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Is Poland’s democratic backsliding over? History shows it takes more than an election

December 13, 2023 • By Emily Bloom, Alexander Hudson
Photo credit Platforma Obywatelska RP on Flickr,

In recent years Poland has been one of the most frequently mentioned cases of democratic backsliding in the world. Across many important metrics, the quality of democracy in the country fell significantly between 2015 and 2022. That period corresponds to the time in power of the Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) party. In the parliamentary election in October 2023, PiS and its United Right alliance (Zjednoczona Prawica, ZP) lost a significant level of support relative to the previous election in 2019. PiS remains the largest party in the lower chamber (Sejm) but fell short of a majority (even with its alliance partners). The Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) and its Civic Coalition alliance (Koalicja Obywatelska, KO) were able to form a government with the support of two other inter-party alliances under the leadership of former prime minister Donald Tusk on 11 December 2023.  

Does the fact that PiS is now in opposition (with a more centre-left coalition in power) mean that Poland’s democratic backsliding is over? Similar cases in other countries suggest that some improvement can be expected, but backsliding is not only about which party is in power.  

Democratic backsliding does not happen all at once, so one should not expect that it ends suddenly, or that the damage done over a period of years will be repaired quickly. Over the last decade, there have been many cases of democratic backsliding, and relatively few countries recovered to the level of democratic performance they had enjoyed before the backsliding began. Six cases that can provide some useful comparisons with the current situation in Poland are Armenia, Moldova, Slovenia, South Korea, Ukraine, and the United States. In each of these countries, a period of backsliding was followed by a change in the party in power (see the vertical lines in the graph below). However, the levels of democratic performance did not immediately bounce back in most cases. 


Prospects for Poland’s democratic backsliding 

While there were smaller declines in International IDEA’s indices of the Rule of Law and Participation before 2015, these trends accelerated during PiS time in power, joined by new and severe declines in Representation and Rights. In addition to conservative social policies (which sometimes restricted rights, and especially the rights of women and sexual minorities), PiS became best known outside Poland for its consistent legislative efforts to reduce the independence of the judiciary (reflected in the declining Rule of Law score).  


The Civic Coalition (KO) has promised an end to many of PiS’ policies. This includes reversing the near-total abortion ban adopted in 2020 and expanding reproductive rights, criminalizing anti-LGBTQIA+ hate speech following years of state-sanctioned homophobia, and reallocating resources from the Central Anticorruption Bureau - considered subordinated to the executive by the EU and Council of Europe - to other services. However, the new governing alliance will have to manage its own internal divisions. For example, while Tusk’s PO party is committed to legislation that would liberalize access to abortion, its partner alliance Third Way (Trzecia Droga, TD) wants to present the matter to voters in a referendum. All parties have indicated support for some level of legal recognition of same-sex couples but to varying degrees. The coalition of alliances now in government are mostly unified by their rejection of the PiS.  

This internal division is exacerbated by other weakened institutions which can delay or prevent reform efforts. During its eight years in government, PiS was able to align political institutions with its own ideology, particularly through a more partisan process for judicial appointments. President Andrzej Duda, a former party member, still has a close relationship with PiS, and has the power to veto legislation. The Constitutional Tribunal also has the power to strike down new laws and has been politicised by the PiS policy of undermining judicial independence. Taken together, the new governing coalition faces both internal and external impediments to the creation and implementation of a reform agenda. 

As in the elections, so in the new term 

Despite these notes of caution, there were clear wins for the strength of democracy in the October elections. Voter turnout reached historic highs, attesting to the engagement of the Polish people, and lending the election results popular legitimacy. Mass mobilisation of women, motivated by backsliding in some areas of women’s rights, led to gains in women’s representation in the Sejm. There is clear demand in Poland for a reinvigorated democracy. A lesson the incoming government can learn from the elections: the surest way to heed the will of the people and enact positive change is to relax the grip of PiS on institutions. Reversing democratic backsliding is not the work of a day, and Polish voters may need to provide patient support for a reform agenda to be successful.  

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.

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About the authors

Emily Bloom
Associate Programme Officer, Democracy Assessment
Alexander Hudson
Senior Adviser, Democracy Assessment
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