Democratic Transitions: Polish Ways to and from Democracy

June 22, 2022, 7:08 a.m.


Events of the last few years have made the future of the Islamic Republic more uncertain than ever. The economic crisis has pulled a large sector of society into poverty and exposed systematic corruption and the authorities’ incompetence in solving people’s daily problems. Faced with discontent, the Islamic Republic’s only recourse has been to violently repress popular protests. The question is no longer "when” but  "how" Iran will transition from authoritarian rule. An unaddressed question that requires an exploration of the alternative models that may fill the power vacuum following the collapse of the Islamic Republic.

Iran Human Rights has invited experts and academics to start the discussion on “Iran in Transition” from their respective specialist fields.

Read more about the aims of "Iran in Transition"

In this article, Bartlomiej Nowotarski and Nina Witoszek explores “Democratic Transitions: Polish Ways to and from Democracy.” You can watch them  presenting it at the “Iran in Transition” online conference on 31 January-1 February 2022 at the end of the essay.


Bartłomiej Nowotarski is a constitutional lawyer and a political scientist at Wrocław University of Economics in Poland. He is an expert at the  Polish Institute of Public Affairs, European Solidarity Centre and Batory Foundation. He was co-founder of the Institute for Islamic Studies in Poland. He was a political prisoner duringCommunist rule in Poland (1980-81). After democratic breakthrough (1989), he took part, as an author of the draft, in writing the first Polish democratic constitution and electoral laws between 1990 and 1992. Between 1994 and 2006, he was elected as the deputy mayor and councilor of the city of Wrocław. During the ‘Arab Spring’ he took part in democratic missions in Tunisia and Egypt. His main focus is worldwide democratic transition and consolidation  in Muslim-majority countries. At present, he also deals with the worldwide crisis and erosion of contemporary democracies. His most recent books are:  How to Build and How to Destroy Democracies; Erosion of Young Democracies. The Accountability of the Rulers (published in Poland).

Nina Witoszek is currently research professor at the Centre for Development and the Environment at Oslo University. She is also director of the Arne Naess Programme on Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo. Her latest publications include Sustainable Modernity: The Nordic Model and Beyond (Routledge 2018) and The Origins of Anti-Authoritarianism (Routledge 2019).


Affiliation: University of Economics, Wrocław, Poland.


1974 was an extraordinary year for many Poles: they watched with envy Greece and Portugal saying farewell to their dictatorships. And then they observed what Samuel Huntington called the “third wave of democratization”: a unique journey to democracy undertaken by some 88 countries.[1]While the world was celebrating exciting rites of democratic transition, the Poles were still toiling under an oppressive, communist rule, sweetened – for a short while - by the joys of consumerism thanks to the government’s massive foreign loans. Industrialization was eclipsed by a shopping spree. But not for long. At the end of the 1970s, the stress of economic insolvency, the disastrous structure of Polish export, and the looming political and economic catastrophe, made communism unsustainable. But even then, very few prescient observers dared to think that a democratic social upheaval leading to the greatest anti-authoritarian revolution in Europe – the Polish Solidarność - would happen so unexpectedly, and so fast. More interestingly, nobody could foresee that the glorious project of the Polish transition to democracy – sealed by a compromise between the opposition and the communists at the Round Table agreement in 1989 – would be gradually dismantled only three decades later. 



Democratic Transitions as a Rise-and-Fall-and-Rise Projects

Democratization is never a linear process. It has its own history and memory, it abounds in flashes of enthusiasms and frustrated hopes; it ebbs and wanes in advancements and regressions. Poland is probably one of the few countries that built – and lost - its democracy as many as five times.  These five attempts at democratization include:

