Aliberal miracle on the Vistula: on 15 October, despite efforts by the reigning right-wing populists to make it an unfair contest, a motley opposition alliance ranging from left to centre-right prevailed in Poland’s parliamentary elections. Turnout was a record 74 per cent – higher than in the vote that ended communist rule in 1989. In a typical populist manoeuvre, Jarosław Kaczyński, the deputy prime minister and the country’s de facto ruler, has cast doubt on the result, claiming it must have been rigged by foreign powers, primarily the Germans. Even if no palaces or parliaments are stormed as a result of this conspiracy theorising, the future will be bumpy. The president, Andrzej Duda, in office until 2025, remains beholden to Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party (PiS); the judiciary, public media and state enterprises have been colonised by PiS cronies. It is important to understand how a supposedly unstoppable ‘illiberal’ trend was reversed in these elections; yet rather than complacently celebrating Poland’s ‘return to Europe’, we should be trying to understand why self-declared anti-liberals succeeded in the first place, and in what ways their politics might endure even if they lose at the polls.
In The New Politics of Poland Jarosław Kuisz offers a competent and well-written account of the larger forces at work in PiS’s ascent, but also seeks to place the supposed ‘rise of illiberalism’ in the context of Poland’s longue durée. His book is also indirectly useful in displaying some of the failings of the liberal commentariat. Two days after the October surprise, Kuisz wrote in the Financial Times that ‘the populist tsunami in Poland has definitely slowed down.’ The same metaphor – coined in 2016 by Nigel Farage, for whom the conventional image of the ‘wave’ was apparently insufficient – informs Kuisz’s explanation of PiS’s rise to power in 2015: pent-up grievances about increasing inequality and what Kuisz coyly calls fears of ‘cultural erosion’ and ‘identity dilemmas’ were not just Polish problems, but caused a global wave of populism which PiS was able to ride into office.
Kuisz’s own account demonstrates, however, that the pundits’ narrative is misleading. PiS was founded in 2001 by Jarosław Kaczyński and his twin brother, Lech, as an offshoot of the Solidarity movement. By the 1990s, Solidarity had given up on campaigning for workers’ rights and traded instead in cultural conservatism. The Kaczyńskis, convinced that the transition from state socialism had been corrupt, promised to create a ‘Fourth Republic’. They appealed to rural, traditional and, on the whole, less educated citizens primarily in the east and south of the country – what is often bluntly called Polska B. Despite the absence of a ‘global wave’, their party came to power in 2005; Lech was elected president later that year. After two tumultuous years, PiS was thrown out of office, and Jarosław felt resentful that many of its policies had been stymied by judges (a problem he diagnosed as ‘legal impossibilism’). Three years later, Lech died in a plane crash with other members of the Polish elite on the way to a commemoration of the Katyn massacre.
Fast-forward to 2015. Bronisław Komorowski, a safe pair of hands from the governing liberal conservative Civic Platform who had succeeded Lech as president, looked set to cruise to re-election with the inspired slogan ‘choose consensus and security.’ The former dissident Adam Michnik told an interviewer that ‘Komorowski will lose the election only if a drunk driver runs over a pregnant nun on a pedestrian crossing.’ But lose he did. Without much conviction, PiS had nominated as its candidate Andrzej Duda, a relatively unknown lawyer. He turned out to be a natural campaigner and an effective conduit for unhappiness with the government. Civic Platform had presided over uninterrupted economic growth, but it was weakened after its popular leader, Donald Tusk, left to take up the presidency of the European Council. (Tusk, a political alpha male, had made sure he had no prominent rivals or plausible successors.) Worse, the party was caught up in what came to be known as Waitergate. Illegal recordings from a fancy Warsaw restaurant captured the foreign minister complaining that the alliance with the US was ‘worthless’, even though the Polish government was giving the Americans ‘blowjobs’, and seemed to prove that Civic Platform had become far too close to the central bank. There were also admissions at odds with the image of a rapidly modernising country taking up a leadership role in Europe: the interior minister was recorded as saying that ‘the Polish state exists only theoretically.’
