Illiberal democracy comes to Poland

“Illiberal democracy” is an unfortunate term that exists because it’s hard to think of a better one. Many dislike the phrase, on the grounds that a leader who violates the rules of democracy should not be called “democratic” at all, but something else — perhaps “dictatorial.”

And yet there is a form of politics that really does lie outside what we used to mean by “democracy” but isn’t quite dictatorship either, though it can certainly end up there, as it has in Turkey and Russia. Right now, the most glaring example of illiberal democracy can be found in Poland, where a legitimately elected government is breaking the constitution, both in letter and in spirit. Since taking power in autumn 2015, the Law and Justice party has undermined and disempowered the constitutional court, politicized the civil service, and turned public media into a crude party propaganda organ. The defense minister wants to create a “territorial army” that would be directly responsible to him and not part of the chain of command. Fearing that the goal is to create a ruling-party paramilitary, some of the army’s most senior generals have retired.

Law and Justice politicians have a mandate to rule. They have a slim parliamentary majority, which they won with just over a third of the popular vote, thanks to the fact that their center-left and center-right opponents were divided. But they do not have a mandate to change the political system. They do not have a constitutional majority. They do not have the popular backing of the majority. Their moderate election campaign did not mention constitutional change, let alone a politicized civil service or a territorial army answerable only to a politician.

Under these circumstances, what should opposition politicians do? Or ordinary citizens? There are no easy choices. Polish politicians can still speak on the privately owned television channels or in Parliament, which they have done, with little impact. Citizens can demonstrate, and they’ve done that too, with a bit more impact. Impressive street demonstrations have been called to protest the government’s attack on the constitutional court and freedom of assembly. A women’s protest held in dozens of cities did succeed in stopping a proposal to criminalize abortion, but none of the others have achieved much beyond some tweaks.

As the government tightens its grip, protesters have become angrier. Last week, the speaker of Parliament excluded an opposition MP from the debating chamber for objecting to rules that will make it harder for journalists to cover Parliament. His colleagues “occupied” the podium in protest. In response, the speaker moved the debate to another room and held votes of dubious legality. Because these events were broadcast live on television, thousands of people came to Parliament to protest once again.

Some of them tried to stop government ministers from driving away, even throwing themselves in front of cars. That had no effect either. The government has so far refused to redo the irregular votes. Protesters are threatened with prosecution.

Now we come to the hard part: What next? When your government behaves illegally, is the right response civil disobedience? That could backfire: Many Poles wouldn’t like chaotic or violent protests, and the government is threatening to escalate too. Anti-riot vehicles have been ostentatiously parked in front of Parliament, a sight creepily reminiscent of the communist 1980s.

To date, outside pressure — protests from the European Union, the Council of Europe, the White House — have had little impact, perhaps because they weren’t accompanied by any sanctions. But this too is a dilemma for the opposition: What Polish politician wants to call for the E.U. to cut its subsidies to Poland?

Economic pressure may eventually come from markets. Eighteen months ago, a director at a European bank told me that its Polish team was the most productive and successful it had. Now, foreign banks, fearing unpredictable taxes and a capricious legal system, are selling or weighing sales of Polish assets. The stock market and the currency have been sinking steadily for a year. Still, it will take time to destroy what had been a thriving economy. Democracy can be dismantled much faster.

There will be new elections, in 2½ years. But under what conditions? Will private media still operate two years from now, or will government pressure on advertisers have forced it into bankruptcy? Will the judicial system have been politicized? Will government handouts to supporters — welfare payments, jobs for party members — create a base for authoritarianism? Will political opponents be prosecuted? Here I declare an interest: I am married to the former Polish foreign minister, now out of politics, whom the ruling-party leader wants to charge for “treason,” along with other ex-politicians.

There aren’t any good answers to any of those questions right now, because there aren’t any obvious ways to fight illiberal democracy democratically. So send warm thoughts to the Poles who might be protesting over the holidays — it gets cold here in December — and keep your fingers crossed that it doesn’t happen in your country next.

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