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Poland’s Democratic Rebirth Pains

Following Poland’s parliamentary election in October, the Law and Justice (PiS) party and its autocratic leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, are relearning the rules of democracy the hard way. While PiS has been marginalized in the newly elected parliament, it has only itself to blame.

WARSAW – In October, Polish voters demonstrated that even extremely unequal elections against authoritarian incumbents can be won. The opposition’s victory, and the country’s subsequent re-democratization, may hold useful lessons for likeminded forces in Hungary, Turkey, and elsewhere.

In Poland, the defeated populist leader, Jarosław Kaczyński of Law and Justice (PiS), is relearning the rules of democracy the hard way in the newly elected parliament. For the past eight years, he did not entertain questions in the Sejm (the lower house of parliament) or elsewhere, nor did he engage with any media outlet that PiS did not control. The speaker of the Sejm, Elżbieta Witek, politely followed his instructions and even reversed votes that PiS had lost. The opposition was allowed only 30 seconds of questions, and Witek frequently fined opposition deputies and turned off their microphones.

Kaczyński would take the rostrum whenever he wanted, using it as a perch from which to insult opposition politicians, whom he smeared as “treacherous murderers.” He surrounded himself with security details, and had the Sejm fenced off with barriers and police – an absurd display in a nominally democratic country. Press passes for journalists covering parliament were strictly limited, and Kaczyński always entered through the speaker’s private entrance.