By 2015, PiS was presenting a decidedly more moderate face. Kaczyński had cut down on the conspiracy theorising about his brother’s death (one version claimed that Tusk had him murdered); he didn’t put himself forward as the party’s candidate for prime minister in the parliamentary elections that October, but backed Beata Szydło, a miner’s daughter and architect of Duda’s victory, who campaigned with slogans like ‘good change’ and ‘work, not promises’. He did manage to whip up a panic about refugees carrying dangerous parasites into the country, but insisted that the independence of the judiciary would not be attacked and, despite the bombastic rhetoric about a Fourth Republic, there was no talk of changing the constitution.
PiS ended up winning a majority in the Sejm, the lower house. It did particularly well among the elderly, and won half the vote in the countryside. Later, after 2016 and the double whammy of Trump and Brexit, pundits read the outcome as an early warning of the ‘populist tsunami’. But as Democracy Erodes from the Top, an important new book by the American political scientist Larry Bartels, makes clear, support for PiS could not be explained by anti-EU sentiment, xenophobia or even distrust of elites; nor were Poles clamouring for an illiberal remaking of the state.What Kuisz calls ‘the spirit of 2015’ had nothing to do with a majority turning away from democracy. On the contrary, citizens were doing what democratic theory tells them to do in a two-party system: if you don’t like one side, give the other a chance. The fact that for the first time since 1989 a party could govern on its own without having to cobble together a complicated coalition wasn’t due to overwhelming support for PiS (it won the votes of only 19 per cent of the electorate), but because the United Left coalition fell just short of hitting the 8 per cent threshold required to enter the Sejm.
A similar story can be told about Hungary, often paired with Poland as an illiberal outlier – or, for some, a vanguard. In 2010, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party benefited from the disastrous economic record of the post-communist left and from a series of corruption scandals (which pale in comparison with the kleptocracy Orbán has gone on to create). As in Poland, there had been a leaked tape, in this case the prime minister admitting that his party had been lying to voters. A highly skewed electoral system delivered Orbán a two-thirds majority in parliament, large enough to change the constitution at will. It was, he declared, a ‘revolution at the voting booth’. As with PiS, there had been no talk during the campaign of amending the constitution, but Orbán immediately passed a new one, and went on to establish the first autocratic political system within the European Union. It’s true that illiberal attitudes have become more common in Hungary and Poland, but, as Bartels demonstrates, these are effects of rule by PiS and Fidesz, not their cause. Nevertheless, elites in Western Europe have found it convenient to claim that their brothers and sisters in the east are backward in understanding and practising democracy, or that their benighted political cultures make them illiberal.
For both Orbán and Kaczyński, the experience of losing power seems to have been traumatic. When they returned to office, they had a plan: capture the institutions, rather than wasting political capital on culture wars; once you control the institutions – especially the judiciary – you can wage culture war to your heart’s content. Who will stop you interfering in university life, or shutting down the gender studies department, or whole universities for that matter (as Orbán did with the Central European University), if the courts, along with the public prosecutor, are in your pocket?
PiS, unlike Fidesz, didn’t have a large enough majority to change the constitution. Kaczyński, who has a doctorate in jurisprudence, revived his complaint of ‘legal impossibilism’, saying in December 2015 that ‘we won the election, but we have no right to set laws and remodel Poland.’ PiS’s solution was to replace judges and create judicial bodies staffed with partisans, although Duda’s swearing in of judges in the middle of the night looked rather crude compared with Orbán’s elegant use of what some scholars have called ‘autocratic legalism’. Judges were purged in the name of ‘de-communisation’ – except that, just as the country once had plenty of antisemitism without Jews, this was anti-communism without communists. It didn’t seem to matter that one of the judges installed on the Constitutional Tribunal with Kaczyński’s support had been a zealous proponent of martial law in the 1980s. Just as in Hungary, the ostentatious anti-communism seemed intended to mask the fact that PiS’s social engineering resembled nothing so much as the bad old days of state socialism. Many Polish judges took their complaints to the EU or continued to show up for work after they had been illegally fired, creating embarrassing scenes for the government. Crowds chanted: ‘Free courts!’ Lech Wałęsa turned up at the White House in a T-shirt reading ‘konstytucja’. The notion that Poland had an unusually strong – or, to use the buzzword of our time, resilient – civil society was used to explain the resistance to PiS.
