Democratic and Market Values Face Obstacles in Poland

10.16.2017 | Articles | Mieczysław Bąk, Anna Szczesniak, Przemysław Kulawczuk

Article at a Glance:

  • When the socially conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) came to majority power in Poland in 2015, it was the country’s first single-party or non-coalition government since the fall of Communism.
  • The biggest threat to democracy is the ongoing Constitutional Court crisis, which challenges the independence of the judiciary.
  • Democratic backsliding has manifested itself in waning confidence in the judiciary, state capture of public media, xenophobia and economic opportunism, and a crackdown on civil society and non-governmental organizations.


The main objective of this report is to analyze the current perception of democracy in Poland, describe challenges facing the development of democracy, and identify actions that can improve the rule of law. The report is based on the recent results of roundtable discussions with thought leaders, focus-group meetings with students, an internet survey, and research conducted by the Institute for Private Enterprise and Democracy (IPED).

2015 was a year of immense political change in Poland, with the socially conservative PiS winning a majority in both chambers of the Polish Parliament (Sejm and Senate). [1] The Parliamentary election marked the end of two terms for the coalition of the center-right Civic Platform (PO) and the Polish People’s Party (PSL). This was the first time since Poland’s transformation from Communism to democracy that a government came to power without a coalition. PiS won 235 of 460 seats and formed Poland’s first single-party government since 1989 with only 38 percent of votes in the general election. The new government immediately embarked on an ambitious plan for institutional and constitutional reforms in the judiciary, media, and educational systems, as well as in policies related to the European Union (EU).

With help from a parliamentary majority and a supportive president, PiS tightened control of state institutions in 2016, especially the Constitutional Court and public media. Party leaders introduced far-reaching changes in the judiciary, civil service, [2] education, family welfare policies, and the pension system. They also proposed changing the electoral system in local governments, [3] as well as redrawing the electoral map of the Warsaw metropolitan area, which could make it harder for the Civic Platform party that currently leads Warsaw’s municipal government to maintain power. [4] All these changes have created tensions in Polish society. PiS does not have a sufficient majority to change the Constitution. However, changes in the Constitutional Court and in public media impair the proper functioning of institutional checks and balances, thereby posing a threat to the country’s liberal democracy, which has been in place for 20 years.

Perception of Democracy in Poland

The portion of Polish people who strongly believe in the superiority of democracy has always been high, between 60 and 70 percent from 1993 to 2013, with the percentage of people who disagree that democracy is superior hovering at a low 10 to 20 percent. [5] However, during the last 25 years, a significant part of the society has also grown disappointed with the functioning of democracy.
Fifty-seven percent of Poles stated that the current government weakened democracy in Poland; 23 percent stated that the government strengthened democracy; and 20 percent did not have an opinion on this issue, according to a December 2016 survey by Millward Brown for the TVN television station. [6] These results confirm the existence of differing views in Polish society on the state of democracy.

These divisions arose mostly due to the country’s election law, which allowed a political party that did not obtain a majority of votes to come to power. This has led to a disconnect between political leaders and the public’s political preferences. Currently, the ruling party makes political decisions that do not align with the wishes of the majority of the voters, leading to constant stalemates.

During IPED’s three focus groups with young people, 22 participants in the country’s capital city of Warsaw said that they think the current situation is dangerous for the democratic process. Nine participants in Sopot, a small city on the Baltic coast, said they think the state of democracy in Poland is neither worse nor better than in other countries. Young Poles who are concerned about external threats said that Poland’s situation is better than that of other EU countries. “The people are better protected. Our authorities do not let in immigrants representing other cultures and religions and therefore the people are safer. The risk of terrorist attacks is definitely lower,” one participant said.

Main Challenges to Democracy

The negative perception of democracy in Poland largely arose from challenges facing many other EU member states, such as terrorism and migration, xenophobia and populism, state capture of public media, and threats to the independence of the judiciary and civil society.

Migration, Terrorism and Xenophobia

Migration tops of the list of concerns for people in 26 EU member states, including Poland, according to the November 2016 Eurobarometer poll. [7] Terrorism is another important issue for nearly one-third of EU citizens and 43 percent of Poles. Concern about migration and terrorism peaked in fall 2015 and spring 2016, amidst the EU’s largest waves of migration and the Paris terrorist attacks.

