Analysis: Opposition disunity equals end of ‘democracy under threat’ narrative?

Now that it is clear that the opposition parties are not going to unite to fight the coming parliamentary elections as one bloc it looks as if the narrative of democracy being under threat in Poland may have reached the end of the road.

Ever since the 2015 elections which resulted in Law and Justice (PiS) getting a majority in Parliament on both the domestic and international fronts there has been a narrative that democracy could be in danger. In much of the western media and parts of the domestic media, the ruling conservatives have been painted as being reactionary, anti-European and authoritarian.

The new ruling majority’s actions on judicial reform which increased the influence Parliament and central government, as well as the way the ruling party took control of the public media and public administration, were used as an argument that democracy and the rule of law were under siege. What followed was a campaign of street demonstrations and a dispute between the new government and the European Commission over the rule of law issue.

Almost four years on, and after an attempt of the opposition parties to unite in the European elections, they are going into the elections in at least three separate camps. The reason why the “threat to democracy” narrative has failed to electrify public opinion and change Poland’s political landscape is that it has turned out to be highly debatable in terms of substance.

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Free elections

Both the local government elections and the European Parliamentary elections have been held and no one on the opposition side has claimed any irregularities. The National Election Commission (PKW) has not been taken over by the government and the elections are acknowledged to have been free and fair by parties, media and observers alike.

Rule of law

This remains the most controversial area with the EC still questioning measures such as the fact Parliament now elects the National Judicial Council and the way the disciplinary procedures for judges are operating. However, at the same time the judiciary has been issuing judgements which are not favourable to the government. Moreover, Poland has respected the ECJ’s edicts on the Supreme Court Law and has amended legislation on that body accordingly.

Freedom of speech, assembly and association

While it is legitimate to argue that public TV and radio are highly sympathetic to the government, it is impossible to claim that the commercial electronic media are. And the press is highly skeptical of the government, far more so than in the times of its liberal predecessor. Poland’s media scene is highly pluralistic, even if objectivity of some outlets may leave something to be desired.

There were concerns about the right to demonstrate being limited. But the courts have consistently ruled in favour of the freedom to demonstrate in every case and have bent over backwards to be lenient on any infringements of law which are non-violent. The police in Poland have been restrained, far more so than in many of the ‘older‘ democracies such as France or Spain. There are no political prisoners in Poland, no censorship or any other forms of state repression.

Finally the alarms about NGO freedoms being under threat have proved unfounded. The only attempt by the government to put an NGO into administration (Open Dialogue Foundation) was rejected by the courts, as was the government’s attempt to ban one of that foundation’s founders from entering the country. The government has introduced a new stream of funding for NGOs which many object to, but it has not closed off any of the existing streams of funding from private or local government sources.

Migration and minority rights

Poland is still more mono-ethnic than many other countries in Europe, but this is changing. Much has been written about Poland refusing to take in refugees and migrants from Africa and the Middle East. In fact Poland has objected to compulsory quotas of refugees proposed by the EC. At the same time, Poland has been taking in hundreds of thousands of migrants from Ukraine and also from Belarus and recently also Asian countries such as India and Nepal.

In terms of minority rights there has been concern about LGBT and women’s rights. But these concerns pre-date the right coming to power. It must be remembered that the Polish constitution is conservative on cultural matters, defining marriage as being between a man and a woman, giving parents full rights of bringing up children in accordance with their beliefs and being pro-life. Any change in these areas can only be achieved by changes in social attitudes, they cannot be imposed by external edict.

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No oligarchy in the economy

It is not possible to accuse the present government of favouring oligarchy in the economy. There are no examples of the current administration favouring any individual businessmen or private corporations. They have protected the state sector, and like all previous governments, have put their own appointees on the boards of publicly owned companies.

However, these state companies are in the main having to compete with the private sector and their existence is actually more of a barrier to crony capitalism and oligarchy than encouragement for it. And the Polish private sector is still thriving and foreign investment buoyant.

No ‘Polexit’

Reports that Poland might be on the road to a ‘Polexit’ have proved to be much exaggerated. The current government seems to have won its argument within the EU on migration and the EU as a whole is moving towards protecting its borders and giving aid in countries of origin rather than attempting to absorb more waves of migrants.

The present government has not moved on Poland being in the eurozone, just as its predecessor had not. It is arguing that it may do so if and when Polish GDP reaches parity with the EU average. Poland’s accession treaty obliges it to adopt the common currency, but sets no timetable for that event.

Poland inside the EU has been highly constructive on developing the single market and on respecting fiscal constraints recommended by the EC. On foreign policy it has respected the consensus on the Paris climate change accords, Iran and the negotiating stance on Brexit.

Recently the Polish ruling conservatives MEPs were instrumental in the election of the compromise candidate Ursula von der Leyen as President of the EC. Moreover, the Polish ruling party has not joined forces with the grouping that has been formed around Matteo Salvini.

Staunchly pro-western and anti-Putin

One of the reasons for that is because Poland remains staunchly pro-western and strongly opposed to Putin’s Russia. Poland has consistently supported sanctions on Russia over Ukraine and has been instrumental in strengthening the eastern flank of NATO in reaction to Russian aggression in Ukraine and Georgia.