Election fairness, although often idealized and considered with little nuance, is seen as one of the foundations of democratic order. Domestic watchdogs and international institutions such as the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights assess election fairness by monitoring the extent to which elections are characterized by equality, political pluralism, confidence, transparency, and accountability. These institutions are increasingly concerned about electoral fairness in countries ruled by right-wing populists.
As Mounk shows, quite a few analysts suggest that populists are useful, as they uncover flaws in liberal democracy. There is an argument that while populists destroy or weaken the liberal dimension of democracy (the rule of law, checks and balances, etc.), by invoking the principle of majoritarian democracy, according to which the winner of fair elections is entitled to almost unconstrained power, they are not anti-democratic. But by now we have enough evidence to see what happens when right-wing populists are in power for some time. It turns out that the system that emerges under their rule is not majoritarian democracy but rather has features of competitive authoritarianism, in which not only the liberal pillars of the system are violated, but also the very foundation of majoritarianism – elections.
The example of the upcoming parliamentary election in Poland demonstrates that even in the absence of conspicuous electoral fraud, seemingly small changes to the legal framework of elections combined with numerous, often minute, interventions into their financial and media infrastructure tilt the democratic playing field towards the incumbents in the manner that undermines electoral fairness.
Poland under PiS: taking ‘liberal’ out of ‘liberal democracy’
On May 24, 2015, Andrzej Duda, the candidate supported by the Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, abbr. PiS), won the second round of the Polish presidential election, receiving 51.5% of the vote, and assumed the presidency shortly after. Energized by this unexpected victory, PiS won the parliamentary elections on October 25, 2015, and the era of democratic backsliding commenced in a country previously regarded as the most successful case of post-communist transformation. PiS repeated this success in 2019, securing again 235 seats out of 460 available in the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish Parliament.
All major international institutions that assess the state of democracy around the world (Varieties of Democracy Project, Freedom House, the Economist Intelligence Unit, and the Bertelsmann Transformation Index) have been downgrading Polish scores since 2015. Soon after the PiS government came to power, it started the process of recentralization of the state apparatus and gradual dismantling of the architecture of checks and balances, which despite having some flaws, had been strong enough for experts to rank Poland as a leader of democratization in the region. The judiciary, particularly the Constitutional Court, became the first target of the government’s plan to overhaul institutions designed to control the executive.
Next came orchestrated attacks on the autonomous public sphere, including independent media, the institutional infrastructure of civil society, the non-partisan educational system, and self-governing cultural institutions, including museums, art galleries, and theaters. Polish civil service, never successfully professionalized and depoliticized after the fall of state socialism in 1989, has become even more subservient to the ruling party since 2015. In general, the state apparatus has become increasingly partisan, as many of its branches have come under the control of loyal nominees of the ruling party.
The fairness of the political process does not depend only on the existence of a favorable institutional framework built on independent media and robust civil society – particularly its watchdog groups – but also on the relatively equal access to resources for political activities. State-owned and state-controlled enterprises generate about 15% of the revenue from all enterprises and constitute a larger sector of the economy than in any other European Union country. Such a system, in which the ruling party abuses its dominant role in appointing board members and managers in these enterprises, can be described as neo-feudal. This is dangerous for democracy, as political overlords not only have the upper hand in economic decisions that should belong to autonomous economic actors, but they also have a huge advantage over challengers in accessing resources for political activities.
Independent media and autonomous civil society are two central pillars of the democratic system and are particularly relevant for the conduct of fair elections. The former’s task is to provide citizens with accurate, timely, and balanced information about all contestants for power, while the latter can play the role of a watchdog, thus safeguarding the proper organization of the electoral process. Unlike in Hungary, these two domains which are critical for democracy have managed to retain substantial independence and vibrancy in post-2015 Poland. Nevertheless, both have been subjected to unrelenting governmental pressure, as the ruling party’s attempts to increase its control over them have never stopped.
PiS turned the budding public media, such as Polish Television (TVP), into “national” media, not only imposing tight political controls on them but also turning them into a propaganda machine exulting governmental successes; denigrating the opposition, particularly during electoral campaigns; and advocating a belligerent and exclusivist vision of national identity. The ruling party also created a governmental agency to coordinate state support for, and control over, civil society. The National Freedom Institute, created in 2017, immediately showed its ideological character, by channeling its funds almost exclusively towards civil society organizations whose programs are consistent with the official ideology of the government that has over time become increasingly traditionalist, anti-liberal, and anti-European. Simultaneously, oppositional activists involved in protests against the government’s attack of the independent judiciary, women’s rights or LGBT+ communities have been persecuted by the politicized state apparatus or attacked by far-right groups whose actions are neither condemned nor vigorously prosecuted by the authorities. This has generated an intensely polarized political culture within which the electoral campaign of 2023 unfolds.
