The Struggle for Poland’s Democracy: Populism’s Resilience Amidst Electoral Change

Grace Bolling, Dec 15, 2023

Eight years after the Law and Justice Party (PiS) led the United Right coalition to an electoral victory in the lower house, the right-wing populist party’s grip on the Sejm appears to be slipping. After the opposition bloc—headed by former Prime Minister Donald Tusk—gained control of the lower house of parliament in the October 15th general election, PiS’s democratic opposition hopes that this transition of power indicates a weakening of populism’s hold on Poland. However, this article explores the opposite side of the coin, wherein PiS laid the groundwork for populist structures to remain durable amidst a change in government. First, I argue that populist leadership spent nearly a decade shaping policy that weaponized pre-existing cultural divisions–specifically nationality, sexual orientation, and healthcare–to manufacture a society that is inhospitable to constructive political discourse. Then, I detail how PiS eroded the autonomy of democratic institutions, weakened checks and balances, and inhibited the freedom of the press. While the opposition bloc’s success in the recent election signals the electorate’s disapproval of the incumbent populist party, the enduring influence of populism within Poland’s government remains a persistent challenge to rebuilding the nation’s democratic foundation.




Poland’s unique political culture links the rise of populism to underlying social mechanisms, such as minimal ties to liberal tradition and limited confidence in the state, as opposed to broad elements such as nationalism or the cult of the leader. For instance, Poland’s state institutions were not consolidated enough to curb populism and preserve underlying liberal and democratic ideology. Since the “partially free” election in 1989, support for a focus on Poland’s populace stemmed from an overwhelming lack of interpersonal trust in state and social institutions. As a result, the Polish government focused on modernizing infrastructure, but not incorporating globalism and cooperation into society and politics. Even still, the level of Polish trust in the aforementioned institutions is a meager 15% [1]. 

Moreover, Poland’s transition to populism closely aligns with the Global Financial Crisis. Central and Eastern European countries rushed to catch up with competing nations that developed decades prior as Poland began the same transition to the global market. When the financial crisis hit, billions of dollars from foreign investments and trust in foreign institutions sharply declined, and Central and Eastern European countries’ GDPs decreased by 9% on average. Considering that Poland was not as reliant on global banks and investments as their neighbors, they were comparatively well-off. However, their credit default spreads rose from 11.7 to 362.5, and the zloty depreciated by 17.8%  [2]. Poles questioned the wisdom of a global economic model when the market crash crippled neighboring nations’ economies, and their nation fell into a recession after a reserved entry into the global arena.


Overconfidence in the Recent Election Results


Although the majority of Poles expressed a sense of distrust in state institutions and favored a nationalist perspective, the constraints of populism brought about a youthful opposition against PiS. In 2015, Poles began speaking out against the systematic dismantling of democracy under PiS. Mounting discontent with populist leadership spilled into the streets of Poland this past June, with hundreds of thousands of Poles gathering in protest [3]. Last month, Poland saw a record voter turnout of 74.4% in the general election that brought the opposition bloc into power [4]. The voices of protestors and the electorate deliver the message to PiS, President Duda, and foreign nations that not all Poles support a populist government led by PiS and the allied president. Yet, their voices did not deliver the entire message: populist and authoritative governments tend to hold more power than the people. 

Although opponents of PiS expressed their dissent toward the party when they were initially elected, the 2019 general election resulted in PiS’s second term in office. Further, although PiS was unable to form a winning coalition and their proportion of votes dropped from 43.6% to 35.4%, they remained the largest party and took 194 seats in the parliament [5]. Critically, populist social policies did not drive voters to shift their support from PiS to the opposition bloc. On one hand, supporters of a Tusk-led government maintained their stance against isolating Poland from the rest of Europe and PiS’s harsh treatment of marginalized communities. On the other hand, voters whose support recently shifted away from PiS expressed minimal disapproval of the limitations placed on civil liberties. Instead, their primary reason for changing party alliances revolved around economic measures, such as the rise of inflation during PiS’s tenure [6]. While there is a measurable decline in PiS’s base of supporters, populist beliefs will continue to influence the Sejm and the electorate for the foreseeable future.




