THE WARSAW INSTITUTE REVIEW
Date: 4 December 2019 Author: Tomasz Grzegorz Grosse, Professor
On Democracy in Poland
This autumn’s parliamentary election in Poland was, above all, a success of democracy. Evidence of this success can be seen in the mobilization of the electorate, the high turnout, as well as the fact that voters feel that government decision-makers listen to them and that their vote can influence the course of national events.
The victory of the conservatives
Elections to the Sejm and the Senate of Poland in 2019 brought victory to Law and Justice (PiS), a leading party in the United Right (Zjednoczona Prawica) . The ruling coalition won most of the seats in the lower house of Parliament, the Sejm, with 235 out of 460 seats. Opposition groups have reached a majority in the Senate, with 52 out of 100 seats, including non-attached politicians. However, it is the Sejm that has, in the Polish system, a decisive role in adopting legislation and forming the government – this time again with the majority of the United Right.
The Civic Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska) is the second political power in terms of the number of seats received, with 134. Its core is the liberal Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska) . Apart from this party, three other opposition groups were elected: The Left (Lewica) with 49 seats, the Polish People’s Party (PSL) joined with Kukiz’15 with 30 seats, and the extreme right-wing and anti-European Confederation (Konfederacja) with 11 seats.
Some opponents of the previous Polish government accused it of posing a danger to democracy. The accusations were mainly based on three arguments. The first was that the reform of the judiciary violates the Polish Constitution. However, the members of the opposition did not raise their objections to the Constitutional Tribunal – the only institution in the Polish legal system that could resolve the dispute between politicians concerning issues of this type. Therefore, the conflict over judicial reform remained political, and was left to be judged by the voters themselves. Secondly, some members of the opposition accused the government of rejecting liberal values.
Nevertheless, democracy is based not only on liberalism but also on other values (conservative, left-wing, among others), and voters should decide themselves which of them are relevant to current politics. It should be added that the government did not restrict the freedom of this election in any way (e.g., to local authorities, or any parliament – national or European). Thirdly, the opposition alleged that the government had gained a dominant influence over the public media. However, freedom and diversification of the media are crucial for the quality of democracy, and not government’s control over public media. Freedom of the media has been preserved, and the media sources are remarkably diverse – a large part of private media, including national, regional, and local ones, clearly favor the opposition.
Where did the success of Law and Justice come from?
The success of Law and Justice does not only consist in the fact that this party won a second term after four years in power, but also that it was achieved despite the aggressive attacks of some opposition members. Furthermore, the conservative government in Poland has also been criticized by the largest media in the Western world, mainly in Western Europe. Despite these unfavorable circumstances, Polish conservatives won the elections. Why is that?
The first reason is that the ruling party tried to meet the needs of their own voters and keep its electoral promises, both in domestic and foreign policy. Since the majority of the society does not want to adopt the common currency, it was problematic to give in to pressure from, among others, German politicians, who repeatedly encouraged Poles to join the monetary union. The same was true for non-European immigration – approximately 70% of the Polish population is against it . Not many less Polish citizens (66%) have a negative opinion about Muslims and oppose their settlement in the country . Based on democratic governance, it is evident that the voters decide on migration policy – including such questions as how to manage illegal immigrants and illegal border crossings.
The majority of Poles are also in favor of conservative values in social life. When left-wing and liberal activists on the one hand trying to increase the rights of sexual minorities, and on the other hand launched an attack on these conservative values, insulting the majority of Poles who think about these matters in a conservative way (e.g. profaning religious symbols). As such, the government defended the status quo and the legal decisions adopted in the Polish Constitution. It has, therefore, gained the support of many voters who do not want changes in this area.
The government of Law and Justice is conservative in worldview matters and left-wing in social ones. Therefore, it launched an unprecedented package of redistribution of income to the economically weakest groups while at the same time supporting families, especially those with many children (for instance, the “500+ Family” package). In this way, it tried to reduce the income inequalities that have been growing in Poland since the political transformation and European integration. Thanks to redistribution packages, the effects of political changes in Poland and EU membership can bring more sustainable benefits to society. It is not without significance that the government has maintained a high rate of economic growth throughout its previous term of office, which has allowed the financing of social spending to be secured.
To sum up, it can be said that the victory of PiS is based on three main pillars. First of all, the relatively high credibility among voters, which translated into the desire to keep the promises and to respect the opinions of Poles. This seems to be one of the critical elements of any healthy democracy. Secondly, the mistakes of the opposition, which instead of focusing on holding the government accountable for its successive difficult reforms, decided to move the campaign to ideological grounds. However, it was when it turned out that the majority of voters support the government’s conservative approach rather than the radical social changes preferred by some part of the opposition. It should also be added that, according to experts, the opposition had poor leadership and a failed campaign. It was characterized by many contradictions and program inconsistencies, perhaps beyond one common postulate – to remove Law and Justice from power. Thirdly, the success of the ruling party results from the launch of redistribution programs. The government has made a number of changes in areas that have so far been neglected by its predecessors, ranging from more effective redistribution packages to judicial reform. In both cases, the majority of voters supported the changes introduced, even if they were criticized by the opposition as populist (e.g., the “Family 500+” package) or unconstitutional (court reform).
