Explaining the Rise of Populism in Poland: The Post-Communist Transition as a Critical Juncture and Origin of Political Decay in Poland

By Phillip S. Swallow
2018, Vol. 10 No. 07 | pg. 1/1


The Polish populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) overturned the mainstream consensus in Polish politics by returning to in 2015 with a populist platform, decrying a selfish elite and advancing policies that critics saw as illiberal and authoritarian. In response to the PiS’s policies, the European Commission took the extreme step of triggering Article 7, which could result in suspension of Poland’s voting rights, among other sanctions(Baume, 2017). How did things go so wrong? Poland was once the shining example of the EU’s eastward expansion. Donald Tusk, its former president, now serves as president of the European Council. Poland has also been the biggest recipient of EU development funds. Eighty billion euros have been allocated in cohesion funds for 2014-20 (Economist, 2014).How did a country that benefited so much from the European Union’s largess and membership within the Union come to elect a Eurosceptic populist party?This essay argues that the answer lies in the particular features of Poland’s institutional arrangements that arose out of the post-communist transition period. A historical institutionalist hypothesis is that Poland’s institutional development was shaped by the contingent events during the transition from communism. Since that period, the new elite sought to fortify their position, through both informal and formal mechanisms, eventually leading to rigidity vulnerable to what Samuel Huntington calls “political decay:” a political class out of touch with regular citizens becomes vulnerable to a populist assault.Political decay occurs when socioeconomic political institutions grow unable to accommodate new social groups (Huntington, 1968).Institutions become path dependent, meaning that they can persist despite changes in society (Hay & Wincott, 1998). One reason they persist is that winners have an incentive to maintain the status quo. Poland shows evidence of this through elite state capture, where public power is used primarily for private gain rather than public welfare (Innes, 2014). Poland’s political parties are particularly indicative of elite capture, and exhibit deeper symptoms of political decay (Kopecký, 1995).

Hungary’s President, Victor Orban, with his brand of xenophobic “illiberal democracy” is a pariah who used to be confined to the European fringes. But with the election of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland the specter of populist governments winning in Eastern Europe has become much more serious. What makes this election victory so shocking is that Poland is supposed to be the poster-boy of the new post-communist Member States. Poland was the only EU member state to continue growing during the 2009 economic crisis, and in 2017 had the highest economic growth in the EU (EuroStat, 2017). This impressive growth was bolstered by benefits from EU membership. Poland has already received $139 billion, and is set to receive $106 billion in funds from the by 2020 (Economist, 2014). The puzzle is that political science theory would predict that favorable economic conditions would have returned the centrist Civic Platform to power (Beck & Stegmaier, 2000).

This paper seeks to understand why Poland voted so decisively against the political class that had overseen a sustained period of economic growth within the EU. Its thesis is that the popular resonance with the populist movement poses fundamental questions about the fairness of political and economic institutions that underlie Polish society. It advances this thesis through the following research question: to what extent can the historical institutional concepts of path dependence and political decay explain the emergence of populism in Poland? What role did state capture by the dominant elite create the conditions for the PiS’s political resurgence? The hypothesis of this paper is twofold: first, Poland’s institutional arrangement became subject to path dependence and elite capture, leading to political decay when the system was unable to accommodate new social groups, and grew disconnected from society. And second, a political class increasingly unresponsive to ordinary citizens was vulnerable to a populist resurgence.

The paper utilizes the theoretical perspective of historical institutionalism to place the rise of populism into perspective. Historical institutionalism argues that competition for scarce resources lies at the heart of politics (Hall & Taylor, 1996). Moreover, this competition does not occur on a neutral playing field. The institutions of a political and economic system set the rules of the game, creating both winners and losers (Thelen, 1999). Because asymmetries of power are identified with the development of institutions, the way institutions privilege some interest over others goes back to how institutions were created (Steinmo, 2008). The complains of the PiS are directly related to Historical Institutional assumptions about the ways institutions create winners and losers. In this way, neoliberal reforms, while creating winners, and helping place Poland on a trajectory of high economic growth, aren’t universally good. The ‘losers’ of the institutional system were more likely to vote for PiS in the election. These ‘losers’ included rural voters, regions excluded from high growth, workers for state owned industries (Agh, 2015).