1)  the fifteenth and sixteenth century’s “Golden Age” of “noble democracy”, based on small parliamentary diets where every nobleman was entitled to vote. The Constitution of 1505 (the so-called Nihil Novi) was innovative in the sense that it established that the rule of law was above the King (lex est rex and not vice versa). By comparison, the English arrived there only through the Act of Settlement from 1701. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the Polish noble democracy waned, accompanied by a civilizational collapse due to numerous feuds and wars in the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom. Matters were not helped by informal secret factions of corrupt latifundian oligarchy (or magnateria in Polish). Or by the fact that – after the deadly wars with Sweden and Turkey – Poland was more than ever divided by religious sectarianism and toxic hatred against the “infidels” living in the country.  The enlightened elites made a desperate attempt at a democratic reconstruction by forging one of the most advanced and inclusive constitutions in Europe  - the so-called 3 May Constitution in 1791. Alas, due to a partition of Poland by Russia, Prussia and Austria, (between 1792 and 1794) the Constitution never got off the ground.

2) The next attempt at democratization took place in the Polish Duchy established by Napoleon in 1807. But again, the emancipatory project was stopped by the Russian tsar after the failed Polish uprising against Russia in 1830.  

3) Another democratic upheaval in Poland took place 124 years of non-existence as a state, after WW1, in 1918. But the political classes were neither patient nor united enough to sustain the democratic project and, in 1926, Poland became the scene of an armed coup by Marshal Józef Piłsudski. Piłsudski  – a strong man with a status of a national hero -  ruled via elective dictatorship supported by rigged general elections.

4) The fourth attempt to reanimate democracy took place in 1989, after 63 years of Soviet occupation and communist rule. Among a myriad of problems with the transition to democracy, two were particularly acute: firstly, the project of building a constitutional (liberal) democracy and its structures was as important as dismantling a bankrupt, moribund, centrally steered economy: a Herculean challenge for any country.  And secondly, democratization took place in a demoralized and scared society, with little or no civilizational competences.[2] Years of life under communism – like years of life under any brutal dictatorship and security’s surveillance, produced  - a mass of “gratefully oppressed” subjects and collaborators[3]. It is the latter that had decided about demotions and promotions, making or breaking lives and careers.[4] To transform a servile and opportunist society into modern democrats required more than resources and institution-building: it required a process of unlearning past habits and rules of (un)ethical conduct.    

5) In 2015, democracy suffered another backlash: the Poles elected a nationalist, reactionary Law and Justice party (PiS) which promised more welfare and social security at the cost of dismantling the basic pillars of democracy, including independent courts, free media, and protection of minorities. When this article is written, democratization in Poland is an ongoing, largely unfinished – da capo al fine – project. The PiS government returned to a strategy of social polarization and the xenophobic national-right wing groups got a free reign. According to the Swedish Research Programme Varieties of Democracies (V-Dem), in the period 2020-21 Poland, very much as Hungary, has come to represent an electoral autocracy.   

Five attempts at democratization of Poland! The Americans and the English needed only two. The first English revolution (1640-53) and the Long Parliament disrupted Oliver Cromwell’s dictatorship. Only the second, Glorious Revolution (1688), led to the two party parliamentarism. The American democratic process was also a prolonged affair: it needed both the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia (1787), and then the time of “Reconstruction” – as well as construction – after the Civil War. And we recall that the abolition of slavery and suffrage for the black population was not a once-off act but took years of struggle.

Both in England and in the USA, the path to democracy was paved with errors and accidents. In England, Charles II tried to make a secret deal with Luis XIV, promising him the introduction of Catholicism and the destruction of the Anglican Church. It is only thanks to the coalitions of reformers from Cambridge and Oxford (Travelyan, J. Stuart Mill, Gladstone), and graduates of Yale and Harvard in the US, that both societies have overcome permanent strongly nepotist and corrupted their executive bureaucracies. As to accidents: What would have happened if Richard Cromwell turned out to be a smart dictator like his father, and did not resign only after four months of rule?