After Poland’s rush to develop and the subsequent global economic crisis, it was an intuitive response for Poland to lean on a populist, “Poland-first” ideology. In the context of populism, this led to the marginalization of dissenting voices and a narrowing of the democratic space for diverse political opinions. Thus, the conditions of populism and the resulting polarization pose a threat to a fundamental element of liberal democracy: pluralism. Poland’s right-wing populist government brandished an  “us vs. them” rhetoric that raised two critical questions: Who are the ordinary people prioritized by populist leaders? Beyond the wealthy elite, what groups of people do the Polish government regard as inherently inferior?

Theoretically, populism is an anti-establishment advocate for a collective, called “the ordinary people”. In practice, separatist ideologies often charge the populist appeal and pit two antagonistic groups against each other. This is evidenced by PiS broadly defining “the corrupt elite” to widen their scope of appeals and justification for implementing a national-conservative agenda that ostracizes minority groups from Polish society. Polarization and social conflict pose a threat to Poland’s basic democratic structures because they obstruct political cooperation and compromise that would otherwise challenge PiS when they launched an anti-immigration campaign, segregated LGBTQ+ from public spaces, and defunded women’s healthcare services.


Polarization: Ultra-nationalist and Welfare Chauvinism


After assuming control of Sejm, PiS took a firm ultra-nationalist stance that increased Poland’s isolation from the European Union. During Europe’s immigration crisis in 2015, the PiS government defied the refugee quota agreed upon at the European Council. Deputy Prime Minister Kaczyński labeled the arrival of Muslim refugees as a public health problem, implying that the introduction of national and cultural differences is on par with the spread of parasites [7]. This rhetoric was not victimless, empty speech. Between 2015 and 2017, the European Union successfully relocated exactly zero asylum seekers to Poland [8]. Not only did PiS’s anti-immigration policies heighten animosity with neighboring European nations, but they also mutated into a civilizationalist platform centered around protecting against Western multiculturalism’s assault on traditional moral values. Poland’s civilizationalist platform aligns with Brubaker’s definition of civilizationism as the “opposition between self and other” and the  “boundaries of belonging” [9]. Ultimately, PiS enacted restrictive immigration policies to promote a homogenous state and prevent the entry of several distinct ethnic groups and cultures that might threaten the party’s ideal social structure.

Through welfare chauvinism, the passage of policies that uplifted the “morally superior” Polish people is evidence of the intersection of PiS’s foreign policy and domestic agendas. Welfare chauvinism—the political belief that welfare benefits should be provided to natives of a country and restricted from immigrants—was PiS’s key to expanding its base [10]. It is no secret that PiS and their predecessors have seen unrivaled electoral success since 1989, even with blatantly anti-immigration, anti-E.U., and generally bigoted campaign appeals. Beyond their ideological appeals, PiS expanded their base to supporters of the post-communist left using economic appeals to the welfare state. PiS created economic reforms to generate income for their voters, largely concentrated in poorer rural areas. Principally, these voters felt steamrolled by economic liberalism and alienated by social liberalism’s progressive ideas surrounding sexual orientation, gender identity, and abortion rights [11]. Government aid for certain Polish natives masks PiS’s xenophobic base and rebrands them as the advocate for the “ordinary citizen”—the traditional and morally normative person left behind by a corrupt Western system. For decades, PiS found a mechanism by which they could continually expand their voter base while simultaneously suppressing their adversaries. As the party with the most seats in Sejm, although they do not form the next ruling government, their polarizing influence manifests itself in E.U. relations, welfare policies, and PiS’s extensive voter base. 


