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When Election Losers Pretend to Be Winners

The stalling tactic recently employed by Poland’s outgoing government is part of a worrying trend in democracies, whereby the incumbent party rigs the game before leaving office. In Poland and elsewhere, this has meant last-minute appointments, policy commitments, and structural changes that diminish the winner’s powers.

PRINCETON – More than two months after the decisive victory of pro-democracy parties in Poland’s general election, opposition leader Donald Tusk has finally been sworn in as prime minister. Initially, Mateusz Morawiecki, his predecessor from the right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS) party, had been reappointed by President Andrzej Duda, beholden to PiS, under the pretense of forming a government. Predictably, he failed to win a vote of confidence in parliament.

This stalling tactic – not illegal, but clearly illegitimate – is part of a worrying trend in democratic elections, whereby the losing party refuses to accept defeat. Obvious examples include the riots in Washington, DC, in January 2021 and Brasília in January 2023.

But there are far subtler strategies to deny election outcomes. They are pursued quietly in offices, rather than in violent clashes with police. The protagonists are not militia members or hooligans dressed in the colors of the national soccer team, but clever lawyers pushing the rules of the game to their limits – what scholars are calling “autocratic legalism.”