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Poland's election could steer EU member further away from democracy or closer to it

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

In Poland, an election on Sunday could steer that European Union member further away from democracy or closer to it. For the past eight years, the country of 40 million people on NATO's eastern flank has been governed by a party that has steadily chipped away at the independence of its judicial system and media, prompting the EU to cut billions in funding. A united opposition hopes to restore these institutions. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us now from the Polish capital, Warsaw, to talk about this election. Rob, you've been talking to a lot of people, a lot of voters and political experts there. What do they say is at stake in this election?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Well, here in Warsaw, many believe their democracy is at stake. The ruling Law and Justice party has served two consecutive four-year terms in government. And in that time, it's steadily chipped away at the institutions necessary for a healthy democracy. It's stacked the courts with judges friendly to its own party. It's turned the country's most popular public media organizations into propaganda outlets. And it's carried out a social agenda targeting migrants, minorities and the LGBT community. Political analyst Jacek Kucharczyk says if voters on Sunday give Law and Justice a third term, the EU will have another one of its members veering towards an authoritarian future.

JACEK KUCHARCZYK: If Law and Justice is reelected, we can expect changes, for example, in the media landscape, in the civil society such that in four years' time, the opposition will have a much harder and even more unequal playing field. There will be opposition like there is opposition in Hungary, but winning will be near impossible.

MARTÍNEZ: Rob, you mentioned Hungary there. That's where Viktor Orban has consolidated power for him and his party over several years. I mean, is that where we're heading with this? Is that where Poland is going, politically speaking?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. Political observers like Kucharczyk say Law and Justice is using Orban's playbook on how to transform a healthy democracy into an illiberal one that on the outside appears to function democratically with elections in parliament. But in reality, a single party has rigged the system so that it maintains power.

MARTÍNEZ: Let's turn to the opposition in this election. It's headed by a politician familiar to both Poles and Europeans. How do they plan to unseat the ruling party?

SCHMITZ: Well, this is a group of parties that call themselves a civic coalition. It's led by Donald Tusk. He served as prime minister of Poland from 2007 to 2014 and then served as president of the European Council for five years after that. He's well known and well loved throughout EU political circles, and Polish voters are split on whether that is a good thing.

MARTÍNEZ: Split, why?

SCHMITZ: Well, there's an electorate here who tends to live in the big cities who want Poland to maintain good relations with the EU and see their future as an integral part of Western Europe and its values. And that's who's voting for Tusk's party. On the other hand, much of rural Poland, a very traditional Catholic population, feels threatened by the social and demographic changes the rest of the EU is undergoing, and they feel strongly that Tusk and his coalition would accelerate those changes here in Poland. This has to do with an increase in migration and expanding rights for the LGBTQ community. Tusk's party has also pledged to undo the damage that law and justice has done to the judiciary and the media, reminding poles that by doing that, it would unfreeze tens of billions of dollars' worth of EU funding that has been withheld over rule-of-law violations that the ruling party has wrought on Poland over its past eight years in office.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us live from Warsaw. Rob, thanks.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.