Polish voters in three different political parties united to wrest control of the government from the conservative Law and Justice party. What happens now?
People gather at a rally conducted by the opposition party ahead of the general election in Warsaw, Poland on 1 October 2023. (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images)
“YES! YES! YES!”
My mom screamed and jumped around the room as she watched the results of the 2023 Polish parliamentary elections on 15 October. My little sister joined her in celebration, even though she is only eight years old. I felt relieved and hopeful.
Yet I asked myself: “What will happen now?”
Poland has been through a lot. There were the Partitions at the end of the 18th century that divided Poland and Lithuania between Russia, Prussia and Austria. For 123 years Poland ceased to exist until it regained independence in 1918.
Then came devastating world wars, communist regimes and control by the Soviet Union and finally, in the last eight years, authoritarian rule. What will happen next?
In 2015, the Law and Justice Party, or PiS for Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, won democratic elections. It is a right-wing populist party and even though it did not secure a majority that would allow it to change the constitution, my family was devastated, and so was I.
People on the left and centre spectrum of politics were looking anxiously into the future, fearing that PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński had a clear agenda.
Gaining control by weakening the constitution
PiS launched an attack on the Constitutional Tribunal, the court which decides whether laws are valid under Poland’s constitution. The control of the Tribunal became paramount as it was the key to changing the political system by enacting regular laws.
The appointments made by PiS to the Tribunal served as a guarantee that even the most questionable laws passed by a parliamentary majority would be deemed consistent with the constitution.
There were already some signs of a worrying trend. The Tribunal had handed down some verdicts which validated a disciplinary chamber in contradiction to the constitution and against the safeguards issued by the Court of Justice of the European Union.
Was Democratic Poland vanishing in front of our very eyes?
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Protests against propaganda
In 2016, far-reaching changes were also introduced to the common judiciary system. This included the replacement of the presidents of most courts. Further consolidation occurred as the offices of the Minister of Justice and the Prosecutor General were merged, thereby depriving prosecutors of any semblance of autonomy. Outraged, my grandparents joined peaceful protests to oppose these undemocratic changes, but to no avail.
You can see similar things happening in public media. Unable to dismantle the National Broadcasting Council, a constitutional institution, PiS opted to diminish its authority and transfer its competencies to the newly-established National Media Council, firmly under the control of party nominees. The public media channel TVP was turned into a propaganda machine with two billion Polish zlotych yearly (roughly $475 million) in financing and with millions of Poles watching it.
Consequently, PiS has managed to successfully dismantle the state’s immune system, further solidifying its control by turning the Constitutional Tribunal, the judiciary and public media into instruments of party propaganda.
Not to be forgotten are the lengthy parliamentary sessions, often extending into the night, during which government proposals were disguised as parliamentary initiatives.
This maneuver effectively circumvented public consultations and suppressed critical discussions on the threats to democracy and violations of human and citizen rights.
At the time, it appeared that the political machinery, ruthlessly dismantling constitutional norms and democratic values, was akin to a racing car.
However, it was only over a year later, following the expiration of the terms of the majority of judges not affiliated with PiS, that the Tribunal was brought to a complete standstill.
Covid helped solidify control.
While massive public demonstrations and legal judgments handed down by the Court of Justice of the EU slowed or halted certain changes in the judicial system, the process of reorganising the common courts continued.
The COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, emboldened PiS to disregard democratic norms. PiS, under the pretext of the pandemic, constructed a system in which it can push for elections under conditions that endanger the health and lives of voters and those responsible for organising the voting process, such as postal workers, commission members and election officials.
It cost about 70 million zlotych (about $15 million) to organise the so-called “wybory kopertowe” (postal elections) — in violation of our right to anonymity — which never happened.
This wasn’t the only misuse of funds. The PiS party has faced various accusations of misusing taxpayer money and filling government positions with their associates, friends and family members over the years.
In 2018, there were allegations of corruption and mismanagement within the National Health Fund (NFZ), a public institution. The accusations included unfair distribution of funds and the use of taxpayer money for non-health-related purposes. The PiS party has faced allegations of employing the “party patronage” system, in which party members are placed in key positions, even if they lack qualifications. Critics argue that this leads to a less efficient and more politicised public administration. Yet, what shook me to my core, was a matter closest to my heart: women’s rights.
Elections electrify the people.
In 2020, the PiS government attempted to pass a highly-restrictive abortion law that would have effectively banned abortion in nearly all cases, including cases of fetal abnormalities. This sparked widespread protests across Poland called “Czarne Parasolki” (Black Umbrellas) facing police brutality. There is an almost complete ban on abortion, no in vitro fertilisation refunds, poor sex education at schools and the Minister of Education wants schools to prepare girls for a life based on “womanly virtues.”
Then came the recent elections. On the 15th of October 2023, 74% of Poles voted. That included almost twice as many young people, 18–30 years old, voting than did in the 2019 elections. The opposition, led by the former Prime Minister of Poland Donald Tusk, united to combat the authoritarian regime and won.
In the parliamentary elections, PiS won 194 seats, while three parties that represent progressive ideals — the Civic Coalition (KO), the Third Way (Trzecia Droga) and New Left (Nowa Lewica) won a combined 248 votes.
What now? With all that has changed in Poland, I fear for the winning parties and what they can actually achieve. So far, PiS has not transferred power and tries to cling to it as long as possible. Fortunately, significant changes are on the horizon for Poland.
First and foremost, a major personnel revolution is awaiting us. Poles look forward to the return of proper democracy, free media and if I may say, dignity of life. It is yet to be seen what the new Parliament achieves, but I remain hopeful. Hopeful for Poland, for its land and peoples.
Three questions to consider:
- Why would a ruling party want to change the Polish constitution?
- What was one thing people were angry about in the “Black Umbrellas” protests of 2020?
- Why would young people choose to vote or not vote in your country?
Karolina Krakowiak earned a Master’s degree in International Management and Sustainability at the American University in Paris. A former project management intern for News Decoder, Krakowiak prioritizes nature, kindness and mindfulness in both her professional and private life.
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