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In a year of gains for the far-right in Europe, Poland became the outlier


It was a dark year in international news. Russia's war in Ukraine entered its second year. The death toll on both sides continues to rise. In October, Hamas attacked Israel, and the world suddenly had another war on its hands. From my perch in Europe, as NPR's Berlin correspondent, I've watched rising inflation and migration fuel anti-immigrant politics, leading to a surge in popularity for far-right parties, some that aim to dismantle democratic institutions that have been the bedrock of European governance for decades. But through the fog of war, disinformation and fear-fueled political movements, democracy re-emerged in a part of Europe many had long dismissed as a hopeless case - Poland. On October 15, a record number of voters turned out to toss the far-right government from power, giving democracy a chance to grow again after eight years of a systematic dismantling of the judicial system, the free press and civil rights.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: It took nearly two months for the ruling Law and Justice Party to give up power. And the day they finally did. Hundreds gathered at one of Warsaw's biggest movie theaters to watch the seven-hour session of parliament that was the party's last stand.


SCHMITZ: They laughed and jeered whenever the camera was on Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the conspiracy theory-wielding 74-year-old leader of Law and Justice, and they mock-cheered when the outgoing prime minister desperately urged the incoming Liberal government to keep a path of dialogue open with them.


JAROSLAW KACZYNSKI: (Speaking Polish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Polish).


SCHMITZ: Maria Savinska (ph) was clapping along.

MARIA SAVINSKA: When you want to celebrate something, you want to celebrate with people. And we are celebrating the change of government, the change from autocracy to democracy - again, very important for me. And I've been watching this on YouTube since the beginning of the new parliament. So when there was a possibility to come and just celebrate it with other people, that was - I mean, it's incredibly nice, and I like it.

SCHMITZ: Watching Parliament sessions has become a new pastime for young people like Savinska. The Polish parliament's livestream now has more than 10 times the subscribers than a year ago, evidence that young Poles are closely watching the inner workings of government. A whopping 70% of Poles under 30 showed up to vote in the October election. Andrzej Bobinski of the national magazine Polityka Insight says just a year ago, only a quarter of young Poles surveyed said they felt they had an actual say in politics.

ANDRZEJ BOBINSKI: Now, after the election, this has risen to 54%. So this is a huge change, and this is a result of the election. And we saw that on the day when they were standing outside the polling stations and - up to 3 in the morning even though, you know, the results were there. And the local pizza parlor was handing out free pizzas to these people, and it was basically a street party of people waiting to vote.

SCHMITZ: Bobinski, who has watched Parliament for years before it was cool and its YouTube livestream numbers exploded, has noticed a change in the behavior of parliamentarians in the past couple of weeks.

BOBINSKI: Now everybody wants to talk because they feel that everybody's watching them. So, you know, everybody's signing up. And I see the same faces over and over again just talking without making much sense because they know they're going to be on television. They're going to be on YouTube.

SCHMITZ: When people care about politics, politicians care about the people. At least they appear to. Bobinski is a realist. He doesn't think this political awakening will last once young people sit through hours of debate about the painful details of rebuilding Poland's democracy from the ashes that the Law and Justice Party has reduced it to.

MIROSLAW WYRZYKOWSKI: Poland is constitutionally failed state.

SCHMITZ: That's Miroslaw Wyrzykowski, and he knows a thing or two about the state of Poland's constitution. He helped write it. I first met him back in June, months before this historic election, when it was unclear what would happen to the Constitution that he and a dozen other legal scholars wrote following the 1989 democratic movement that overthrew communist rule. Here's what he said back then.

WYRZYKOWSKI: I'm feeling like one of the hundreds of mothers and fathers of this constitutional system in Poland. And I'm feeling that my child is dying.

SCHMITZ: Six months and one election later, how does he feel now?

WYRZYKOWSKI: I do hope that we started a new chapter of the history of Poland.

SCHMITZ: Wyrzykowski says there's a lot of work ahead for the new left-center government of Donald Tusk. For starters, the Law and Justice Party appointed more than 2,000 judges loyal to it through what Wyrzykowski calls an unconstitutional process. This will need to be corrected, he says.

WYRZYKOWSKI: Alternative is that will will accept what happened. But we cannot do it because of basic foundation of the democratic state ruled by law. So it must be reversed.

SCHMITZ: But how do you reverse five years of judicial rulings by judges who are unconstitutionally appointed? The new Polish Minister of Justice has already started to try. He's removed these judges from the system of random assignments to cases, essentially blocking 2,000 of them from the adjudication process.


SCHMITZ: Malgorzata Gersdorf, a recently retired justice of Poland's Supreme Court, says she's happy with the election result but that it likely came too late.

GERSDORF: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: "It's better late than never," she admits. But she says the destruction of Poland's judiciary under law and justice rule, including the Supreme Court she served on, is terrifying and could take years to undo. I first met Gersdorf four years ago, when she was fighting to keep her job. She was chief justice of Poland's Supreme Court, and the Law and Justice Party was trying to do anything to remove her, including lowering the mandatory retirement age. She finally left on her own terms. Gersdorf is 71. She was part of the solidarity movement of the 1980s and helped build the country's judiciary. She says that fight against communist autocrats was different from today's fight against right-wing autocrats.

GERSDORF: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: "Back then," she says, "the nation was united. We all wanted a democratic state of law. Now," she says, we're divided, and we're being disinformed by state-controlled media that does whatever it can to exploit our divisions. She compares Poland's situation with that of the United States. "Who do you think is going to win your election," she asked me with visible concern. "Europe," she says, "is closely watching." Gersdorf believes a healthy democracy requires educating young people on why democracy is important in the first place and how it works. Too few young people understand this, she says. That's why she's devoting her retirement to teaching law and the constitution to young Poles. Ask her how long she plans to teach.

GERSDORF: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: "Until the day I die," she says with a smile.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) Should auld acquaintance be forgot...

SCHMITZ: At a Christmas market in Warsaw along the old city walls, a university student named Ksenia sells chocolate figurines and a booth sandwiched between gluhwein and pierogi stands. She says she's happy with the election result. She emigrated here from Russia, and she says the previous government reminded her of her home country's autocrats, taking away rights whenever they felt like it.

KSENIA: Because I'm a woman. So previously we had, like, you know, this abortion stuff that - and actually, in Poland, it is not possible to do an abortion right now. And I want to have a right for this.

SCHMITZ: The previous government banned abortion in nearly every case, and the new government plans to restore abortion rights. Gersdorf, the retired Supreme Court justice, believes it was this ban that was the final straw for Law and Justice's rule because it mobilized women across the country to vote. Ksenia, who didn't give her last name for fear of retribution, isn't sure what the future holds, but she knows this much.

KSENIA: We'll see. We'll see. How my friend said - we will be as poor as we are now, but we will have rights at least.

SCHMITZ: And having rights, she says, is a good start to rebuilding a democracy.


ROYAL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA: (Singing in non-English language). 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.