In recent years, Poland has been one of many countries that have experienced a rise in far-right activity in government. Since 2015, the nationalist conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) has politically dominated the country. The PiS has praised the political style of the Fidesz Party in Hungary, well known for its attack on the country’s democratic and judiciary institutions. The PiS’s adoption of many Fidesz-style policies has contributed to Poland’s slow-moving journey toward becoming an illiberal democracy, conflicting with NATO goals and values.
The PiS and Media
Since its rise to power, the PiS has consolidated a powerful media apparatus, chiefly through the National Media Council (NMC). The NMC was established through reworking media laws, which afforded the PiS and its political allies greater oversight on media regulation. The party has done an effective job of utilizing media to target political opposition. Through TVP, the state broadcaster, the party communicates its pro-government message, which observers from the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, a regional security organization that promotes stability and peace, have acknowledged contained xenophobic, homophobic, and antisemitic rhetoric during the 2020 electoral coverage.
The party’s nationalist and populist rhetoric garners a loyal base of support that has attacked critiques of the state. In February 2022, two Polish journalists known for criticizing the government received death threats because they were “betraying the motherland.” In addition, defiance has also been met with repercussions from the government, especially when it is broadcasted by critical media organizations such as TVN24.
The PiS government has also deterred the activities of independent journalists when reporting on developments. During the 2022 migrant crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border, the Polish government barred journalists from reporting on the designated “exclusion zone.”
Moreover, the PiS moved swiftly to take control of the judiciary institutions of Poland. In May 2021, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) labelled the TK, the country’s constitutional tribunal, as unlawful because of the illegitimate appointment of at least one judge. Changes like this contribute to a severe lack of independence in the Polish judiciary system.
The government has also targeted judicial officials who have criticized its policies. The establishment of the Disciplinary Chamber in Poland’s Supreme Court allowed for the unlawful targeting of officials in law. In 2020, it suspended Judge Pawel Juszczyszyn after he criticized the lack of independence of the National Council of the Judiciary. In 2022, the government abolished the Disciplinary Chamber to lower the tensions with the EU and avoid financial penalties.
Women and LGBTQ+
The PiS and its allied parties oppose LGTBQ+ rights and routinely contribute to homophobia in the country. In 2021, the party’s leader Jarosław Kaczyński accused the “LGBTQ+ ideology” of “terrorizing” and “weakening the West.” He is not the only Polish official to voice such comments. In the run-up to the 2019 elections, the current Polish President, Andrzej Duda, stated that the “LGBTQ+ ideology” was more dangerous than communism. Statements like these have contributed to the vilification of LGBTQ+ people and sowed division in Polish society.
In addition, anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric has made its way to the legal realm. In regions throughout Poland, local governments loyal to the PiS have pushed to create “LGBTQ+ Free Zones.” In 2019, many local governments succeeded, though at the cost of losing out on EU funding. The Polish courts have forced some of these “zones” to shut down, but this has not stopped others from taking legal action to reinstate them.
Women in Poland have also experienced an attack on their sexual and reproductive rights since the PiS took power. Since January 2021, several women have died due to the country’s harsh abortion laws. A 2020 government ruling allows abortion only if the pregnancy endangers the mother or was a product of rape or incest. Despite this, women still face obstacles to obtaining the procedure, especially victims of rape who are required to show proof. Moreover, even if women meet the requirements to get an abortion legally, not all have access to sexual health services, particularly in rural regions.
Base of Support
The right-wing rhetoric and policies of the PiS have contributed to the proliferation of far-right activities and groups in Poland. One event of notoriety is the Independence Day March, which began in 2009 to commemorate Poland’s independence. Every year, it attracts neo-nazis and ultra-nationalists from Europe and North America. The marches have recently gotten political support from justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, a member of United Right, a right-wing political alliance of which the PiS is a member.
The rise of far-right politics in Poland has created a climate of division in the country and the region. Most significantly, the PiS presents an ideological and political challenge to the EU. The actions of the PiS and its supporters have conflicted with essential values of the EU, such as human rights and democracy, among others. Moreover, the PiS has started taking an increasingly hostile stance towards the EU, particularly regarding rule-of-law issues.
The escalation of far-right political activity in Poland also has broader implications for the West and particularly NATO members. Authoritarian and illiberal governments are on the rise, promoting a leadership style that is the antithesis of liberal democracy and NATO’s core values of liberty, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. These tendencies threaten to reduce cooperation and undermine unity within the alliance as political and defence interests become less aligned.
Poland must remain a strong, liberal democracy that works alongside its partners in NATO and the EU. This is especially important given the damage Russia’s war in Ukraine has done to the regional and international order. By ensuring stability in its borders, Poland assists in achieving NATO’s paramount goal to secure lasting peace in Europe.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.