The 2023 parliamentary elections: a subtle tilt of the electoral playing field – or is it?
An uneven playing field, mostly obscured from external observers, is the hallmark of hybrid regimes. Strategies of tilting the playing field are often subtle but taken together they produce an electoral process that is unfair. As Kim Scheppelle shows, before and during the Hungarian election of 2022, the angle at which the political field was skewed was steep. It seems that the Polish political field prior to the 2023 elections is not tilted to the same degree, but it is far from being level. As far as we can see, the tilt is caused by at least six mechanisms.
First, since PiS voters are older, largely less educated and tend to live in small towns and villages, in December 2022 the ruling party amended the electoral law to increase the number of polling stations in such areas and to provide free transportation to voters with disabilities and those from remote locations. Although this change was presented as aiming to combat social exclusion of the less well-off part of the Polish population, its beneficiaries will likely be PiS supporters.
The reform of the electoral law thus exacerbates a more long-term effect of putting a disproportionate “weight” on the vote from smaller and less urbanized electoral districts, which resembles the disproportionality of the American Senate voting system, in which Wyoming (population of 578.8 thousand in 2021) and California (39.2 million in 2022) have two senators each. The new electoral law also introduces a 24-hour cut-off point for vote count. This in turn poses a risk that the votes from polling stations with the highest number of voters registered (likely to be situated abroad) will be nullified if they are not counted and reported before the deadline.
Second, PiS politicians, often occupying governmental positions, further press their advantage in small-town Poland to consolidate and grow their voting base by engaging in a perpetual campaign without any regard for its legal time frame. For months, government officials have been participating in local events that are merely state-funded photo opportunities. From opening new roads and delivering fire engines to small communes, the headliners of PiS ballots won’t miss any opportunity to be seen as benefactors of the small-town voter. On the one hand, the party promotes its candidates on the back of investments made with government funds, thus public money, but on the other hand, it is also happy to brag about projects that are not supported from the state budget. In June, PiS politicians sparked controversy when they claimed full credit for Poland’s longest underwater tunnel even though it had been entirely funded by the European Union and local authorities.
Third, the coverage of the electoral competition, particularly in the “national” television (TVP) and other government-supporting media is heavily biased, almost uniformly positive in its presentation of the ruling party and almost completely negative in its portrayal of the opposition. While the key objective of the incumbents’ campaign – to discredit and vilify the biggest opposition party, Civic Coalition and its leader Donald Tusk – could be seen as a standard element of political competition, exploiting public media, which by law should not favor any political party for that purpose, is a breach of democratic standards.
Since his return to Polish politics in July 2021, Tusk, the former President of the European Council (2014–2019), has been subjected to a relentless smear campaign in the state media. For example, TVP’s flagship news show, Wiadomości, notoriously uses a two-second fragment of Tusk’s speech to the German CDU party in which he used the phrase “für Deutschland” (for Germany). For example, between January 2021 and August 2022 the short video snippet was used over 150 times with no reference to the actual context of Tusk’s speech – instead, it is supposed to imply Tusk’s subservience to Germany and suggest that he prioritizes German interests over Polish raison d’état. The editors of Wiadomości won’t shy away from editing the hue in video footage featuring Tusk to make his hair appear redder or notoriously using an image of Tusk with a crosshair on his chest, something he sued TVP for in March 2023.
Such methods may appear to be ridiculous, and indeed they are an object of jokes and memes popular among the voters who oppose PiS. However, the aggressive tone of the public media, in which opposition leaders are presented as people who are dangerous for Poland, has been intensifying during the last days of the campaign. For example, on September 17, TVP showed dead bodies from Bucha, the Ukrainian town whose population was massacred by the Russian invaders in 2022, and informed the public that the defense policy of the Tusk government (2007-2014) would have led to similar tragedies in eastern Poland.
Fourth, state-owned and state-controlled companies that play a powerful role in the Polish economy, as described above, are involved in the campaign and directly or indirectly sponsor politicians from the ruling coalition. Providing financial support for political parties by enterprises is common in many democratic countries and does not interfere with the election fairness – as long as these enterprises are privately owned.