Yet PiS kept winning elections. Its policy of paying parents 500 zloty a month for every second and subsequent child proved enormously popular. The poorest citizens in Poland were not, in fact, pensioners but families with children. Civic Platform leaders, confirming their image as a party of heartless and arrogant technocrats, had warned that this spending spree would break the budget, but with the economy continuing to grow even during the pandemic, neoliberal austeritarian anxieties proved unfounded.
In the absence of any meaningful left-wing opposition, the post-communists having discredited themselves through their corruption and, above all, their disastrous imitation of Blairite ‘third way’ neoliberalism, PiS doubled down on culture warfare. It took over Telewizja Polska, which, according to a prominent journalist, Marcin Wolski, became even more of a propaganda outlet than it had been under state socialism. Teachers were instructed to end the ‘pedagogy of shame’: only heroic stories could be told about Polish history, with the result that, according to one survey, 82 per cent of Poles believe their forebears did their best to help Jews. The dirty work of making abortion all but unobtainable – except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is at risk – was left to the Constitutional Tribunal, which had been captured by PiS. This decision proved popular with the Church, but not with the public – as Kuisz points out, populists who claim to speak in the name of the people fear nothing more than being proven wrong in a referendum. At least six women have died because doctors, believing they would be sent to prison, refused to provide emergency abortions.
Unlike Orbán, who has a vision of an illiberal or what he calls a ‘Christian Democratic’ Europe, and who has spent more than a billion euros on creating far-right cadres across the continent, Kaczyński seems to care little for spreading his ideology beyond borders. He has also failed to develop a broader strategy in foreign policy: Kuisz writes that his government focused on ‘maximising sovereignty’, and saw itself surrounded by enemies to the east and west. As in Hungary, EU flags disappeared from government buildings. Polish laws were elevated above EU regulations, and judges were instructed not to turn to EU courts for legal interpretations, effectively throwing a spanner into the entire EU legal machinery. In response, Brussels started to withhold much needed funds; Kaczyński, never a subtle rhetorician, warned that the European Commission might be starting a ‘third world war’.
Tusk, who had returned from his EU job and claimed that he was ‘100 per cent back in’ domestic politics, was given a part in this nationalist morality play. PiS accused him of being a German agent, never failing to mention that his maternal grandmother was German and that his Polish grandfather was in the Wehrmacht (he had been forced to join). At the same time, the government kept demanding that Berlin pay reparations for the Second World War. Kuisz explains this policy – which squandered the soft power Warsaw had built up since 1989 – with reference to the country’s ‘post-traumatic’ understanding of sovereignty. He quotes the entry on Poland in an early 20th-century German lexicon – ‘there once was a country by that name’ – as well as the famous stage direction from Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi: ‘set in Poland, which is to say nowhere’. As Kuisz sees it, the fear of disappearing from the map is so deeply ingrained that conservative politicians are always able to stoke anxieties about powerful neighbours.
But the propaganda against the EU, a supranational organisation that transferred €123 billion in subsidies between 2004 and 2020, wasn’t very effective. By the time Russia invaded Ukraine last year, 92 per cent of Poles said they were glad their country was in the EU. One might have expected the war to damage relations between Warsaw and Berlin further, but Russia’s aggression gave Polish elites the upper moral hand – after all, they had been warning for years that the Germans were becoming too dependent on Russian gas. Berlin in turn, with its mentality of trade über alles, was aware that Poland is its fifth most important trading partner, ahead of Italy and the UK.
Kaczyński had long insisted that ‘to change Poland we need at least three parliamentary terms.’ PiS did everything to ensure that outcome last month: public media devoted six times as much attention to the government as to the opposition; electoral laws were manipulated in the government’s favour; and, following Orbán’s example, the parliamentary election was combined with a referendum asking leading questions (‘Do you support the acceptance of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, according to the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy?’). Spending on the referendum, unlike the election, was unlimited, allowing state enterprises captured by PiS to pour money into pro-government propaganda.
