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Authoritarian Near Miss: The Future of the Polish Democracy after the Populist Defeat

Thursday, November 30, 2023 at 4:30pm to 6:00pm

Uris Hall, G08
Central Campus

The resounding victory of the Polish opposition on October 15 bewildered many comparative political scientists. The loose coalition of liberals, leftists, and Christian Democrats defied international trends by out-competing the ruling Law and Justice party (“PiS”) in a barely free and grotesquely unfair ballot held eight years after PiS’s 2015 ascent to power. The speakers – prof. Maciej Kisilowski of Central European University in Vienna and prof. Anna Wojciuk of the University of Warsaw – will discuss the significance of the Polish election while resisting the temptation to declare an(other) democratic “end of history.” Instead, they will focus on what can be done to minimize the risk of a future authoritarian recurrence.

They will start by analyzing the possible causes of that unexpected victory. Contrasting the Polish case with other examples of electoral authoritarianism, they will discuss: the role of the US and the EU in preserving democracy in Poland, COVID-related economic and political crises, freedom and pluralism of the media, civil society, and the strategies adopted by democratic opposition.

The second part of the presentation will cover “Umówmy się na Polskę” [“Let’s Agree on Poland”] – a recently published volume edited by Kisilowski and Wojciuk in which a diverse group of 28 Polish intellectuals, representing views from the left to the conservative right, present a comprehensive proposal for a democratic constitutional reform. Acclaimed as “the most important book about Polish politics since 1989” by Poland’s main “Polityka” opinion weekly and as “a decisive step forward in the reconstruction of Polish democracy” by Prof. Bruce Ackerman of Yale University, the volume advocates for a new social contract – a set of constitutional rules accepted by citizens of both progressive and conservative political leanings. The authors argue that the key to developing such rules, and thus to the emergence of a genuinely consolidated democracy in Poland, is greater involvement of provincial and municipal governments, as well as citizens, in the mechanisms of governing the country.

Poland’s deep, geographically asymmetrical polarization makes the country’s challenges remarkably relevant for the US audience. The discussion of the Kisilowski-Wojciuk constitutional proposal for Poland may therefore elucidate the difficult choices that democrats around the world face when dealing with the modern wave of right-wing authoritarian populism.

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Lecture, Roundtable


Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Institute for European Studies


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Maeve Coughlin

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