Stumbling Blocks on the Way to Democratic Transformations

The brief review of the five Polish attempts at democratization points to key impediments to a consolidation of democracy. 1) A toxic social (nationalist, ethnic and religious) polarization.  The latter specializes in dividing the society into the “true patriots and believers” and “enemies” or “traitors,” as well as inciting the pious hinterland against metropolitan intelligentsia’s “salons”.  2) The ongoing intimidation of the society, exacerbated by an uncertain future (due to stresses of modernization, the specter of immigration or a prospect of alien invasion). 3) excessive institutional concentration of power, which simply allowed the appropriation of the state by one political party or social group that rules through the exclusion and exploitation of “infidels”.  4) Erasing democratic contents from institutions and reducing them to a façade of a constitutional order.  5) Weaponization of institutions designed to crush political adversaries;[5] 6) a weak state, and a weak, non-autonomous public administration (Christian Welzel’s non-effective democracy). 7) So called “abusive constitutionalism and legalism” (c.f. David Landau, 2013) based on stopping the implementation of constitutional values and transforming the rule of law into a rule by law. Such (mis)rule keeps legal appearances – such as parliament passing laws – but devastates the Constitution. 8) Stimulating social inertia, withdrawal from politics, a claustrophobic sense of powerlessness, religious bigotry, and amoral familialism. In short – cultivating the fall of political and civic culture which, in effect, leads to a civilizational regression.   


Paradigms of Democratic Transition: A Critical Overview

There have been many studies in the genre of “transitology” since the time Guillermo O’Donnell i Philippe Schmitter wrote their Transitions from Authoritarian Rule (1986).[6] The transitional paradigm once proposed by political scientists, has showed several weaknesses: Firstly, it overlooked that transitions can occur in stages, dependent on who controls their their course: the ancien regime, as for example in Egypt during the Arab Spring; the military junta, as in Brazil, where the democratic transformation period outlasted the rule of the generals; or the bottom-up revolution, as in Tunisia in  2011-2021. There is also a scenario, where none of the social groups is a proper revolutionary driver, which offers a chance (e.g. Poland or Spain), for a negotiated transition which occurs in the conditions of high uncertainty. 

To take the late 1980s Poland as an example, both sides – the communist government and opposition  - were wrong about their own potential. 1988 strikes organized by Solidarność did not enjoy the same popularity as in 1980. The society was tired, and - in the eyes of its leaders – the Solidarity movement was weakening. The communist government, on the other hand, was overestimating the loyalty of the society; it assumed that rebuilding Poland from the WW2 ruins, and political experience (which the opposition lacked) were strong assets. And yet, the election in 1989 ended with a complete defeat of the communists. This was the case of culpa felice: if both sides rightly assessed their potential, the finale of the electoral process may have been much more bumpy, if not bloody. But, in this particular case, the communists and the opposition were dominated by moderate leaders who suppressed the radical elements within their ranks. The success of the moderates is worth noting, as all transitions are socially traumatic and economically painful, so there is always a chance that the implacable radicals can stage a return.  In Poland, they returned in 1991-1992 (with the conservative government of Jan Olszewski as the Prime Minister), and again in 2015, together with the right wing, populist Law and Justice government (PiS). It is often this return of “radical conservatives” that undermines the fragile success of young democracies and derails the course of social transformation.

According to the standard paradigm, it was free and democratic elections that were supposed to be decisive for the future of democracy. Nothing is further from the truth: 60% of unconsolidated democracies collapsed because of free elections. The latter were won by all breeds of autocrats who all followed the iron principle that the “winner takes all”. Free elections are merely the first step to an “electoral democracy”, which is still far from an actual division of powers and effective checks and balances anchored in a horizontal responsibility of the power-holders. The Polish experience shows that before free elections, it makes sense to create (or rebuild) a pluralist market of institutions, media and civil society. The political contestants should have time to get solidified and groomed for fair campaigning. Before 1989, Poland had an ombudsman’ – i.e. an elective committee of independent political actors – as well as the constitutional court, the oppositional daily Gazeta Wyborcza, as well as numerous human rights organizations that monitored the elections. The presence of these actors and institutions was undoubtedly pivotal to the victory of the anti-communist opposition in 1989, 1990, and 1991.