Additionally, the conception of democratic decay helps to explain the populist manifestation of discontent. This concept begins with the idea, proposed by Samuel Huntington, that is not always associated with stability, but can be a profoundly destabilizing process, as new social groups mobilize and make demands on the system (Huntington, 1968). Political decay is the result of an inability of the political institutions of a country to accommodate these social demands released by economic growth. And years of rapid economic development promoted by neoliberal economic policies, have fundamentally transformed Polish society. We can see evidence of political decay in the support among the population for the PiS’s large social spending pledges, social spending that the past governments were unable to deliver on, instead adopting strict austerity (Goetting & Sobczek, 2011).

The remainder of the paper proceeds as follows. The following section reviews the theoretical framework of the paper: historical institutionalism. The next section organizes a case study of Poland around the theoretical assumptions of the theoretical framework. This is followed with a concluding section to offer conclusions of the research question, and implications of the study.

Theoretical Framework

This paper is based on the theoretical assumptions of historical institutionalism, which is a branch of new institutionalism. The new institutional school focuses on the role played by institutions in economic and political development. Institutions, defined by Douglas North, are the rules of the game, both formal, structures, and informal norms and standards of behavior, that together structure all forms of human interaction (North, 1991). Historical institutionalism is distinguished from other branches of new institutionalism with its belief that “institutional setting is the outcome of a confluence of historical forces that shape and reshape the state’s organizational structure,” (Ikenberry 1994: 5). It is important therefore to go back to historical developments, and historical context, to understand the present institutional forms.

An important way that history impacts present institutions is through path dependence. Path dependence refers to the tendency of institutions to persist, beyond the initial conditions that created them. When an institution is subject to path dependence, it develops along a “sticky” trajectory of historical events, resisting changes to that trajectory (Mahoony 2000). Path dependence is usually set in motion during moments of institutional volatility, when small events matter, called critical junctures (Ikenberry, 1994).

Critical junctures are important features of historical institutional explanations of institutional evolution, undermining old path dependent processes, creating opportunities for new institutions to be formed, which in turn become path dependent (Pierson & Skocpol 2002). During these moments of institutional change, even small differences matter because “a dynamic of increasing returns may have locked in a particular option even though it originates by accident,” (Pierson, 2000: 264). This phenomenon is known as “early path dependence” (Page, 2006). Because of early path dependence, institutional evolution is non-ergodic, meaning that random events matter, and can create large differences in outcomes (Arthur, 1994). For all of these reasons, it is important to pay attention to the historical context, and sequence of critical junctures which create path dependent processes.

The resulting path dependence of institutional forms matters because of a more basic conception of historical institutionalism. This is that institutions are not neutral mechanisms. Institutions reflect the balance of power during their creation, and continue to reinforce the status quo long afterword. Further the gainers of the status quo are often politically powerful, while the losers are weaker (Fernandez and Rodrik, 1991). For instance, the “insiders” can reinforce the status quo by creating barriers to entry for the majority of the population (North, Wallis, Webb & Weingast 2007). These barriers can be formal institutional mechanisms such as legislation, or informal mechanisms like and clientalism (Acemoglu, Naidu, Restrepo & Robinson 2015). One potential consequence of having institutions that reinforce asymmetries of power is the phenomenon of political decay.

Samuel Huntington coined the term “political decay” to explain institutional instability in emerging political orders. There are two main causes of political decay: institutional rigidity, and elite capture. Institutional rigidity is a problem in the contest of economic modernization. “Social mobilization involves changes in the aspirations of individuals, groups and societies; economic development involves changes in their capacities,” (Huntington 1968: 35). Economic development can be a destabilizing force, especially when these groups aren’t accommodated by the political institutions (Huntington, 1968). Political decay is caused by the rigidity of institutions that prevents them from adapting to changing societal circumstances (Huntington, 1965). Path dependence is a powerful cause of institutional rigidity. The second main cause of political decay is elite capture, which occurs when the winners of institutions resist change (Fukuyama, 2014). Populism is one symptom of democratic decay: the inability of elites to accommodate change, leads to dissatisfaction among the entire population, translating into support for populists. Populists movements around the world share the belief that the elites have betrayed them for personal gain (Fukuyama, 2014).

Poland as a Case Study

In the elections of 2015, the PiS became the first party since 1989 to win a majority of seats in the lowest chamber of parliament. The PiS has traditionally drawn support from religious, social conservative areas in small towns and rural areas of eastern Poland. Rural towns and regions have suffered, and many have felt marginalized by the Polish success. These regions have been hit the hardest by the collapse of state owned enterprises in heavy industry, and have felt left behind by the success of mainstream Poland (Agh, 2015: 32). For instance, the coal industry, traditionally concentrated in the Eastern provinces has declined by two thirds since the end of communism (Economist, 2014). However, in this election, the party was able to tap into dissatisfaction of many others who have felt marginalized from the Polish mainstream. While Poland’s overall economic state is healthy, specific groups have been suffering. Voting for PiS was highest among those with primary and vocational and lower per capita income (CBOS, 2017).

