Poland’s Election Represents a Setback to Illiberalism
“Elections have consequences” the saying goes, often to justify a break with a previous administration. Along Europe’s Eastern flank, where illiberalism is on the rise and support for Ukraine’s fight against Russian aggression is wavering, the results of Poland’s October 15 elections present a meaningful opportunity to buck the regional trend of choosing leaders who align with the Kremlin both in their embrace of anti-democratic norms and anti-Ukraine rhetoric. With key elections on the horizon in 2024, including in the United States, voters will be choosing between markedly different visions for governance and geopolitics.
Poland provides a glimmer of hope. The ruling Law and Justice party, which eroded democratic norms, extended a ban on Ukraine grain exports and threatened to stop arms donations to Ukraine, appears to have won the most seats in Parliament, but not an outright majority. An opposition coalition looks likely to form a government, pledging democratic reforms and robust Ukraine support.
“Ukrainian Nazis and fascists started murdering the Russian population of Donbas”, said Robert Fico, whose leftist SMER party will form the coalition government in Slovakia. He has pledged not “another round” of support for Ukraine, despite Slovakia being the first to support the embattled nation. Fico’s campaign was also infused with attacks on the LGBTQ and minority communities, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and nationalist narratives, and anti-democratic rhetoric.
Slovakia is not alone. Hungary’s far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán calls a Ukrainian victory “a lie”, refuses to allow weapons for Ukraine across its border, criticizes NATO and US foreign policy, and is known for having coined the oxymoronic “illiberal democracy”. Orbán’s party’s use of state resources to create numerous advantages over the political opposition borrows heavily from Russia’s authoritarian playbook. It resembles Russia’s “sovereign democracy”, a term first coined by Putin advisor Vladislav Surkov that has justified the Kremlin wielding state media, the judiciary, and other forms of state power to neuter the political opposition and create unlevel electoral playing fields.
It is not just passive isolationism driving publics away from Ukraine, though there are elements in all these countries that genuinely believe in that. Rather, it is the perception of greater ideological alignment with Russia that has gained traction in the Eastern flank, in many cases amplified by Kremlin resources and information campaigns. Some of this is cultural. A “traditional, religious, conservative” Russia is compared against a “gender-bending, godless” West. Beyond cultural alignments, countries’ drift toward Russia is about democracy itself. As countries chip away at democratic institutions – civil society, media, judiciary – they find themselves in more confrontations with EU values and US expectations, while the Kremlin provides them comfort, praise, and support.
Even the staunchest of US allies are not immune from these trends. Take Georgia, where the Speaker of the Parliament blamed the United States of fomenting revolution through its democracy support: “It is a dark day in the history of American aid to Georgia, when we see that the money of the American people is being used here to plan revolutionary processes, to deliberately prepare people for disorder and to provoke violence”. This rhetoric resembles Vladimir Putin’s accusations that the U.S. Department of State supported the thousands of Russians who took to the streets of Moscow to protest sham elections in 2011. Despite the fact that Russian troops occupy 20 percent of Georgian territory, this nationalist Georgian government has pivoted more strongly away from the West, resuming flights to Moscow, serving as a sanctions-evasion route for Russia, regularly insulting American and EU leaders, and eroding democratic norms at home.
Finding common cause with Russia, a country that has done little else but threaten its neighbors and hold them hostage over energy supplies, speaks to the shared illiberal worldview between these leaders and the Kremlin. It also creates a feedback loop that emboldens isolationist and illiberal forces in the United States that excuse democratic backsliding at home and abroad. Indeed, discouraging shifts in Europe’s frontier away from liberal democracy and Ukraine are not helped by the United States’ own movement in that direction. The US MAGA movement has parroted Russia’s talking points on Ukraine – and it is unclear whether the next US president will support continued military assistance for Kyiv. The Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) has flown a Russian flag and held up Viktor Orbán and Hungary as a model of governance. Conservative influencers like Tucker Carlson and Elon Musk feature regularly on Russian television. Although not as prevalent, there are voices on the left as well that have questioned continuing to provide further aid to Ukraine and called for direct talks with Russia.
The stronger these voices are in US domestic politics, the more it plays to Russia’s advantage. It gives Putin more fodder for cultivating allies of his autocratic and great-power vision of the world. That’s why the emergence of a pro-democracy, pro-Ukraine coalition in Poland would be so important. Voters will soon go to the polls in Georgia, Moldova, and the United States. We can follow the Polish people’s example and push back against the illiberal tide hurting our democracies and posing an existential threat to Ukraine. If we don’t, Russia will get exactly what it wants – a healthy chunk of Ukrainian territory, a weakened NATO and EU, an America in retrenchment, and authoritarianism on the rise.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.