Migration, terrorism, and xenophobia are interrelated issues in Poland. Polish society’s opposition to migration from the Middle East stems from the perceived threat of terrorist attacks from Muslim migrants. Poland has high levels of migration from Ukraine, but very low migration from Africa and the Middle East. Until 2015, the majority of Poles accepted migrants from countries in conflict zones. [8] However, following the 2015 terrorist attacks in Western Europe, a growing number of Poles began to oppose migrants, especially those from Muslim-majority countries. Fueling this sentiment, Jarosław Kaczyński, the ruling party leader, claimed that refugees bring “various parasites and protozoa” to Europe, including dysentery and cholera. [9] Following the March 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels, Poland’s Prime Minister Beata Szydło announced that the country would no longer accept refugees under the EU plan. Then in May 2016, Kaczyński declared that Poland would refuse entry to refugees “because there is no mechanism that would ensure safety.” [10]

IPED conducted two focus-group meetings in Warsaw in December 2016 with journalism and foreign-affairs students. The focus groups found that although the students did not hold xenophobic attitudes, they had observed such attitudes among their peers. Growing xenophobia provides citizens a misleading sense of security while threatening democratic values and leading to an uptick in racially motivated attacks. [11]


Economic populism, which largely brought the PiS to power, presents another significant challenge. People voted for the ruling party after it campaigned on the promises of making monthly cash payments for every child, lowering the retirement age to 60 for women and 65 for men, providing free pharmaceuticals for seniors 75 and older, and giving assistance to people who took out bank loans in Swiss francs. [12] Poland’s growing populism was one of the main issues that economic experts, NGOs, and academics discussed during IPED’s roundtables. Rising populism poses a substantial risk to the economy. Costs associated with the PiS social programs could ruin the state budget. [13] In addition to efforts to scale down the informal market, new requirements that are expensive for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) potentially restrict their operation and development.

Large businesses have also raised concerns about higher taxes and administrative fees. Authorities increasingly look at businesses as a source of financing to fulfill their election promises. However, the result is likely to be an increase in the price of products and services—a burden to be borne by the consumer. Many businesses are considering the possibility of relocating to neighboring countries or the United Kingdom. Although Poland’s Ministry of

Development proposed new solutions that would reduce business documentation, other requirements may create new barriers for SMEs. [14] Ultimately, increased government spending will require new taxes or an increased budget deficit. All these measures are likely to have a negative impact on companies’ bottom lines, leading the business community to scale down investment and limit employment.

Constitutional Court Crisis

Poland is experiencing the most serious constitutional crisis since the collapse of communism in 1989. The crisis began almost immediately after Law and Justice took office in November 2015. The current government annulled the previous government’s controversial appointment of five judges to the 15-member body even though the Constitutional Court ruled that three out of the five appointments were made correctly. These judges were unable to assume their posts because the PiS-backed president questioned the legality of their appointment and rejected their oaths of office. [15]

Additionally, the current Parliament’s amendment to the regulations governing the Constitutional Court and the government’s decision not to publish court rulings called into question the constitutionality of certain parts of the laws passed by PiS.

The PiS-controlled Parliament has passed eight new laws on the role and functioning of the Constitutional Court, the majority of which minimize the ability of the Court to hold the government accountable—and maximize the influence of the government’s own appointees. According to the amendments, the court can now make decisions by two-thirds vote instead of a simple majority. The judges must adjudicate cases as they arrive rather than in the order of importance. PiS has even put forward its own judges instead of those approved by the previous Parliament.

The ongoing violation of the Constitution could result in a systematic threat to the rule of law in Poland. The Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, assessed the crisis and offered recommendations, [16] which were largely ignored by the Polish government. As a result, the Constitutional Court’s capacity to meet its obligations to protect the rights of citizens has been obstructed.

State Capture of Public Media

As part of the post-Communist transformation, Poland experienced the privatization of the press, the transformation of state radio and television into public broadcasting organizations, the licensing of private broadcasters, and an influx of foreign capital into the media market. Public television and radio operated under the supervision of the National Broadcasting Council (NBC), which was governed by the regulation of the national broadcasting system passed in 1992. [17] The NBC has a constitutional obligation to protect freedom of speech. [18] The Parliament adopted regulations in December 2015 allowing the Ministry of Treasury to hire and fire broadcasting chiefs, a decision previously held by the NBC. [19] The new law allowed the government to immediately fire all executives and broadcasters at the public television and radio companies—TVP and Polskie Radio—and replace them with chosen appointees.

The NBC lost its crucial role in supervising public media and kept only its constitutional power to protect freedom of speech. A few months later, in June 2016, the ruling party introduced the Law of the National Media Council. [20] The council consists of three members elected by Parliament (controlled by PiS) and two representatives appointed by the president. [21] This transformed public media into an organization representing the official point of view of the government. As a result, the quality of information and analyses has decreased. IPED’s internet research shows that participants rate public media significantly lower than private media.