The control over state-owned companies provides the incumbent PiS party not only with access to cash that no electoral challenger can match but also the power to decide where and how much of that cash should flow. In mid-September, Orlen, a dominant player in Central European petroleum sector and a Polish state-controlled enterprise managed by a loyal PiS nominee Daniel Obajtek, has significantly lowered petrol prices in Poland despite growing crude oil price on the international market and an unfavorable exchange rate of the Polish currency, potentially having tapped into the country’s strategic reserves, something the government would have had to condone. Additionally, state-owned enterprises and state-controlled enterprises are unconstrained in pouring funds into the promotion campaign for the referendum (discussed below) that is designed – for many observers – to foster PiS ideology and some of the main talking points of its electoral campaign.
The fifth mechanism is as old as politics: generous economic promises. Since handout-driven welfare policies are widely perceived as the key to Law and Justice electoral success and something most voters support, almost all political contenders now include them in their manifestos. But only PiS can act on them before the vote takes place thus proving itself as the party that keeps its promises.
Jarosław Kaczyński, the party chairman, promised ahead of the electoral campaign that the popular cash bonuses for pensioners would be made a permanent fixture in the welfare system. PiS has also announced other social welfare measures, including a raise in the monthly child benefit from PLN 500 ($115 USD) to PLN 800 ($185 USD) from 2024, and free prescription medications for people over the age of 65 and those under 18. Kaczyński’s loyal friends in powerful positions are also happy to help the party’s image. After months of raising the base interest rate to combat soaring inflation, the Chief of the Polish Central Bank, Adam Glapiński, unexpectedly cut the interest rate by 75 basis points in a move particularly popular among homeowners struggling to keep up with their mortgage payments.
The sixth mechanism of tilting the electoral playing field is the most audacious and unprecedented. In August 2023, about 3 months before the parliamentary elections, top PiS officials announced a four-question referendum to be held on the same day as the parliamentary elections. Domestic commentators, external observers, and opposition politicians have raised concerns that the four referendum questions are leading and have been designed to evoke responses resembling the main points of PiS’s campaign.
For example, similarly to the notorious 2016 anti-migrant referendum in Hungary, Polish voters will be asked whether they support “the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa in accordance with the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy.” This question misrepresents the Council of the European Union’s recent non-binding proposal of the EU asylum and migration rulebook reform formulated in response to the recent migrant boat disaster. Combined with the relentless anti-migrant tone of reporting from the EU frontiers on the state-controlled media, the referendum designed to be a tool of direct democratic expression is turned into a propaganda operation for the incumbent.
The referendum results will be binding only if the turnout reaches 50%, therefore some politicians (for example, the Left), former public servants, and constitutional lawyers have encouraged the supporters of the opposition not to participate in the referendum. However, abstaining from casting a vote may prove to be difficult. Arguably, the most serious concern has been the fact that when voters arrive at polling stations, they are likely to receive ballot papers for both the elections and the referendum at the same time. It means that those who wish not to vote in one or the other would have to declare this to staff and their decision would have to be recorded, which threatens the secrecy of voting. In particular, in small constituencies dominated by PiS supporters, a public refusal to collect the referendum ballot could expose dissenting voters and subject them to condemnation.
Right-wing populist leaders often argue that illiberalism does not threaten democracy in its essence, merely its liberal component that is not only unnecessary for the proper functioning of the democratic system, but detrimental to it. Despite a convincing argument to the contrary, abandoning liberal institutions and principles is thus presented as a method of reviving the spirit of freedom in a “true” democracy. Further, populists claim their legitimacy solely on their electoral victories, not the respect of other elements of the democratic architecture, so insisting that majoritarianism is the primary if not the sole principle of the democratic system is a logical strategy. But the corollary of this reasoning should be the idea that the fair electoral process needs to be ensured at all costs.
In fact – as we have demonstrated above – this is not the case. Right-wing populists in Poland chip away at the principle of free and fair elections, as they have done in other countries. They do it consistently and purposefully – and as a result erode the fairness of elections, while keeping up all the appearances of an ordinary campaign. The strategy is implemented slowly and incrementally, consistent with the newest pattern of gradual autocratization diagnosed by Lührmann and Lindberg.
