How to Steal an Election in Advance

How to Steal an Election in Advance

State capture is a clean, formal phrase that describes a messy, ugly process. A political party or clique typically consolidates control over a state’s institutions only after years of bad legislation, concentrated propaganda, and many different forms of corruption. In some cases, constitutions have to be broken. Occasionally violence is required. Whole swaths of the public have to be persuaded, bribed, or frightened into going along.

In Poland, this process has been under way for eight years. After the nationalist-conservative Law and Justice party, known as PiS, legitimately won a parliamentary election in 2015, it began with an assault on the highest courts. Then it set out to dominate everything else: the national and local civil administration, regulators of all kinds, even seemingly apolitical institutions such as the forestry service. Now Poland is just days away from another parliamentary election, on October 15—an election that feels as if it were taking place in a completely different country. Some of the candidates are the same as in 2015. But the rules are different, the rhetoric is different, and the stakes are different. Inflation, migration, and women’s rights are under discussion. But in truth, only one issue is really on the ballot: Do you want PiS to complete its capture of state institutions, or do you want those institutions to belong once again to the entire country?

Before I continue, here is a very emphatic declaration of personal interest. I am married to a Polish politician, Radek Sikorski, a former foreign minister who is a member of Civic Platform, the largest opposition party. He is not a candidate in this election, but he is a member of the European Parliament, and he is campaigning on behalf of others. If that bothers you, then stop reading here. But do remember that some stories are clearer from the inside. As soon as this article is published, both my husband and I could once again be the focus of orchestrated online attacks from PiS trolling operations, more slander on state-run and state-controlled media, and maybe even more antagonism from the state institutions that use the security services to harass political opponents, including us, by orchestrating bogus financial or criminal investigations. Those same institutions have put spyware on the phones of our colleagues and friends. As in the Communist era, people in Polish politics now sometimes go outside or leave their phone in a different room when they want to speak. That’s just the price, nowadays, of being in the democratic opposition.

In this sense, the Polish political system has already diverged from other democracies. In the United States, people who watch Fox News and follow Truth Social believe in a false version of reality, one in which the 2020 election was stolen. Now imagine what would happen if an American politician could promote that lie, not just on social media but with hundreds of millions of dollars of federal-government money—your money, in other words, that you paid in your taxes—in order to hold power indefinitely. In Poland, that once unimaginable scenario has become reality.

PiS’s most important tool is state media—a couple of dozen state-owned television channels, national and local, as well as radio stations and websites—that have no American equivalent. Although Poland does have one fully independent satellite news station—TVN24, owned by Warner Bros.—subscribing to it costs money. State television is free, and for millions of people it remains the only source of political information. PiS has added 2 billion zlotys to the annual state-media budget since 2015 (some $450 million, which goes a long way in Poland). For that money, the state can produce some of the most virulent, aggressive television propaganda anywhere in the democratic world.

State media work by targeting particular people, running repetitive, angry stories about them. The main news program repeatedly describes the Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk as dishonest, treasonous, and above all, German. Tusk, who was previously the president of the European Council, once addressed a meeting of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union online during the pandemic. His brief remarks to the political party ended with a generic expression, in German, of good wishes “for Germany and for Europe.” The sentence was cut to one phrase—für Deutschland—and has been repeated scores of times on Polish state television.

Although legally obligated to be politically neutral, state television also picks themes designed to help the ruling party, especially during campaigns. In the run-up to parliamentary elections in 2019, state television ran a documentary called Invasion, about the sinister “aims, methods, and money” of the LGBTQ community. During presidential elections in 2020, the taxpayer-funded broadcaster described the opposition candidate as “serving Jewish interests.”

State media also hide or downplay genuine scandals. PiS has been telling Poles for years now that they face an existential threat from migrants coming from the Middle East. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the PiS party leader, once said that Syrians carry “parasites and protozoa,” words that had a clear echo in Poland, where in 1941, Nazi occupiers put up posters warning that Jews cause typhus. Alongside the parliamentary ballot, PiS has also organized a referendum of dubious legality. It consists of four tendentious questions, including this one: “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?

The wording is a lie: No European bureaucracy has imposed any forced-relocation mechanism. But the larger, more extraordinary lie is the implication that PiS actually cares about stopping migrants from “the Middle East and Africa.” In truth, this government has allowed tens of thousands of migrants from the Middle East, Africa, Central and South Asia to enter Poland, which now has more immigrants than at any other time in modern history. In Warsaw, I have randomly met Tajiks, Mongols, Uzbeks, and Pakistanis who are delivering packages, driving taxis, working on construction sites. Their presence has nothing to do with European bureaucracy. Instead, media reports estimate that as many as 250,000 non-European migrants have recently entered the country, many after purchasing visas from corrupt PiS officials or intermediaries.

The details of this swindle, recently leaked to Polish independent media, are astonishing. One foreign-ministry official described a booth set up outside a Polish consulate in Africa, where people lined up to hand over cash. Another scandal involved a group of Indians, described falsely as a Bollywood-film team, who purchased hard-to-get EU visas from a Polish consulate in India for up to 40,000 euros apiece, intending to use them to travel to Mexico. From there, they hoped to cross the U.S. border. If you want to know how a would-be migrant might get from Mumbai to the Rio Grande, this is one answer.

Several officials, including the deputy foreign minister, have been sacked for selling visas. German and EU officials want explanations, particularly because one former PiS minister has said he believes that the government was deliberately admitting migrants who it knew would head for Germany. The Germans have set up temporary controls on Poland’s western border. But the foreign-policy implications are less significant than the breathtaking hypocrisy of PiS officials: Even their racism turned out to be less powerful than their greed.