Participants of IPED’s focus groups and roundtable discussions also cited the functioning of public media as a major concern. Young people said they did not like the way public media outlets pass off propaganda as facts. Since it is difficult to distinguish between truth and propaganda, young people participating in IPED’s research said they do not watch public television. Experts expect the current ruling party to further indoctrinate society through public media. However, according to IPED’s research participants, Poland does not face an immediate risk of the government taking control of private media, which has happened in Hungary. Poland’s private media are operating properly and ensuring access to information.

Young people taking part in the IPED meetings emphasized that discussions about public affairs divide Polish society. In their experience, different opinions often divide families and trigger emotional reactions. Describing the current political situation as frustrating, some young people said they preferred to avoid political discussions in order to avoid conflict. A growing concern is the dependence on public media alone for information in small villages and towns, exacerbating biases.

Threats to Civil Society

Poland has a strong history of grassroots movements. The Solidarity movement changed the course of history, toppling the Communist regime. However, in the current political climate, Polish civil society may face increasing state control over most of its operation and funding. In November 2016, Poland’s prime minister announced the introduction of a bill to create a “Civil Society Department” to oversee and centralize the public funding of charities, [22] which has since become law.

Because this new law limits access to funding, it has led to the closure of some NGOs, especially those serving minority political opinions, refugees, the LGBT community, and those working on women’s issues. The law allows the government to put pressure on NGOs and may result in the political patronage of NGOs that face funding concerns. Public money, including EU funding, is the main funding source for many Polish NGOs. Therefore, it would be easy for the government to exert financial pressure and undermine NGO independence and survival.

The proposed changes to the regulations are combined with a public television campaign that portrays NGOs as working against Polish interests. “NGOs are being framed as the enemies of Poland because we take foreign money and criticize the government,” said Piotr Godzisz of Lambda, an NGO that monitors and records hate crimes against the country’s LGBT community. At the same time, the government stopped funding Poland’s Women’s Rights Centre, which provides support for victims of domestic abuse, arguing that it “offered help only to women.”[23] This situation resembles the climate in Hungary and Russia, where NGOs are treated like foreign agents.


Participants of the IPED internet survey, roundtables, and focus groups were asked to name actions that could reinforce the democratic process in Poland. People most often recommended improving the quality of law, enhancing economic education, and working with youth.

NGO Regulations and Participatory Legislative Process

Improving the quality of the law requires introducing social dialogue and changing the current mode of legislation—one with limited public consultation. This dialogue is currently absent. High-quality regulations require a well-functioning opposition, public participation in parliamentary debates, and critical discussions of legislative proposals. Too often, lawmakers introduce the biggest regulations during night sessions without any public comment period. The next day, legislation passes the Senate (upper chamber) and is signed by the president. This practice should be curbed significantly, and participatory legislative practices must be encouraged. Business associations and NGOs can have an impact on the quality of regulations by advocating the necessity of public consultation and a response period for draft legislation. [24]

Economic and Civic Education

The education system should include more economic and civic instruction. In IPED’s opinion, the low level of economic education among a significant part of the Polish society is a serious concern. Many Polish people do not recognize that massive social spending has the potential to undermine economic growth or job creation. Improving the level of economic education may be an arduous process, but it could start with publishing more accessibly written articles in the press about the economy, public budgets, and fiscal problems. Education can also combat misconceptions about the costs of additional social services and explain why the lower retirement age requires higher taxes to avoid increasing the budget deficit. Schools should educate children and teens about the broader entrepreneurship ecosystem (tax system, regulations, finance), treat the topic as extremely important, and hire economic experts to develop the curriculum. Transparency and improved access to public information could help to educate citizens, IPED participants suggested. The private sector should participate in public forums, explaining the economic implications of programs proposed by different political parties. Similarly, civic education is currently unsatisfactory. Polish society is not well-informed about the proper functioning of democracy. As a result, it is relatively easy to convince people that the majority that won the election have all the power, whereas the opposition and those who did not vote for the ruling party have no right to express their views or to be heard. The lack of dialogue has meant that many Poles do not understand their rights.

Youth Engagement

Engaging with youth requires introducing ideological pluralism in schools. Pluralism can be defined in a number of ways. For example, members of diverse political, religious, and social groups maintain their traditions and have the right to defend their interests while at the same time cooperatively working toward the public good and participating in public life. The school system can play a vital role in promoting dialogue between different groups and encouraging political and cultural tolerance among students. Education should emphasize enrichment stemming from group experiences, working together, sharing ideas, and listening.

During the IPED meetings, students spoke about the importance of pluralism in working with young people. More pluralism in schools would help to reduce xenophobia among the younger generations. It would also help to protect minority rights by demonstrating the value of differing points of view and political ideologies.

