Populism in Power: Law & Justice vs liberal democracy

What happens to a country when a populist party rules? What happens to liberal democracy when the populist idea of power is implemented? Bartek Pytlas illustrates the case of Poland to answer these questions, and examines the rhetoric toolbox used by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) in order to control the state media, the Constitutional Court, and to fight against the European institutions.

As well as Orbán in Hungary, the PiS government is undermining checks and balances, minority protections, and in general all the mechanisms that make liberal democracy *liberal*. All of this, while being part of the European Union (the same that five years ago won the Nobel prize for peace) and going against all its most important principles.

Enjoy the read.

On 15 November 2017, the European Parliament called to trigger the first stage of the EU rule of law procedure against the Polish government of Law and Justice (PiS). The resolution came about at the time when PiS re-initiated its widely criticized judicial reform, as well as announced its plans to redesign the electoral system. The reaction of the Polish authorities to the EP decision followed the tried-and-tested narrative of PiS. Polish President Andrzej Duda demanded ‘respect for democracy’, whereas former Prime Minister Beata Szydło – symbolically replaced by Mateusz Morawiecki on 11 December 2017 – declared that Polish MEPs who voted in favour of the resolution are ‘not worthy of representing’ their country (in the tweet below she wrote: “Politicians who defame their country on international arena are not worthy of representing it”).

The case of Law and Justice in Poland allows to observe not only how a move of populism from mainstream to sole power impacts liberal democracy. It also provides insights into the rhetorical toolbox of populist politics in government. It demonstrates how ruling populist actors fend off challenges to their legitimizing narrative of representing the General Will of ‘the Sovereign’ against antagonistic ‘detached’ Elites coming from party politics and – most importantly – from grassroots protests by the civil society.

The government of Law and Justice saw itself confronted with the launch of the Article 7 procedure by the European Commission already less than three months after its victory in the October 2015 election. In a fast-paced series of late-night sessions, the PiS-dominated Sejm (lower house of the Polish parliament) rubber-stamped a number of legal changes that allowed the ruling party to take control over state media and, eventually, the Constitutional Court. With time, the legislative process has increasingly become a mere façade to the ‘cementing’ of the PiS power monopoly over public institutions, as exemplified by a direct disregard of an inconvenient vote of the parliamentary Constitutional Commission. These developments, as well as further attempts to put the country’s courts under the control of the ruling party resulted in an outcry from party political opposition as well as vast and creative grassroots movement of civil protest.

At least since 2006 the conservative Law and Justice accommodated and increasingly internalized the narratives of their radical right competitors. PiS created an overarching ideological frame that bridged socio-cultural and socio-economic issues, re-defining political conflict along a highly polarized, dichotomous divide. The party’s anti-liberal frame combined redistributive positions with threat scenarios of a looming demise to ‘Polish national identity’ at the hands of inimical internal and external forces. Already before 2015, PiS depicted itself and its supporters as a repressed, last bastion of ‘Polishness’ engaged in an underground struggle against ‘liberal Poland’ and ‘traitors to the Polish cause’ reified by the government of its arch-nemesis: the Civic Platform.

Populism is used as a vehicle to further legitimize such an overarching narrative in a twofold way. First, it portrays party ideology not as one among many, but bestows it with an image of an intrinsically non-ideological emanation of a quasi-primordial ‘Popular Will’. Second, it allows the party organization as such to present itself as the sole political embodiment of the voice of the People. These two aspects remain relevant for populists in power. As already noted by previous research, the full realization of populist politics in government inevitably leads to stripping political adversaries of their right to speak on behalf of ‘the People’. Political actors who rose to power using a populist ‘winning formula’, especially in case when their role is not reduced to that of a junior coalition partner, are in need to constantly uphold their self-image of a political embodiment of the volonté générale, as well as to justify any illiberal reforms.

While PiS strategically toned down its rhetoric during the 2015 electoral campaign, it continuously portrayed itself as an anti-establishment challenger to the incumbent government. Immediately after the election, PiS took down its moderate mask. The demands of political adversaries to revert the dismantlement process of constitutional checks and balances were portrayed by PiS and government-close media as an attempt to actively hinder the party at fulfilling the ‘Will of the People’. PiS has not merely challenged party opposition on basis of ideological differences, but denounced it as fundamentally illegitimate to represent the interests of Poles as well as to shape the direction of the country’s development.

Delegitimizing political contenders and state institutions from a populist position is a rhetorically straightforward task, intrinsic for its anti-elitist element. A much more serious challenge for populists in sole power arises from opposition to their actions by the civil society. Civil protest puts populist governments in predicament especially once it emerges on grassroots basis without any clear coordinating organization that could be labelled as ‘elitist’ or ‘treacherous’. It were therefore the bottom-up Black Monday demonstration against the planned restriction of women reproductive rights in October 2016, the spontaneous ‘Chain of Light’ protests against the reform of the judiciary in Summer 2017, as well as resident doctors’ strike over health spending and higher pay in October 2017 that posed a crucial challenge to the government’s self-portrayal as the sole embodiment of the volonté générale.

Accordingly, the reaction to the events by the government was chaotic. PiS, aided by state media and government-close publicists, struggled to forge a single, resonant narrative able to de-legitimize the protesters. In her televised address made during the July 2017 demonstrations, PM Szydło declared that the government ‘will not be intimidated by Polish and foreign defenders of elite interests’ and that ‘reforms expected by the citizen will be implemented’. The Interior Minister Mariusz Błaszczak described the protests as gatherings of tourists and ‘passers-by’. State Secretary in the Ministry of Interior Jarosław Zieliński referred to the protesters as ‘communists’ and ‘traitors’. News tickers on Polish state TV, popularly dubbed as ‘bars of horror’ due to their fear mongering content (see picture below), depicted the protests as a ‘putsch attempt’ by ‘opposition militias’. PiS and government-close pundits have furthermore borrowed exclusionary conspiracy theories from the playbook of Viktor Orbán, such as the campaign of the Fidesz government against the American investor and civil society philanthropist George Soros. Finally, state TV portrayed the protesting doctors as lavish Elite.


Top bar: “Shocking announcements by opposition militants”. Middle bar: “Poor attendance in front of the Parliament despite putsch calls by Grzegorz Schetyna” [chairman of the opposition party Civic Platform]. Bottom bar: “The opposition attempts to organize a putsch against a democratically chosen government”.

Overall, the mix of ultra-nationalist and populist narratives used to salvage the self-image of the PiS government as the embodiment of General Will has been used in a twofold way. First, it denied the demonstrations their character of a grassroots expression of popular contention by portraying the protesters as manipulated by fiendish, anti-Polish internal and external forces. Second, it not only distinguished between ‘political Elites’ actively conspiring against ‘the People’, but also drew a dichotomous division within the Polish society as such, juxtaposing ‘the true People’ against ‘societal Elites’. The latter have thus been denied a voice in forming the General Will.

Despite its rhetoric, PiS failed to mobilize vast popular counter-protests in support of its politics. At the same time, the divided political opposition is still struggling to offer a resonant narrative that could deconstruct the ‘winning formula’ of the ruling party. The grassroots contention of the Polish civil society hence remains one of the crucial factors able to effectively impose limits on the legitimacy of PiS to implement its policy agenda.


*Bartek Pytlas is Assistant Professor of Political Systems and European Integration at LMU Munich. His research focuses on the agency of radical right and populist actors in the political process of European democracies. His recent book ‘Radical Right Parties in Central and Eastern Europe: Mainstream Party Competition and Electoral Fortune’ (Routledge) is forthcoming in paperback in Winter 2017.

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