Polarization: Homophobia and Sexism


PiS champions Polish Catholic ideology and a morally conservative view of LGBTQ+ rights, gender identities, and feminism. Blending a conservative and right-wing form of Catholicism with the populist national ideal of a homogeneous state gave rise to an ideological framework intended to associate Catholicism with Poland’s institutionalized moral order. PiS weaponized religion to marginalize the unique sexual identities and gender dynamics that directly challenge what the party referred to as threats to Polish existence and its “values, structures, and institutions inherited from generations past” [12]. That is, only relationships between cisgender men and women have moral legitimacy, and women should only receive resources that reinforce traditional gender roles. For example, during their eight consecutive years in power, PiS established what are known as “LGBTQ-free zones” across Poland. Leaders of PiS have also dehumanized Poland’s LGBTQ+ community, calling them “animals,” “emissaries of Satan,” and worse [13]. This equates homosexuality and identities out of the normative framework to be a corrosive influence on the monolithic, traditional, Catholic state. Populist leadership made it abundantly clear that, for as long as they have power, only gender-normative individuals will reap the protection of the government. 

Additionally, PiS greatly limited the scope of feminist policies, including withdrawing funding for in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and restricting access to safe abortions. Over their eight years in power, PiS chipped away at access to IVF. After cutting funding for more equitable access to IVF, PiS’s regulations restrict treatment to heterosexual married and co-habited couples. PiS and Polish representatives of the Catholic Church deem doctors and parents tied to IVF as participants in an unnatural selection of life that goes against morality, and children born using IVF as secondary citizens that carry their parents’ moral transgressions [14]. The right-wing argument propagates the normative dominance of heterosexuality and marriage, and the inattention to the rights of ‘inferior’ postnatal citizens. Poland also has one of the strictest abortion laws out of all European nations. The Act of January 7, 1993, on family planning allowed termination only if the pregnancy is a result of a crime, if there are serious problems in the development of the fetus, or if the mother’s life is in danger. In 2020, the Constitutional Tribunal removed the exception regarding fetal abnormalities, implementing a near-total ban on abortions [15]. These authoritative policies abuse government funding and the legislative process to abridge the civil rights and liberties of those who do not fit the prescribed moral code. 


Democratic Backsliding and Media Manipulation


Perhaps the most difficult barrier that the new government faces in eliminating populism is the reversal of democratic backsliding. In their tenure, PiS puppeteered nearly all branches of government to censor their opposition. They disregarded provisions of the constitution to pull the strings of the judiciary, silence free speech, and maintain the supremacy of the executive. Undermining checks and balances is the foundation on which illiberal democracies are built. PiS regularly ignored the laws they swore to uphold and coercively manipulated the constitution for their gain. Prime Minister Kaczynski maintains that checks and balances under the existing democratic constitutional order preserve a corrupt system that suppresses the “nation’s will” [16]. In the past, the Constitutional Tribunal—the highest constitutional court and the final arbiter of legislation—hindered PiS’s attacks on checks and balances, the media, and civic culture. To halt the Tribunal from limiting its scope of power, PiS denied opposition-appointed judges from getting confirmed, they passed laws that paralyzed the court’s ability to function, and then they forced the confirmation of judges loyal to the ruling party [17]. PiS acted in their self-interest, defying the Tribunal’s orders and constitutional law. In response to PiS usurping power from all branches, the E.U. demanded that the party make judicial reforms. As opposed to advocating for restoring an independent judiciary, PiS-elected Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro alleged that judicial reforms would pave the way for the enforcement of same-sex marriage, unrestricted access to abortion, and eliminating Poland’s currency. [18]. By signifying non-partisan judges as members of the corrupt elite, PiS employs polarization between groups to appeal to the party’s far-right conservative base and justify interference in the judicial process. 

