Democracy | Poland

The Polish lesson

The government is remodelling the country. Many people in Poland are protesting against the changes. But why does the opposition remain so weak?

Various figures, e.g. old people, young people, police officers, protesters, are standing opposite each other in a colourful illustration. The figures are arranged in two rows, one above the other.

Germans in particular do not need to be told that history can be incomprehensible, cruel, even capricious - and at the same time infinitely stupid. 

However, history also teaches us about life like nothing else. Should Polish history also be taught in Europe's schools? In other words, can Poland give Europe anything, especially the Germans - apart from Robert Lewandowski? A bad example, perhaps? Malicious satisfaction? A warning? Or - God forbid - a glimpse into the future?

In the summer of 1989, I attended a conference on the future of Europe. The conference venue, a luxurious villa, was perched high above Lago di Como on a cypress-covered hillside. Opposition figures from all over the Soviet Union and its satellite states had gathered there.

“Should Polish history also be taught in Europe’s schools? What could Europe learn from Poland?”

For the first time in my life, I drank a ristretto, a kind of highly concentrated espresso, served along with mini eclairs by waiters dressed in snow-white.

I remember the stage fright I felt when I got into a dispute with the German-British sociologist Ralph Dahrendorf, who wanted to convince the Lithuanian oppositionists that Europe must have borders and that they should stay on the other side - for the good of Europe, of course.

My remark that SPD politicians had already said this about Poland when they met with the underground trade union Solidarność in 1987 was not taken up by Dahrendorf or anyone else.

We felt like adopted children at a family reunion of the rich. A fellow Vaclav Havel's worker, it must have been Michael Žantovský, built us up again. He appeared in a worn-out jumper, looked sleepily at the lake, frowned when he saw the sailing boats gliding on the azure water, and grumbled: “Kitsch”. We remembered who we were - defenders of the free word to whom history had just opened its doors.

“In 2004, Poland finally joined the EU. This was more than the fulfilment of our dreams”

At the opposition newspaper “Gazeta Wyborcza”, where I worked as stand-in deputy editor-in-chief to Adam Michnik for 16 years, we felt that we could finally make the world a better place. We had left behind underground journalism, which was, as Václav Havel put it, merely “the power of the powerless”.

Although the first editorial office was held ina run-down kindergarten, the “election newspaper” (as the name translates, reflecting how it appeared for the first free elections in 1989) quickly rose to become an opinion-leading paper and a major publishing house.

In 2004, Poland finally joined the EU. This was more than the fulfilment of our dreams. Poland, that’s us, we thought, and we thought that  those who were not yet on board would back the plan in the future.

But then, more than a decade later, in 2015, Jarosław Kaczyński’s EU-sceptical, nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party won the elections. What had happened?

“The PiS is carrying out economic redistribution. Money flows directly into people’s pockets”

A primitive explanation is that the PiS had bought its voters. But the truth is more complicated.

The PiS is carrying out economic redistribution. Money flows directly into people’s pockets: With the “500-plus programme”, the state pays a generous child benefit of 500 zloty (the equivalent of around 120 euros) per child per month to help “Polish families” and to protect the country from an alleged demographic catastrophe. 

In addition, the PiS pays pensioners a so-called pensioners a so-called “13th and 14th pension”, special payments amounting to theminimum pension. In May this year, it announced tax cuts for the poor and promised that by 2030 Poland’s wealth would reach the EU average. 

Already today, the gross domestic product per capita is already 77 percent of the purchasing power in the EU. During the years of the first PiS government, i.e. between 2015 and 2019, the percentage of people at risk of poverty fell from 23.4 to 18.2 percent, which is below the EU average of 21.4 per cent.

Despite these gigantic money transfers, the Polish state budget did not collapse. And gross domestic product continued to grow, expanding by 4.6 to 5.5 percent per year from 2017 to 2020.

The increase in social spending has given poorer people their dignity back. The “500-plus programme” moved a group of struggling and forgotten people from the margins back into society. For many, it was the first time that the state remembered them. But this is only one of the answers to the question of why the PiS was re-elected in 2019.

“Many European countries have witnessed a longing for national identity, as well as a scepticism towards elites”

Conservative fears of the modern world are being underestimated. Kaczyński cleverly arouses these and at the same time while promising to protect Poland from their dangers. On the list of what causes fear are refugees, LGBT people, but also Germans, who supposedly decide everything and everything and exploit the “poor Poles”.

According to PiS ideology, all elites are enemies, too, with the “haughty judges” in the forefront. Many European countries have witnessed a longing for community and national identity, as well as an underlying scepticism towards elites, who have alienated themselves from the people. 

For this reason, it is important to learn the Polish lesson. Democrats around the world who are striving to mitigate the excesses of modern capitalism must aim for greater equality and to give and restore dignity to those on the margins of society, without falling into populist patterns. And they must commit to a non-toxic patriotism. No easy task.

“For my generation of democrats, the moral decline of the church is very painful”

And who would have expected that a governing party in the centre of Europe in the 21st century would write in its programme that there is “no competition whatsoever” with Catholic doctrine? This focus on religion is anachronistic.

But the PiS even supports Polish clerics who at times completely contradict the teachings of Pope Francis, such as Archbishop Jedraszewski of Krakow and his homophobic statements: “The red plague is no longer sweeping our earth, but a new neo-Marxist one has taken its place. A rainbow plague”.

