•      Mon Sep 25 2023

The Authoritarian Hangover

Maciej Kisilowski and Anna Wojciuk

WARSAW, May 28: This month’s presidential election in Turkey, followed by October’s parliamentary vote in Poland, could continue a trend that began in 2020 with Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in the United States and continued last year with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s triumph over Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Both elections provided a powerful sense that the tide was turning against populist authoritarians.

For democratic forces, however, electoral success is only the first step. After all, it is only when an authoritarian government is toppled that the hard work of institutional reconstruction begins.

But how can those spearheading that process possibly succeed, when major political forces refuse to accept the fundamentals of a competitive electoral system? This is largely uncharted territory. The late-twentieth-century “third wave” of democratization comprised almost exclusively what we can call “cooperative” transitions. Whether the political forces behind the falling regime negotiated the transition, or were routed from power, they acquiesced to – and sometimes came to support – a new democratic order.

In Poland, for example, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the de facto leader of the Polish People’s Republic, accepted the role of president in 1989, as part of a deal with the Solidarity movement. In Chile, General Augusto Pinochet took a lifetime seat in the senate after stepping down in 1990. By the middle of that decade, former communist figures were winning free and fair elections in Central European countries – and accepting the outcome when they lost.

Unfortunately, modern autocrats like Trump and Bolsonaro have adhered to a very different, “non-cooperative” model. While both eventually ceded power (if sullenly and with some violence), neither they nor their supporters have given up on the goal of entrenching authoritarian rule.

Nearly three years after Trump’s decisive electoral defeat, many of his supporters still insist that the vote was “stolen.” Trump, the frontrunner to win the Republican Party presidential primary, setting up a rematch with Biden next year, has vowed to purge “demonic forces” from US democratic institutions. “Either the deep state destroys America, or we destroy the deep state,” he declared before a cheering crowd last month at a rally in Waco, Texas.

The United States is not alone. The coming clash between Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and liberal opposition forces will be the third since 2007. The first ended in the opposition’s favor, as the PiS government collapsed due to infighting.

The victorious coalition, led by Donald Tusk (who would go on to become president of the European Council), then faced a dilemma: pursue retribution for PiS wrongdoing, such as well documented abuse of power by PiS’s infamous Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro, or opt for a light-touch approach in the interest of political harmony. Tusk’s administration chose the latter option, and PiS leaders were never held accountable.

This enabled PiS to dedicate itself to cultivating a robust grassroots movement deeply hostile to the democratic order. Like Trump, PiS mobilized its supporters around a “Big Lie,” but not about election rigging. Instead, PiS claimed that the plane crash that killed former PiS leader Lech Kaczyński in 2010 was no accident, but rather an assassination orchestrated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Tusk, or both.

The details of the PiS Big Lie – again, much like the Trumpian one – change constantly. But the point is not to convince people, least of all skeptics. Repetition of any variant of the story is a performative act, intended to erode the legitimacy of liberal opponents and democratic institutions. And the plan worked: the conspiracy theory about the crash became a staple of the voting bloc that brought PiS back to power in 2015. Having faced no accountability for their first stint in power, PiS reappointed Ziobro as minister of justice.

Tusk pledges to adopt a tougher stance if the opposition wins in October – an uphill fight, given the uneven playing field PiS has created. In a playful reference to PiS’s 500+ program – which provided cash transfers to parents – Tusk promises to pursue the so-called Cell+ program, aimed at purging Polish politics of those who have deceived or stolen from the public.

It is easy to see why Tusk would advocate such an approach. But as the University of Chicago’s Monika Nalepa and others have warned, blanket purges of former authoritarian apparatchiks can exacerbate social cleavages, increasing the risk of reprisal and escalation. This is precisely why Tusk took a softer line last time.

Because non-cooperative transitions leave democrats with no good options, an alternative path is needed. In Poland, we advocate deep political reform, based on the principle of power-sharing between progressive and conservative forces. The non-partisan initiative we co-founded, including more than 100 Polish intellectuals from across the political spectrum, has now released a detailed proposal to guide such efforts.

Far from giving progressives everything they want, the proposal aims to offer everybody, including conservatives who currently see authoritarian populism as their only path to policy influence, a stake in Poland’s future. It remains to be seen how PiS and the democratic opposition will respond.

The idea of fundamentally reforming democratic governance in response to conservative grievances tends to trigger resistance, and not just in Poland. In the US, progressives fear a new constitutional convention. But unless we give our conservative compatriots reasons to support the democratic order, our countries will remain unstable. Here and there, progressive mobilization may succeed in halting democratic backsliding. But, in the long run, strong democracies will always require committed, majority support from voters and parties across the political spectrum.

Maciej Kisilowski is Associate Professor of Law and Public Management at Central European University. Anna Wojciuk is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Warsaw.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.