Polish opposition offers lessons for anti-populists




Although Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski did not come out on top of incumbent Andrzej Duda in Poland’s presidential election, the result represents a turning point in European politics. The nationalist-populist tide has peaked, argues Jacek Rostowski, a former minister of finance and deputy prime minister of Poland. The Polish opposition’s surprisingly strong performance offers several lessons for all who still believe in constitutional democracy and the rule of law, he writes for Project Syndicate:

  • First, when challenging a populist government, it is critical to build the broadest possible coalition. Authoritarian populists in countries like Turkey and Hungary keep winning elections because their opponents are perpetually riven by internal conflicts. Anti-populists must put aside longstanding disagreements over issues of culture (LGBTQ rights and the like) and economic policy (such as protectionism and income redistribution) so that they can concentrate on the key task: ejecting populists from power….
  • Anti-populists also must learn to consolidate their base as quickly and effectively as populists do. Polarization, the quintessential populist political tactic, has unfortunately become an intrinsic part of modern politics more generally. Understanding this is particularly important immediately after populists rise or return to power. At that point, anti-populist forces will face years of government smears, and are at risk of being demobilized by defeat…

The upshot is that as long as the institutions of rule-based democracy can be maintained (especially in the case of a free, independent press), populist governments will be transitory.

Prior to the election, Lech Walesa, the hero of Poland’s uprising against communism, had warned that the country’s right-wing ruling party was dismantling the foundations of democracy.

Duda has been a loyal ally, signing off on almost all of the PiS legislative programme, as the government has been accused of democratic backsliding and weakening the rule of law by European officials and civil society organisations, The Guardian reports.

The poll represents “the last battle, it’s a battle about everything. It’s historical. Three more years for them is enough time to finish building this entire infrastructure of power,” said Sławomir Sierakowski, the head of Krytyka Polityczna, a leftwing publishing house in Warsaw.

Duda’s new mandate is an important victory for the ruling Law and Justice PiS party, which now has no reason to fear checks on its agenda coming from the head of state. It has another three years in power, during which time its critics fear it may tighten an authoritarian noose, analyst Claudia Ciobanu writes for BIRNa partner of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). 

Zselyke Csaky, an expert on central Europe with the human rights group Freedom House, said Duda’s victory gives the party “essentially free rein” until parliamentary elections in 2023 “to do away with limits on its power and work towards destroying Poland’s independent institutions, such as the judiciary or the media,” AP reports.

But to return a country to a democratic path and loosen populists’ hold on state institutions, a challenger needs more than a Trzaskowski-style campaign, argues Maciej Kisilowski, associate professor of law and strategy at Central European University in Vienna. Three other conditions must be met, he writes for Politico:

  • First, the opposition needs to unite. In Poland, Trzaskowski — a leading figure in Civic Platform, the largest anti-PiS party — faced four other presidential contenders from the opposition. Since Polish presidential elections follow the French-style two-round model, those other candidates were eliminated from the race in the first vote in June. But bruised egos and political calculations prevented those opposition leaders from forcefully backing Trzaskowski before the runoff vote….
  • Second, the opposition needs to present a compelling alternative that takes populist voters seriously. Trzaskowski’s talk of unity and respect for “ordinary Poles” on the campaign trail was a great first step and the main reason he got closer to defeating PiS than anyone before him. But he was still unwilling to go any further to reassure and address the fears and prejudices of the PiS electorate. On no hot-button issue did Trzaskowski — a committed Warsaw progressive — follow the example of opposition politicians elsewhere and make a strategic decision to reach across the ideological divide….
  • Third, the election shows that, in a country on the path to autocracy, effective opposition can only happen via established political parties. The fact that the race was so close confirms just how important reliable party structures, staff and financing are to waging an effective campaign. Nothing was more damaging to Trzaskowski’s prospects than the grotesquely misguided independent campaign of a centrist Catholic TV presenter, Szymon Hołownia, who ran on a vague promise to end the “Polish-Polish war” between PiS and Trzaskowski’s Civic Platform….

Democrats around the world should take note: To defeat populists, you need more than an attractive candidate and a strong campaign, Kisilowski adds. You need strong ideas that address the new political landscape and politicians courageous enough to work together to deliver on them.

Poland is a state where social-democratic parties shifted to the center on economic policy, not only sapping the electoral strength of these parties, but also opening up political space for the populist right, note analysts Maria Snegovaya and Sheri Berman. The transition out of communism in Eastern Europe created winners and losers, they wrote for the NED’s Journal of Democracy.

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