One of the authors of this essay was part of a group of Polish constitutionalists who were invited to Tunisia during the Arab Spring and before passing of the 2014 constitution. We took part in the debates, emphasizing that the emergent, post-Islamic An-Nahda party could not merely import mechanisms of control and balance of powers.  We noted that in a young, Islamic democracy, the transformation would demand a great deal of political culture. In addition, we argued, the drivers of democratization would need to take into account cultural traditions which were often clashing with one another (see below) as well as past and present social traumas. The situation was not helped by a sluggish implementation of the semi-presidential democratic constitution. 

To return to Poland: in line with the transitional paradigm (the ‘actor oriented’ approach), what counts is the will of the pro-democratic elites, and not the structural features of the society as a whole: its level of modernization, earlier autocratic traditions, or shared cultural values. Were we to adopt this line of thinking, the Polish constitutions (from 1992 and 1997) were supposed to finish the process of transition, followed by a democratic consolidation. But the Polish democrats soon discovered that the social fabric was not as pliable as they thought, and the academic transitional paradigms were based on simplistic perceptions, underestimating the importance of deeply entrenched values, traditions and mythologies which either resisted or sabotaged institutional change. 

In line with the transitional paradigm, after passing the democratic constitution, one expects that its liberal values would gradually become a habitus through a process of socialization, and internalized by societies enraptured by freedom. According to,[7] democracies were to be consolidated through the driving, performative force of democratic institutions. The case of Poland shows that there are at least two problems with this scholarly assumption. The first one is that neither political nor social elites showed clear signs of cognitive mobilization and openness to the needs of their societies. To be true, their inertia was partly reinforced by the country’s dire economic situation. There was little chance of convincing citizens that democratic solutions go hand in hand with social and individual wellbeing. Most projects of democratic institutions never left the paper they were written on. What was neglected was the construction of an autonomous and professional structure of the legal apparatus (e.g. judges, prosecutors, and public administration). While the democratic politicians got immersed in their own struggles for reelection, most intellectuals left the battleground, intoxicated by the new freedoms, and preoccupied by international conferences, studies and seminars.

All of the above indicates that the academic transitional paradigm regarding a consolidation of democratization has little value for countries sailing to democracy. Experience shows that the democratizing countries often land in autocracy, hard dictatorship, elective dictatorship, or, at best, a chaotic, anarchic semi-democracy (Thomas Carother’s ‘feckless democracy.’[8]) The dictators, preoccupied with building their legitimization, start organizing multiparty, often rigged elections. The so-called “electoral dictatorships” are today to be found in 35% of the formerly democratizing countries, while elective democracies with devastated mechanisms of checks and balances make up another 34%.[9] Liberal democracies – making 18%  - often show  feckless moments, where lawyers, prosecutors, and public servants are seemingly independent of politicians – but only until they discover that they need to make an exception. In such democracies one feels the atmosphere of a bureaucratic establishment where any client is treated as a nuisance. One is struck by prevalent mediocrity and the rule of particularisms. One is surrounded by illusions of a democratic façade, especially conspicuous in autocratic-democratic hybrids (70%). There are reasons to believe that in the nearest future the greatest number of democratic transitions will emerge from such hybrids. That said, these transitions cannot be based on returns to the status quo ante. There will have to be a movement to democracy 2.0 -  offering something new to its citizens.

