These days it is easy to become pessimistic about social cohesion and the state of democracy. But the results of the recent Polish elections show that it pays to fight for democracy.
At present, you could be forgiven for thinking that the world’s many crises are only getting worse. That stability, democracy, and freedom are increasingly in danger. This poses the question: What can help combat this feeling of growing darkness? Where can we find tangible hope of regaining democratic spaces and rebuilding social cohesion? There are rays of light and – particularly in these dark times – it is important not to lose sight of them. The elections in Poland – the result of which could bring an end to the PiS government, initially believed by some to be a lost cause – are a case in point.
In recent years, we have witnessed clear and systematic attacks on the achievements of democracy and the rule of law in Poland – and by extension the European Union as a whole. How the poison of autocracy seeped into all parts of the country, into its institutions, and into people's everyday lives. And how hatred and prejudice were instrumentalised for these ends. This hatred, also visible in many other parts of the world and especially virulent on social media, calls into question the very principle of common values, a shared foundation allowing us to come together, talk to each other, and make decisions.
The use of increasingly radical language, the stoking of fears, and the instrumentalisation of real needs and difficulties have been used to mobilise electorates, leading to even the most basic rules of decency and respect within democracies being called into question. As in Poland, various democracies have seen the discrediting and disempowerment of independent judges and the systematic suppression of the free media. The sheer achievement represented by the existence and use of fundamental liberal democratic values such as freedom of expression and assembly – in sharp contrast to the world’s many autocratic states – is no longer appreciated by many of the people living within them. These are values that democratic societies have increasingly forgotten how to defend.
At the same time, the elections in Poland have shown us that we are by no means at the mercy of autocracy. People are not willing to simply give up their hard-fought, lived achievements. Much more than the many alarming opinion polls and election results in favour of authoritarian parties, this democratic tremor should wake us up – and give us hope. After all, it shows that it is up to us to win majorities in favour of human dignity, democracy and freedom, again and again. It is possible. To do this, we need to approach people – and this is not at all trivial – and talk to them. Because they can obviously be reached.
A particularly striking feature of the Polish elections was that turnout among voters aged 18 to 29 increased by over 20 per cent. They decided the election. This so-called “youthquake” has had an impact way beyond Poland’s borders. In October, I took part in our 8th Congress of Young Europeans in Thessaloniki. Talking to the participants, it was clear how inspirational they found Poland’s youth mobilisation. A whole new window of democratic opportunity had suddenly opened up for them. In view of the many unthinkable events of recent years and the scenarios hanging over us like a sword of Damocles – including the re-election of Trump or a President Le Pen in France – this is an enormously important signal.
At the same time, it is clear that election victories alone are not enough. Even a pro-democracy government in Poland will find it difficult to gain public support and repair the damage caused, while a change of government in the UK should not be expected to deliver a swift return to the EU. We must see the commitment to liberal democratic values primarily as a societal responsibility. It is also a matter of reconfirming our own commitment to these values and ensuring that they inform our behaviour. Because the priority is to protect individual freedoms, democratic spaces, and constitutional institutions. Doing so demands character – and is the responsibility of us all.
Translated from the German by Katy Nicholson.