Opinion: European, democratic, liberal and open Poland is now under threat
The ruling party wishes to follow the example of Victor Orbán’s Hungary and his model of ‘illiberal democracy” with the primacy of political will over law
“Jaroslaw Kaczynski holds no government position but, as leader of the PiS, he enjoys the undivided loyalty of his followers and of the new president, Andrzej Duda, who obediently follows the PiS party line.” REUTERS/Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski
Three months after it voted for change, Poland is wracked by crisis. After eight years in office, the liberal Civic Platform (PO) was cut down to size and banished to opposition. while Poland’s left did not even make it into the new parliament. All this despite the fact that while in the period 2008-2014 Poland’s accumulated growth was 28 per cent, the EU’s growth at that time was 2.5 per cent annually.
Instead, more than 50 per cent of those who voted (about half of the electorate), opted for change. Just 38 per cent handed a victory to Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s national conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) and, for the first time since the transition to democracy in 1989, a single party could form a government in Poland.
However, after Kaczynski absented himself from a campaign that pushed moderate slogans and reasonable faces, it is clear that that PiS and its leader misled the electorate.
Within weeks, this new government has attacked the very basis of the liberal democratic order and its institutional check-and-balances: the constitutional tribunal.
Fearing that Poland’s highest court might declare some new legislation unconstitutional, the PiS has introduced laws that render the tribunal powerless. It has allowed for political appointees to head the civil service at all levels and made the public media directly dependent on government. Independent prosecutors will soon be subjugated to the minister of justice and the whole justice system will be overhauled.
There is much more of this to come. And it will come quickly. Jaroslaw Kaczynski holds no government position but, as leader of the PiS, he enjoys the undivided loyalty of his followers and of the new president, Andrzej Duda, who obediently follows the PiS party line.
As Poland’s real leader, Kaczynski has declared that he wants to follow the example of Hungary’s Victor Orbán and his model of “illiberal democracy” with the primacy of political will over the law. During a recent parliamentary debate, a statement that “the good of the people comes before the law” was met with a standing ovation by the PiS majority. Several bishops have declared that “natural law” and morality comes before the constitution.
Kaczynski’s objective is to control all levers of power: the parliament, the government, the judiciary, the public media and, through pressure, even private business. And, just as during the bad Communist days, those who criticise these changes are called traitors to Poland who serve foreign interests – often with clear anti-German undertones.
Germany was a strong supporter of Poland’s membership of Nato and the EU, and has assisted the strengthening of regional security. Polish-German trade is bigger than Germany’s trade with Russia, and Poland does not have oil or gas to sell. Hundreds of thousands of people on both sides of the border are directly dependent on this economic co-operation.
All of this has not prevented the PiS from mobilising support by resorting to old anti-German cliches and a feeling of historical victimhood that still reverberates in Polish society.
Given that more than 75 per cent of Poles support membership of the EU, the party is more “nativist” that openly anti-European. But several European crises and challenges from the east and the south (such as refugees) have weakened the EU as the most decisive point of reference in Polish politics.
As a result, PiS strategists are raising the unrealistic prospect of a new alliance of smaller states from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Such a coalition of the weak will not materialise, given differing attitudes towards Putin’s revanchist Russia. Even the Baltic states, directly threatened by Russia, realise that such a coalition would be as much anti-Russian as anti-German. Growing security co-operation with Sweden and Finland will come to naught.
The real risk is that Poland, whose security and further economic development depends on European co-operation, will be politically isolated. For effective limitation of Russian action in our common neighbourhood, Poland is directly dependent on the cohesion of European and transatlantic unity to hold Russia in check.
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Now, thanks to the PiS threat, the liberal and leftist opposition has regrouped around the the defence of the constitution. Tens of thousands of people have marched in protest in many cities. Opposition will only grow as they are joined by middle-of-the road voters who opted for change during the elections and are hostile towards PiS attacks on the constitution. The greatest fear now is that demonstrations may yet turn violent.
For decades we fought for an independent, European, democratic, liberal and open Poland. Now we are witnessing a grave threat to this historical achievement.
Poland is now a deeply divided country, one where compromise is difficult to imagine. As in Turkey, Hungary and Russia, Poland is locked in a battle between traditionalists and the modernisers. Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his ardent followers know this and will do everything to secure their rule in the future.
If they succeed, not just Poland but the European Union will pay the price.
Eugeniusz Smolar is a foreign policy analyst, senior fellow and former chairman of the Centre for International Relations, Warsaw and former Head of the Polish Section, BBC World Service, London. He has assisted democracy movements, including Solidarity in Poland and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia.