A lesson from Poland, where protests failed to turn back autocracy at the ballot box

Unable to convert anti-autocratic rallies into parliamentary control, Poles now face worsening repression, says historian Anne Applebaum, who sees echoes in Israel’s experience

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

People gather outside Poland's parliament to protest the government plans to vote on a media bill seen as restricting media independence, in Warsaw, Poland, August 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
People gather outside Poland's parliament to protest the government plans to vote on a media bill seen as restricting media independence, in Warsaw, Poland, August 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government drives wide-reaching changes to Israel’s judiciary, experts and other observers have warned that the overhaul echoes recent steps taken by Polish, Hungarian, and Turkish leaders that have weakened their countries’ democracies.

Among them is journalist and historian Anne Applebaum, a preeminent voice on democratic backsliding who has watched the slump toward autocracy from up close, and now sees the same processes at work in Israel.

“It is very familiar and clearly Netanyahu and [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orban and to some extent the Polish government and the Turks are watching one another and getting ideas from one another,” said Applebaum, who recently spent a research week in Israel on a trip organized by the Israel Democracy Institute, which she advises.

An American journalist who acquired Polish citizenship and is married to a former Polish foreign minister, Applebaum is one of the foremost observers on democratic erosion and authoritarianism reporting in English out of former Iron Curtain states.

Sitting down with The Times of Israel in Tel Aviv earlier this summer, Applebaum shared lessons that might be applicable to Israel, gleaned from reporting on a country that has sustained several years of chipping away at its democratic institutions.

While it started with the courts in Warsaw, what Applebaum calls the “assault on democracy” in Poland has spread to public media and state prosecution services, resulting even in political exiles, as some of those cases have led to people leaving Poland.

“We don’t quite have political prisoners yet,” she said, “although we could get there right now.”

What happened in Poland and how is it similar to Israel?

Starting after its 2015 rise to power, Poland’s right-wing nationalist Law and Justice party enacted a series of laws that weakened judicial independence and wrangled the courts under political control.

Polish President Andrzej Duda speaks at a joint news conference with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki at the headquarters of Poland’s Power Grid in Konstancin-Jeziorna, Poland, June 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk)

It is a process, Applebaum said, that finds echoes in Israel’s current fight over how to fill the empty spots on its benches. Netanyahu’s government is pushing changes to the panel that appoints judges that will sharply increase political control over the process.

In Poland, it played out in several stages. Initially, laws were passed that changed how judges were selected and placed a disciplinary committee above them, which was ultimately used to remove judges from the bench.

“This of course totally politicizes the judicial system,” Applebaum said.

State television messaging and social media campaigns soon followed, which she said aimed to discredit and “denigrate judges, so that people would not respect them, so they would have less interest in who they were and in the idea that they should have high standards.”

“Some of this I can see happening here too,” she added, after her weeklong trip to meet with Israelis across the political spectrum.

Anne Applebaum, author of ‘Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends.’ (Rahil Ahmad)

Currently, Applebaum said, Poland is spying on citizens for political reasons — “I’m afraid, using Israeli software” — and engaging in trumped-up investigations into opposition leaders.

“They’ve just set up this totally unconstitutional committee that’s going to look for Russian influence, which isn’t, of course, going to be real Russian influence,” she said of Poland’s recently announced initiative, leaning on real fear of Russian aggression in the shadow of its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

“But the people who they’re investigating are just the leaders of the opposition,” Applebaum charged. “Literally, they want to investigate the leader of the opposition, Donald Tusk, who was a prime minister for seven years and then was chairman of the European Council, and has a long record of being very clear about [Russian president Vladimir] Putin and clear about Russia. It’s entirely fake.”

Approved by law in July, the committee’s mandate is to root out instances in which Polish politicians under Russian influence made decisions detrimental to Poland’s security, during the years 2007 to 2022.

“They’re just trying to use the emotions around the war to rile people up,” she added, saying that the investigation process violates Polish constitutional principles. “It’s not a normal parliamentary investigation committee,” Applebaum said, rather it is “a kind of kangaroo court.”

In acknowledgment of widespread backlash against the panel, a member of Poland’s ruling party in late August said the controversial commission may not be convened before the country’s October 15 election.

Eight years into this process of democratic backsliding, Applebaum called the newly announced Russian influence investigations “just the latest outrage.”

Poland’s opposition leader and former prime minister, Donald Tusk, left, watches lawmakers vote to approve a contentious draft law in parliament in Warsaw, Poland. The law is for investigating Russia’s alleged influence in Poland that is targeting the opposition, especially Tusk. May 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Poles again head to the polls this fall, and should Law and Justice win its third term, Applebaum’s prediction is dire.

“I think that’s the end of democracy in Poland. Then there would be nothing left,” she said.

Backed by a mandate to expand their anti-democratic policies, Law and Justice “will probably start putting people in jail. I fully expect that it might even happen before the election,” she said.

Lessons from Poland

Israel is a state with fewer structural checks and balances than Poland among its executive, legislative, and judicial branches. In addition to lacking a constitution, Israel’s political branches effectively collapse into one, as the executive controls the legislature in any functioning Israeli coalition. The High Court of Justice, which also sits as the Supreme Court, is the country’s main check on political power, making the proposed siphoning off of its independence and authority all the more consequential.