In the reflections on democratic transitions we cannot dismiss the role of political and social actors who enjoy public authority. As free, independent thinkers they are often harassed and destroyed in all autocracies. It is the lack – or weakness – of pro-democratic elites (eg. the Arab Spring’s Egypt ruled first by Morsi and then Sissy; as well as Chile and Brazil), or their mistakes that kill the transition process with a lightning speed (e.g. Belarus in 1994; Elchibey’s and Aliyev’s Azerbaijan, or Russia in 1993). That said, the disintegration processes – even in seemingly consolidated democracies - owe much to the passivity of political and intellectual elites. In several cases (Tunisia, Poland, Hungary) these elites seem to have “taken a nap.” Their thinking –  based on the assumption that “since now we have democracy, we don’t need to put pressure on politicians” – has dire consequences. In Poland, the politicians used the intellectuals’ inaction to start an identity war and a solidarity-led postcommunist war about lustracja (ideological scrutiny) and decommunization. They stopped governing; rather they engaged in waking up old demons that were once again polarizing and splitting society. Indeed, some Polish psychologists insist that the effects of the ensuing relived traumas – accompanied corruption scandals – have done more damage to the society than the hardships of economic transformation.

In short – even the democratically oriented elites are well able - through sheer negligence, neglect or penchant for polarization – to destroy the democratic consolidation. The social polarization in Tunisia between the followers of the democracy with Islamic profile and the liberals who earlier supported Ben Ali’s regime, led not only to social unrest but to political assassinations. The catastrophe was averted by the Quartet for the National Dialogue. The coalition of the post-Islamic An-Nahda and the leftist-liberal Nida Tounes (2016) assuaged tensions by creation of a party duopoly that controlled almost all spheres of life in the country. The duopoly – which was a cooperation with a strong element of rivalry - blocked essential constitutional reforms,  including the establishment of the Constitutional Tribunal. President Essebsi nominated his own candidates, forced dismissals of An-Nahda ministers, and took liberties with using the office of national security. He eliminated the commissions of truth and dignity  and the office of public information (both opposing torture), insisting that these institutions threatened the coherence of the country. He also disbanded the establishment of five other offices, including the new election committee, the council of human rights and the anti-corruption office. The implementation of the 2014 Constitution – desisted and postponed – led to a backlash in 2021. The populist president who, in his campaign, attacked the party, the elites and the LGBT, conducted a constitutional auto golpe and - in violation of article 80, made himself an absolutist ruler of Tunisia. In this way the only democracy in the Arab world ceased to exist.

 Perhaps in studying patterns of transition to democracy, it would make sense to separate two stages - transition and consolidation -  to be able to create insights into the intricate texture of the new and fragile democratic structures and see their dynamic logic. The point is to evaluate the value of the transition on the basis of the condition of the whole organism, i.e. consolidated on non-consolidated democracy. Passing a democratic constitution has to be seen in the light of its perceptions by citizens: are they satisfied with its neutral, moderate functions?  In order for this to happen one would need to share the society’s ways of understanding democracy. Alexis de Tocquevilles insisted that, until democracy is strictly defined, people will live in an ideational confusion, which will be taken advantage of by demagogues and despots.[10] Thus it is not advisable to allow people to reduce democracy exclusively to free elections (this is the way 84% of Poles defined it in the 1990s). Such thinking is bound to lead to a tragic backlash: the emergence of monstrous elective dictatorships or, at best, democracies with the travesty of checks and balances tolerated by largely indifferent and apolitical societies.  “Democracy on paper” is impotent. Every constitution is tested by social willingness to defend it.


Democratic Project and its Anticlimax: the Case of the Third Polish Republic (1976-2015)  

In the above, we have shown that democratization is a multi-stage, not merely a political and economic, but also a cultural project. All over the world, groups and individuals that aspire to peacefully overthrow oppressive regimes face a double, colossal, task: both to challenge the mythology of the tyrannical centre, and, at the same time, to reinvent the often ossified and divisive narratives that the oppressed themselves hold sacred and are unwilling to tweak or refashion. Each disempowered and homeless community desperately clings to its tribal, nationalist and religious myths; they are its shelter, axis mundi, a source of consolation. They restore the elementary homeostasis and stabilize the glaring chaos that cannot be ordered without an injection of mythical energy. This means, in effect, that both the authoritarian and anti-authoritarian myths, like all myths, do not just unite people but divide them as well, creating walls between them. They do not speak the language of argumentation, reason, or logic; they override all three.

