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How to Beat Authoritarian Parties, Polish-Style

Last year, Poland’s opposition successfully defeated the illiberal ruling party Law and Justice. They did so not by forming a big tent coalition, but by each party speaking to the concerns of each voter. Poland’s success can be an example as an unusually high number of elections take place worldwide this year.
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Donald Tusk

06.24.2023 wroclaw, poland, Donald Tusk at the Wrocław 2023 election convention © DarSzach / shutterstock.com

January 11, 2024 01:42 EDT
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2024 is a “super-election year.” 76 states around the world will hold national elections this year. The stakes are high. Democracy is facing decline, and authoritarian politicians may claim victory in many elections. Yet the future is not set in stone. Last year, Poland’s national-conservative and populist Law and Justice (PiS) party seemed set for a third consecutive victory in general elections, yet opposition parties achieved an unexpected triumph. While PiS achieved a plurality of the votes, it struggled to form a government, ultimately losing the overall political battle. PiS’s eight years of eroding democratic institutions, values and norms were over. What can democratic oppositions contesting elections this year learn from Poland?

Don’t run under one banner

The democratic opposition often comprises parties with conflicting views. Forming a unified front may be tempting when confronting a common opponent with disproportionate media and institutional advantages. However, recent elections in Hungary and Turkey suggest this is not necessarily a blueprint for victory.

In Poland, the liberal-conservative Civic Coalition (KO) party initially insisted on a united front approach. KO leader Donald Tusk, like PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, was perceived as a polarizing figure. Other parties were hesitant about being perceived as close to either of them. They feared losing electoral support by making an alliance and rejected the proposal. PiS exploited this, portraying the opposition as divided and unable to govern.

Eventually, the opposition learned to refrain from mutual attacks, opting for an informal united front without a joint election list. Two parties formed a coalition (Third Way) to present a conservative alternative to the KO-PiS duopoly. This approach allowed parties to maintain authenticity, providing a broader range of options and reaching specific target groups.
While KO and the New Left rallied hundreds of thousands in Warsaw, the Third Way concentrated on engaging voters in rural areas and small cities. This approach also conveyed a sense that the parties’ objectives extended beyond simply ousting PiS from power.

Mobilize undecided and apolitical voters

In the face of a seemingly inevitable PiS victory, the Polish opposition was concerned that widespread apathy could deter many from voting. Recognizing a substantial number of disillusioned and undecided voters opposing PiS, both KO and the New Left specifically targeted them. Their focus extended to young women, who, affected by PiS’s restrictive abortion and contraception policies, felt the consequences of political decisions on their lives. Non-governmental organizations, human rights institutions and public figures launched multiple campaigns to boost turnout, particularly targeting women. Their objective was to underscore the consequences of abstaining from voting, convey frustration and emphasize the significance of each vote.

The turnout exceeded expectations at over 74%. Women voted in greater numbers, and there was increased participation across all age groups. Interestingly, this heightened political interest may continue beyond the elections, with the new government’s proceedings, humorously dubbed “Sejmflix,” becoming the second most-watched video on Polish YouTube.

Campaigns involve more than just programs; emotions play a pivotal role. Initially, the opposition struggled to craft a compelling narrative, but a breakthrough occurred after the pro-European rally in Warsaw on June 4, 2023. Half a million people took to the streets in outrage over PiS’s proposed law, “Lex Tusk,” which would have hindered Tusk from running in elections. The symbolism of the anniversary of Poland’s first partially-free elections on June 4, 1989, accentuated the fight against non-democratic regimes and tapped into the legend of Solidarity, a movement that put an end to communism. The rally’s immense popularity surprised the opposition, paralyzing PiS and instilling hope in the public that mobilized voters could change the election outcome.

“The March of a Million Hearts,” with white-red hearts emblem, held two weeks before the elections, again gathered hundreds of thousands. Emphasizing respect for PiS voters despite differences, in contrast to PiS labeling the opposition as “Poles of the worse sort,” resonated well with moderates.

Despite being de facto anti-government, both rallies fostered a positive, joyful atmosphere, conveying message of a progressive, inclusive and democratic Poland within the EU. This approach helped instill a winning mindset in society and break apathy.

How PiS overplayed its hand

PiS also made its fair share of mistakes. It underestimated social discontent amid ongoing democratic backsliding. PiS also eroded its popularity by engaging in disputes with the EU — a risky strategy in a notably pro-EU society.

Moreover, tightening an already restrictive abortion law into a near-total abortion ban, coupled with subsequent maternal deaths, not only undermined PiS support among women but also mobilized previously apolitical people.

In the campaign itself, PiS made three major mistakes. Firstly, it relied heavily on fierce attacks and almost grotesque fear-mongering, particularly targeting Tusk, whom PiS labeled as a “personification of evil” and “the biggest security threat to Poland.” While this may have mobilized PiS’s own electoral base, it led to irritation among opponents and undecideds.

Secondly, the party distanced itself from crucial voter concerns, such as high inflation and housing shortages. This was a break from PiS’s success in other elections, when it understood voter sentiments well and won with popular proposals like child benefits.

Lastly, PiS underestimated the impact of corruption scandals, which seemed to have little effect until the visa scandal broke out during the campaign, catching the party off guard.

Is Poland’s case a blueprint for stopping authoritarians?

We must be cautious when drawing conclusions from to other nations. Each political system has its own local factors. Yet the Polish case illustrates how adapting existing tactics to the specific context and learning from the mistakes of others can enable David to triumph against Goliath.

Poland now serves as a laboratory for navigating a post-illiberal period. The challenge for the current government is to succeed in this taxing endeavor without paving the way for a return of PiS to power.

[The Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe produced this piece and is a partner of Fair Observer.]

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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