The curious case of Poland’s political self-harm

The glossy image of a ‘green isle’ Poland that fared exceptionally well through the economic crisis, does not sit comfortably with many Poles.

Stefan Szwed
20 January 2016

The European Parliament (EP) held a debate on the state of democracy and the rule of law in Poland yesterday, less than a week after the country become the first EU Member State to be subjected to the Article 7 procedure that will see the European Commission make a preliminary assessment of whether the recent emasculation of the constitutional tribunal and moves to monopolize influence over public media constitute a ‘serious and persistent’ breach of EU values.

The news of the probe prompted many to ask whether the Law and Justice (PiS) government elected last October overplayed its hand: did Kaczyński & Co think they would get away with no more than a friendly slap on the cheek, similar to the one the Hungarian President Orbán received from the Commission President Juncker at the Eastern Partnership Summit last spring? Or did the EU overreact, potentially alienating some of the Poles that have misgivings about their new government, and raising questions about the legitimacy of Brussels’ role as a democracy watchdog?

Don’t trust the Poles 

Although sanctions against Poland remain unlikely, the magnitude of the crisis has taken Poles and the country’s foreign observers by surprise.  Everyone braced for a difficult spell in Poland’s relations with Europe after the national-conservatives won 38% of the vote that allowed them to govern alone – a first in Poland’s post-communist history.

However, few were prepared to see a conservative government with a mandate from less than a fifth of the electorate – turnout figures are dismally low in Poland – steamroll a number of nigh-revolutionary reforms that according to many fundamentally challenge the state’s democratic order. Although some dismiss these accusations as premature and others point to pervasive politicization of public institutions in the past, the extent and speed with which PiS implements its programme mark a drastic regression.

Needless to say, many Poles are embarrassed by what is happening to their country, one of the EU’s big member states and its sixth largest economy. After fooling ourselves that we had finally overcome Europe’s East-West division to become part of the respectable (and fiscally responsible) North, we are firmly back in the East again, with western politicians shaking their fingers at what the EP President called the country’s rampant ‘Putinization’. And if PiS politicians’ ‘Putinesque’ retorts about the West’s double-standards weren’t enough – ‘protect your women before lecturing others’ they told the Germans after the New Year’s eve attacks in Cologne – several have also come out to stress the country’ cultural (read: not entirely western) distinctiveness.

The state we live in 

Yet, embarrassment and self-doubt are not the core issue here. For a country that’s been through as much history as Poland, where the nominal per capita GDP hovers around two-thirds of that of Greece, and with many Poles continuously seeking a better life abroad, the difference between national pride and shame is a familiar thin line.

Many are deeply worried about Poland losing international clout, but ultimately what matters more is the question of what kind of a country we Poles want to live in, and how we come to that agreement as a democratic polity. So far, the government maintains that it has done no more than implement the will of the people and protect Poland’s true interests: majorities reign, they say, and national interests sometimes trump the rule of law.

But there is no evidence that a majority of Poles approve of the government’s bold moves – nor that most readily accept the illiberal turn toward majoritarian politics that dismiss minority positions as a nuisance and see the law as a mere constraint. Many Poles voted for PiS because they were swayed by an election campaign focused on social justice (whatever happened to Poland’s Left, you asked?), or were disgusted with scandals that engulfed Civic Platform (PO) governments. Indeed, the glossy image of a ‘green isle’ Poland that fared exceptionally well through the economic crisis and that many associate with a PO narrative does not sit comfortably with many Poles, not just PiS voters. Yet the political marketplace has offered few alternatives: in Poland, social justice comes with an ultra-conservative social values agenda.

In a country where the President and Prime Minister stand accused of fronting for PiS’ chairman Jarosław Kaczyński, many are now left wondering what the party’s ultimate goal is: power as an end in itself or a means to realizing a vision of a country transformed, and if so, what sort of Poland lies ahead? Several thousand have come out onto the streets to protest across many cities in recent weeks.  Die-hard supporters remain loyal, while some less-decisive voters seem resigned to fence-sit and ‘give PiS a chance’. So how does the EU’s expressed concern for Poland’s democracy fit with all this?

Solidarity or a besieged fortress?  

The PiS government has not taken kindly to foreign criticism, with some of its leading figures lashing out at EU bureaucrats and (mostly Brussels-based German) politicians with tasteless quips that recall Poland’s past experiences with foreign ‘supervision’ – and unwittingly trivialize the Poles’ historical traumas.

There may be good reasons to question the wisdom of the Commission’s decision, especially since it is likely to expose its own powerlessness in the process. And indeed, the more outlandish polemic coming from some EP politicians may be counterproductive. But although caution in lecturing the Poles is advisable, the fear that foreign meddling could backfire is overstated.

To start with, domestic dissent by the ‘worst sort of Poles’ – as Kaczyński refers to the protesters – in and of itself derails PiS’ ‘besieged fortress’ defense. Secondly, Poles remain staunchly pro-European, and given their higher level of trust in the Brussels bureaucracy than their domestic political elite, the current stand-off is unlikely to turn them away.  And finally, Poles are more confident today than they were during PiS’ first stab at governing in the mid-2000s, shortly after Poland joined the EU, but had already gained an unfavourable reputation of an enfant terrible through the Iraq war and the constitutional treaty debacles. The fact that Poland has proven itself as a constructive integrationist during the PO’s tenure in power can now help shield patriotic sensibilities when confronted with foreign criticism.

But although a show of EU concern for developments in Poland can do no harm, ultimately the fate of the country’s democracy is for Poles’ themselves to sort out. Luckily, crises often come with opportunities.

The silver-lining here is that Poland’s PiS challenge is stirring a new political awakening, which should not only shake up the range of options on Poland’s political map, but also mobilize greater participation among Poles, ensuring that future governments are elected by larger shares of the electorate.  The current experience must leave Polish democracy more robust and its institutions fortified. More than twenty-five years since we won our freedom we face a real test of our democratic credentials as a people.

Dr Stefan Szwed is Research Associate at the Centre for International Studies in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford and Mairie de Paris Visiting Fellow at the Centre d’études et de recherches internationales, Sciences Po Paris. He is also a policy practicioner in the area of elections and democracy support.