Thirty-five weeks into a grassroots, civil society-led protest movement against the government’s judicial shakeup, Israelis are waiting with bated breath to see how Netanyahu and his coalition will proceed when the Knesset returns from recess in mid-October.

While the coalition passed its first law to limit judicial review in July, it has left a core bill that shifts judicial appointments under coalition control locked and loaded since March, potentially able to be passed into law within hours should it decide to pull the trigger.

Applebaum said Poland also experienced large and sustained demonstrations, but they failed to stop the government from pursuing its policy agenda.

Protesters rally against the coalition’s judicial overhaul legislation, in Tel Aviv, September 2, 2023. (Gitai Palti)

“By the time they did distort the constitution in a number of ways, it turned out that street demonstrations were insufficient to stop it,” Applebaum said.

“Israel should be careful,” she added.

After those judicial changes, protesters lost momentum, having “lost the belief that they could fix it.”

Critically, she added, demonstrations did not shift results at the ballot box, and Law and Justice returned for a second term in power in 2019 that “was worse than their first term,” Applebaum said.

“The energy of the demonstrations did not translate into party politics,” she said.

While Poland’s experience may be informative for Israel, it is not a perfect mirror.

One of the biggest distinguishing factors is Israel’s profound reliance on its people’s army, the Israel Defense Forces, for both security and as a lodestar of societal consensus. Anti-overhaul protests by reservists who threatened not to serve are thought to have played a role in pausing changes to the judicial appointments process in March.

Israeli military reservists sign a declaration of refusal to report for duty to protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

As reservist protests spread, defense top brass warned that national security was being harmed, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant publicly called to freeze the overhaul in the name of security. Netanyahu fired Gallant, but quickly backtracked on that move and also froze the legislation following massive public backlash.

Military reservists’ involvement in the protest “seems to me an element that’s unusual here.” Applebaum said. “And obviously it explains why this judicial project was delayed. I don’t know if it will be enough to make it go away.”

Is democratic backsliding inevitable?

Despite Israel’s flirtation with joining a larger global trend of democratic backsliding seen in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Venezuela, and the Philippines, Israel’s process is not inevitable, Applebaum said.

Israel is a liberal democracy, a system by which different interests tacitly agree to be governed by a consensus set of rules and principles. Among them are free and fair elections for politicians, peaceful transitions of power between them, and an independent judiciary to check abuses of power.

“The ideal of judicial independence and the ideal that there is such a thing as a neutral state, or people whose first loyalty is the constitution and not to the political party, is a really intrinsic piece of democracy,” Applebaum said. “If you don’t have some part of the system that is that, then you can’t preserve this neutral system of rules. And so that’s why it’s important.”

Protesters and the political opposition maintain that Netanyahu’s government, by pursuing its judicial overhaul, is breaking the social contract.

While there is no bright-line rule to mark a country’s gradual transition away from democracy, the process often culminates in one political camp changing the rules to remain in power.

While each country under threat is different, Applebaum points to two elements shared among eroding democracies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant attend an event for outstanding soldiers as part of Israel’s 75th Independence Day celebrations, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 26, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

First, she said, there is a simplification of political information, both in the way it is delivered and in its content. The expectation of rapid dissemination of information and the “dumbing down” of mass media have enabled narratives to be manipulated and nuances lost.

Second, rapid social and structural changes prime people for autocracy.

“If you look at history, moments when people want autocracy are usually moments of chaos after a revolution or after a civil war,” Applebaum said.

The chaos of modern society encompasses “economic change, political change, demographic change, social change, moral change” and creates “a desire for simplicity,” whereby “a one-party state, one leader homogeneity, becomes deeply appealing.”

Today, in politically, socially, and economically polarized Israel, that kind of chaos has taken root — much like it has in Poland, and even the United States.

“People don’t want to hear all this noise and debates and arguments. They just want one solution, and they want to end the debate,” she said.

And this simplicity finds fertile ground in what Applebaum identified as “some proportion of the population [that] has a propensity to autocracy.”

Is there a civil way out, without civil war?

There are myriad challenges involved in rolling back moves toward autocracy and the social division it engenders. Getting back to some idea of normal often requires a deliberate process to reconcile warring camps, in a model similar to ending a civil war, according to Applebaum.

But getting there can be messy.

“It’s hard to find examples of societies where you’ve had this kind of political breakdown, that come back from the brink without some kind of violence,” Applebaum said, reserving specific comment on Israel.

“But usually there has to be some moment when people conclude that everybody walks up to the edge and says, ‘we don’t want to go there,’ and they come back,” she said. “And there are not that many examples of that in postwar history.”

Protesters seen after blocking the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, during demonstrations against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, on July 1, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The past century of European history teaches that “it is probably important that there eventually is some kind of constitutional project or… some kind of national reconciliation project,” she said, “almost like what you would have after a civil war.”

Civil war, in fact, is a genuine concern of the majority of Israelis polled in a recent Channel 13 query. The judicial debate is in many ways the most recent embodiment of power allocation struggles among different groups in Israeli society, running along religious, socioeconomic, geographic, and ethnic identity fault lines.

Tellingly, though, some have also pressed to seize this moment of national upheaval as an opportunity to finally hash out a constitution for the 75-year-old state.

“The model is ending a civil war. Look at how civil wars end,” Applebaum said. “They do end, and then people reconstruct the country.”

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