Poland’s Fight for Its Democratic Future

On Sunday, July 12, Poland will return to the polls for the second round of presidential elections. The health and well-being of Polish democracy and the independence of its institutions have been repeatedly called into question. Unlike Hungary, where democracy has been nearly dismantled, there has been an ongoing fight for Poland’s democratic future. Every free and fair election presents an opportunity for positive change. And with this election, Poland faces a crucial choice, one that will inform the future course of its democracy and its relationship with the European Union and NATO.

Since the ruling Law and Justice Party’s (PiS) returned to power in 2015, it has steadily reduced the independence and democratic accountability of its judiciary, the media, and other key institutions. Wielding the power from its 2015 parliamentary victory, PiS quickly took tighter control of state-run radio and television through the passage of a controversial media law and attempted to take control of private, foreign-owned media outlets. These efforts spurred criticism over the state of Poland’s freedom of the press from both the European Union and the United States. However, opposition parties lacked the necessary votes to block the law.

Law and Justice also began to remove individuals deemed insufficiently loyal to the party, from the non-standard removal of the head of a joint counter-intelligence center (raising concerns within NATO) to purges in public administration and cultural institutions. The most severe purging attempts were targeted at judges, on top of systemic changes to the functioning of the Constitutional Tribunal.

In response to these judicial changes, the European Union has initiated Article 7 proceedings against Poland for its rule of law infringements. While this could lead to the suspension of the country’s voting rights in EU institutions, it would take all 26 other EU members to agree, and Hungary has already vowed to support Poland (the European Union has initiated proceedings against Hungary as well for similar infringements). Unfortunately, the United States, long a champion of Polish democracy, has voiced little criticism—except when Poland’s actions affect U.S. economic interests—and President Trump recently praised Poland’s “vigilant efforts to uphold the rule of law.” 

Law and Justice has been able to significantly alter institutions partly because the Polish opposition is deeply fragmented. It has struggled to unite behind a single leader and common messaging, but opposition to Law and Justice has slowly begun to crystallize and win back territory, mostly in big cities. Its most significant victory was a slim majority in the Senate in 2019, which now prevents Law and Justice from forcing legislation through (often in the middle of the night with little legislative, media, or public scrutiny).

Given PiS’s power in the legislature, the presidency matters more than ever before. The Polish president has limited powers and is supposed to be politically neutral, but whoever holds the position has veto power—now crucial since Law and Justice lacks the votes in the lower house of Parliament to override such a veto. The president can thus approve or veto transformative legislation. And though incumbent Andrzej Duda—an ally of PiS—has at times vetoed Law and Justice’s legislative changes, on numerous occasions he has supported them, accelerating the politicization of the courts and public administration.

But this election is not solely about the future of Poland’s democracy; it is also about Polish society’s ability to show mutual respect for different perspectives on religious and social issues.

These two clear choices make for a close race. In the first round of the election, held on June 28, Duda received 43.5 percent of the vote (shy of the 50 percent needed to win outright), while Rafal Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw and main opposition candidate, received 30.5 percent. Ahead of the second round, both candidates are roughly tied in the polls, with some surveys showing Duda slightly ahead but within the margin of error. Notably, Poland’s Parliament had struggled to even agree on a date and method for the vote; Law and Justice wanted to bring these elections forward to minimize electoral backlash from the Covid-19 crisis, but this might not be enough in the end to overcome this backlash.

Yet Duda needs only a few percentage points, or about 1 million more votes, to reach the 50 percent threshold to win, while Trzaskowski needs nearly 4 million new votes. The unsuccessful first round candidates will likely split votes between Duda and Trzaskowski, or be neutral. Poland’s electoral map will look familiar to many Americans: Duda will fare well in the rural areas, and Trzaskowski will do well in the urban areas. Both candidates support popular and generous social welfare programs that Law and Justice have put in place, although many PiS voters fear these being taken away if Duda loses. Duda has also campaigned vigorously on traditional values and the current government’s strong security relationship with the United States (Duda visited the White House four days before the first round, though promises of additional U.S. military support did not materialize). Trzaskowski, for his part, has campaigned on his ability to stall PiS’s transformation of the country, a more positive relationship with the European Union, and a more tolerant society. 

The Polish people’s choice is stark. It is one between a further reduction of democratic and institutional independence anchored in the vision of an anti-European form of nationalism (propelled by PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski), and a break from this path.

Donatienne Ruy is an associate fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the CSIS Europe Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Donatienne Ruy
Director, Executive Education and Abshire-Inamori Leadership Academy

Heather A. Conley