To create a new, empowering and uniting story in a truly oppressed and divided community – whether in Poland or in Iran - is thus a complex, often underestimated, challenge, going beyond catchy political soundbites. As one of us has shown, new narratives of identity will work only if they feed on the familiar and the known.[11]  As expressions of a novel moral and narrative order, they will be bereft of social appeal if they do not chime with existing traditions and resonate with the predicament of the people.  Further, their meaning will be trivial and their potency cosmetic if not reinforced by the ongoing emancipatory project and a prosocial mobilization of intellectual and political elites.

In 1980, it looked like the Polish intellectual elites did the impossible and succeeded in creating a compelling and unifying narrative of Solidarność which nourished the greatest anti-authoritarian revolution in Europe. Its authors were not independent trade unions, as is claimed in standard research – but a group of historians, lawyers and pedagogues who constituted themselves as the Workers’ Defense Committee in 1976. There is no space here to fully discuss the achievement of the KOR group, their sharp brains, pens, and an altruist, prosocial ethos. Suffice it to say that in the course of four years KOR – counting 34 core members and several thousand supporters- managed to steal the information monopoly from the communist state, build an extensive network of independent publishers, create “flying universities”, and publish Robotnik (The Worker) – a broadsheet distributed in Polish shipyards and factories. Robotnik repeated ad infinitum – in all possible combinations and permutations – one idea that was to become the name of the revolution: the idea of “solidarity”. The result was that suddenly, in the spring of 1980, a parallel society, complete with independent education, communication networks, and subversive celebrities, was in place.

At the risk of simplifying a complex moral vision, we would roughly distinguish six pillars of KOR’s success: 1) Forging of a compelling and inclusive narrative of national unity, transcending social divisions and inviting all social groups to take part in; 2) The reorientation of the oppositional struggle from the one directed against the communist authorities, to one focused on creating an independent public sphere as[12]; 3)  The strategy of building an inter-class and inter-faith dialogue and social cooperation – of communists, Catholics, intellectuals, workers, students and peasants; 4) The creative reworking of the values of original Christianity as the ethical platform of political actions,[13]; 5) The reframing of the worker’s, economically anchored, strikes and protests into a project of  recovery of human dignity undertaken through peaceful means;  6) The demand of continuous self-education.

The Polish Solidarność (August 1980- December 1981) was a typical pre-transitional attempt to liberalize a post-totalitarian state. Post-totalitarian, because the banners and flags waving over Poland still feature Marx, Engels and Lenin, though nobody – including the members of the communist party- believed any longer in the communist ideology. But already in the winter of 1981 the ‘Solidarność spring’ was over. General Jaruzelski’s military junta declared martial law (violating the Constitution) and – in this way- saved the communist hegemony for the next eight years. There are various explanations as to why, out of the ten million members of Solidarność only a few hundred continued the struggle: the threat of Soviet invasion; the growing sectarianism within the ranks of Solidarity; the dire economic situation in Poland and empty shelves in the shops; the social fatigue nourished by the ongoing unrest and existential uncertainty. 

The carnival of Solidarność ended with a monstrous – political, social and economic – humiliation. Contrary to the communist propaganda of upward social mobility, in 1988,  58% of the Polish society had only elementary or vocational training, and only 15% graduated from high schools or universities. With a scanty middle class (37% of the society), as well as incompetent and undereducated leaders, Poland faced not only a serious economic, but civilizational collapse. Since there was no vade mecum as to how to move in the new world, the strategy of survival and adaptation eclipsed everything else. There was no necessary competence to build social capital (i.e the art of dialogue, negotiation and cooperation, trust in institutions, not to mention innovative, long-term thinking and prospective planning). This couldn’t be otherwise in the society which had just parted with the police state, where 125,000 functionaries permanently surveilled Polish citizens. Though in the first decade of postcommunist independence (1990-2000), the Poles started sending their children to universities (the number of students grew from 400,000 to 1.8 million) and established over one million firms, they showed no interest in organizing a civil society. The social capital was based on cronyism, 36% percent of citizens considered themselves to be losers, while 33% waited for the more democratization and market economy.[14] But then, there was a marked shift: after 2001, some 75% of Poles declared they were satisfied with their life, while, in 2015 only 15% believed that life in Poland got worse. These are intriguing figures. For how do they explain why in 2015 the Poles elected an autocratic government that started a progressive dismantling of Polish democracy?