Success of democracy
The parliamentary elections of 2019 are a success for Polish democracy, mainly because voter turnout has reached one of the most significant numbers since the transformation (the electorate was more active only during the first parliamentary elections in 1989 and in the presidential elections in 1995). In autumn 2019, nearly 62 percent of eligible voters voted – over 10 percent more than in 2015. Given the high turnout and the fact that opposition parties took control of the Senate, we should not be saying that the situation in Poland is a democratic crisis. These elections prove that the opposition may limit the power of the dominant formation, which is impossible in the case of authoritarian regimes. Moreover, both sides of the dispute, i.e., both government and opposition parties, managed to mobilize their voters by significantly increasing the turnout.
The excellent condition of Polish democracy is also evidenced by other things, especially in comparison with the situation in the other EU Member States. For example, in a recent study by the Pew Research Center, Poles are more satisfied with the functioning of multi-party democracy than citizens of any other Central European country. Satisfaction with this system is expressed by as much as 85% of respondents (which is even better than the satisfaction with EU membership, according to the same survey ). A majority of respondents (66%) approve the way democracy works in Poland on a daily basis. This is an outstanding result compared to a large number of other EU countries, including France, Spain, Italy, Greece, and the United Kingdom, where the majority of respondents to the survey were critical of the functioning of democracy in their countries . It is also worth noting that in comparison with the survey conducted in 2009, namely, during the rule of the Civic Platform, the percentage of people satisfied with the functioning of democracy in Poland increased by 13%. Moreover, 65% of respondents believe that things in Poland are going in the right direction. This is much more than in many Western European countries, where pessimistic assessments prevail (e.g., in France, 65% of the population think that things are going in the wrong direction, in Italy, 72% have such an opinion, and in Greece, as much as 82% of the population ).
Polish voters are also more convinced than in many other EU Member States that their electoral vote has some meaning. This is the opinion of 71% of respondents, more than, for instance, in France or Germany. In comparison with the beginning of the transformation in Poland, the voters’ sense of agency increased by 30%. In comparison with the period of the Civic Platform’s government, the voters’ sense of agency increased by as much as 24% . It is difficult not to attribute this improvement in the surveys in large part to the greater credibility of the Law and Justice government among voters resulting from the fulfillment of promises made during the campaign. The fact that the mentioned results are a great success of Polish democracy is also confirmed by the phenomenon of the European crisis of voters’ sense of influence on the course of public affairs – in France, for example, this sense of influence has decreased by 10% in the last 30 years.
Most Poles also believe that their country acts in the interest of all citizens, not just the elite. Compared to the period of the Civic Platform government, there was a 16% increase in positive opinions on this issue . This may be a result of the expansion of redistribution packages undertaken by the Law and Justice government. However, the satisfaction of citizens not only allows for the continuation of the political mandate obtained from voters but also increases their satisfaction and faith in democracy. Trust in one’s own state as acting for the benefit of the whole society is higher in Poland than in Germany or France, for example.
Satisfaction with democracy translates into a sense of satisfaction with European integration in Polish society. It is significantly higher among Poles than in many Western European countries, e.g., France, Greece, Italy, and the United Kingdom . Where does such enthusiasm of Poles for integration come from? It seems that this is mainly due to the quality of functioning of national democracy. Voters generally receive what they expect from the government, and, at the same time, the government protects them from the adverse effects of EU integration. The majority of Poles believe that such negative points include illegal immigration from outside Europe and participation in the monetary union. To a large extent, thanks to the attitude of their own government, Polish voters do not feel the negative effects of the migration crisis and the eurozone to the extent that some of the member states do. Thus, they are much more pro-European than, for example, Italians, Greeks, or French.
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Satisfaction with the governing of Law and Justice, national democracy, the functioning of the state, and even with European integration, may result from the good economic situation in Poland. Throughout the previous term, high (as far as Europe is concerned) economic growth – above 5% of GDP in 2018, and low unemployment – below 4% in 2018 – have been maintained . It can also be said that dissatisfaction with one’s own governments and the functioning of democracy in some countries of Southern Europe is due to the crisis in the eurozone – which is difficult for the local societies. Although the good economic situation in Poland depends to no small extent on external factors, including the inflow of EU funds and economic symbiosis with Germany, it should be noted that this is also a result of the activities of the government. It skillfully used the inflow of EU funds to Poland, attracted foreign investments, and stimulated internal demand through social programs. Moreover, it did not join the eurozone, which favored the competitiveness of the Polish economy – mainly based on low production costs.
The results of parliamentary elections in Poland are, first and foremost, the success of democracy and less a victory for one party or another. This success is based primarily on the fact that voters feel that government decision-makers listen to them and that their participation in elections can change the course of events.
Elections in Poland are held systematically and on time. The opposition participates freely in elections and in some cases, takes power (e.g., recently in local government elections or in the case of the Senate in parliamentary elections). The opposition has full freedom of political action, including the right of assembly and public expression. There are no violent street protests in Poland, such as in France, or political prisoners or politicians sought by European Arrest Warrants, like in Spain. In Poland, there is full freedom of expression of political opinions in the media, including the Internet. At the same time, a large part of the media is clearly sympathetic to the opposition. The discussion about the future of the country is emotional in Poland, but it is not restricted by the government in any way, and only has to be held in accordance with the rules of the Polish Constitution.
Therefore, it is difficult to agree with the accusations that the conservative rule threatens Polish democracy. It is quite the opposite. Taking into account the satisfaction of voters from this country and its multi-party political system – the condition of Polish democracy has improved in recent years and is clearly better than in many EU countries.
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