Attempts at containing the coronavirus pandemic have provoked discussions about which political systems are best at handling health crises. Undemocratic countries seem well equipped to impose lockdowns and enforce physical distancing, while robust democracies tend to do better in terms of ensuring transparency, safeguarding access to information, and coordinating the efforts of state and civil society actors.
During the coronavirus outbreak, Poland, which Freedom House categorized in its “Nations in Transit 2020” report as a semiconsolidated democracy, has found itself at a tipping point between flawed democracy and mild authoritarianism. In the country’s deeply polarized political system, the institutions of liberal democracy, such as an independent judiciary, have already been undermined. Recent political developments have shown that such divided systems are at serious risk of further democratic backsliding during the pandemic.
The Polish government’s initial decision to swiftly impose a strict lockdown was greeted with understanding and supported by most Poles. In an opinion poll by Ipsos in mid-March, 71 percent of respondents backed the government’s response to the pandemic.
But this initially favorable reaction quickly gave way to mistrust and even anger. The government failed to provide clear justifications for further restrictions. Efforts to contain the virus laid bare the deficiencies of an underfunded healthcare system. And the ruling party kept pushing to hold a presidential election on May 10 despite widespread concerns among the population. In a poll by the Political Cognition Lab of the Polish Academy of Sciences, conducted March 20–23, the only group in society that provoked stronger negative feelings than the government were the people who were deliberately breaking the rules aimed at containing the pandemic.
The government was determined to simultaneously impose a strict lockdown and hold a presidential election regardless of serious health and legal concerns. This dissonance was one of the main drivers of dissent from both the parliamentary and nonparliamentary opposition. Accusing the government of a blatant power grab, the presidential candidate of the largest opposition party, Civic Platform, threatened to boycott the election.
Many local authorities announced that out of concern for citizens’ well-being, they would not help with the work of Poland’s electoral commission. In response, the government tried to pass a new law and enforce universal postal voting. Again, numerous local authorities protested and declared their intention to withhold registers of voters from the post office.
If it were not for strict physical distancing measures, tampering with a democratic election would probably have provoked massive street demonstrations. When, in the years after its 2015 election, the Law and Justice government undermined the independence of Poland’s constitutional court and supreme court, thousands of people across the country protested. In 2020, protests have been held mostly on the internet, with the notable exception of Alarm Signal to the Government. This protest action, supported by a coalition of civil society organizations, encouraged citizens to demand the election be postponed by honking their car horns and playing an alarm signal from their windows.
Tensions over the election also divided the ruling coalition. The leader of Agreement, a minority partner to Law and Justice, was strongly against voting in May and successfully threatened to break the government’s parliamentary majority if the election were not postponed. But the decision to delay the election and preserve the fragile unity of the ruling camp came at a cost. The last pretenses of legality were dropped when the election was not officially postponed but simply did not happen, following an agreement among political leaders.
Before the political and social turmoil over the presidential election, Poland’s ruling camp derived its legitimacy from the ballot box. As the government saw it, the will of a majority of voters justified undermining judicial independence or resisting the protection of certain minority rights. But the determination to hold the presidential election despite widespread social concerns seriously weakened this justification.
If the vote had been held on May 10, the turnout, according to polls, would have been around 20 percent. Most opposition supporters—convinced that the election could not be free, fair, and secret under the circumstances—would have abstained in protest against an infringement of democratic norms. But many supporters of the ruling party also declared they would not vote, most of them out of concern for their health.
With its popular support weakened and a fragile parliamentary majority, Law and Justice finds itself in a difficult situation. After years of undermining institutions of liberal democracy, the party cannot simply go back to respecting the rule of law. Its only way out is forward—even if that means undermining democratic institutions still further. This direction is even more tempting now that the pandemic has created many new opportunities for the discretionary use of power.
Paweł Marczewski is the head of the Citizens research unit at ideaForum, the think tank of the Batory Foundation in Warsaw. He is also a member of Carnegie’s Civic Research Network.