So, if the Polish parliamentary elections of October 2023 cannot be called fair, what are they and what does it mean for Polish democracy? The veil of ambiguity surrounding these elections – neither fair nor fraudulent – hides their distorted character that dramatically increases the incumbent’s chances of staying in power. It is a challenge to gauge exactly the depth of the distortion, but it certainly constitutes a departure from democratic standards pertaining to the electoral process, a symptom of competitive authoritarianism.
According to the aggregated data available at the Politico portal, averaging results of polls conducted up to October 1, 2023, 37% of voters declare their intent to vote for Law and Justice/United Right, 30% for Civic Coalition, 11% for the Third Way (Poland 2050 and Polish People’s Party), 10% for Confederation Freedom and Independence, and 9% for the Left (New Left and Left Together). Given these results, it seems neither PiS nor any of its contenders is likely to win the majority of seats and thus a coalition government is most plausible. Due to a large proportion of voters who are yet to make up their minds it is difficult to make more precise predictions – ultimately, the election results will be decided by the undecided.
Jan Kubik is Distinguished Professor in the Department of Political Science at Rutgers University and Professor of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London (UCL), the 2020 President of Association for East European and Eurasian Studies and the recipient of the 2018 Distinguished Achievement Award from the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America (PIASA). He is the Co-Principal Investigator (with Richard Mole) of two international projects, Delayed Transformational Fatigue in Central and Eastern Europe (FATIGUE) and Populist Rebellion Against Modernity in 21st-century Eastern Europe (POPREBEL). His work deals with the rise of right-wing populism; culture and politics; memory politics; civil society, protest politics and social movements; communist and post-communist politics; and interpretive/ethnographic methods in political science. Among his publications are: The Power of Symbols against the Symbols of Power; Rebellious Civil Society: Popular Protest and Democratic Consolidation in Poland, 1989-1993 (with Grzegorz Ekiert); Anthropology and Political Science (with Myron Aronoff); Postcommunism from Within: Social Justice, Mobilization, and Hegemony (edited with Amy Linch); and Twenty Years After Communism: The Politics of Memory and Commemoration (with Michael Bernhard). He is currently working on several publications based on the FATIGUE and POPREBEL projects. He received an M.A. (sociology and philosophy) from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland and a Ph.D. (anthropology, with distinction) from Columbia University in NYC.
Marta Kotwas is a doctoral student at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. She holds a Philosophy MA from the University of Lodz, Poland. Her current research focuses on socio-cultural interpretations of the rise of right-wing populism and nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe, and on the relationship between popular culture and politics in Poland. Her recent articles, co-authored with Jan Kubik, are “Symbolic Thickening of Public Culture and the Rise of Right-Wing Populism in Poland” (EEPS 33(2): 435-471) and “Beyond ‘Making Poland Great Again.’ Nostalgia in Polish Populist and Non-populist Discourses” (Sociological Forum, 37: 1360-1386).
Banner Image created by John Chrobak using “Wybory 2006 RB,” by Radomil licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; “02023 0485 Open Meeting with Donald Tusk in Ustroń,” by Silar licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0; “02023 0453 Open Meeting with Donald Tusk in Ustroń,” by Silar licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0; “Julia Przyłębska – I Prezes Trybunału Konstytucyjnego,” by Stanisław Loba licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0; “Katarzyna Lubnauer by Łukasz Kamiński,” by Łukasz Kamiński licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
 Tusk is also believed to be the target of another pre-election strategy that seems to have been abandoned. On April 14, 2023, the Polish Parliament adopted the Law on State Commission for Investigating Russian Influences on the Internal Security of the Republic of Poland between 2007-2022. It has been viewed by domestic and external experts as a tool of extrajudicial prosecution and defamation that could be easily used to discredit opposition politicians running in the 2023 parliamentary elections, particularly Donald Tusk (hence its common name “Lex Tusk”). Following an intense wave of domestic and international condemnations and decisive action by the European Commission the law’s implementation was put on hold.
 The only previous case of instrumentalizing a referendum during an electoral campaign in Poland took place in 2015. The incumbent President Bronisław Komorowski announced it in a failed attempt to attract the supporters of his second strongest competitor, Paweł Kukiz. However, that vote did not coincide with any election date.
 It is not the first time PiS played the migration card in their campaign – in 2015 and 2018 at the peak of the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, Law and Justice stoked fear of dark-skinned incomers and resentment towards the EU bureaucracy for the proposals concerning the migrant relocation scheme.