State capture is a clean, formal phrase that describes a messy, ugly process. A political party or clique typically consolidates control over a state’s institutions only after years of bad legislation, concentrated propaganda, and many different forms of corruption. In some cases, constitutions have to be broken. Occasionally violence is required. Whole swaths of the public have to be persuaded, bribed, or frightened into going along.
In Poland, this process has been under way for eight years. After the nationalist-conservative Law and Justice party, known as PiS, legitimately won a parliamentary election in 2015, it began with an assault on the highest courts. Then it set out to dominate everything else: the national and local civil administration, regulators of all kinds, even seemingly apolitical institutions such as the forestry service. Now Poland is just days away from another parliamentary election, on October 15—an election that feels as if it were taking place in a completely different country. Some of the candidates are the same as in 2015. But the rules are different, the rhetoric is different, and the stakes are different. Inflation, migration, and women’s rights are under discussion. But in truth, only one issue is really on the ballot: Do you want PiS to complete its capture of state institutions, or do you want those institutions to belong once again to the entire country?
Before I continue, here is a very emphatic declaration of personal interest. I am married to a Polish politician, Radek Sikorski, a former foreign minister who is a member of Civic Platform, the largest opposition party. He is not a candidate in this election, but he is a member of the European Parliament, and he is campaigning on behalf of others. If that bothers you, then stop reading here. But do remember that some stories are clearer from the inside. As soon as this article is published, both my husband and I could once again be the focus of orchestrated online attacks from PiS trolling operations, more slander on state-run and state-controlled media, and maybe even more antagonism from the state institutions that use the security services to harass political opponents, including us, by orchestrating bogus financial or criminal investigations. Those same institutions have put spyware on the phones of our colleagues and friends. As in the Communist era, people in Polish politics now sometimes go outside or leave their phone in a different room when they want to speak. That’s just the price, nowadays, of being in the democratic opposition.
In this sense, the Polish political system has already diverged from other democracies. In the United States, people who watch Fox News and follow Truth Social believe in a false version of reality, one in which the 2020 election was stolen. Now imagine what would happen if an American politician could promote that lie, not just on social media but with hundreds of millions of dollars of federal-government money—your money, in other words, that you paid in your taxes—in order to hold power indefinitely. In Poland, that once unimaginable scenario has become reality. [Continue reading…]