Thirty-four years ago, in June 1989, Poland woke up to a surprise. Despite a voting process rigged to favor the Communist Party, despite decades of propaganda supporting Communists and smearing anti-Communists, despite the regime’s control of the army, the police, and the secret police, the democratic opposition won, taking all of the seats that it was allowed to contest. A team of former dissidents took control of the government two months later—the first non-Communist government in Soviet-occupied Europe. In the decade that followed, Poland slowly decentralized the state and built a democracy.
This morning, Poland woke up to a similar surprise. Since first winning power democratically in 2015, the nationalist-conservative party Law and Justice, or PiS, has turned state television into a propaganda tube, used state companies to fund its political campaigns, and politicized state administration. In the run-up to this election, it altered electoral laws and even leaked top-secret military documents, manipulating their contents for electoral gain. Even so, the party appears to have won only just over a third of the vote. Three opposition parties will likely have a parliamentary majority. Barring unexpected surprises, and perhaps some attempts to block their victory, they will form a center-right/center-left coalition. Once again, Poles will have to slowly decentralize the state and rebuild their democracy.
This election doesn’t mark the same kind of world-historical turning point. But like the one in 1989, it could represent an important shift. After democratic coalitions failed to defeat nationalist-conservative ruling parties in Hungary last year and in Turkey last May, and after elections in Israel brought a coalition of extremists to power, plenty of people feared that democratic change in Poland, too, was impossible. Against the odds, yesterday’s election has proved them wrong. Even if you don’t live in Poland, don’t care about Poland, and can’t find Poland on a map, take note: The victory of the Polish opposition proves that autocratic populism can be defeated, even after an unfair election. Nothing is inevitable about the rise of autocracy or the decline of democracy. Invest your time in political and civic organization if you want to create change, because sometimes it works. [Continue reading…]