This section applies historical institutional assumptions to Poland. The framework offers theoretical insight into the rise of protest parties in Poland. Political decay offers a particular compelling explanation for the dissatisfaction that drives populism. When the system of political institutions become so ossified that they can’t respond to social demands, this provides fertile groups for populist movements. Populism can be distinguished as a political logic that assumes an antagonism between the people and the elite who lie at the heart of politics (Wagner Jan 24 slide 8). Poland's populist movement the PiS manifested these traits, and sought radical change (Szczerbiak, 2017). Two explanations arise out of the historical institutional literature explaining why political institutions would resist social changes, elite capture and path dependence. These features can be seen in political parties in Poland. “Political and economic organizations that have come into existence in consequence of the institutional matrix typically have a stake in perpetuating the existing framework,” (North, 1994: 6). Path dependence explains how the trajectory of institutional development is determined by "momentum" from past trajectory (Hay & Wincott 1998). Path dependence and insider capture go hand in hand as "winners of the system" resist change of the status quo.

Critical Juncture: 1989

Critical junctures offer a natural starting point in this investigation of political decay because path dependence processes begin during critical junctures (Ikenberry, 1994). Critical junctures are moments where old path dependent process are undermined and change can occur. “Critical junctures permit the identification of the beginning and end of a given path, and thus the isolation of the specific institutional structures generating increasing returns,” (Schwartz, 1995: 5). In the case of Poland, the most important critical juncture is the end of communism, followed by accession into the European Union. Political and economic institutions were shaped by this critical juncture.

The end of communism broke many path dependent mechanisms, creating an opportunity for establishment of new institutional dynamics. In this situation, early path dependence matters for how the period immediately following a critical juncture can condition the entire institutional evolution (Schwartz 1995). Thus, events in the time following the fall of communism created early path dependence. Pearson (2000) asserts that sequence and timing matter during early path dependence because contingent evenest can have unforeseen consequences for the entire path dependent trajectory. Timing and sequence were crucial to the post 1989 trajectory in Poland. The formal features of Poland’s political institutions were created in a bargaining process between the Polish Communist party and the democratic opposition during the round table meeting in 1989 (Hollander, 2017). The timing was important because Poland’s Solidarity Party was under pressure to compromise from fear of Soviet intervention. This pressure enabled “authoritarian political elites in Poland, who enjoyed support among only a narrow segment of the population, opted for a system of proportional representational because such an electoral system guaranteed their party at least a say in the political order that followed,” (Hollander, 2017: 97). In this way, the timing of the agreement “locked in” a political institutional form (Pearson, 2000).

Informal institutions were also established during this early path dependence" period. These informal institutions are key to historical institutional theory. “Formal rules are an important part of the institutional framework, but only a part. To work effectively they must be complemented by informal constraints (conventions, norms of behavior) that supplement them and reduce enforcement costs,” (North, 1993: 18). Patronage and clientalism as informal mechanisms became established during the uncertainty of transition in Poland (Krasnov, Volhkova & Leonidovich, 2016). This corresponds with developments identified in other post-communist countries. For instance, Holmes (2006) finds that during post-communist transitions political insiders create clientalistic arrangements to create bases of power.

The establishment of clientalism as an informal institution can also be traced to timing in early path dependence. This is because in order to comply with the Copenhagen Criterion to quality for EU membership, Poland committed to a rapid transition to market economy. Rapid privatization was not a neutral mechanism and created winners and losers (Kostelecky, 2004). Uncertainty amid this process led to a mixing of business and politics as elites sought assurance (Agh 2016). This confirms trends identified elsewhere. Paltiel (1989) argues that during market transitions, an absence of institutional certainty about universal institutions and government creates a vacuum that is often filled by patronage politics.

Political parties as the dominant form of organization in Poland during this period reflected both formal and informal early path dependence. The nature of these parties was also determined by their creation during a period of uncertainty in the transition period. Because parties oversaw privatization, they were particularly exposed to clientalism (Voinea, 2015). Political parties were also responsible for allocating up to around 60 thousand jobs in the private sector (Gwiazda, 2008). Both allocating jobs and overseeing privatization contributed to patronage in political parties. Political parties used both as resources to be used in political competitions (Iancu & Soare, 2016). This created a distance between parties and the general public. Kostelecky (2004) describes the post-communist political parties as them as “cartel parties,” because of their top down structure, and distance from the public. These developments in political parties reflected underlying institutions. According to Douglas North, if institutions are the rules of the game, then organizations are the players (North, 1993). Organizations are shaped by the incentive structure offered by institutions, so in a way organizations can both reflect and perpetuate institutions because they benefit from the status quo. Interactions between “the institutional structure and consequent organizations is the key to path dependence,” (North, 1993: 20).

