Freedom House Index: Poland and Region Drop in Ranking

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Freedom House

In this year’s Nations in Transit by the Freedom House, Poland loses the status of a consolidated democracy. Other CEE countries also decline with their democracy score.

Nations in Transit is a yearly report published by American think-tank Freedom House, aimed to asses the quality of democracy and the liberal-democratic order in 29 former post-Eastern Bloc countries.

The first edition of the report was released in 1995 and its methodology has remained unchanged since 2003.

The report measures the situation in the mentioned countries in seven categories: National Democratic Governance, Electoral Process, Civil Society, Independent Media, Local Democratic Governance, Judicial Framework and Independence, and Corruption.

The last edition of the report covers the events from January 1, 2019, to December 31, 2019, which means it doesn’t include this year’s electoral chaos in Poland, which is a result of the actions of the ruling party (Law and Justice, PiS).

Poland’s Negative Trend

On the basis the seven categories mentioned above, Freedom House  publishes the Democracy Score (scaled 1 to 7) and classifies countries as: consolidated democracies (score 5.01-7), semi-consolidated democracies (4.01-5.00), transitional or hybrid regimes (3.01-4.00), semi-consolidated authoritarian regimes (score 2.01-3.00), and consolidated authoritarian regimes (1.00-2.00).

For 15 years, Poland was maintaining its Democracy Score between 5.0 and 6.0, which kept it in the group of consolidated democracies. A significant decline has been visible since 2016.

It is when the country’s score dropped from 5.68 to 5.43 as a result of Law and Justice’s government attacks on the independence of the Constitutional Tribunal and the transformation of the public media into a tool of the ruling party’s propaganda.

In 2018, Poland barely kept its status of a consolidated democracy with the second-biggest decline in the history of the report. This year’s edition marks another breakthrough: Poland was classified as a semi-consolidated democracy (with a score of only 4.93).

Causes of Poland’s Decline: Attacks on the Rule of Law, Capture of the Public Media

In the introduction to this year’s edition, the authors mention a growing number of leaders who dropped even the pretense of playing by the rules of democracy. This applies also to the ruling party in Poland.

The main indicators which influenced this year’s drop are: the attacks on sexual minorities and the rise of extremist discourse, which had its peak with the physical attacks on the “Equality March” in Białystok July 2019 (a drop in the category of the civil society), additional burden’s, which were placed on local governments without increasing their revenues (a drop in the category of the local democratic governance), and a series of disciplinary measures taken against judges who were trying to implement the EU law (a drop in the category of judicial framework and independence).

In the context of the attacks on judges, the authors indicate a “frontal assault on the judiciary” and quote the opinion of the EU Commissioner Vera Jourova, who called the Law and Justice’s policies and actions “a carpet bombing” of judicial independence.

The assessment was also influenced by the subordination of the public media, which are used as a tool in promoting the ruling Law and Justice and fighting against the opposition, and the announcements of the “re-polonization” of private media (which means, de facto, nationalization) by some government officials.

Moreover, Poland’s score was also affected by functioning of the illegally chosen National Council of Judiciary (suspended by the European Networks of Councils for the Judiciary, which is now considering excluding the Polish council) and several scandals connected with the assault on independent judges (such as a troll farm functioning in the Ministry of Justice with the aim to attack independent judges).

Democracy in CEE and the Balkans

Poland is not the only country that has declined in the overall Democracy Score in this year’s edition of Nations in Transit. Hungary, Montenegro, and Serbia have left the group of semi-consolidated democracies and all became transitional/hybrid regimes.

Especially the drop of Hungary may be considered spectacular in a ten-year perspective.

In 2010, Hungary was considered a consolidated democracy (with the score of 5.61). After a decade of Viktor Orban’s rule the country in no longer considered even a semi-consolidated democracy (with the score of 3.96 points).

Which countries have the highest quality of democracy? Mainly the Baltic states and Poland’s southern neighbors. Despite a small decline (from 6.11 to 6.07 points) Estonia remains the democratic leader of the CEE region.

Moreover, the “Baltic Tiger” (as some are calling Estonia) is also ranking very high in the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index and remains one of the world’s leaders of digitization.

The next five places belong to Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Czechia, and Slovakia (all considered consolidated democracies).

Lessons from the Report

The main message of this year’s Nations in Transit doesn’t sound optimistic. The authors have decided to give it the subtitle “Dropping the Democratic Facade”, and Poland remains one of the leaders of the decline in respecting democratic institutions and individual freedoms. The assaults on judicial independence conducted by the ruling party play a crucial role in it.

Nevetheless, Poland is not the only CEE country where the politicians are trying to influence independent courts. Also Czechia, Georgia, Latvia, Slovakia, and Montenegro are declining because of politicians’ attempts to influence judicial decisions.

The authors recommend making the promotion of democracy and human rights a priority in bilateral relations, as well as supporting judicial organizations and movements defending democracy and rule of law.

They also call for making the EU funding conditional on respecting democratic values, arguing that the European Union has been so far rather unsuccessful in stopping Poland’s and Hungary’s democratic decline.

Why Does It Matter?

Freedom House is one of the world’s most respected think-tanks when it comes to assessing the standards of democracy and human rights, and its reports do not go unnoticed in the world.

It is, therefore, not good news for Poland that an institution of this standing is no longer classifying the country as a consolidated democracy.

Reports like Nations in Transit are often an important source of information about the rated countries for politicians, diplomats, entrepreneurs, and the media.

A systematic decline of Poland and the region is going to contribute to its overall picture, which will result in a smaller soft power indispensable for political and economic negotiations.

Unfortunately, we can already foresee that the negative trend is going to continue in Poland.

The chaos around the presidential elections, continuing attacks on independent judges, a systematic increase of burdens placed on local governments, and limiting individual rights and liberties during the COVID-19 pandemic without declaring any of the constitutional emergency measures surely will not go unnoticed.


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Piotr Olinski
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