Poland: Record turnout elections pave the way for restoring democratic values

Poland: Record turnout elections pave the way for restoring democratic values - Civic Space

Hundreds of thousands march in anti-government protest, Warsaw, Poland. 1 October 2023. Photo: Grand Warszawski / Shutterstock

Last weekend, the Polish electorate marched en masse to the ballot boxes, marking a historic turnout in pivotal elections and paving the way for a major political shift in the country. The opposition parties, which all committed to the reversal of the country’s democratic backsliding obtained enough seats to oust the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. However, since PiS won the most votes, it’s likely that forming a new government will take time – as will the challenging process of reversing PiS’ illiberal reforms and restoring the rule of law. 

During its eight years in power, PiS has gradually undermined all the tenets of democracy in Poland. The rule of law crisis, coupled with the crackdown on civic space, has been evident in exerting control over the judiciary, smear campaigns against various minorities and their candidates, and the imposition of heavy restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, which was particularly exemplified in a clampdown on the pro-women and pro-LGBTQIA+ rights demonstrations between 2019 and 2021. By converting the public media into its propaganda arm, PiS was enabled to justify and promote pro-government narratives to a wide group of voters. 

The Polish parliamentary elections took place in a highly polarised environment on 15 October, with several contentious issues, such as migration, women’s rights, social and national security and troubled relations with the EU, dominating public discourse. The electoral campaign, in the context of eroding democratic norms and state capture of the media, was marred by xenophobic and polarising rhetoric. The media in Poland, highly divided on political grounds, reported smears and verbal and physical attacks against political opponents on both sides over the course of the electoral campaign. 

The elections were marked by an uneven playing field, with PiS benefiting from access to state resources and favourable coverage in politicised public media. The public broadcaster, most notably news channel TVP Info, operated like a partisan media outlet, broadcasting PiS electoral advertising as news, attacking its political opponents, and ignoring its obligation to air electoral conventions of opposition parties. The day after the elections, Marcin Wolski, a regular contributor to TVP admitted that they – as the public broadcaster – produced ‘worse propaganda than under communism’ to support PiS election campaign. The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) pre-election press freedom mission to Warsaw, organised in September, confirmed that Poland displayed all four levels of media capture – a result of PiS’s sustained efforts to assert greater control and influence over large sections of the media. During their eight-year rule, the National Broadcasting Council, controlled by PiS allies, abused its licensing powers and imposed steep fines on outlets critical of the government. At the same time, state advertising was instrumentalised to fund favourable media outlets.

The acquisition of the largest publisher of regional newspapers, Polska Press, by the state-owned oil company PKN Orlen, continues to cast a shadow on the media pluralism and independence of its outlets.The deal led to a distinctive shift in the editorial line, favourable to the ruling party. During the electoral campaign, Polska Press-owned titles denied the publication of electoral advertising of the opposition candidates or a press release about the 4 June opposition march, claiming the materials in question were incompatible with the editorial line or even the national interest. 

The PiS party consistently used state resources for electoral campaign purposes under the pretext of informing the public about the government’s projects and conducting a social campaign to encourage people to participate in a national referendum, scheduled for the same day as the elections. The referendum included heavily-biased questions and misleading assertions about migration, which fitted the narrative propagated by PiS. Two of the four referendum questions related to the government’s anti-migrant policy and used loaded language asking whether the public wanted to admit ‘illegal immigrants’ from the Middle East and North Africa as ‘imposed’ by the EU migration pact, and whether they wanted to dismantle the ‘wall’ on the border with Belarus. 

OSCE international observers stated that misuse of public resources, overlap between the ruling party’s message and government ‘information’ campaigns, and public media bias ‘provided a clear advantage to the ruling party and undermined the democratic separation of the state and party’. 

With Poland’s democratic standing at stake and a history of low electoral turnout, especially outside of big cities, several civil society organisations mobilised wide-reaching awareness and call-to-action campaigns to encourage people to cast a ballot. Activists prepared pamphlets detailing vital issues facing Poland’s future, stickers, banners, T-shirts and social media materials (including trending hashtags) to disseminate among broader networks. 

The ‘I’m going to the polls’ initiative coordinated by a rights organisation Akcja Demokracja saw volunteers across the country attending local events and holding meetings with local communities to emphasise the importance and the privilege of democratic elections. The aim was to create a sense of community and to make voting appealing to those who usually don’t engage with politics. Several educational campaigns including  ‘Women – Vote!’ or ‘We’re done being quiet’ primarily focused on mobilising female voters since the majority of women declared their reluctance to vote prior to the elections. The campaign sought to demonstrate how over the years politicians holding public offices have violated women’s rights and appealed to women to realise their voices matter in the quest for change. 

Mass mobilisation bore fruit and translated into a record voter turnout of over 74%. The unprecedented participation of young voters and women illustrated the sense of urgency among the people and marked a promising step towards further development of a resilient civil society. 

While Donald Tusk, who heads the biggest opposition party, appealed to the president to quickly appoint a new government, the transition of power might not be so smooth. Nor will governing, with a large number of key state institutions controlled by PiS allies. Whoever leads Poland’s new government must prioritise remedying the damage to the rule of law by addressing the lack of judiciary independence, tackling the continued threats to media pluralism and independent journalism, as well as commit to protecting and enhancing civic space. ARTICLE 19 stands ready to support the efforts to roll back from the illiberal path and will closely monitor how the new cabinet approaches its domestic and international obligation to champion freedom of expression, access to information, and freedom of assembly.