In eastern and Central European countries, ppolitical parties were acutely vulnerable to this weakness of political institutions, and able to gain power. As weakly institutionalized and newly formed political parties were vulnerable “to being dominated by oligarchs, idiosyncratic and self-serving political notables, destructive protest movements, or non-democratic institutions,” (Enyedi, 2016: 210). The elitist character of party politics makes them especially vulnerable to capture. Acemoglu, Naidu, Restrepo & Robinson (2015) argue that elites can control democratic institutions through informal mechanisms such as vote buying, intimidation and lobbying, which are often especially targeted at political institutions. This pattern was present in Poland’s political development.

Evidence shows that the parties that followed these first political parties took on their defining characteristics. Gwiazda (2008) compares patronage of two Polish governments, the left coalition of the Democratic Left Alliance in power from 2001-2005, and the Law and Justice party in power after 2005. They found that party patronage was instrumental to both parties (Gwiazda, 2008). These results are compatible with path dependence theory. “The direction of change is determined by path dependence. The political and economic organizations that have come into existence in consequence of the institutional matrix typically have a stake in perpetuating the existing framework,” (North, 1994: 7). The result of these early developments after the critical juncture of Polish independence was a mismatch between the formal institutions of , and informal client-patron institutions. This paper argues that this mismatch created path dependence, which contributed to a state of political decay in Poland.

Political Decay

When the centrifugal force of economic development and resulting social mobilization are unmatched by institutional adaption to these changes, the result is political decay (Huntington, 1968). There are two broad causes of political decay: institutional rigidity and elite capture. The persistence of an institutional framework reflecting the balance of interests from the path creates institutional rigidity (Huntington, 1968). The problem is when the institutions become unable to adjust to new situations. Path dependence is critical to this process because “the institutions and beliefs of the past have an enormous effect on constraining the ability to make change in the present and the future” (North, 1999: 12). The previous section demonstrated that path dependent processes initiated in the critical juncture of the transition from communism reflected a unique balance of power in Poland. These processes established institutional rigidity, setting the stage for political decay.

The second source of political decay is elite capture. (Fukuyama, 2014) describes this process as “repatrimonialism:” when powerful and organized groups coopt supposedly impersonal institutions for particularistic benefits (p. 28). This form of Political decay manifests in lower government effectiveness, increasing corruption, and eventually to populist reactions against the “selfish” elite. This paper has demonstrated that clientalism, as an informal mechanism, arose from the uncertainty of market transition. Clientalism became integral to political parties because of the unique uncertainty of market transition combined with new political actors.

Multiple scholars have identified the presence of state capture in Poland, confirming the idea of the theory that elite capture could be responsible for distrust from regular voters in the entire political system and the resulting attractiveness of populist, anti-elite messages (Aniol, 2015; Iacu & Soare, 2016; Bukowski, Gadowska & Polak, 2014; Wiatr, 2016; Kasprowicz & Hess, 2017; Agh, 2015; Agh, 2016). Clientalism results in a break between political elites and voters. Political organizations become unable to act as a linkage between ordinary citizens and political processes (Iancu & Soare, 2016). The evidence shows that Poles have lost trust in the impartiality of institutions. Corruption is perceived to be endemic, with public administration perceived as most corrupt (Bukowski, Gadowska & Polak, 2014). In a 2010 survey of public trust in business only 19% of respondents considered business success to be a product of individual merit (Bukowski, Gadowska & Polak, 2014).

Both forms of political decay have prepared the way for the rise of populist movements. What defines populism is a between “the people” and “the elite” (Wagner, Jan 22, 2018: slide 10). The Law and Justice party (The PiS) drew attention to a gulf of trust between citizens and elites. The “stability of the old elite, which had been in power since 1989 (with very short intervals in 1992, and again in 2005-2007), gave ammunition to the Law and Justice parties campaign for change,” (Wiatr, 2016: 10). They argued that only a change in the ruling elite, could solve the problem (Kasprowicz & Hess, 2017). Many Polish voters believe politics to be corrupt, with 62% believing that corruption is most common in politics (CBOS, 2017). The support for the PiS in the 2015 elections supports the historical institutional assertion that when an inconsistency between formal and informal institutions reaches critical mass, the result is a restructuring of overall constraints to produce a new equilibrium (North, 1992: 13).


