Once feted for having bucked both the populist trend and the global recession, Poland is facing international condemnation. Recent moves by the Law and Justice government have come straight out of the playbook shared by the likes of Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban. It’s moved quickly to neuter the constitutional court; to take control of the state media; to defund unfriendly NGOs or regulate them into irrelevance; to put its own people in charge of public institutions; and has given every sign of being prepared to ride out waves of protests and ignore international criticism. Recent footage of opposition deputies occupying the podium of the Sejm and chaotic and hastily convened parliamentary voting by government deputies in back rooms was more reminiscent of the crisis-hit democracies of southern and southeastern Europe than the democratic trailblazer once hailed by European Union heavyweights.
To be clear, Poland is not yet Hungary, the EU’s other major backsliding headache. Law and Justice has only a small parliamentary majority, not the supermajority needed for a Hungarian-style constitutional rewrite. Protesters have been more assertive and quicker to take to the streets. Nor does Poland have a powerful far-right party like Hungary’s Jobbik waiting in the wings to claim the role of “real” opposition if the ruling party falters. Poland’s opposition may yet manage to use social movements as a rough-and-ready substitute for weakened constitutional checks and balances — and may perhaps eventually make a winning return at the polls. But even in this (far-from-certain) best-case scenario, the country’s institutions are likely to emerge from this period badly damaged.
But the speed at which Poland’s and Hungary’s apparently successful democracies have unraveled points toward a problem that has tended to be overlooked amid the latest political developments: Contrary to appearances, liberal democracy was never solidly rooted in Eastern Europe.
The story we’re used to hearing about democracy in Eastern Europe is one that has focused on the transformative power of the EU. There’s some truth to it: From the late 1990s to accession, there’s no question that the European Union used its leverage to successfully shape the governing structures of various post-Communist states. Conditions for EU membership, which mandated democratic elections, minority rights, and a functional market economy, seemed clear and non-negotiable. The economic and political costs of being left out were so high that sooner or later governments fell in line and complied.
What this story misses, however, is that while political elites and their electorates may have responded to the EU’s incentives in the desired manner, this process told us almost nothing about whether or not the norms underpinning liberal democratic institutions were being embraced. A decade on from accession, we’re seeing the consequences of this hollowed-out incentivizing: The failure of the EU to foresee that institutional reforms in Eastern Europe had to be accompanied by policies aimed at instilling such norms as political equality, individual liberty, and civic tolerance has left liberal democratic institutions catastrophically vulnerable.