The New Autocrats: How Leaders Turn Democracy into an Instrument of Oppression
After a campaign season full of heated rhetoric and bitter recriminations, polls showed a tight race, with analysts predicting that neither party would win a clear majority, likely leading to a coalition government led by one of them.
The outcome will be closely watched across Europe, where diplomatic clashes with Poland have become a perennial source of division and anxiety, as well as in the United States, which has grown closer to Poland since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
But officials and analysts say what Polish voters really want is being distorted by state-controlled media, new election rules and a controversial referendum that was supplemented by a vote.
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The election raised concerns about the health of Polish institutions. “We still have democracy in Poland, but thanks to our civil society, NGOs and local government, the opposition is relatively strong,” said Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, who is affiliated with Tusk’s center-right Civic Platform.
“We can say it’s still democratic,” he continued. “But of course it’s also completely unfair.
After eight years, it consolidated its power over the media, with Poland withdrawing from it 18 on 57th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, Law and Justice was able to rely on disproportionately favorable campaign coverage while using public broadcasting and a network of regional newspapers to amplify its attacks on the opposition.
Broadcaster Telewizja Polska (TVP) — which is full of loyal supporters of the Law and Justice party and this year received 2.35 billion zlotys ($546 million) in government funds — 80 percent of its political airtime was devoted to the ruling coalition and only 20 percent to opposition parties, it says Monitoring of the Polish National Broadcasting Council in the second quarter of this year.
Poland was once an outcast in Europe. Then Russia invaded Ukraine.
TVP routinely downplays opposition rallies, including a large demonstration in Warsaw this month. While city officials estimated turnout at 1 million, TVP reported about it that 100,000 people attended.
And when the ruling party was accused of awarding work visas for large sums of money – which contradicted its hard line on migration and led to the resignation of the deputy foreign minister and the indictment of other officials – TVP went with the headline: “The opposition deliberately lies about the visa scandal: Polish FM.”
“Months, years, of a continuous stream of pro-government propaganda extolling the government’s achievements and attacking the opposition in an unprecedented way,” said Piotr Buras, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Warsaw.
“Public media is an instrument of power,” Buras said. “It’s the same tool that was used in the 2019 election, but now it’s being used to extremes.”
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Prior to that vote, the No. 1 target was Tusk, who was cast by law and justice leaders — and repeated by public broadcasters — as “the personification of evil” and the treacherous defector he has promote the interests of Russia and Germany over Poland.
One video clip that has been played repeatedly shows Tusk saying “for Germany” or “for Germany”. But the clip itself was a two-word cut taken from an innocuous message to Germany’s conservative CDU party in January 2021 and stripped of all context.
The government also raised eyebrows by holding a referendum alongside Sunday’s parliamentary election. The ballot consists of four loaded questions that are not linked to any policy proposals but are designed to promote law and justice while promoting disinformation about the opposition. Human Rights Watch and other European observers say.
For example, one question asks whether people want to accept “thousands of illegal immigrants” from the Middle East and North Africa as “imposed” by “European bureaucracy”. Another question asks whether voters want to dismantle the barrier built on the border between Poland and Belarus.
Michal Baranowski, executive director of Warsaw’s GMF East, part of the German Marshall Fund, said the referendum is a way to circumvent campaign finance restrictions because it uses state resources to spread non-neutral election information.
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Using the state apparatus to support the referendum is “another vehicle for campaign funds” and “creates a disparity in the amount of funds used by one party and not the other,” he said.
For the referendum to be valid, 50 percent of voters must participate. Opposition leaders called for a boycott. The former head of Poland’s electoral commission, Wojciech Hermelinski, said he “would be ashamed to participate”.
However, simply accepting a referendum ticket – which will be distributed with the parliamentary election ballot – counts as participation. Voters must actively reject the referendum document – which some observers fear will discourage people from taking part in a parliamentary vote or compromise the secrecy of the vote.
“There are real concerns,” said Malgorzata Bonikowska, president of the Center for International Relations in Warsaw. “Especially among people who work in the public sector. But also those who are in business.’
Changes to the electoral code
New election rules, signed into law in Marchthey increased the number of polling stations and mandated free election day transportation for elderly and disabled voters.
The ruling party insists the changes are about improving accessibility. The opposition says the measure will only increase voter turnout among the elderly and voters in rural areas — two demographic groups that are part of Law and Justice’s core electorate.
One group that more reliably supports the opposition are expats. More than half a million Poles living abroad registered to vote in this election, the most in the country’s history. However, there is a new requirement for overseas constituencies to submit their tally within 24 hours of the polls closing. Polish Commissioner for Human Rights Marcin Wiacek does he warned which could disenfranchise voters.
Meanwhile, although mandated by law, the government refused to reallocate constituencies in line with population shifts. This means that people in sparsely populated rural areas have more voting rights. One group is pushing for city dwellers to vote in other districts calculated that candidates in Warsaw need to get 98,000 votes, while candidates in the agrarian east need only get 74,000 votes.
And if the election results are contested? This could point to further weakening of Polish institutions: The government has limited the independence of the National Electoral Commission and the Supreme Court.