This paper adopted a historical institutional lens to explain the explosive rise of the populist PiS party to power in Poland in 2015. At the center of the PiS political movement was an idea that Poland’s ruling elite, embodied in the centrist Civic Platform party, which governed Poland from 2007 to 2015, had become disconnected from the plights of citizens. This idea is archetypal to populist’s movements around the world, in that they are characterized by a divide between “the people” and “the elite"(Wagner, Jan 24 slide 10). This paper argued that behind the PiS’s message lies a historical institutional assumption that at the heart of politics lies a conflict over scarce resources, and that this conflict is played out across institutions that privilege some while harming others (Hall & Taylor, 1996). Mainstream accounts in the media fail to take into account for the historical institutional logic of the populist movement, and were thus puzzled that a country with robust economic growth, considered a model of new East European member states, could vote against the status quo (Traub, 2016). In fact, historical institutional theory helps to show that this message resonated because it is grounded in the reality of the distribution of power in society.

The paper demonstrated that the institutional arrangements making up the status quo were established during the critical juncture of the end of communism. As a result of the contingent non-ergodic effect of timing, the institutional structure privileged post-communist elites, who were able to secure concessions for themselves in a bargain with reformers. This situation matters because institutions reflect a particular balance of power in that unique historical moment (Fukuyama, 2014). Additionally, the institutions that were created during this critical juncture became “locked in” and became subject to path dependence (Pearson, 2000). At the same time, as rapid privatization to comply with the EU Copenhagen Criteria of membership created an early connection between political parties and business, as political parties managed the process in the absence of solid rules and property rights (Innes, 2014). In conditions of uncertainty in economics, clientalism became established as a way to avoid uncertainty in the absence of rule of law (Paltiel, 1989).

These path dependent trends, established during the 1989 critical juncture created the conditions for the two forms of political decay. The first, institutional rigidity (Huntington, 1968) is a product of the institutions that reflecting the bargaining power of pre-communist elites. However, this wasn’t destined to result in a turn to populism. The problem was that this institutional rigidity prevented the political institutions from adapting and accommodating the changes in society generated by economic development, along with rising expectations that Huntington saw as the destabilizing features of socioeconomic development (Huntington, 1968). The second related feature source of political decay, insider capture, (Fukuyama, 2014) also originated in the critical juncture. Clientalism, as an informal institution, undermined the universalistic character of Polish political and economic institutions, and eroded citizens trust in the system (Innes, 2014).

Historical institutionalism identifies revolutionary change with a gridlock that arises from a failure of compromise between elements of society and the institutional rules of the game (North, 1994). These theoretical explanations go a long way in explaining the success of the PiS in Polish elections in 2015. “Law and Justice’s election victory also reflected widespread disillusionment with the country’s ruling elite and a strong prevailing mood that it was time for change” (Szczerbiak, 2017).

This paper offers three main implications for the study of institutional transitions. First, the analysis of Poland's critical juncture of the 1989 transition demonstrated that it is important to consider aspects of timing and "small historical details" because under conditions of "early path dependence" they can matter a great deal to the entire trajectory of path dependence. Thus, attention should be paid to historical context and contingent events. Second, informal institutions of clientalism can erode democratic norms and trust, creating conditions for political decay. Finally, understanding the logic behind the populist appeal helps us to understand the long-lasting and detrimental effects of path dependence of political institutions in the context of rapid development.


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The relationship between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Holy See appears to be an uneasy association between opposites. With over 1 billion people, the PRC is "the world's most populous state," while the Holy See is housed in tiny... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 11 No. 1
The growth of the South Korean economy has often been attributed to the rise of Chaebols, or family owned businesses with wide-ranging conglomeratelike economic interests. The embeddedness of the Chaebol in Korea's political economy has allowed... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 12
The relationship between realism and nationalism is not clearly articulated in international relations literature. On one hand, realism and nationalism are viewed as contradictory forces, standing against one another as reason to emotion, reality... Read Article »
2014, Vol. 8 No. 1
In the late 1990's the spray-painted name "Banksy" began accompanying stenciled images throughout the cities of London and Bristol, England. Taking inspiration from the anarchic messages of punk music and hip-hop graffiti popularized by New York... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 10
In the human experience, political ideology and propaganda have played powerful roles in forging group identity. In the evolution of the human species, beliefs have been as powerful as facts and truths. Knowledge of this research and political reality... Read Article »

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