Given PiS’s coercive influence in every branch of Poland’s government and the obstructions of checks and balances on their legislative authority, PiS was only accountable to the electorate. To foster complacency and misinformation among voters, PiS fed its political agenda to Polish citizens, using state media as a government mouthpiece. They bought control over the media’s information and narrative by divesting 68 PLN in government subsidies into as many as 248 organizations [19]. With the media in PiS’s back pocket, they inhibited the freedom of the press and limited citizens’ access to reliable media that would otherwise mobilize civic engagement. The pressure to destabilize civic culture lies in the fact that if citizens actively participate in public affairs—whether it be through the formation of political parties, social movements, or voting—then the populace is more likely to be tolerant of divergent views and work as a collective [20]. Vibrant civic culture undermines PiS’s narrative that Poland’s culture fell victim to Western multiculturalism. Dr. Gliszczyńska-Grabias of the Poznan Human Rights Center said it best: “Victimhood became a legally protected value used to justify limitations of free speech and academic research” [21].

Populist ideology in Poland extends beyond the reach of PiS’s 8-year rule. Distrust in social institutions, fear of foreign occupation, and concern over losing sovereignty planted the seeds of populism into the very core of Polish society. Electing non-populist leadership is only the first step in reviving liberal democracy. Democratic stability necessitates the institutional reform of media and the rule of law, bridging the gap between polarized groups. Even then, Poland fights an uphill battle against populism and democratic backsliding. While change is possible, the global community must not view a single election as a quick fix to decades of Poland’s societal trauma and populist rule.



[1] Grudzińska Gross, Irena, and Sławomir Sierakowski. 2023. “The Roots of Polish Populism.” Project Syndicate.

[2] Velculescu, Delia. 2009. “IMF Survey: Poland: Bright Spot in Recession-Hit Europe.” International Monetary Fund.

[3] Dempsey, Judy. 2023. “Judy Asks: Is Poland's Democracy in Danger?” Carnegie Europe.

[4] National Electoral Commission. 2023. “Results of Voting in 2023 Elections for Sejm.” Polish Parliamentary Elections.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Dempsey, Judy. 2023. “Judy Asks: Is Poland's Democracy in Danger?” Carnegie Europe.

[7] Enyedi, Zsolt. 2020. “Right-wing authoritarian innovations in Central and Eastern Europe.” East European Politics 36, no. 3 (June): 366-377. 10.1080/21599165.2020.1787162.

[8] European Commissions. 2017. “EU Relocations of Asylum Seekers Since September 2015.”

[9] Brubaker, Rogers. 2017. Between Nationalism and Civilizationism: The European Populist Moment in Comparative Perspective. 40th ed. Vol. 8.

[10] Cappelen, Cornelius, and Yvette Peters. 2017. “The Impact of Intra-Eu Migration on Welfare Chauvinism.” Journal of Public Policy, 389-417.

[11] Orenstein, Mitchell, and Bojan Bugaric. 2020. “Work, Family, Fatherland: The Political Economy of Populism in Central and Eastern Europe.” London School of Economics.

[12] Stanley, Ben. 2016. “Defenders of the Cross: Populist Politics and Religion in Post-Communist Poland.” In Saving the People How Populist Hijack Religion. London: Oxford University Press.

[13] Schmitz, Rob. 2023. “As Europe applauds Poland's election results, civil rights groups prepare to fight.” NPR.

[14] Korolczuk, Elżbieta. 2017. “'The purest citizens' and 'IVF children'. Reproductive citizenship in contemporary Poland.” NCBI.

[15] “Poland: Abortion Witch Hunt Targets Women, Doctors.” 2023. Human Rights Watch.

[16] Davies, Christian. 2018. “Hostile Takeover: How Law and Justice Captured Poland's Courts.” Freedom House.


[18] Cadier, D. 2021. “Populist Politics of Representation and Foreign Policy: Evidence from Poland.” (September).

[19] Kuisz, Jaroslaw, and Karolina Wigura. 2023. “There Is No Going Back to Pre-Populist Poland.” Foreign Policy.

[20] Samuels, D.J. 2017. Comparative Politics. 2nd ed. US: Pearson Education.

[21] Gliszczyńska, A., and A. Śledzińska-Simon. 2018. Victimhood of the Nation as a Legally Protected Value in Transitional States – Poland as a Case Study. 6th ed. Vol. 2. N.p.: Wrocław Review of Law, Administration & Economics.