In Poland’s October 15 parliamentary elections, the governing Law and Justice Party (known by its Polish acronym PiS) faced a challenge from the centrist Civic Coalition. Almost three-quarters of the Polish population cast their votes, the highest voter turnout since the country won its independence from the Soviet Union more than thirty years ago. Ultimately, PiS won more votes than any other single party but could not form a parliamentary coalition. So the Civic Coalition will form a government under the leadership of ex–prime minister and former European Council president Donald Tusk.
Opponents of PiS considered this election a pivotal one that would determine the future of Polish democracy. Before the election, historian Karolina Wigura warned that “Poland is like a ‘zebra,’ which in recent years has displayed in turns both an authoritarian character and democratic remnants. If PiS wins a third term, then the stripes will wash out.” Since winning parliamentary and presidential elections in 2015, PiS has undermined the independence of Poland’s courts in order to pursue its agenda and entrench its power. It has also implemented openly xenophobic policies in response to the “threat” of immigration from the Middle East and Africa. Journalist Anne Applebaum has accused the PiS of “state capture,” in which a “political party or clique typically consolidates control over a state’s institutions” through legislation, the use of state media to broadcast propaganda, and pervasive corruption. In Poland, PiS “began with an assault on the highest courts. Then it set out to dominate everything else: the national and local civil administration, regulators of all kinds, even seemingly apolitical institutions such as the forestry service.” In this election, PiS used state media to smear Tusk as treasonous, more loyal to Germany than to Poland. It also employed voter-suppression tactics and gerrymandering. The result, Applebaum writes, is that “only one issue [was] really on the ballot: Do you want PiS to complete its capture of state institutions, or do you want those institutions to belong once again to the entire country?”