WARSAW – Poland has now emerged as the latest European battleground in a contest between two models of democracy – liberal and illiberal. The overwhelming election victory in October of Jarosław Kaczyński’s far-right Law and Justice party (PiS) has led to something more akin to regime change than to a routine turnover of democratically elected governments. Prime Minister Beata Szydło’s new administration has purged the civil service (including public radio and television), packed the Constitutional Court with sympathizers, and weakened the Court’s capacity to strike down legislation.
In response, the European Commission has launched an official inquiry into potential violations of the EU’s rule-of-law standards. Moreover, Standard & Poor’s has, for the first time, downgraded Poland’s foreign currency rating – from A- to BBB+ – and warned of perhaps more cuts to come as it accuses the government of weakening “the independence and effectiveness of key institutions.” Growing doubts about the commitment of Poland’s new rulers to democracy has deepened the slump in Poland’s stock market and contributed to a depreciation of the Polish złoty.
Poland is the largest European Union country to embrace illiberalism; but it is not the first. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government has been at odds with the EU for several years over his open politicization of Hungarian institutions, while Robert Fico’s government in neighboring Slovakia has pursued a similar brand of raw majoritarianism.
What accounts for this contempt for democratic norms in some of Europe’s newest democracies? Throughout the 1990s, the promise of EU membership framed a process of root-and-branch political and economic reform in Central and Eastern Europe’s previously closed societies. And, following these countries’ accession to the Union in 2004, the gap between them and the old EU members seemed to be closing. Indeed, during the eight years of center-right rule that preceded the PiS’s victory, Poland emerged as a model European student, recording the strongest economic growth in the OECD.