In Pivotal Vote in Poland, Many See a Test for Democracy

WARSAW — For three decades, Poland was held up as a paragon of how a country could peacefully transition from authoritarian rule to liberal democracy and as proof that a capitalist society allows men and women to flourish, while communism crushes the soul and saps the spirit.

Now, as the country goes to the polls on Sunday in perhaps its most important vote since the first, partly free election of 1989, many Poles worry that the fate of democracy itself is on the ballot.

In four years since coming to power, the governing Law and Justice party has engaged in a bold and sweeping effort to reshape the country. It has overhauled the courts in ways that critics say undermines the rule of law, leading Poland to become the first member of the European Union to face the prospect of losing its voting rights under the bloc’s founding treaty.

The state television and radio stations have been turned into government propaganda outlets as pressure on independent news media has mounted. And leaders of cultural institutions deemed insufficiently patriotic have been condemned or forced from their jobs.

Still, Poland is not yet Hungary, much less Turkey or any other autocratic nation. Civil society remains vibrant, and there are still many critical voices in the news media.

That is why the elections on Sunday are being watched so closely. Just as the transition from communist rule to democracy took years to achieve, unraveling the checks and balances essential for a democracy to function takes time, and Poland’s destiny is hardly set in stone.

When Law and Justice came back into power into 2015, its rallying cry was simple: “Poland off its knees.” But just as important as the party’s promotion of an aggrieved nationalism was its promise that the state would offer more economic security for struggling families.

The governing party not only delivered on its campaign pledge; it has also vastly expanded the welfare state and engaged in the most ambitious plan to redistribute wealth in a generation, winning the loyalty of residents in vast swaths of the country who felt neglected or betrayed as the country transitioned to capitalism.

Bolstered by Law and Justice’s generous spending programs, the party has a commanding lead, polls taken before the election showed.

Still, the country remains deeply divided, with opposition parties controlling local governments in every large city.

There has always been a certain paranoia at the heart of Law and Justice.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the party’s leader and the most powerful politician in Poland is always dressed in black. He has dressed in black every day for the past nine years to honor his twin brother, Lech, who died in a plane crash in 2010.

Despite multiple investigations that showed the crash had been caused by bad weather and pilot error, Mr. Kaczynski has for years pushed a variety of conspiracy theories and built a cult of martyrdom around his brother that is at the center of the party’s mythology.

When Jan Szyszko, a former minister for the environment and a leading Law and Justice candidate in the coming elections, died last week, Mr. Kaczynski raised the specter of foul play without any evidence and despite news reports that he had died of a pulmonary embolism.

“He passed away in special circumstances,” he said. “The majesty of death does not allow me to talk about it today, but it will have to be said, because it was not a coincidence that it happened today.”

Enemies, real and imagined, are a constant presence. In 2015, when the party came to power, migrants — few of whom were actually trying to enter Poland — were made targets. In the months before this election, gay men and lesbians have taken their place in the cross hairs.

The two constants of the campaign have been reminders of the government’s financial largess and attacks on what the right-wing news media has labeled “the rainbow dictatorship.”

Mr. Kaczynski, widely considered a compelling orator, stood before supporters in his black suit on Tuesday and offered a dark vision of the future. Only faith in the Roman Catholic Church could save Poland, he suggested.

“Everything that is good comes from Christianity,” he said. Rejecting that truth, he said, would lead to the collapse of civilization.

“Human rights will be destroyed because beyond our civilization such rights simply do not exist,” he added. “You just have to realize it.”

Mr. Kaczynski went on to talk about the “vile attack on Christianity and a particularly vile attack on family” being made by “a particular minority who have different preferences in the intimate sphere.”

“Destroy the family,” he said in an apparent reference to L.G.B.T. groups, “This is their goal.”

The opposition parties, divided on domestic issues, have not been able to come up with a coherent domestic agenda that can compete with the government’s sweeping attempts to reshape the economy.

Though they have mostly avoided infighting, in the months before the election they have largely failed to push a strong enough platform to counter Law and Justice, aside from the fact that they are not Law and Justice.

Grzegorz Schetyna, the longtime leader of the Civic Platform party, was widely viewed as an uninspiring career politician. His initial opposition to the signature economic policy of the government, giving families about $125 for every child, made him politically toxic.

So the biggest opposition bloc, Civic Coalition, chose Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, a former deputy speaker of Parliament, to be their choice for prime minister should it win.

Ms. Kidawa-Blonska has tried to present herself as the face of a less-divisive and less-hateful politics. Her billboards show her hugging a supporter and the words, “Cooperation, not arguments.”

“Nobody in Poland has ceased to be a patriot; no one has changed their mind about the rule of law and common decency,” she told supporters at the party’s convention last weekend. “The only poison is today’s politics. Someone has injected it with venom.”

She added, “Poland needs a political detox.”

For a moment, after the mayor of Gdansk, Pawel Adamowicz, was stabbed to death in January, it seemed as if the shock of the killing might galvanize the opposition, which includes the center-right Civic Platform, the liberal Left coalition and the Polish People’s Party, which has its base of support in the agricultural community.

But a strong common message did not materialize.

At a recent forum in Athens, Donald Tusk, a former prime minister of Poland and the current president of the European Council, who has generally stayed away from domestic politics and whose name is not on the ballot on Sunday, lamented the political climate in his country and the murder of the mayor of his hometown, Gdansk.

“He fell victim to hatred, which he opposed all his life,” Mr. Tusk said of Mr. Adamowicz. “He built his city with the belief that not everything is lost, that love is stronger than hate, that solidarity is stronger than egoism. I also believe that not everything is lost, and I want to wish you all the same faith.”

There was no doubt that Mr. Tusk had his own country in mind when he then tried to put the current threats to democracies around the world in historical context.

But while many Poles are concerned about the fate of democracy in their country, for most people, life does not feel less free today than it did four years ago.

The fight over the courts has not affected average citizens. Those appalled by the vitriol coming from state news outlets simply turn off the channel, and others tuned out the culture wars.


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