Illiberal Incumbents and the Shifting Electorate: Evidence from Polish Elections

The election following an incumbent’s subversion of democracy is a critical moment for citizens to defend democratic institutions and prevent further democratic decay. Why do some communities and citizens withdraw support from illiberal incumbents while others do not? This paper examines economic concerns and civic engagement as potential drivers of shifting behavior during incumbent-induced democratic decay. I focus on the case of the Polish Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has undermined liberal democratic institutions since assuming governmental office in 2015. Analyzing post-2015 electoral shifts across Poland’s 2,477 municipalities (gminy), the study finds that a transforming civic community is unrelated to vote swings. However, voters punish declining economic conditions while rewarding targeted welfare programs. Individual-level panel data suggests that lower-to-middle-class and younger voters show the highest propensity to switch votes, but only less religious citizens are more likely to be disproportionately mobilized by the opposition. Incumbents need not fear backlash for their illiberal behavior from vibrant civic communities but are also not immune to punishment for failing to deliver economic prosperity.