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14th Apr 2024

Column

Will Poles vote for the end of democracy?

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Poland holds parliamentary elections on 15 October. The stakes are high. As is all too often the case these days, the election is essentially a referendum on democracy.

Even if you prefered the policies of the ruling PiS party and considered yourself a conservative voter, you would have to vote against the party if saving democracy was your main concern.

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  • Unsurprisingly, Poland's ruling PiS party has copied most of these tricks from Hungary's extremist Fidesz party

The elections highlight the systematic destruction of democratic institutions by the ruling party ever since it entered parliament in 2015. It has created electoral conditions that are massively tilted in its favour.

Many people think that public television, and its impartiality, is a problem everywhere. It is true that ensuring that public media remains pluralistic is a constant point of debate in any democracy. Indeed, all was not well with public television before the PiS came to power.

But for PiS it was not about calibrating a functioning system, it was about breaking the system. As in Hungary, the tax-funded state TV was turned into a pure propaganda show in favour of the ruling party.

In its 14 national TV channels and eight radio channels, coverage is all in favour of the ruling party. If the opposition is mentioned, it is negative — a violation of various obligations that Poland committed to uphold.

Many other problems, including pressure on private media, have recently been highlighted by media expert groups.

In another move, the government changed the electoral laws.

Again, the changes were not subtle. They were blatant adjustments to tilt the playing field in PiS's favour. They make voting more convenient in PiS hotspots (by opening more polling stations in small rural towns), while creating the risk that polling stations abroad (where PiS has less support) will not be able to report their results in time (the details are explained in this piece by Verfassungsblog).

The ruling party ignored requests from the electoral commission to update the boundaries of the constituencies to ensure that each Pole's vote has a similar weight. The government ignored the request and now there are significant imbalances.

Stacking the deck

Apparently not yet convinced that it had sufficiently stacked the deck in its favour, in August the government hastily announced a referendum to also be held on election day.

Its questions are odd, propagandistic ("do you support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa (…) imposed by the European bureaucracy?") and of unclear legal value, but they help driving the turnout of PiS voters and now the strict campaign finance rules for parliamentary elections can be circumvented. It's enough to say "hey, this ad is for the referendum" to get around the usual campaign finance rules.

Unsurprisingly, PiS has copied most of these tricks from Hungary´s extremist Fidesz party.

Many more problems could be mentioned, be it a massive spending spree to hand out goodies to voters, or the adoption of a propagandistic law establishing a commission to investigate alleged "Russian influence" (to paint the opposition as pro-Russian).

And the rule-of-law crisis will have a rendezvous with the democracy crisis in October: if people appeal against electoral malpractice, they must turn to a chamber of the Supreme Court that was set-up by the ruling party in 2018. The European Court of Human Rights found that the chamber lacks independence.

How should Europe deal with such a process?

First, international media should always make clear that these are not fair, democratic elections. The opposition may still win, but it would be against the odds in a system methodically stacked against it. The flawed race should be the story at least as much as the race itself.

Otherwise, journalists are giving undeserved legitimacy to PiS in the likely event that it wins (I have written more on the problem of election coverage in flawed elections in relation to Turkey).

Second, the EU needs to move beyond the rule-of-law concern. It is a problem when governments fire judges they do not like, as the PiS government has done. But it is also a problem when a government does not allow an opposition to compete on a level playing field. This situation directly affects the EU, because the unfairly elected government is a co-legislator for the whole EU. The EU Commission should be ready to use infringement procedures against electoral manipulations.

Finally, it is once again up to the EU member states to decide how to respond to flawed elections. They shape EU policy just as much as the European Commission and Parliament. If they once again hide behind other institutions and pretend that all is well, the EU's lost status as a community of democracies will recede further into the rear-view mirror.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.

Disclaimer

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

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Since 2015 elections in Poland have been free but not fair. The OSCE found that the ruling Law & Justice party's exploitation of state-media and public funds for campaigning "amplified its advantage" during the previous 2019 parliamentary election.

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