‘Illiberal’ Poland rejects Putin-style autocracy


Polish citizens continue to support Western alliances and to reject authoritarian models of government, but express concerns about the effects of polarization on Poland’s democracy, according to a new poll from the International Republican Institute’s (IRI*) Center for Insights in Survey Research:

Forty-one percent of respondents think that the political situation in Poland is becoming more polarized, compared to just 17 percent who see the country moving towards increased consensus. Seventy-seven percent of respondents who think Polish politics are moving towards more polarization feel that the polarization of political parties is “a bad thing.” Fifty percent say that the political parties are incapable of working together under any circumstances.

The survey also reflects a high degree of support for transatlantic alliances and institutions. Eighty-three percent believe that the European Union is good for Poland and a combined 81 percent (32 percent “strongly,” 49 percent “somewhat”) agree that Poland’s interests are best served by maintaining strong relations with the United States. A combined 79 percent (57 percent “strongly,” 22 percent “somewhat”) disagree with the proposition that Vladimir Putin’s style of government should be applied in Poland. 

“At this highly divisive time in Polish politics, it is encouraging to note that the country has not proven vulnerable to Russian influence, and remains steadfastly committed to European institutions,” said Jan Surotchak, IRI Regional Director for Europe. “However, in order to prevent further polarization and divergence from the path to democracy, it is vital that the government take constructive steps to address the issues dividing citizens and driving political discontent.”

Ideological affinities

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party enjoys “ideological affinities” with other forms of populism, said Jacek Kucharczyk (right), president of the Institute of Public Affairs, a Warsaw think tank. The affinities are evident “not only in terms of ideology and political worldview but also some of the methods of doing politics,” he told The Washington Post.

The government’s right-wing nationalism has been viewed as an illiberal threat to the postwar Western order, notes Ruchir Sharma, author of “The Rise and Fall of Nations: Forces of Change in the Post-Crisis World.” But so far, two years of populism has not derailed a quarter-century of steady economic progress. Poland’s pro-American, anti-Russian streak runs deeper than the current populist mood, he writes for The New York Times:

If there is a threat to steady growth in Poland, it is its recent autocratic turn. Poland’s government has drawn fire from top European Union officials for interfering with the courts, cracking down on the news media and dissent, and refusing to accept Muslim refugees.


The government’s threats to the independence of the media and the judiciary have prompted anxiety amongst Polish democrats and their international allies, The New York Times reports:

On May 5, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a “final opinion” that the proposed law would have a “negative impact” on the selection of judges and “should be reconsidered in its entirety.” In late January, Malgorzata Gersdorf, the president of the Supreme Court, wrote an open letter urging judges to fight fiercely for their independence. “The courts are easily turned into a plaything in the hands of politicians,” she said. “You must show that we are in opposition to pushing a democratic state into oblivion.”

“They are destroying all the institutions we had been dreaming about under communism and that we have been building for 20 years,” said Jerzy Stepien, director of the Institute of Civic Space and Public Policy at Lazarski University and a former president of the constitutional tribunal.

Poland’s government is using legislative, political, and economic means to stifle the media and limit dissent and debate within the country, according to Pluralism under Attack: The Assault on Press Freedom in Poland, a special report from Freedom House:

Poland has become a crucial battleground in the drive by authoritarian-minded leaders to gain control over political discourse and limit media pluralism. The Law and Justice government has sought to control the media as part of a broader push to weaken checks and balances and silence independent voices. By rejecting the media’s independence, the government is deepening polarization within Poland.

*A core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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