Resolute Square

In Poland, Unity and Optimism Prevailed Over Autocracy

From Ruth Ben-Ghiat: "The stakes could not have been higher. Vladimir Putin's genocidal war on Ukraine, which is unfolding on Poland's doorstep, is a stark reminder of the horrors that a fully realized autocracy can unleash on the world."
Published:October 19, 2023

Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

At last, a victory for democracy. After recent electoral defeats of opposition forces in Turkey, Israel, Hungary, Italy, and elsewhere, Poland voted to turn back autocracy. The sympathies of Polish President Andrzej Duda for the far-right Law and Justice party (the ruling party of Poland since 2015) could prove problematic, and Law and Justice received the most votes (over 35%). Yet Donald Tusk's Civic Coalition and its partners should be able to form a centrist-progressive government.

It's not surprising that this election saw the largest turnout of voters since the fall of Communism in 1989. The stakes could not have been higher. Vladimir Putin's genocidal war on Ukraine, which is unfolding on Poland's doorstep, is a stark reminder of the horrors that a fully realized autocracy can unleash on the world.

And Poland was going down the path of unfreedom. It had all but lost its democracy after years of assaults by Law and Justice and its allies on the rule of law, judicial independence, and a free and fair electoral system. Tusk and other opposition politicians faced sham investigations and smear campaigns.

State capture of the media had also advanced, with dozens of radio and television stations directly or indirectly controlled by the government. Just like Gazprom in Russia, Poland's state energy company PKN Orlen owns dozens of media properties. As Anne Applebaum informed Atlantic readers in a pre-election assessment of the opposition's chances, state messaging was ubiquitous: even the utility bills Poles receive carry words of support for government policies.

"As long as the Law and Justice government is in power, Poland is like an unconquered fortress," current Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki had declared during the campaign, raising the specter of uncontrolled non-White immigration if his party would be defeated. The opposition soon uncovered his hypocrisy by exposing a visa-selling scheme. Some government officials financially benefitted from more than 100,000 African and Asian workers entering Poland. But rhetoric is everything for faux populists such Morawiecki. The wealthy multilingual international banker, who has degrees from Germany, Switzerland, and the U.S. has made attacks against "globalists" his currency.

Morawiecki's government used its media dominance to engineer a climate of threat and hostility toward immigrants, LGBTQ+ individuals, non-Christians (the prime minister's father claimed in 2018 that Polish Jews entered the Warsaw Ghetto voluntarily due to their Nazi sympathies), and many others. "[This] was one of the most brutal political campaigns in Polish history. Hate speech was present in this campaign almost every day," Grzegorz Kwiatkowski told me. Kwiatkowski is a member of the Polish art-rock band Trupa Trupa, which has denounced Holocaust denialism in Poland (you can read my Lucid interview with him here).

All of this makes the outcome of the election more remarkable. This was a victory of anti-authoritarians who sought to reclaim patriotism from the far right, while vowing to "bring Poland back to Europe" (Tusk is not only a former Polish prime minister but a former head of the European Council). The national anthem was sung at the close of the mega-rally held in Warsaw two weeks before the election. It was the largest demonstration since 1989.

This was also a victory for womens' rights. Poland has a quasi-total ban on abortion as of 2021, and Civic Coalition promised to liberalize abortion laws. Marchers interviewed by private news channel TVN24 said they were taking part so that their children and grandchildren could live in a more tolerant society. And Poles aged 18-29 voted in higher numbers than those over 60, reflecting broader generational worries of losing reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights when autocracies take hold.

And it was a victory for love and optimism as key elements of anti-authoritarian strategy. The opposition named the demonstration "The March of a Million Hearts," and many of those present adopted the heart symbol, as did Tusk and other leaders. "When I see this sea of hearts, I can sense that a breakthrough moment is coming in the history of our homeland," said Tusk at the rally, channeling feelings of togetherness and destiny.  

Donald Tusk (R) and Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski (L) at the March of a Million Hearts, Warsaw, Oct. 1, 2023. Note the heart buttons worn by participants. Klaudia Radecka/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Authoritarians have often evoked such collective sentiments, but have used hatred and exclusion rather than love to mobilize people. The Polish opposition showed how effective positive emotions can be as a pro-democracy force.

Tusk also made the idea that time and history are on the side of justice into a central campaign theme. “All those who want a better Poland will show up,” he declared in an interview before the rally. "No one can stop this force; this giant has awoken...This change for the better is inevitable," he emphasized at the event. Such optimism is key to restore faith in the democratic process —meaning faith in the right and ability of individual voters to decide their futures and obtain accountable political representation— and renew belief in the power of solidarity.

"Most of Europe is becoming more and more nationalistic, antisemitic, and racist," says Kwiatkowski. "I did not believe that such a good result for the opposition was possible. Politicians in Poland tried to polarize society using the most cynical and hateful manipulative methods...This time these methods didn't work. And this is a great reason for joy."