Judicial Reform

Changes in the operations of the Constitutional Court could result in a regulatory system that violates the Polish Constitution. According to IPED’s roundtable participants, one of the most important activities of businesses and NGOs is motivating courts to act in accordance with the Constitution in order to avoid juridical chaos. Judges face situations where Constitutional Court verdicts are questioned, hence the need to rely directly on the Constitution going forward. [25]

Civil Society Empowerment

In response to PiS actions against the Constitutional Court and public media, citizens formed a new grassroots civic movement in late 2015 called the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD). Within just a few months, KOD became recognizable throughout Poland and beyond due to its tenacious effort to develop positive democratic attitudes. It is the biggest civic movement in Poland since the Solidarity movement of the 1980s. KOD’s objective is to unite people in a peaceful, open and non-discriminatory way, and to promote democratic values and institutions.

With support from independent media and opposition parties, KOD has organized numerous mass protests in Warsaw and other cities. During the IPED roundtable discussion, participants recommended continuing KOD’s actions, including marches defending the Constitutional Tribunal. KOD has become the official face of citizen opposition. According to a 2016 poll conducted by TNS research company, 1.5 million Poles—5 percent of the population—have participated in at least one KOD-organized event.

Grassroots initiatives at the national and subnational level would also strengthen civic engagement through participatory budgeting, [26] organized protests, and private media investigations of questionable government conduct.

Dialogue with EU Institutions

Polish citizens’ favorable view of the EU is in slow decline—down seven points since last year. Still, 81 percent of Poles support EU membership. [27] The majority does not perceive the EU as a system that is wielding too much power at the expense of national sovereignty. This demonstrates that EU membership could play a significant role in supporting and facilitating democratic processes in Poland. The EU’s interest in the state of democracy in Poland benefits the country by upholding and strengthening its democratic institutions, processes, and perceptions.



The Institute for Private Enterprise and Democracy (IPED) is a Warsaw-based public policy organization whose mission is to support market-oriented reforms and create favorable conditions for business development through independent research, policy analysis, education, and advocacy. This article summarizes the report on the state and development of democracy in Poland and is the main output of IPED’s project that has been supported by the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). The full report is available here.



[1] Law and Justice (PiS) is a socially conservative, Eurosceptic, nationalist party. Its economic approach can be described as leftist. It emphasizes the need to tackle inequality and propagates strong welfare policies. The party lowered the retirement age and introduced $130 monthly payments for all parents who have more than one child towards the care of each subsequent child until age 18.
[2] PiS changed the law on the recruitment of senior civil servants, lifting the ban on political party membership and terminating contracts of senior officials.
[3] PiS proposed changes to the electoral system for local government, prohibiting popular politicians from running in local elections for more than two terms.
[4] PiS proposed to include in the Warsaw metropolitan area municipalities that strongly supported this party.
[5] CBOS study, September 2013.
[6] Millward Brown survey for TNV 24 conducted with 2,016 participants.
[7] Eurobarometer, 2016, p. 6.
[8] According to a CBOS survey in September 2015, 56 percent of Poles would accept migrants from conflict countries.
[9] Gazeta Wyborcza, 13.10.2015.
[10] Independent, May 9, 2016.
[11] Warsaw Voice, September 19, 2016.
[12] Significant part of bank mortgage credits in Poland were taken in Swiss francs. In 2015, the Swiss franc exchange rate increased significantly.
[13] Part of the promises, i.e. 500 PLN, not for every child but from the second one on, selected drugs for seniors and a return to previous retirement age, were introduced in 2016.
[14] The Ministry of Finance imposed a high price on interpretations of fiscal regulations. Companies need this official interpretation to be sure that they are paying taxes in line with regulations.
[15] The President did not accept their oaths because they were nominated by the opposition party (PO).
[16] The recommendations from the Venice Commission can be found here.
[17] Law on Radio and TV from December 29, 1992 with later amendments.
[18] Constitution of the Republic of Poland, art. 213.
[19] Modeled on similar regimes in other European countries, the independent commission was responsible for hiring top staff, overseeing public media, and ensuring its credibility.
[20] Law on the National Media Council, June 22, 2016.
[21] The president appoints two members from among the candidates nominated by the main opposition parties in Parliament.
[22] Global Government Forum, November 30, 2016.
[23] The Guardian, November 29, 2016.
[24] Public consultation should reflect the best practices established by the Ministry of Administration in Poland in 2013.
[25] Some cases have been withdrawn from the Constitutional Court, as lower level courts are not sure that all the judges have been nominated in accordance with Constitution.
[26] The participatory budget or civic budget is a part of the local authorities’ budget left to the discretion of citizens. With participatory budgets, citizens decide how to allocate part of the municipal budget, giving them a sense of ownership of public spending. Fifty-eight cities in Poland introduced participatory budgeting in 2016.
[27] CBOS study, number 31.2016