Again, there is no space here to analyze in detail the illiberal backlash in Poland, so let us mention some of the points of neglect and negligence which may also apply to a potential post-democratic slide in Iran: 

  1. The two great and demanding reforms – one political and one economic – were met by a defensive, traumatized society that sought refuge in deeply entrenched cultural traditions:God, family and patriarchy. According to the World Values Survey (cf Ronald Inglehart), in 2015, the ‘openness’ of Polish society  - in the Popperian sense – amounted to 37%, against 65-70%  in the leading OECD countries. Matters were not helped by the post-authoritarian legacy of political rivalry eclipsing public interest, which further diminished the social trust in state institutions to 30%. Another post-authoritarian relic – a deep polarization of society - was exacerbated by the tragic plane accident in 2010 in Smolensk, where the death of the then President - and the brother - and the twin brother of Jaroslaw Kaczynski- became a pretext for a narrative of a liberal conspiracy against Kaczynski’s PiS party.
  2. The syndrome of a ‘deviant evolution’, or deviant modernization -  i.e. mimicking the authoritarian practice of rewarding the most loyal, but also the most xenophobic, and least competent and yes-men with top positions. The latter specialized in intimidating rather than empowering society, reinforcing the desire for a strong leader, even in situations where over 70% of the electorate did not intend to betray the liberal democracy. The lesson from this experience is the necessity to watch out for the first signs of the authoritarian inclinations in a party before it will conduct an abusive coup d’etat (leading to an electoral dictatorship).
  3. Squandering the chance of building an ‘effective democracy’ (Christian Welzel), i.e. a professional and autonomous public service implementing constitutional values.  In Poland, out of four projects of reforms in 1997-2001 only one – dealing with local governments – was a relative success. All other reforms- form health service, education, and women emancipation, were put on the back burner. Needless to say that these derelictions and points of neglect had an impact in addressing the threat of pandemic, decreased productivity and exacerbated civilizational regression.  
  4.  The inertia of social and intellectual elites which – at the time this article is written – has resulted in the erosion of civil society, and to the alienation of society from power. In a country where 80% of citizens believe that they have no say, and see no chance of changing the political status quo, politics is perceived as an alien system or a dirty game, separate from society’s needs and aspirations. 
  5. A strong division between (atheist) city and (Catholic) countryside as a pivotal element of social polarization and the division between ‘us’ and ‘them’. (This split is especially effective in reinforcing the rule of right-wing populists)
  6. Overlooking and disregarding the economic potential of women. By way of comparison, while in the time of the whole democratizing (post-communist) period, Polish indexes of women’s employment fluctuated between 43% and 48%,  the employment figures in Scandinavia showed 75%-70%. There is still a way to go to become aware of women’s impact on the productivity of a country in all post-authoritarian societies.
  7. The constitutional process showed several blunders. The project of a semi-presidential “small constitution“ (in 1992)  seemed to be an optimal solution because of the horizontal system of checks and balances. The assumption was that a young democracy should be based on pluralism of parliamentary views and options views and options. This has two consequences: a zero-one mentality otherwise known as pathological individualism, and the lack of patience and faith  in the political system understood as a process, a result of decades of hard labor. These “vices of the mind” facilitated concentration of power in the executive and the parliamentary majority which – in the end led to the takeover of power by the anti-systemic and populist party as PIS.


