Poland’s Vote Is a Warning to Americans, Too
Voters insert ballot papers into a transparent box at a polling station in Warsaw, Poland. (Photographer: Piotr Malecki/Bloomberg)

Poland’s Vote Is a Warning to Americans, Too

Two decades ago, Poles could only look on in bewilderment. Americans were so divided over who should be president that the 2000 election hung on a dimpled chad and had to be decided by the Supreme Court. George W. Bush became the first winner to lose the national popular vote since 1888. American democracy had been tested but emerged whole.

As ballots for Poland’s presidential election were being counted Sunday, the results looked tight enough to go to the courts too. It was the country’s closest national vote since the fall of communism. Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski has still not conceded defeat, but the electoral commission has said that President Andrzej Duda won just over 51% of the vote, a lead that is unlikely to be reversed.

The immediate reaction from those who lament Poland’s recent trajectory will be disappointment. A confirmation of Duda’s victory almost certainly means a continuation of the “institutional reforms” that have steadily eroded checks on state power, judicial independence and media freedom since the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) swept to power in 2015. That Duda won through a darkly polarizing campaign of nationalist populism that attacked the foreign media and baited Jews, gays and other minorities was depressing, if not surprising.

And yet, Poles who opposed Duda can also take heart. The closeness of the race, and the robust turnout, will embolden the opposition to come back stronger in the 2023 parliamentary election. As one Polish friend put it to me, Duda’s victory is a Pyrrhic one; PiS, which only narrowly won in 2019, will have a tougher time ahead. 

The presidency in Poland carries limited powers, so in one sense the vote might not seem hugely consequential. One of those powers, however, is the ability to veto legislation, which would have been a major weapon in the opposition arsenal if Trzaskowski’s bid had prevailed.

PiS won power in 2015 — the first outright majority since the fall of communism — on a populist campaign to fight corruption, champion traditional Catholic conservativism and deliver welfare benefits to the poorer parts of the country. Its policies reduced extreme poverty and have remained popular, but they’ve done little to create real opportunity for poorer Poles in rural areas.

Meanwhile, the party’s institutional “reforms” have served to steadily weaken democratic accountability. The most brazen has been the attacks on the courts. (The European Court of Justice has made two landmark rulings against new rules that give the executive sweeping powers at all levels of the judiciary.)

PiS has also coopted Poland’s state broadcaster, TVP. During the election campaign, it pictured Duda flatteringly against a backdrop of flag-waving Poles and rousing music. Trzaskowski, by contrast, was portrayed darkly, as preparing to sell out Polish national interests to the EU and use money earmarked for welfare programs to pay restitution to Jewish families for WWII. The programming “was charged with xenophobic and anti-Semitic undertones,” concluded the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, after the first round of voting. 

Poland’s democracy, as Trzaskowski has said, is under attack; but it is not yet broken. The close vote and record turnout shows how much democratic freedoms still matter in a country that only shook off communism some three decades ago. That marks a major difference with Hungary, where Viktor Orban now effectively runs a one-party thugocracy.

Still, the election intensifies the challenge for the EU and should be seen as a wake-up call for those in more mature democracies who are tempted to believe that checks and balances always protect voters. 

The EU has criticized PiS policies, but has seemed powerless to confront them in any meaningful way. In December 2017, the EU triggered Article 7 proceedings against Poland, the first time it has used the mechanism of EU law that allows a member state to be sanctioned for failing to abide by fundamental democratic values. The result of the hearings and warnings has been mostly a shrug.

In June, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for more action. “The failure by the Council to make effective use of Article 7 continues to undermine the integrity of common European values, mutual trust and the credibility of the European Union as a whole,” it pleaded.

Poland is the largest recipient of EU structural funds and PiS have used repurposed EU aid to cushion the blow of the coronavirus and strengthen their power base. Both Duda and Orban have said they would veto any attempt to attach conditions on relief money intended to roll back institutional changes. The EU’s sanction mechanism — and especially Article 7 — is cumbersome, long and ineffective if two member states want to collude to block it. 

Poland’s polarization is also a worrying omen. Duda was saved by rural voters where levels of education and earnings are much lower. Inequality had been rising steadily when PiS took power, despite Poland's unrivaled run of GDP growth since the end of communism. The PiS's child cash transfer, which Trzaskowski supports too, along with higher pension payments and other measures have been hugely popular. What’s missing are supply-side reforms to lift these areas out of poverty and allow for educational attainment — and that’s where the opposition should focus its efforts.

The undermining of Poland’s democratic institutions and the country’s polarization mirrors divisions in other countries, including Trump’s U.S., where growing inequality and declining social mobility provided fertile ground for populists. The threat to democracy, however, doesn’t come from the divide itself but from discarding democratic rules to secure a quicker route to power.

Poland’s election captures how the PiS has done this. That should be a warning to Americans: Mature democracies can be fragile too. But the nail-biting result is also a reminder that this fight is far from over.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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