for you, right? Then for the younger generations, a lot of the benefits that European integration brings are very important, freedom of mobility. You can work wherever you want.

You can go to study. You have access to different resources. For some, maybe older generations. This anti pluralist vision that Law and Justice was promoting, I think in many instances, really some version of idealized past, right? That was utilizing a certain nostalgia for the better times in the past, in which the Poland was independent, in which the nation state is a key structure.

That order your life, right? This is it here.

CHAKRABARTI: So those better times being what, pre communism Poland?

GÓRA: I think not necessarily. Nostalgia is often a historical, if you wish, in a sense that what was past is not necessarily connected to the place in historical times, but rather to the fact when you were young and strong, in a sense, as an individual person.

So of course, for some, it was the time. But I think it was also the ’90s. But in peace narratives, it’s also very often actually reaching beyond that. It’s to the times of the interwar period in Poland was independent, it is not necessarily a historical process if you wish, though it’s like, longing for ’80s or 1970s.

CHAKRABARTI: Forgive me for having interrupted, but I think you’re making such an exquisitely important point, right? That it’s a nostalgia for an idea versus actual, historically factual times. And we’re seeing that in many countries across the world, including here in the United States. Now, just a couple of more questions about Law and Justice, before we get to the most recent elections.

How did Law and Justice actually win back in 2015, given, if I understand correctly, that they didn’t even win a majority of votes in a parliamentary election?

GÓRA: No, I think the result Peace received was something about 37.5%, which is only 2% more than they received in 2023 elections. That shows that their electoral base is more or less stable.

It was increasing in 2019 because that was after the first term in office they have, and there is always a kind of bonus for the ruler in proportional systems. And I think that the major reasons why they won in 2015 is first that they were following at two terms in office of the previous government, which was rather putting attention to stability.

Sort of things as they are. Law and Justice came with a fairly, at that time, interesting points from the point of view of voters, particularly when it comes to social benefits. So they were promising that the social benefits should be increased.

For instance, the benefits for parents, the bonus for a child that took a form of a monthly payment of approximately $120 monthly per child that goes directly to parent’s account, and it’s supposed to be spent for whatever parent knows the best kid needs, and that was for every child, regardless of the financial situation of the family. Additional social benefits for retirement to support retirements.

… And this was in line, was I think a sentiment that when the democratic transform and economic transformation started in 1989, a lot of people were convinced that we just need to work hard, spend little and concentrate for rebuilding the country and building the prosperity.

And I think Law and Justice in 2015, actually, the years before, came, was the promise, maybe it’s time that we start, consume some of the fruits of our hard work over the past decades, right? We developed already, right? We are members of the European Union. It’s time to start redistribute within a country. And that was, you can see how popular this was because the current government maintain that promise in the current, so they continue the policy.

CHAKRABARTI: That actually makes a lot of sense, right? Because the idea of redistributing some of the fruits of a nation’s hard work is that’s appealing, regardless of a person’s political standpoint, whether it be liberal, conservative, left wing or right wing.

I think that the complication, obviously, in Poland is that that line of thinking came along with all of the additional anti-democratic policies, which we’ve discussed a little earlier in the show. Now, Professor Góra, you’ve mentioned some very important dates in the past several minutes in Poland’s modern history, 1989, the 90s, etc.

So I’m wondering if we can just take a moment to examine that history much more closely. And in order to do that, we spoke with Jan Kubik, who is a political anthropologist at Rutgers University, who studies social movements and political protests, particularly in Poland. And he told us that a true understanding of Poland’s most recent election does require us to go back to one of the most remarkable national transitions in modern global history.

And that is, as we’ve mentioned, Poland’s transformation from Communist Party rule to liberal democracy, which began more than 40 years ago when Poland was still under the Soviet sphere of influence.

JAN KUBIK: The Polish People’s Republic was the most liberal country in the Soviet bloc. Poland had one of the best theaters in the world at major universities in Kraków.

You had a lot of intellectual freedom compared to the neighboring countries. The sense was more things were possible, and there were periodically rebellions. Acts of resistance. Almost like on the clock, every 10, 12 years, there was something happening.

NEWS BRIEF: Touching off demonstrations in Poland.

Demonstrations which quickly mushroomed into demands for freedom from the iron Soviet heel.

KUBIK: In 1978, something happens that nobody could have predicted.

NEWS BRIEF: When Senior Cardinal Deacon Pericle Felici announced the name of the new Pope, most of those in the square couldn’t quite catch it. This name didn’t even sound Italian.

Karol Wojtyla of Poland, the first non-Italian Pope in Europe.

KUBIK: The Cardinal of Krakow, Wojtyla, was selected as the next Pope, John Paul II. And then he comes to Poland in ’79, and during his visit, he was talking about the dignity of human work. We talk about the workers, we talk about the unions. This is what communists were talking about.

But nobody believed that language, because people knew that it was all fake. And here’s someone who reclaims that language. And as someone said, people could look around and see how many of us are there. And that were united. And this was one of those moments you start thinking maybe what we very firmly believe that we will never see the end of state socialism of communism.

That maybe, just maybe, there is a chance.

This was a communist state-run economy. So everything would cost the same across the whole country. And then from time to time they were running a deficit, and they would raise the prices and that usually provoke rebellions. The next one comes in August 1980.

NEWS BRIEF: Good evening. This is the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk in Poland, the center of the strike that has rocked the communist world to its foundations.

We came because we wanted to meet —

KUBIK: This time, the workers, having behind them also the experience of participating in the Pope’s visit, they draw the list of 21 demands, which has the demand to create an independent union, independent from the Communist Party, demanding professional, personal, and political freedoms.

They eventually lead up to the formation of Solidarity Union. And by the end of the month, you have almost 700,000 people on strike in about 700 enterprises. In all 49 regions of Poland, and eventually the communists relented, and they signed the agreement. And then by late 1988, the communist’s economic situation is absolutely dismal.

They come to the conclusion they need to negotiate again. And then early ’89 in a very quick succession, elections, which are partially free. The communists reserved for themselves 65% of the seats in the lower house of the parliament, but they agreed to the creation of the upper house opening the races for 100 Senate seats.

They lost all of them. Solidarity took 99 plus one independent senator. Faced with that, the Communist Party started disintegrating and that opens the way for the formation of the Solidarity Cabinet. With Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first non-communist prime minister in Eastern Europe since the late 1940s.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Jan Kubik, professor of political science at Rutgers University. And with that history in mind, we’re talking about Poland’s most recent elections that just took place late last year, and whether the country is showing that it’s possible to claw back from a democratic backslide that Poland had been experiencing since its 2015 election.

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