The brief overview above demonstrates how the consolidation of Polish democracy after the authoritarian period, suffered from a range of blunders and omissions committed by political and social elites. But it also shows that the Polish legacy of peaceful - an innovative – resistance to authoritarian rule cannot be written off as dead and buried. Striving for freedom and democracy is strong in Polish society, and especially evident in women’s strikes and initiatives. The prosocial, cooperative values of the Workers Defense Committee – the creators of Solidarność - remain imprinted in the minds of many groups that continue the project of reclaiming  – and creating – democracy in Poland. Many of these groups are aware that such democracy cannot be a return to the status quo ante. It has to be novel – a democracy 2.0 – both learning from past mistakes, and compelling enough to mobilize and empower future generations.     



[1] We know post-factum that these democratic transitions were hardly an unambiguous success: they were consolidated in only 25% of countries. The remaining 60% witnessed the fall of democratic governments already in the first democratic elections, while 40% experienced slow erosion of democratic ideas and institutions. See

B. Nowotarski, Jak budować, a jak burzyć demokracje (“How to Build and How to Destroy Democracies”), Warszawa: Wyd. Sejmowe 2012, pp. 11-35.

[2] See P. Sztompka, Civilizitional Incompetence: The Trap of Post-Communist Societies, „Zeitschrift für Soziologie”, Jg. 22, Heft 2, April 1993, S. 85-95.

[3] Nina Witoszek, The Origins of Anti-authoritarianism ( London:  Routledge 2020).

[4] J. Chumiński, Mentalne bariery rozwoju gospodarczego PRL („ The mental obstacles of the Polish People Republic’ economic development”), [w:] Modernizacja czy pozorna modernizacja. Społeczno - ekonomiczny bilans PRL 1944-1989 („Modernization or imitiated modernization. Social-economic total effect of Polish People Republic 1944-1989), Wrocław: Instytut Historyczny Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego 2010.

[5] S. Levitsky, D. Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, (New York: Penguin 2018).

[6] See for example: G. di Palma, To Craft Democracy: An Essay on Democratic Transition, (Berkeley: University of California Press 1990); J. J. Linz, A. Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transitions and Consolidation, (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press 1996); Consolidation the Third Wave Democracies, ed. By L. Diamond, M. F. Plattner, Yun-han Chu, and Hung-mao Tien, (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press 1997); The Global Divergence of Democracies, ed. By L. Diamond, M. F. Plattner, (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press 2001); See also: B. Nowotarski, New Constitutions for New Democracies. Polish and Worldwide Experiences, “Midan Masr”, vol. 1, issue 3, (Cairo: April/ May 2012); Erozja młodych demokracji. Odpowiedzialność władzy, (“ Erosion of Young Democracies. The Accountability of the Rulers”), Warszawa: Wyd. Sejmowe 2016; His: Fałszywa (fake) demokracja: próba modelowego ujęcia, (“ Fake Democracy: An Attempt at a Modelling Approach”), “Studia Socjologiczno-Polityczne”, No. 2(09), 2018; Democratic Transitions: The Point of Equilibrium? (unpublished manuscript: 2015); How to protect new democracies against their erosion (unpublished manuscript: 2014, ).

[7] D. Rustow, “Transition to Democracy: Towards a Dynamic Model,” Comparative Politics, 1970, Vol. 2, No. 3.

[8] T. Carothers, “The End of the Transition Paradigm,” Journal of Democracy, 2002, Vol. 13, No. 1.

[9]Autocratization Turns Viral”, V-Dem Institute Report: 2021.

[10] See G. Sartori, The Theory of Democracy Revisited, Cambridge: Chatham House1987.

[11] Witoszek, The Origins of Anti-Authoritarianism, op.cit., Introduction, passim.

[12] See Adam Michnik’s “New Evolutionism” (1976), Samizdat.

[13] Codified by Jacek Kuroń in an influential essay “The Christian without God” (1975), Samizdat.

[14] A. Miszalska, Transformacja ustrojowa a poczucie podmiotowości – alienacji politycznej, „Studia Socjologiczne” 1993, No. 3-4.