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There’s nothing inevitable about autocracy

A Donald Tusk rally in Warsaw earlier this month. Wojtek Radwanski /AFP/Getty

To be in Poland last Sunday night was to experience “a rare moment of political joy”, says Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian. Young voters queued into the early hours to turf out the “xenophobic, nationalist populists who have been dragging their country backwards” and to prove that even a biased election can be won against the odds. Poles have pulled off this feat once before, in 1989, when they came out in force to elect the first post-communist government in eastern Europe. Last weekend’s turnout was even higher – a record 74%. It seems Poles got fed up with the “corrupt, petty, backward-looking” rule of the Law and Justice party, and decided to turn towards a “modern European future”.

It’s not just good news for Poles, says Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic. After democratic insurgents failed to oust autocrats in Hungary last year and Turkey in May, and after elections in Israel brought a “coalition of extremists” to power, plenty of people feared that democracy was on the way out. The victory of the Polish opposition proves that “autocratic populism can be defeated”, even when the ruling party had “turned state television into a propaganda tube”, altered voting laws in its favour and “leaked top secret military documents” for electoral gain. It’s also an encouraging sign for neighbouring Ukraine, whose political support in Warsaw has wobbled, that voters favoured pro-Kyiv centrists over the far right. As in 1989, Poles now have their work cut out in unpicking the apparatus of autocracy, but they long ago learned the crucial lesson: “Nothing is inevitable about the rise of autocracy or the decline of democracy.”