After eight years of authoritarian-populist rule in Poland—the biggest country by population and biggest economy in Eastern Europe—the political opposition defeated the governing Law and Justice party in general elections on October 15. A coalition of three liberal parties, led by the former prime minister and European Council president Donald Tusk, won almost 54 percent of the vote—with a record 74 percent of the Polish electorate turning out.

Led by the outgoing prime minister, Jarosław Kaczyński, Law and Justice has been subverting the rule of law in Poland for years—violating constitutional and parliamentary rules to pack the courts with party loyalists, seizing control of public media, and restricting freedom of speech and assembly. The European Court of Justice even ruled that certain anti-democratic laws from Kaczyński’s government should be suspended—but Warsaw ignored that, leading the EU to freeze billions of euros in funding for the country.

The reign of Law and Justice belongs to a wave of authoritarian-populist governments that came to power this century in Eastern Europe and elsewhere in the world. And Kaczyński said he wanted to emulate Hungary’s strongman Viktor Orbán, declaring that “a day will come when we will have a Budapest in Warsaw.” So what will the defeat of Law and Justice mean for democracy in Poland and globally?

Ivan Krastev is a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, and a founding board member of the European Council on Foreign Relations. As Krastev sees it, the victory of Poland’s opposition has already changed the political mood in Europe.

Across the continent, illiberal, anti-democratic parties have been gaining ground for decades, but Tusk’s resounding win has shown how an engaged public can win ground back for liberal democracy—or even overthrow an established authoritarian government. Krastev thinks the ouster of Law and Justice will also help push back authoritarian Russia’s invasion of democratic Ukraine, with the new Polish cabinet likely to work much harder for Ukraine’s success in the conflict—and to keep Europe’s attention focused on the needs of the war.

Meanwhile, the renewal of democracy in Poland is a threat to Orbán’s authoritarian regime in Hungary, as Orbán can no longer count on Warsaw to stop the EU from cracking down on Budapest. Still, Krastev says, the dynamics in Poland are highly distinctive to Poland, so the fate of authoritarian populism in Europe and beyond remains highly uncertain.

Michael Bluhm: Why did such a clear majority of Polish voters back the opposition here?

Victor Malyushev

Ivan Krastev: It was quite an unexpected result. Opinion polls had forecast a hung Parliament—the Law and Justice Party would get the most votes, but polling indicated that neither they nor the opposition would have a majority or be able to form a government.

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