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 parties previously in government, the centrist Civic Platform (PO) and its junior coalition partner, the agrarian People’s Party (PSL), to the now ruling populist-nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS). Thanks to the high percentage of wasted votes, 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. Capitalizing on its clear parliamentary majority and strong internal party discipline, the government has initiated an ongoing process of radical institutional and policy change. Dubbed “the good change” by PiS, it has prompted considerable domestic and international critique.
Leadership shift, but
policy stays on course
The PiS government was initially led by Prime Minister Beata Szydło. In December 2017, Szydło was replaced by Minister of Finance Mateusz Morawiecki, a former banker. A major cabinet reshuffle in January 2018 led to the replacement of a number of controversial ministers, including Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, Health Minister Konstanty Radziwiłł and Environment Minister Jan Szyszko. However, the changes did little to alter the course of the government, and left the informal control over the government by Jarosław Kaczyński, the long-standing PiS party leader, untouched.
Sharp declines in democracy quality
The quality of democracy has suffered greatly from the changes initiated by the PiS government. Following the Hungarian example, the first activities of the new government targeted the Constitutional Tribunal, the public media and the civil service. The government then sought to reduce the political independence of the Supreme Court, the National Council of the Judiciary, and the ordinary courts. Political liberties have been undermined by new restrictions on assembly rights, with harassment by the police increasing and government control of NGO funding expanding. At the end of 2017, the PiS government began a process of amending the electoral law. While the planned overhaul of electoral districts for the 2019 European Parliament elections was eventually vetoed by President Duda, citizens living abroad were stripped of their right to vote by mail. Moreover, the government increased its control over the National Election Commission (Państwowa Komisja Wyborzca, PKW) and its executive body, the National Election Office (Krajowe Biuro Wyborcze, KBW).
Strong rhetorical stance against minorities
The quality of democracy has also been affected by the government’s strong rhetoric against Muslims, migrants, the LGBT community and so-called gender ideology, as well as by rising levels of political polarization and corruption and cronyism within state-owned enterprises. Obsessed with enforcing a reinterpretation of Polish history, the PiS government has also sought to impose its national-traditionalist and Catholic values on public institutions and society.
Swift passage of
policy goals
Benefiting from an absolute majority in parliament, strong internal discipline within the PiS and the uncontested 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 and shorten the period of obligatory education by one year). In the period under review, the government adopted a plan for substantially, if gradually, increasing public health care spending, and another for a new occupational pension savings scheme.
Quality of legislation
often poor
The PiS government has bypassed legal requirements for regulatory impact assessments and public consultation by strongly relying on legislative initiatives proposed by individual members of parliament rather than by the government or its parliamentary caucus. 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.
Economic growth
remains robust
With regard to economic development, the PiS government’s assaults on democracy and the rule of law, and the resulting political polarization, have still had little visible effect. In 2018, the Polish economy continued to grow, the unemployment rate fell to a historic low 5.2% in the first quarter of 2018, and the general government fiscal deficit further decreased despite the increase in spending. Along with the government’s popular social measures, the strong showing of the Polish economy has kept the government’s popularity level high.
Serious damage to international reputation
By contrast, the PiS government’s political course has done considerable damage to Poland’s international reputation. When the government refused to amend its controversial legislation on the judicial system, which resulted in excessive political control and prompted massive protests both domestically and internationally, the European Union started a rule-of-law procedure against Poland. Since the talks and letters that constitute this procedure did not lead to any change in behavior, the Commission, backed by the European Parliament, opened an Article 7 procedure – which identifies a persistent breach of the EU’s founding values by a member state and can lead to the suspension of certain membership rights – in December 2017. The European Council has debated the issue, but as of the time of writing had not yet taken a clear stance on the issue, as the governments of several member states, especially Hungary, have declared they would not support a vote against Poland.
External pressure
produces some results
While progress with the Article 7 procedure thus looks unlikely, other forms of external pressure have shown some impact. Decisions by the European Court of Justice led the Polish government to stop the logging in the Białowieża old-growth forest, and to withdraw its proposed new retirement rules for justices. Following pressure from the United States, the government also dropped its original plans to “re-polonize” the media by limiting foreign ownership stakes in Polish media companies to 15%-20%.
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.

Markowski, R. (2019): Creating Authoritarian Clientelism: Poland After 2015, in: Hague Journal on the Rule of Law 11(1): 111-132.

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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