[Read: Poland is not ready to accept a new McCarthyism]

And what will the audience of state television learn about this story? Almost nothing. Even this week, many days after the scandal broke, the evening news is still telling them that Donald Tusk and Civic Platform want to bring more migrants to Poland, and still telling them that only PiS can protect Poland from this deluge.

But media directly owned by the state are only part of the story. State-owned and state-controlled companies are also major contributors to PiS propaganda. The Polish state gas and oil company, PKN Orlen, directly owns 20 out of 24 Polish regional daily newspapers as well as 120 weekly magazines (just as Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled gas company, owns media properties in Russia), and uses them to attack the opposition and support the government. State companies lavishly fund foundations and other nongovernmental organizations that spread pro-government messaging. Utility companies have sent messages to voters directly on their monthly bills, praising government policies and attacking the European Union. Orlen appears to have artificially lowered gas prices in advance of the election (which the company denies).

Individually, the highly paid executives of these state enterprises, who are supposed to be working on behalf of the country, not the ruling party, are also helping fund the government’s campaign, including a massive, targeted online advertising campaign of unprecedented scale. Normally there would be limits on contributions, but because of the referendum, those limits have been removed. No opposition party can raise the money to compete, particularly because many Polish businessmen know that helping the opposition means they could lose licenses and contracts with state institutions—or even become targets of trumped-up tax or corruption investigations. Some will even donate to the ruling party, just to stay out of jail.

[Read: Can Poland roll back authoritarian populism]

The tactics that Americans call gerrymandering and voter suppression play a big role in Poland too. District maps that were due to be redrawn years ago have not been changed, meaning that urban areas, which are more likely to vote for the opposition, will be underrepresented. Hundreds of thousands of Poles working abroad—also more likely to vote for the opposition—have to vote in person at a limited number of sites, which means many won’t be able to vote at all. By contrast, hundreds of additional polling stations have been added in rural Poland, so that people more likely to support PiS can vote more easily. New rules will also slow down the vote-counting process, while at the same time discounting any results not received in 24 hours. Overburdened polling stations in big cities, in Poland or abroad, may not make the cutoff.

The opposition can in theory still win, and indeed should win: Together, the three parties that would return Poland to a fully functioning democracy easily outpoll PiS. But the three-way division of the anti-authoritarian vote could yield fewer seats than a single opposition party would receive—a situation that will be made far worse if one of the parties fails to get enough votes to enter Parliament at all. The peculiarities of the voting system make the final outcome hard to predict. A few percentage points’ swing for or against one of the smaller parties could radically shift the final result.

This particular quirk of Polish politics helps explain another aspect of the election campaign that has surprised outsiders. There is a fifth party, Konfederacja, which models itself after the pro-Russian, anti-Ukrainian far-right parties that are gaining prominence elsewhere in Europe. One of its slogans is “No welfare payments for Ukrainians.” The language it uses was unacceptable in Polish politics just a few years ago, as was its anti-Semitism; now, thanks to state television, xenophobes sit happily in mainstream Polish politics, and PiS wants to win their votes. Also, thanks either to corruption or the incompetence of the PiS government, Ukrainian grain that was supposed to transit across Poland in recent months was allowed to fill Polish grain silos instead. Prices fell, angering the farmers whose votes PiS needs to win.

These two factors help explain Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s now frequent public outbursts against Ukraine, as well as his declaration that Poland will cease sending weapons to the country—a statement that appears not even to be true. From the outside, this eruption of ill will might be hard to understand. Yet the damage it did was incalculable, destroying the genuine transatlantic unity that is absolutely necessary for Ukraine to win the war, and self-destructive as well: If the war is prolonged because the Kremlin thinks allied support for Ukraine is faltering, that’s very bad for Poland indeed.

But the ruling party’s political concerns override the national interest. Why? Because electoral loss would be a personal catastrophe for PiS members, their relatives, and their friends. Before 2015, Poland had an imperfect but mostly apolitical public service. Now Poland has replaced its apolitical civil servants with a system of patronage, comparable to the one that existed in 19th-century America. Whole areas of public life have been politicized, from the judiciary and the prosecutors to the national and local public administration, right down to the level of small towns and villages. Thousands of civil servants were fired for their perceived political affiliations, as were military leaders and diplomats. When my husband and some local political leaders were campaigning at a public event a few days ago, members of a local fire brigade told them that they were very sorry, but they could not be photographed with opposition politicians, because they might be fired too.

[Anne Applebaum: The disturbing campaign against Polish judges]

In that sense, Poland already resembles an autocracy. I say that even though a loud, energetic election campaign is unfolding across the country, and even though hundreds of thousands of people joined an opposition march on Sunday, possibly the largest demonstration in the history of Warsaw. But if the central feature of modern kleptocracy is a ruling party that has claimed control of state institutions, both to enrich itself and to remain in power, Poland already matches that description. Whatever social or economic reasons led people to vote for PiS back in 2015 are now of little significance, given how dramatically these captured state institutions have changed the country.

I’ve heard several people in recent weeks describe the Polish political system, like the Turkish and Hungarian systems, as “free but not fair.” This is a deep misunderstanding: Long before anyone starts counting votes, this election will already have been severely distorted. This campaign is neither free nor fair, and also offers a lesson to other democracies, including the U.S., about the high price they will pay if they elect autocratic leaders who openly seek to capture the state. Victory for the opposition in this election is the only chance Poland has to prevent this system from becoming permanent. That’s why PiS will sacrifice anything—Poland’s economy, Poland’s alliances, Poland’s physical safety—in order to win.

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