Generations of Communism is not the best training for democracy. So perhaps we shouldn’t have expected that when the Soviet Union collapsed under its own dead weight, the countries that emerged would quickly become functioning democracies.
Actually some have done very well, others not so much. Russia and Belarus, riddled with corruption, have retreated to autocracy. Others, such as the Baltics, seem to be succeeding. Ukraine is a special case. It too struggles with corruption but nonetheless fights, literally, to gain democracy while battling with its imperialist neighbour.
Poland and Hungary have taken the route of illiberalism. Illiberal democracy is defined as “a governing system that hides its nondemocratic practices behind formally democratic institutions and procedures.” It is also known as electoral authoritarianism or soft authoritarianism.
Illiberal democracies have been increasing around the world and increasingly limiting the freedoms of their people. Electoral democracy and civil liberties are separating.
Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán, who proudly describes his country as an “illiberal state” has his fans. He is popular among Republicans in the U.S. and former prime minister Stephen Harper, who chairs the conservative organization the International Democrat Union, says he wants closer ties with him. Human Rights Watch says Orban’s government has sustained “attacks on rule of law and public institutions,” undermining judicial independence and surveilling journalists.
Orbán’s fellow traveller in Eastern Europe has been Polish prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the Law and Justice Party. Kaczynski has only been in power for eight years compared to Orbán’s 13 so he hasn’t been able to capture state institutions to the same extent. Poland still has a vibrant free press and an economy not dominated by government cronies.
Nonetheless, he has still managed to dismantle a fair amount of Poland’s democracy. He has packed the public broadcasting system, the constitutional court, the judiciary in general, the central bank, the national prosecutor’s office and other branches of state with Law and Justice loyalists. Precisely what Donald Trump’s supporters intend to do if he is elected in ’24. The rights of minorities, especially especially women and the L.G.B.T.Q. community, have been under attack.
During the recent election, the state media churned out propaganda praising the government and spurning the opposition. The government rewarded its core voters and gerrymandered the electoral map.
Nonetheless it went down to defeat. It received more votes than any other party but opposition parties won enough seats, 248 out of 460, to form a coalition government. The new government will be formed by the Civic Coalition, led by former prime minster and European Council president Donald Tusk, and two coalition partners. The opposition also increased it dominance in the senate. The election saw a record turnout of 74 percent—85% in Warsaw. The win was the result in part of mass mobilization of young voters and an anti-austerity message.
The new government holds great promise for dismantling the anti-democratic measures of its predecessor and for implementing progressive policies.
Reversing the politicization of the courts will be difficult but is a key promise. Poland will become a more constructive part of the European Union after years of antagonism due to its anti-democratic policies. Support for Ukraine, which has been flagging, will be restored.
Its draconian abortion laws will be relaxed and same-sex civil partnerships will be introduced. Leader Tusk has stated “Abortion is a woman’s decision, not a priest’s.” Hate speech against LGBTQ+ people will no longer be tolerated as it has under the previous government.
Democracy has had some bad innings lately. This election offers much-needed hope and inspiration to both democracy and progressive political parties in Europe and elsewhere.