For my generation of democrats, the moral decline of the church is very painful. We remember this institution’s services to the democratic opposition in the 1970s and 1980s, and how Pope John Paul II and the Polish bishops supported Poland's accession to the EU.

“A politician who says terrible things is more attractive than a reasonable person”

But there is another threat to democracy in Poland. Today's media consumption is based on the principle of emotional reactions, quick associations and rapid fires that heat up the internet only to suddenly die down again.

The same is now true of politics. Twitter has become a game, a quick succession of hashtags, with the actual topic remaining sidelined. What is crucial is the infotainment, the entertainment that politics provides.

The audience loves a scandal. From this point of view, a politician who says terrible things, including terribly stupid things, is more attractive than a reasonable person.

Extreme simplification, demagoguery, fake news - all these help those in power to stay in power because they limit rational access to politics. The danger that lies will win, and worse, that the line between truth and lies will disappear, is real.

Maybe when the PiS came to power in 2015 it was still dreaming of turning the country into a kind of second Bavaria, a Polish version of “laptop and lederhosen”, the supposedly successful combination of tradition and modernity. But at the moment Orban's Hungary is more the role model.

The independence of the judiciary seems to be a thorn in the government's side. After the infiltration of the Constitutional Court, the National Judicial Council and part of the Supreme Court, which is the highest court of appeal in Poland, Kaczynski announced the reform of the general courts, which should make it possible to replace disagreeable judges in future.

Further laws limit the independence of the media. Today, the government is already overburdening the media with countless lawsuits. It is also attacking NGOs and what it views as renegade local governments. At the same time, the rulers are hoping for EU funds: over sixty billion euros are to be allocated to Poland from the European Recovery Fund.

The funds are to be used to overcome the social and economic consequences of the Corona crisis and to ensure Poland’s further development. This, in turn, is intended to satisfy in particular the PiS rural voters and a part of the middle class.

“The young people are feminist, green, European and angry”

One could conclude from all this that we are dealing with a powerful government that has all the tools in its hand. But this is not the whole picture. According to recent polls, a coalition of four pro-democracy opposition parties could win the next elections with an overwhelming 57 to 29 percent of the vote.

The replacement of the PiS thus seems to be a generational issue: the ruling party has little support, especially among the 18-29 age group.

Only two percent intend to vote for it. The young people who are currently taking to the streets in Poland against the government's policies are feminist, green, European and angry because there is no housing for them.

But the parliamentary opposition in Poland is not able to tap into the potential of the youth uprising. Maltreated by recent electoral defeats, it is incapable of creating a counter-vision of Poland in the 21st century.

Only the Polska 2050 party of Szymon Holownia, a moderate Catholic and conservative who used to be a writer, is an active volunteer and a star in show business, offers some hope for a turnaround. He targets the rural electorate and less educated people.

In doing so, he is breaking the previous class thinking in Polish politics, according to which the common people support the political right while the elite vote for the opposition. In the polls, Holovnia's party has meanwhile relegated the liberals from Civic Platform to third place.

But there have been recent upheavals within the government camp: In April 2021, one of the PiS coalition parties, the mini-party of Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, refused to vote for the adoption of the European Recovery Fund. However, the opposition was willing to take advantage of the situation and impose conditions on the PiS for their yes votes.

To make matters worse, it ignored the successes already achieved by associations and citizens' groups trying to negotiate with the government on how the huge sums of the reconstruction plan should be spent and how they should be controlled. Instead, the left entered into separate negotiations with PiS, and so the opposition did not emerge from the government crisis stronger, but more divided than before.

“For the Germans, Poland is a huge market”

The opposition has even made itself a useful idiot for the government. A combination of parties and citizens' initiatives could have improved the Polish Reconstruction Plan and, in the process, given a new energy boost to the already tired opposition politicians. It could have mended the torn bonds between the political class and the people and roused Poles from the lethargy that so afflicts us all.

The opposition could also have shown the European Union that the PiS party leadership no longer has any legitimacy. That PiS not only consistently violates Article 2 of the EU Treaty, in which EU member states commit themselves to democratic values, but also has serious problems within the country itself.

The recent rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) that deemed that the reforms threaten the independence of the judiciary in Poland at least raise hopes that the European Union will remember to protect Polish democracy. Unfortunately, the spirit of Dahrendorf hovers over Brussels today. Different rules are supposed to apply on the peripheries of the EU than in the European core.

And interests always count. For the Germans, Poland is a huge market; imports and exports from and to Poland are twice as large as those from and to Russia. Ursula von der Leyen owes her post in Brussels not least to the votes of the PiSEU parliamentarians.

It is sometimes said that the European Union tolerates Polish authoritarianism because the fathers and mothers of the treaties did not foresee that one of the member states would deliberately dismantle its democracy. There is nothing the EU can do.

But this policy is not without risk. Poland is the fifth largest state in the EU. Every time PiS goes against the political principles of the European community, it is an incentive for smaller post-communist states to follow suit; Hungary is already no longer a democracy, but one should also look to Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria.

For the European Union as a whole, the successes of Kaczynski's PiS are tantamount to a frightening realisation: the community is tolerating a political project that contradicts all the values that supposedly underlie it. Thus, the European Community is gradually turning into a fake, or worse still - into kitsch. 

Translated by Gabriele Lesser and Jess Smee