30th Sep 2023


Poland's democracy is so eroded, it needs full election monitors

  • Ursula von der Leyen with Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki. His PiS party has continued efforts to undermine free and fair elections in the lead up to October's parliamentary election (Photo: Council of the European Union)
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Poland faces a barrage of internal threats to its 15 October parliamentary elections. As a result, the Organization for Security and Cooperation and Europe (OSCE) should re-consider its call for a limited election observation mission (LEOM), and instead carry out a full-scale election observation mission (EOM) of Poland's parliamentary elections.

Poland may be an unrivalled player in the fight for Ukrainian democracy, but its own democracy continues to erode from within. Since coming to power in 2015, Poland's ruling populist party Law and Justice (PiS) has dismantled many of the country's core democratic tenets, including the judiciary's independence, the media's freedom, and the institutions that help protect the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people.

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Poland's upcoming parliamentary elections should be a referendum on the ruling party. However, this can only happen if the election is conducted in a genuinely democratic manner, something that is more likely to occur (and be assessed as such) with a full-scale election observation mission.

The OSCE's needs assessment report fails to fully consider the election day challenges that might transpire following recent changes to Poland's election code and is not sufficiently responsive to the ruling party's persistent, ongoing attempts to tilt the electoral playing field in its favour.

OSCE assessments of recent Polish elections highlight a worrisome trend: since 2015 elections in Poland have been free but not fair. The OSCE found that PiS' exploitation of state-media and public funds for campaigning "amplified its advantage" during the 2019 parliamentary election.

In addition to reiterating those same concerns in its assessment of the 2020 presidential election, the OSCE also found that PiS's attempt to employ a last-minute mail-only voting system "jeopardis[ed] the stability" of the election. The move was further criticised by democracy watchdogs as a "power grab" by the ruling party to capitalise on PiS president Andzrej Duda's firm lead in the polls during a time when the pandemic had forced opposition parties to suspend campaigning.

The PiS has continued its efforts to undermine free and fair elections in the months leading up to the 2023 parliamentary election. In March, PiS pushed through a series of controversial amendments to the electoral code and violates a Polish ruling that says no significant amendments should be introduced six months before an election is called.

Most attention has focused on new requirements to provide free transport for people over 60 or with disabilities and the creation of new polling stations in rural areas. And while improving voting accessibility appears positive, critics argue that it is only intended to boost voter turnout among rural and older voters who disproportionately support PiS instead of increasing polling stations in high-density populations where they are actually needed.

Other changes to the code unnecessarily risk disenfranchising overseas voters by requiring overseas polling stations to submit votes within 24 hours of the end of voting and jeopardising the secrecy of voting by allowing individuals to film election processes without adequate safeguards.

In another act to skew the 2023 vote, Duda approved the creation of a committee to investigate Russian interference.

'Lex Tusk'

But this new committee is merely a false display, and rather could be exploited by the ruling party to block political opponents from holding office under allegations that they acted under Russian influence. The law, so dubbed the 'Lex Tusk' because it is largely considered to be a mechanism to eliminate opposition leader Donald Tusk from political life, was harshly criticised by both the United States and European Parliament for its potential to be misused to interfere in Poland's elections.

While it is true that limited-observation missions can assess the broader, systemic threats to elections, the presence of short-term election observers only available with a full-scale mission could benefit this year's election. For instance, short-term observers could better monitor any challenges that might transpire on election day due to the addition of new polling stations, as well as any disruptions to election processes from permitting its recording.

And given PiS's penchant for making controversial moves to tilt the electoral playing field shortly before elections, short-term observers can serve as an insurance policy to monitor other potential election day threats to manipulate the vote, including last-minute legal changes, ballot manipulation, or attempts to overturn or deny results.

Additionally, the OSCE's LEOM recommendation also risks giving the impression that Polish democracy is no longer in dire straits.

Carrying out a full mission, would therefore, send a strong message that the OSCE is committed to fighting the increasing threat of autocracy, not only in Poland, but in other OSCE member states as well.

With Poland's increased geopolitical importance as a fortress on Nato's eastern front, Poland's democratic future is more important than ever. However, since the start of the Ukraine war, many Western countries have turned a blind eye to Poland's democracy crisis.

The OSCE cannot make this same mistake. While Poland's support for Ukraine is commendable, saving a neighbouring democracy should not give Poland a pass for dismantling its own.

Author bio

Krystyna Sikora is a research assistant for the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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