The banner, reading "constitution", has been used across Poland. Photo: Getty

In Poland, citizens across the political spectrum are rallying behind a simple grey poster

As the country's ruling party seeks to subvert the rule of law, Poles of all ages and political stripes are fighting back
September 12, 2017

Summer in Poland was punctuated with protests. Night after night, thousands of people bearing candles gathered outside the Supreme Court, parliament and residential palace in Warsaw. They were protesting a law that would have sacked the supreme court’s judges. More broadly, they had come out to ensure that the government respect the constitution. The symbol of the protests became a simple grey poster with the word konstytucja—constitution—printed on it, held up by Poles of all ages and varied political stripes. The word is the “lowest common denominator” capable of uniting Poles in defence of democracy, its creator, Polish artist Luka Rayski, told me.

For a long time, Poland was held up as a democratic success story. After the peaceful fall of Communism in 1989, it emerged as a stable democracy firmly rooted in Europe and the west. This made it a model for countries further east, such as Ukraine or Georgia, to emulate as they sought to shrug off autocratic leaders, Russian meddling and corruption. Yet recently, liberal democracy has taken a beating in Poland. Since returning to power in 2015, the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS in Polish) has been weakening checks and balances. The public media has become a government mouthpiece. Power is wielded by Jarosaw Kaczyski, the party’s reclusive leader. He shelters behind the prime minister and president who PiS use as a public face. But just as when Vladimir Putin notionally served under Dmitry Medvedev for a spell, everybody still knows who calls the shots.

Somewhat misleadingly, PiS gets described as a conservative party. Although it is socially conservative on matters like gay rights and abortion, it lacks the usual conservative respect for institutions. In that sense, it is more of a revolutionary party. One of PiS’s first targets was the constitutional tribunal. This summer, it almost pushed through a law allowing the government to sack judges at the supreme court, which rules on the validity of elections, among other things. (In an unexpected act of defiance, the law was blocked by the president, who is on PiS’s more moderate wing.)

Poland is not alone in drifting in an illiberal direction. A new report by Freedom House notes the spread of a “modern authoritarianism” in countries such as China, Russia and Turkey. Yet even some democracies are “engaging in their own antidemocratic experiments,” the report warns. In Europe, Kaczyski and Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s Prime Minister, are the stand-out cases. Two years on from PiS’s return to power, Poland is a reminder that healthy democracy must not be taken for granted, even within the EU.

“The end of history”—Francis Fukuyama’s expression—was always a myth. Democracy was deemed to be immutable, as unshakeable as the glassy skyscrapers that sprang up in Warsaw alongside it. When I first started writing about Poland in 2012 that might have seemed half-plausible—a mild centre-right government was led by Donald Tusk. In such quiet times, it is easy to forget that meaningful democracy needs more than elections. PiS won the parliamentary elections, and would do again; it continues to lead in polls, far ahead of the centrist opposition. When PiS attempted to control the supreme court this summer, Kaczyski said, as if to reassure voters, that “there will still be normal elections.” But that is not enough for healthy democracy, which has to be rooted in the rule of law, civil debate and a tolerance of diversity. Indeed, blind majoritarianism is dangerous. PiS is the first party since 1989 to govern alone in Poland, without a coalition partner, but it still won just 38 per cent of the vote, on a voter turnout of 51 per cent—meaning it enjoyed the active support of only one voter in five. Nevertheless, the party has adopted a winner-takes-all attitude, claiming to represent the Polish people. Laws are rammed through parliament with little debate or compromise, while the centrist opposition looks on.

Overall, PiS is openly hostile to liberal democracy. “I grew up in a socialist democracy, then we had liberal democracy. Now I just want democracy without adjectives,” one minister told me shortly after PiS came to power. The party’s supporters blame “liberal-leftists” for the ills of Poland and Europe. The EU has been left looking helpless. In 2014, it adopted a new framework to counter threats to the rule of law, which could technically lead to the voting rights of offending states being suspended. In practice, it has been a cumbersome tool. For almost two years, Brussels and Warsaw have been locked in a bitter dance. The pro-government media has lashed out against the “Brussels elites.” For now, Kaczyski rules out a “Polexit.” Yet with relations with Berlin and Paris tense, and Britain leaving, Warsaw is increasingly isolated in Europe.

Back in Warsaw, the konstytucja posters remain on the walls and in the windows of sympathetic coffee shops, a reminder of people’s readiness to protest the weakening of democracy. Yet even if a moderate government replaces PiS at the next elections, due in 2019, repairing Poland’s institutions could take years. “To defend democracy in these tough times, people need to leave their comfort zone,” Adam Bodnar, Poland’s Commissioner for Human Rights told me at the height of the protests. These words will continue to ring true, in Poland and beyond.

Annabelle Chapman lives in Warsaw