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Saving Poland’s Democracy

Only Poles can decide their country’s political future, but the world’s democracies must not assume that voters will pull Poland back from the brink of full-blown authoritarianism in this fall's general election. A victory for the ruling Law and Justice party could threaten the foundations of the post-Cold War order in Europe.

NEW YORK – Elections are always high-stakes affairs in countries experiencing democratic backsliding. This was true of Turkey’s recent presidential election – described as “free but unfair.” Likewise, when Poles go to the polls this fall, democracy itself will be on the line.

Since coming to power in 2015, Poland’s populist Law and Justice (PiS) party has politicized the judiciary, harassed civil society, and worked tirelessly to drive independent media out of business. It has capitalized on the politics of fear and grievance, pitted urban voters against rural constituencies, and touted a mythologized version of Polish history.

In this sense, the PiS has been following in the footsteps of both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán, whose country can no longer even be considered a democracy, though it remains a member of the European Union. The difference is that Poland’s de facto leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, has left the presidency to someone else – Andrzej Duda – thereby shielding his influence from vigorous scrutiny.