Poland just showed the world how democracy wins

Poland’s surprise opposition victory reveals the most important pro-democracy maxim: don’t let the coalition fracture.
Polish flag waving in the wind.

At a gathering of pro-democracy organizations in 2017, a Polish opposition member of parliament named Agnieszka Pomaska was asked: “What’s your number one piece of advice for democracy advocates in the United States?” 

Poland has been at the front lines between democracy and authoritarianism, between freedom and repression — not just in the current era, but arguably throughout modern history. Pomaska’s response was simple: “Don’t let the pro-democracy coalition fracture.” 

On Sunday, Polish voters showed the world just how effective that strategy can be. 

For the last eight years, Poland has been governed by the authoritarian-nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party. During that time, Poland has sat alongside the United States at the top of the list of backsliding democracies, as PiS gradually but systematically dismantled the rule of law and transformed state broadcasting into party propaganda. Most concerning of all, the government worked to make future elections neither free nor fair, using the power of the state to make it difficult for voters to ever oust the government. 

Difficult is not impossible. On Sunday, a coalition of left and centrist parties led by former European Union president Donald Tusk won a surprise victory and is poised to take power. This abrupt reversal is one of the most significant victories for democracy worldwide since voters in the United States ousted their own authoritarian leader in November of 2020. 

Like any election, the political stakes were complicated, and there is no one reason why the opposition managed to beat the odds. But stepping back, it is clear that Pomaska’s words of advice from six years ago held true. As Anne Applebaum, one of the most reliable chroniclers of Poland’s backsliding, writes in The Atlantic

“Donald Tusk, the leader of the Civic Coalition, pointedly used the language of civic patriotism rather than angry nationalism. Thousands of volunteers came together to organize election-monitoring teams. Hundreds of thousands of people marched in two major demonstrations in Warsaw, carrying Polish and European Union flags; others joined a series of big public meetings around the country. The existence of three opposition parties meant that different messages were heard by different parts of the electorate, on the center-right as well as the center-left. Some of the candidates attacked PiS. Some used the language of unity and called for an end to polarization.” 

In other words, the pro-democracy coalition won by being a pro-democracy coalition

This win didn’t come easily to Poland. The opposition had struggled to unite in prior elections; in 2019 PiS won with only 43% of the vote thanks to a fractured opposition. Pomaska’s advice came from the bitter experience of watching Poland’s pro-democracy opposition break apart all too often.

Not this time. On Sunday, millions of Poles took up the cause of their democracy in ways big and small. A record 74% of voters turned out to the polls, the highest in over a century. Recognizing their very democracy was at stake, candidates with ideological or policy disagreements put those differences aside, and united in a campaign to defend it.

The United States can learn from Poland

Poland just showed the world how democracy wins, and how a formidable authoritarian faction — even a seemingly invincible one — can still be defeated. They did not let the pro-democracy coalition fracture. 

In the U.S., there are key lessons we can learn from Poland’s victory for democracy. 

In the short-term, any remaining pro-democracy Republicans in the House of Representatives — those who oppose having a speaker who worked to overturn the last presidential election — should put country over party and join Democrats in electing a moderate, consensus speaker. If the Polish center-right can find a way to actively campaign (and govern) together with the center-left, then Republicans in the House of Representatives who privately oppose Donald Trump and his dangerous illiberal movement can find a way to elect a consensus leader for the chamber. This notion is hardly unrealistic: earlier this year, Jason Stephens, a moderate Republican, was elected Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives over a more-extreme alternative. He earned the votes of all the Democrats and a third of the chamber’s Republicans. The same thing happened in Alaska, where the state Senate is governed by a bipartisan majority of pragmatic Republicans and Democrats. 

After that, the U.S. pro-democracy coalition must find a way to stay united through the 2024 election. As in Poland, we are likely to face a choice between a familiar, institutionalist candidate, and an authoritarian who seeks to complete a still-unfinished autocratic project. Any effort to split the vote, even if responding to legitimate policy disagreements, risks disaster — not just because it could help return an autocrat to power, but also because it could trigger a “contingent election” scenario that would leave determining the next president to the House of Representatives, the same House that seems poised to make Jim Jordan speaker. 

Longer term, we should implement electoral reforms that make it easier for pro-democracy coalitions like Poland’s to exist in the United States. This would mean multi-member districts with proportional representation, where different parties from the left and right could win office together on the same ballot (Poland uses something called “open list proportional representation”). More immediately, re-legalizing fusion voting — which allows different parties to jointly nominate the same candidate — is an important way to make these sorts of pro-democracy electoral coalitions easier to form even under our current electoral system. 

The reality is, just as Polish voters showed on Sunday, democracy is more important than the policy disagreements that may divide us. In the face of an authoritarian threat, preserving democracy depends on a broad alliance coming together in its defense. 

We cannot let the pro-democracy coalition fracture.

About the Authors

Ian Bassin

Co-Founder and Executive Director

Ian Bassin is co-founder and Executive Director of Protect Democracy. He previously served as Associate White House Counsel, where he counseled the President and senior White House staff on administrative and constitutional law.

Ben Raderstorf

Policy Advocate

Ben Raderstorf is a policy advocate at Protect Democracy. He helps direct policy and communications work around systemic threats to American democracy and writes If you can keep it, our weekly email briefing.

Related Content