Eight years of illiberalism left an indelible mark on Poland’s democratic institutions. Heather A. Conley and Laura Thornton provide five recommendations for “detoxifying” the system of government and ending democratic backsliding in the country.

The recent parliamentary elections in Poland represent a “seismic shift”. Our organization, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, declared them to be Poland’s “1989 moment”, a reference to the historic election that ushered in a new era of independence for the country and most of Central and Eastern Europe. 

Last year’s elections, like those in 1989, were weighted in favor of the ruling party, as it consolidated control over state media outlets, targeted government funding to party supporters, and used various institutional tactics to harass and reduce the efficacy of a fragmented opposition. Though 2023 was not the electoral blowout of 1989—the Law and Justice Party (PiS) received a plurality of votes but was unable to form a coalition—the Polish people again voted for a different future.  

Eight years of operating by an illiberal playbook left an indelible mark on the country’s democratic institutions, particularly its media and judicial systems, which were significantly diminished and commandeered to preserve the former ruling party’s power.  Unfortunately, institutions do not magically “snap back” under a new liberal government, as Prime Minister Donald Tusk painfully discovered in the earliest days of his tenure. The previous government of PiS left some legal traps designed specifically to slow down the process of rebuilding democratic institutions. The new Polish government quickly tried to reverse the former ruling party’s control over Poland’s state television, radio, and government news agency by first attempting to wrestle control of them and then, when that failed, by declaring the broadcaster insolvent. Their efforts ran into strong resistance from recent laws and new institutions such as a special media council and a less-than-independent Constitutional Court created by the former government. Because these changes were criticized as illegitimate by a number of PiS MPs, polarization in the country has continued to rise.

The illiberal detoxification process for Poland will be long and laborious—akin to withdrawal symptoms—without any guarantee against relapse. A change in leadership does not deprogram the mindset of a significant portion of the Polish society. And we don’t have a democratic manual for this.

The signposts of democratic backsliding are better known. Democracy scholars and practitioners recognize and closely track democratic declines with special attention to early warning signs such as government attacks against independent media and civil society, manipulation of judicial appointments and processes, and undermining of marginalized communities, particularly women and LBGTQ+. Prolonged backsliding is aided by significant shifts in public opinion, with citizens seeking more illiberal, “strong” leaders who can “seize control” as fear and hatred are weaponized into arguments to diminish the protection of individual rights. When these warning signs blink red, advanced democracies' policy actions are typically timid at best, nonexistent at worst. (See fourteen years of Viktor Orbán’s tenure in Hungary.)

We need a manual to cleanse illiberalism from democratic systems as well as to nurture and bolster fragile countries in transition. Most importantly, it is vital to prevent illiberal relapses no matter what future party or individual comes to power. But the Tusk government discovered a detox dilemma: Does a new government follow the illiberal procedures and mechanisms put in place by the previous regime? Or do they dissolve them, opening the door for retaliation in a future transition? Tusk acknowledged that his government could have moved more slowly on media reform, but the stakes are high if the Tusk government is not successful in restoring independence and resilience to Poland’s institutions. 

Poland is a compelling example of the need for more nimble and flexible tools to restore institutional independence after a prolonged period or slide toward illiberalism. The election’s result creates such an opportunity, but it does not guarantee success. The democracy-building community typically “graduates” a country following an electoral success like Poland’s. If support is still provided, it often focuses on training political parties, elections assistance, and parliamentary support. But this assistance often does not concentrate on the building blocks of liberalism—strengthening constitutionalism, ensuring independent media, and protecting minorities. These five ideas should lead in any manual for helping a democracy detox from illiberalism: 

Go Hyper-Local. The lion’s share of international democratic support is focused at the national level, providing assistance to government bodies and parliaments. Fighting illiberalism must also take place from the ground up with the engagement of local councils, civic groups, and media. Councils must successfully engage the public and provide local solutions to important concerns such as fixing streetlights, improving schools, and fighting crime. Local media, atrophied due to lack of financial support, must hold local officials accountable. Civil society is the connective tissue between voicing citizen concerns and pushing for government actions. This is why GMF supports civic activism, public participation, and community-building in Poland’s peripheral and rural areas. With these ingredients, we rebuild citizens’ trust in government, and democracy delivers.

Reduce Grievances and Cultural Cleavages. Within Poland, divisions have been growing between urban and rural geographies, religious and secular communities, immigrants and non-immigrants, and younger and older generations against a backdrop of rapidly changing perceptions of culture, increasing inclusion, and fear. Citizens who feel alienated and angry need new partnerships and new approaches. It is essential to repair and build trust between groups, preempt myths and fears about “the Other”, forge common projects that cross dividing lines to rejuvenate the idea that individuals can have great agency because of democracy.

Bridge These Divides. Civic groups in Poland should pursue the “engagement model”—bridging programs that bring together citizens from across the political and cultural spectrum to work toward a common goal. In other parts of Europe, civil service efforts that recruit youth from a cross-section of society to contribute to community efforts have proven successful in building tolerance and breaking down divisions and distrust. Such programs range from public speaking competitions that increase the civic participation of youngsters in Romania to street-art reflections of the Transnistrian conflict in Moldova.

Have Faith in Faith. Some of the starkest societal dividing lines exploited by authoritarians are over citizens’ beliefs, values, traditions, and faith. Perplexingly, religious values have been ceded to the illiberals and the autocrats who weaponize religion with the claim that the authoritarian is the “true defender of the faithful” while simultaneously working to limit individual rights and freedoms. Despite the strongman’s narrative, religion and democracy are not at odds. Religious leaders are often at the forefront of the fight for democracy and against oppression—from Pope John Paul’s fight against Communism in Poland to priests in the Philippines observing elections. Engaging religious leaders as messengers of democratic rejuvenation and societal inclusion is an important part of the detox process.  

Reclaim Poland’s Democracy Soft Power. The cry “for our freedom and yours” sounded from the Polish resistance during World War II to the Solidarity movement. The powerful call to action is imbued with important lessons about fighting for freedom embracing diversity, tolerance, and openness. It serves as the country’s inspirational model for other freedom-fighters across the region. Poland is in a position to regain its brand and its message of promoting solidarity and democracy beyond its borders.

Poland has a short window in which it can begin to reverse its democratic atrophy and provide the world again with a powerful example of what it means to fight for democracy and freedom. We all need another 1989 moment, freeing Poland from self-inflicted illiberalism and restoring its reputation as a democratic champion, showing the way for others. Poland can lead both by power of example and through its key role in the European Union, where many others are struggling with their own illiberal addictions. If Poland successfully rids its body politic of unhelpful substances, its recipe for success will help many others struggling with their own democracy demons.