The October 15, 2023 Polish parliamentary election will not be fair. The country’s last fair election was in 2015, when the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) came to power and promptly set about undermining constitutional governance. Since then, the weakness of Poland’s rule-of-law system has enabled PiS to amend electoral law, reshape the media environment, exploit state-owned companies and other resources—including public funds—and engage in other autocratic subversions to tilt the playing field in Polish elections in favor of the ruling regime. However, the degree of unfairness in this election will hinge on actions taken by Polish authorities. The authorities should:
- Stop diverting state resources into media enterprises and political messaging campaigns meant to support PiS candidates,
- Commit to renewing the licenses of independent media outlets such as TVN,
- Stop using arbitrary fines to harass and weaken independent media outlets,
- Stop using the system for disciplining judges as a weapon against those who do not display loyalty to the PiS regime,
- Implement judgments of European tribunals, and ensure that rulings on the integrity of the election come from independent and impartial bodies.
While the US government has struck the right tone in recent values-based remarks about the importance of electoral fairness, the message has not broken through a policy environment that is crowded on two levels. Most importantly, many experts and officials in Warsaw believe that the United States is reluctant to pressure its strongest ally in supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia—the Polish government—on matters of electoral fairness. But even if the United States is genuinely committed to pressing for electoral fairness in Poland, there are so many areas of democratic backsliding in the country that it is not clear which concrete threats are priorities for the United States. At every available opportunity, Poland’s allies should publicly reiterate the importance of respecting shared democratic values by holding fair elections. Privately, diplomats should warn Warsaw that crossing red lines around the four most consequential risks to the integrity of the upcoming Polish election would trigger unified public rebukes from NATO allies.
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