Opinion Akudo-Kyoshia McGee-Osuagwu

Democracy requires maintenance

Ahead of the European elections, there are concerns about the state of democracy and rule of law in Europe. In the Netherlands, it is a concern hanging around the formation table. For a long time, Poland seemed to be heading in the same direction as Hungary, but since last October's elections, the tide seems to have turned there. The most important lesson we can learn from Poland? Democracy is not made in the voting booth, but on the streets.


For the past eight years, the Law and Justice party (Polish: Prawo i Sprawiedliwo, PiS for short) has been in power in Poland. Little by little, it broke down Polish democracy and the rule of law from within, seeking autocratic rule.

The PiS government silenced judges and put courts under political pressure. She threatened the free press and made public media a mouthpiece of the government. It axed the rights of minority groups such as lhbtis.

Polish democracy was dying - until the October elections, which were won by the opposition led by former Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

The new Tusk government is struggling, with a motley coalition and opposition from the president affiliated with the PiS party. But one thing is clear: the new coalition is committed to restoring democracy. This is partly due to the election results. But it would be too simplistic to attribute the resurgence of Polish democracy to voters alone.


More than at the ballot box, the resilience of Polish democracy became visible on the streets. Starting in 2015, Polish citizens organized themselves into judges' associations, civil rights organizations and action groups. They protested in front of courts when they made important decisions for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. They mourned the death of a pregnant woman with white candles after abortion was de facto banned in 2020. They waved rainbow flags in protest of "lhbti-free zones. The highlight was a pre-election demonstration against the PiS government in October, which drew a million people in Warsaw.

Polish organizations also called on the EU to act, for example, to deprive Poland of its right to vote in the EU Council. Judges challenged in national and European courts that they had been illegally removed from office. LGBT organizations brought cases about "lhbti-free zones" before Polish courts and filed complaints with the European Commission. It was through campaigns like these that Polish citizens became aware of the importance of the elections, showing that they were about the survival of democracy. Turnout was therefore historically high - higher than in 1989, in the first free elections after the fall of communism

The restoration of Polish democracy will not happen overnight; the damage done by the PiS government is simply too great for that. It shows that the erosion of democracy and rule of law is faster and more insidious than reconstruction. That is a lesson for the rest of the EU.


Even in the Netherlands, where the constitution is under discussion during the formation, there is a risk that we take the rule of law for granted. We like to pretend that the decline of democratic values and norms is something that happens at the borders of the EU, but our own democracy also requires attention and maintenance.

This maintenance, the Poles show, is a matter of the long haul. What happens in the voting booth is only a snapshot; it is the long periods between ballot boxes that make the difference. So a vibrant and resilient democracy begins in the streets.

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