Democratic Backsliding in Poland: The Effect of Social Media and Future Prospects for Polish Rule of Law

4 mins read

Since 2015, the right-wing nationalist party “Law of Justice” (PiS) has been enjoying an overwhelming two-thirds majority in both houses of the Polish parliament – the Sejm and the Senate. Until 2022, many illiberal laws concerning the independence of courts, media and legislative bodies have been passed. The courts and media have been hit the hardest, with the majority of judges in the Constitutional Court and members of the National Media Council being PiS nominees. These people have been working to subjugate the public media and courts to PiS’ interests and use them to undermine opposition politicians and oppositional civil rights groups. To boost its popularity with voters, PiS has also masterfully used social media – currently it is the most popular Polish party on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. However, although PiS has proven itself to be a destructive force within Polish rule of law and its support within voters appears to be getting stronger, there is a chance that its rule might come to an end, which will be explored in this article. 

The rise of PiS 

In the 2015 Polish parliament election, PiS won 235 out of 460 seats in the Sejm, the lower house of Poland’s parliament and thus gained an overwhelming majority and the power of governing alone. In its election campaign, PiS vowed to reshape Poland according to a vision that combines the Catholic conservative morality – limited LGBTQ+ rights, crackdown on abortion rights, harsher stance on immigration, catholic teaching in schools, granting additional political power to the Catholic church in Poland, etc. – with more state intervention in the economy in order to help families, pensioners and the financially disadvantaged. PiS’ economic prospects included more financial support for smaller Polish businesses and higher taxes on large corporations and banks, significant monthly cash bonuses for children, and free medication for pensioners aged over 75. 

PiS’ crackdown on Polish media and courts 

Since 2015, PiS has cracked down on the independence of various media outlets and Polish courts by appointing its political allies in leading positions. Starting with the media – for several years, the PiS-led government has consolidated its control over public broadcasting by installing its political allies in the National Media board and, in doing so, turning public media channels, such as the TVP – the public television network – into tools for spreading propaganda. There have also been several attempts in subverting the independence of private media, most notably when the state-owned oil firm PKN Orlen purchased the media company “Polska Press,” which owns hundreds of local Polish newspapers and websites. TVN, the largest independent Polish media group, has been facing pressure by means of “politicized regulation and tailor-made legislation” and its journalists have been the subjects of regular verbal attacks from PiS politicians. 

As of now, PiS wages direct control over the Constitutional Tribunal (the Polish Constitutional Court) and the National Council of the Judiciary, the body which appoints Polish judges. An overwhelming majority of members in these institutions have been nominated by PiS. The Constitutional Tribunal has already been used as a tool to realize the PiS vision – most prominent examples of this are the ruling in 2020 which severely restricted access to abortion, only allowing exceptions in few cases and the ruling in 2021, which stated that selected EU treaty articles are incompatible with the Polish constitution. 

Social media as a booster of PiS’ popularity 

PiS has long been noted for its use of social media, which, back in 2015, was unheard of for Polish politicians. Most of its online prominence is credited to Pawel Szefernaker, who was in his 20s when he was spearheading the party’s online campaign in 2015. Szefernaker said that, during that time, politicians did not realize the role that the internet could play in their election campaigns and instead relied on traditional campaign techniques, such as billboards. Instead, Szefernaker made videos of Polish president Andrzej Duda careening down a ski slope, reading mean tweets about himself and doing other light-hearted activities. These efforts soon gained traction and even continued to do so after the election, with Duda becoming the first Polish Prime Minister to hold a Q&A session on Facebook Live. PiS also showed masterful use of Twitter, substantially saturating the platform for Polish users. 

Although PiS has shown genuine intuition in its online skills, accusations of its abuse of these platforms have also been prominent. An analysis conducted in 2017 by Oxford University’s Computational Research Project found that right-wing bots were twice as active in Polish social media platforms than left-wing bot accounts. 

Can Polish democracy still be saved? 

Considering the fact that PiS has quite literally taken control over Poland’s public media outlets and courts and has established a strong and supportive online presence thatshows no signs of slowing down, it seems difficult to imagine it losing its positions of power. However, in the 2019 Polish parliamentary election, PiS slightly lost its grip, as it lost its control of the Senate, the upper house of the Polish parliament, winning 49 out of its 100 seats. While the Senate is less powerful than the lower chamber, the Sejm (which PiS still controls with 235 out of 460 seats), it can slow down the passing of laws and appoint key officials, thus complicating PiS’ control of the legislative body. This is a slightly better situation compared to 2015, when PiS controlled the presidency, the Sejm and the Senate. Therefore, all focus rests on the 2023 parliamentary election to see if the party can regain control of all legislative bodies. In addition, there is prominent popular opposition to PiS, as protests against the previously mentioned Constitutional Tribunal rulings on abortion were one of the largest and longest in recent Polish history. 

However, in my view, the future of Polish democracy is entirely in the hands of Poles themselves, since the EU does not have the necessary tools for solving such a problem. Therefore, it is crucial that voters who are dissatisfied with the incumbent government head to the ballot box and vote for their desired opposition candidates in the upcoming 2023 parliamentary election. Independent Polish civil society organizations and media sources which publish investigations about PiS’ abuse of power must be supported financially through donations and other financial contributions, so the brave researchers and journalists can expose the government’s true intentions to the public. Opposition activists must continue to organize large scale protests in response to further PiS’ violations in order to grow the democratic Polish community and show the incumbents that their policies do not reflect the view of the Polish people as a whole.

By: Paul Siksnis

Image: Elyssa Fahndrich

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