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Poland's democracy is at risk in next month's elections, say opposition leaders

"The freedom and democracy that my generation fought for can also be yours if you fight, too," Donald Tusk, candidate for Poland's Civic Coalition, tells university students at a campaign event ahead of the Oct. 15 election. "Without your vigilance, democracy will not survive. And this is not just about Poland."
Rob Schmitz/NPR
"The freedom and democracy that my generation fought for can also be yours if you fight, too," Donald Tusk, candidate for Poland's Civic Coalition, tells university students at a campaign event ahead of the Oct. 15 election. "Without your vigilance, democracy will not survive. And this is not just about Poland."

OLSZTYN, Poland — A silver-haired saxophonist donning sunglasses and bathed in multicolored spotlights marks the election season with a dose of smooth jazz at a university event in northern Poland, evoking a bygone era of politics when a soon-to-be U.S. president wowed audiences by doing the same.

The generational divide at the University of Olsztyn is complete when the guest of honor, a blond 66-year-old dressed in a crisp white button-down shirt and blue jeans, takes the stage. The audience of college students erupts into applause for a man they see as the last hope for the survival of democracy in Poland.

Donald Tusk, a former prime minister and former president of the European Council, is leading a group of political parties known as the Civic Coalition to try to unseat Poland's right-wing ruling party in next month's parliamentary elections.

"The freedom and democracy that my generation fought for can also be yours if you fight, too," he tells the students. "Without your vigilance, democracy will not survive. And this is not just about Poland."

University students at the University of Olsztyn cheer as they await the arrival of Donald Tusk, a candidate for prime minister.
/ Rob Schmitz/NPR
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Rob Schmitz/NPR
University students at the University of Olsztyn cheer as they await the arrival of Donald Tusk, a candidate for prime minister.

Tusk, a member of Poland's Solidarity movement in the 1980s, knows a thing or two about bringing down authoritarian regimes, and young Polish voters are looking to him to end the ruling Law and Justice Party's eight-year majority in the Sejm, Poland's parliament, and what they see as that party's steady erosion of the country's democratic institutions.

"I don't think we as a nation can survive another four years of destruction that has been happening for the last eight years," says 19-year-old Laura Gosiewska, who, like many students here, is about to vote in her first national election.

Even though democratically elected, Poland's ruling party is accused of rolling back democracy

For nearly half of Gosiewska's life, Poland's Law and Justice Party has carried out a political agenda aimed at returning the country to its conservative Catholic roots, as well as ensure its own party maintains power for the foreseeable future.

University students Laura Gosiewska and Franciszek Nemczewski at the Campus Polska event in the northern Polish city of Olsztyn. Both say that the ruling Law and Justice Party's policies have pulled their country away from the rest of Europe.
/ Rob Schmitz/NPR
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Rob Schmitz/NPR
University students Laura Gosiewska and Franciszek Nemczewski at the Campus Polska event in the northern Polish city of Olsztyn. Both say that the ruling Law and Justice Party's policies have pulled their country away from the rest of Europe.

Since it took the helm of government in 2015, Law and Justice has banned abortion, vigorously opposed equal rights for the LGBT community and turned Poland's public media into its own instrument of propaganda, championing the party's vision for the country.

It's also made Poland's once-independent judiciary subordinate to the ruling party, a move that led the European Union to freeze tens of billions of dollars' worth of funds to Poland for violating the bloc's democratic principles.

"If Law and Justice wins and we'll have a third term in front of them, then I think that this will have serious implications for democracy in this country," says political analyst Andrzej Bobinski.

Poles are voting on the survival of their democracy in this election, Bobinksi says, "because we're going to be on our way towards a Hungarian scenario, meaning that it would be very difficult for the opposition, whoever that would be in the future, to retake power without a revolution of sorts, whatever that means in the 21st century, because basically the system would be closed."

The latest polls show the Law and Justice party with 35.5% support among voters, just 6.5% above Tusk's Civic Coalition. That's not enough to form a government without a coalition, and no other party is, so far, willing to join Law and Justice to govern the country.

Bobinski predicts that neither Law and Justice nor the Civic Coalition will win a clear-cut majority of parliamentary seats after the Oct. 15 election — and that will likely mean a snap election in 2024 between the top two vote-getters.

Even if Law and Justice were to lose, Bobinski says reversing its policies will be tough. That's because Polish President Andrzej Duda, also a member of Law and Justice, will remain, and the constitutional tribunal, a court that Law and Justice stacked with loyal judges, will continue to have the power to block legislation.

"Whatever happens, we're in for a period of chaos," Bobinski says.

Andrzej Bobinski, managing director of Polityka Insight, says Poland will be voting on the survival of its democracy in its Oct. 15 national election. The ruling Law and Justice Party, if given a third term by voters, will further chip away at democratic institutions in the country, he says.
/ Rob Schmitz/NPR
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Rob Schmitz/NPR
Andrzej Bobinski, managing director of Polityka Insight, says Poland will be voting on the survival of its democracy in its Oct. 15 national election. The ruling Law and Justice Party, if given a third term by voters, will further chip away at democratic institutions in the country, he says.

Law and Justice says its power comes from the voting booth

Members of Law and Justice, though, don't see it this way.

"The presence of so many opposition parties proves democracy is alive and well in Poland," says Pawel Lisiecki, a Law and Justice member of parliament. "The problem is not authoritarian rule in Poland, but that the opposition against the ruling party is unable to unite."

On the streets in the capital Warsaw, retiree Bogdan Michalski says he's voting for Law and Justice because he thinks the party has overseen unprecedented economic improvement.

"There's a lot of construction, new roads and everything is getting better," he says. "Under the previous government, everything was neglected, and they just pocketed the money. If Law and Justice stays in power, we'll have everything they have in the West."

Except, perhaps, democracy, says former Polish ombudsman for citizens' rights Adam Bodnar. He says that should concern not only Polish voters, but also the rest of Europe and the U.S.

"In my opinion, it would be much more beneficial for the United States to cooperate with a typical democratic government than with a country that is going into some kind of authoritarian direction," he says. Especially one on the border of Ukraine, he adds.

Bodnar, running on the Civic Coalition ballot as a candidate for parliament in Warsaw, says the last thing the world needs is the reconstruction of Europe's Iron Curtain.

Lisiecki disagrees. "No nation in the world is more opposed to authoritarian rule than Poles are," he says. "Every authoritarian ruler in the country's history has ended in a revolt."

Piotr Zakowiecki contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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