When an authoritarian leader in a sham democracy wants to win an election, it is often enough to rig it. This usually involves monopolising the media, suppressing votes, jailing opponents, or simply dictating the result to a compliant electoral commission. But what if the plan goes awry, and the incumbent loses but simply refuses to concede? While US President Donald Trump faces defeat in his battle to stay in power, the precedent he is setting is very dangerous.
In his refusal to concede, Trump has a few not-so-secret admirers in eastern European countries, including members of the European Union. One of the first leaders to back Trump’s baseless victory claim was Slovenia’s right-wing prime minister, Janez Jansa. Similar, albeit less explicit or formal, support has come from Poland and Hungary. These countries did not appreciate it when, in October 2020, Joe Biden called them “totalitarian regimes”. Remarkably, even after right-leaning American media networks such as Fox News had announced Biden’s victory in the November US presidential election, the Polish public broadcaster, TVP, claimed that anything could still happen. Polish President Andrzej Duda, like Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán, congratulated Biden on a successful campaign, but not on his victory.
Voters in democracies are used to a process in which defeated candidates concede and congratulate the victor. All citizens recognise the result announced by an independent electoral commission – and they move on, even if many are unhappy with the outcome. In supporting Trump’s lies and his refusal to concede, some eastern European governments have undermined a cornerstone of democracy. They are grooming their supporters to reject the result of any election they might lose.
Moldova recently witnessed one such attempt to overturn an election result. Only a few weeks after the US vote, Moldovan President Igor Dodon followed the Trump playbook: having spectacularly lost to Maia Sandu, he announced that his country’s presidential election was massively rigged against him and that he would “follow constitutional measures” to contest the result. Even before the election, he had promised to defend his ‘victory’ if need be. But Dodon’s enthusiasm quickly evaporated when foreign leaders lined up to recognise Sandu’s win. Those leaders included Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wasted little time in congratulating her.
Dodon’s outrage might have been a flash in the pan, but it is a useful warning of what might follow within the EU. Right-wing Polish media outlets embraced Trump’s rhetoric on his election defeat with alarming eagerness, presenting him as a statesman under attack and repeating his mantra about supposedly illegal votes and the alleged need to investigate electoral fraud.
Why do they care so much? Because the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party might lose the next election. For now, the party still has a high level of public support. But this support has declined from around 44 per cent of the vote in 2019 to 33 percent in recent polls, its lowest point since the PiS came to power, in 2015. The October decision of the Constitutional Court to approve a near-total ban on abortion was a wake-up call for many voters. The ruling triggered mass protests not only against the ban, but against the government as a whole. The mobilisation of young people in Poland is unprecedented; their loud discontent could tip the scale at the next election. Moreover, many voters see Poland’s recent veto of the EU budget as a prelude to an imminent ‘Polexit’ – and any steps by the government in that direction are likely to cause more discontent. Both PIS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, recently compared the EU to the Soviet Union, markedly sharpening their already-confrontational rhetoric. However, polls consistently show that more than 80 per cent of Poles want to remain in the EU.
So far, the PiS has had no need to resort to major electoral fraud, because it has had genuine popular support. But what will happen next time? There are clear signs that the party is bent on staying in government for a long time: it is trying to amass as much power as possible, including in the judiciary and the media. So, it is not difficult to imagine that the PiS will do whatever it can to stay in power, even if people vote it out. By openly admiring Trump’s tactics, PiS leaders are preparing to delegitimise the Polish electoral process, should it not produce results to their liking.
While one should not underestimate the dangers of Trump’s legacy, there is a well-founded hope that the United States, as a mature democracy, can survive and heal. However, Poland might be less lucky. Poland has never had political checks and balances as robust as those of the US, and the PiS government has worked hard to dismantle those that were in place.
But Poland has the EU. In this upside-down world where authoritarians accuse democrats of stealing elections, the EU has a crucial role to play. As the current crisis over the Polish-Hungarian veto on the EU budget shows, the fight for the rule of law in Poland is a deeply frustrating process. But it is no less vital for that. The EU needs to persevere, and to show that it will not compromise when the rule of law is at stake. The bloc should stress that it will never compromise on the integrity of elections in member states. Otherwise, the virus of non-concession might spread, endangering democracies across Europe.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.