When Poland passed a law earlier this year that punishes anyone who suggested that the country was complicit in Nazi war crimes, the outcry was so swift and so widespread that many commentators opined that the government had made a grave miscalculation. But what if it hadn’t? What if the uproar was exactly what the Polish government wanted?
All major European press outlets gave front-page attention to the so-called Holocaust law, turning a controversial bill into an international incident. It’s hard to imagine the ruling PiS party cared very much about getting the law passed. Sure, the law appeals to the party’s most nationalistic followers, but it's not something that helps unite their entire base, and it only marginally furthers their platform. And, despite what some said, the response was actually rather predictable – take perhaps the most sensitive subject on the continent and craft a law that stunts teaching and talking about it, and is sure to enrage Jews and non-Jews alike, and you have all the ingredients for international outcry. And that’s the point.
Quick, look over there!
As the world obsessed over the Holocaust law, the PiS government discreetly pushed through legislative changes that are far more important to them – and far more harmful to Polish democracy: a complete overhaul of the country’s electoral process. The changes are immensely consequential. Nearly all election officials, even at a regional level, are now handpicked by the government. While the National Electoral Commission, which oversees and certifies elections, had previously been comprised of nine judges appointed equally by the nation’s three highest courts (the Constitutional Tribunal, Supreme Court and Supreme Administrative Court), now the body will contain only two judges, with the remaining seven members chosen by the lower house of Parliament. The government’s handpicked election officials also get to redraw legislative districts and review any changes made independently by local governments.
All of this gives the government extraordinary power to ensure that it stays in power. The government never gave a serious explanation for why the changes had to occur, but it’s obvious. PiS’s hold on power has never been as firmly entrenched as that of neighboring populist regimes (we’re looking at you, Hungary). PiS entered the majority after the 2015 election, when it won 235 of 460 seats in Parliament – just over 50 percent. But PiS achieved this on the back of a mere 37.6 percent of the votes. Such an environment is ripe for an abusive and authoritarian government to try to consolidate its power.
So what happened to the Holocaust law? The government pulled a U-turn and removed the most divisive parts, watering it down to the point that it has hardly any legal thrust at all. And guess what? That, too, was incredibly predictable – eventually backdown on an issue you don't really care about, opponents feel like they achieved a small victory, and in the end you get what you really wanted, and without people noticing.
All of this is ripped straight out of the playbook used by authoritarians worldwide. Putin consolidates power by jailing or murdering his opponents; the governments in Hungary and Poland are doing it by controlling the media and the courts and changing laws to make elections easier for them to win. Some of these changes do grab national and international attention, but very often they do not. This is where NGOs – another prime target of authoritarians – come into play. We call out the government when it abuses its power, even (or especially) if the issue is not getting the media attention it deserves.
Democracy on its deathbed?
Never before have the values of the European Union been so threatened, and the aggressors are member state governments. For political reasons, it is proving difficult for the EU to protect its own interests, but what truly hangs in the balance is the strength of democracy across the entire bloc. Poland’s original Holocaust law represented a serious risk to free speech and other fundamental rights, but it did not itself take a sledgehammer to the country’s rule of law. The government’s electoral changes did.
Democracy doesn’t usually die by singular laws that prompt international outcry; quite often, it is killed quietly, through incremental changes that are implemented while the public is busy feasting on red herring.
If you want to let your friends know more about the authoritarian playbook, share our Survival Guide to Authoritarianism video series.