Executive Summary

Transformed political landscape
The national parliamentary election held in Poland in October 2015 altered the country’s political landscape and marked a shift in power away from the party previously in government, the centrist Civic Platform (PO), to the now ruling populist-nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS). The PiS won a majority of seats in the Sejm and was able to form the first one-party government in Poland’s post-socialist history. The PiS government was initially led by Prime Minister Beata Szydło (PiS) and, behind the scenes, by long-standing PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński. Capitalizing on its clear parliamentary majority and strong internal party discipline, the government initiated an ongoing process of radical institutional and policy change. Dubbed “the good change” by PiS, it has prompted a lot of domestic and international critique.
Sharp declines in democracy quality
The quality of democracy has greatly suffered from the changes initiated by the PiS government. Following the Hungarian example, the first activities of the new government targeted the Constitutional Tribunal, public media and civil service. During its second year in office, the government turned to reducing the political independence of the Supreme Court, the National Council of the Judiciary and ordinary courts. Political liberties have suffered from new restrictions on assembly rights, increasing harassment by the police and growing government control of NGO funding. At the end of 2017, the PiS government started to amend electoral law. The quality of democracy has also been affected by the government’s strong discourse against Muslims, the LGBT community and “gender-ideology,” as well as increasing corruption and cronyism in state-owned enterprises, and political polarization. The PiS government’s obsession with retelling Polish history, and desire to impose its national-conservative values on society have impacted public discourses and laws regarding the arts, culture, history textbooks and museums, such as the Museum of the Second World War.
Quick implementation of policy goals. Poor-quality legislation, large street protests
Favored by its absolute majority in parliament, the internal discipline of PiS and the contested authority of PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, the PiS government has been quite effective in implementing its policy objectives. It has succeeded in quickly realizing its major campaign pledges, such as increasing the minimum wage and the family allowance, providing tax relief for small businesses, lowering the retirement age, and reversing recent reforms to the education system (which will increase the age at which children start school). The PiS government has bypassed the legal requirements for regulatory impact assessments and public consultation by strongly relying on legislative initiatives proposed by individual members of parliament rather than the government. Precisely because so many bills have sailed so quickly through parliament, the quality of legislation has often proven to be very poor, often requiring immediate amendments. As in the PiS government’s first year in office, massive street protests led the government to make some concessions, for example, to the petrol tax, the redrawing of regional districts and the renewed attempt to tighten abortion law. In winter 2016 – 2017, the Sejm crisis and the occupation of its building by opposition members of parliament delayed the passing of the budget. In July 2017, President Duda’s unexpected veto of two of the three laws on the reform of the judiciary revealed rifts within the PiS and limits to the government’s power.
Economy continues
robust growth
The PiS government’s assault on democracy and the rule of law and the resulting political polarization have had little visible effect on the economy. In 2017, the Polish economy continued to grow, the unemployment rate fell to a historic low, and the fiscal and public deficits decreased. Along with the government’s popular social measures, the strong showing of the Polish economy has kept the government’s popularity high. In October 2017, Prime Minister Beata Szydło was supported by 48% of Poles, while 38% were unhappy with Szydło’s administration, while support for the two opposition parties in parliament, PO and Nowoczesna, fell to 16% and 6% respectively.
Damage to inter-
national reputation
The PiS government’s political course has done more damage to Poland’s international reputation. The government’s attempts to control the judiciary prompted massive protests internationally. In the European Union, there have been calls to launch a formal proceeding against Poland for breaching European common values and rule of law, and to cut transfers to Poland and restrict Poland’s voting rights in the European Council. In November 2017, the European Parliament eventually called on the European Commission to trigger an Article 7 procedure against Poland for violating the common values of the EU. The conflict between Poland, and EU institutions and most EU member states became also visible in March 2017 when Poland, as the only member state, refused to re-elect Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, as president of the European Council. In response to Poland’s growing isolation in the European Union, Poland has turned to the Visegrad countries, and now aims to realize its interests through closer collaboration with Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Markowski, R. (2016): The Polish Parliamentary Election of 2015: A Free and Fair Election That Results in Unfair Consequences, in: West European Politics 39(6), 1311-1322.
Matthes, C.-Y. (2016): The state of democracy in Poland after 2007: Analyzing the linkage between economic development and political participation, in: Problems of Post-Communism 63(5-6): 288-299.
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