While PiS was the strongest party, winning 35 per cent of votes, a loose alliance between the Left (itself an alliance), the Civic Coalition, which had a refashioned Civic Platform at its heart, and the centre-right Third Way gained a majority. An important lesson for opposition parties facing populist regimes is that they must unite, but without erasing their ideological differences. Tusk is still a charismatic leader, but like any such figure he provokes strong reactions. The fact that anyone who didn’t want to vote for him (or didn’t have particularly positive memories of Civic Platform’s time in office) could opt for a self-described liberal conservative leader from Third Way was an advantage; so was Civic Coalition’s decision to present a hundred concrete policies, rather than making their opposition to Kaczyński their only selling point. Importantly, Civic Platform – which was often described in the past as ‘liberal’, even though its stance on abortion wasn’t progressive – has accepted the need to improve access to reproductive medicine. It has also shifted on economic policy: while the reversal of Poland’s declining birth rate promised by PiS hasn’t materialised, child subsidies remain wildly popular.
Nobody quite knows what a second democratic transition might look like. One can’t just take lessons from the 1980s: the PiS leadership has no interest in a pact with figures it regards as ‘the personification of pure evil’ (Kaczyński’s description of Tusk). Round tables, which gave the 1989 talks between the government and Solidarity their name, now seem quaint. The father of the current PiS prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, once made a show of overturning a round table to express disdain for the very idea of pluralist negotiations. He has also said that ‘the law is an important thing, but the law is not sacred … Above the law is the good of the nation’ – as good a summary of the Polish right’s worldview as one can imagine.
If Tusk becomes prime minister, as seems likely, he will face considerable obstacles. PiS has managed to appoint some two thousand judges; the ban on abortion can’t be overturned by parliament; Duda still has the power to issue vetoes, and Tusk’s alliance lacks the numbers to overturn them. Opposition politicians fear that Duda is delaying the formation of a new government so that PiS cronies in the media and state enterprises can shred any evidence of wrongdoing. But at the very least, Tusk is likely to make the EU funds flow again. It’s harder to predict whether he will retain the border wall with Belarus (opposition parties were not above appealing to xenophobic sentiments during the campaign) and the commitment to spending 4 per cent of GDP on the military. The issue of Ukrainian refugees, of whom there are more than one million in Poland, might turn ugly, just as cheap grain from Ukraine became a flashpoint during the summer, when the government ended imports and threatened to stop delivering weapons to Kyiv. While the opposition’s eleven million voters are hardly clamouring for a return to neoliberalism (which was Tusk’s original position as a young ‘Gdańsk liberal’), the question is whether, without a robust left, the new government’s social policy will move beyond handouts for Polska B.
Tusk will govern a country which, not despite but because of PiS’s merciless culture warfare, is experiencing what the Church correctly calls ‘galloping secularisation’. Kaczyński had insisted that ‘there is no alternative system of ethical values in Poland to that preached by the Church.’ Plenty of young people disagree, perhaps in part as a consequence of the Church’s thorough politicisation, as well as its obscene wealth (it’s the largest landowner in the country) and continuing scandals: this summer, priests in Dabrowa Gornicza, in the southwest, had to call an ambulance to a ‘party’ because a male sex worker got sick from erectile dysfunction drugs.
Still, years of top-down illiberalism have left their mark. The uncharismatic Jarosław, who lives alone in a house full of cats, has made his twin into an object of hero worship, erecting monuments to him. The antisemitic nationalism of the interwar politician Roman Dmowski has been rehabilitated. Voters have been told again and again that liberals look down on them (some might: in 2005, Tusk warned of a ‘mohair coalition’, alluding to the berets older women wear to church). Far-right positions have been legitimised to such an extent that any far-right political force can be outbid by one even further to the right: the nationalist-libertarian Konfederacja is even more rabidly anti-EU than PiS and doesn’t shy away from antisemitism. Some of its leaders believe that women should not only be prevented from having abortions, but also from having the vote.
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