As the drizzle fell from the slate-grey wintery skies onto the crowd of supporters amassed before him, the most powerful man in Poland was becoming increasingly incensed about the democratic limits placed on his rule. “We won the elections, and we have no right to change the law?” asked Jaroslaw Kaczynski, his face a mixture of incredulity and anger. “We have no right to rebuild the state?” he scoffed. “We want to rebuild Poland. And it will be the great reconstruction.”
Huddled under umbrellas or wrapped in scarves to shelter from the December Warsaw weather, those gathered cheered each rhetorical flourish. That day thousands more would march through the Polish capital waving national flags and holding up patriotic slogans to show their support for Kaczynski and his conservative, right-wing government.
The leader of the Law and Justice party had been in power for just one month. But the boundaries of Poland’s democratic institutions were already getting on his nerves. “All that has occurred in the last 26 years was wrong and shameful. And we want to change it,” Kaczynski continued. “We have to mobilize. Otherwise we will not be able to achieve victory. We say we can do it! But it cannot be just words. It must be mobilized.” “Communists and thieves!” shouted one supporter, parroting one of Kaczynski’s favorite insults aimed at his liberal opponents. The 66-year old smiled and nodded.
A fortnight later, in late-night sessions of parliament on the eve of Christmas and amid the slumber of the festive break, as ordinary Poles busied themselves with family gatherings and last-minute chores, Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party pushed through legislation that gave it control of the country’s public media channels, and paralyzed the only court that could overrule parliamentary authority. Kaczynski had won the election and taken control of parliament. But he had found the country’s institutional system of checks and balances not to his liking. So he took control of the system, too.
Poland changed so radically and so fast that most foreign observers had trouble assimilating what was going on. At the heart of the confusion was disbelief at the merits of tarnishing such a stunning success story of nation-building. Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party rejects outright Poland’s assumed narrative and recent trajectory from unsteady post-communist state to Europe’s sixth-largest economy. It does not see Poland as the star pupil of the EU’s mission to instruct the continent’s east in centrist liberalism. Rather, the Party’s political ideology is built around the mantra that Poland’s transition from communism to capitalism was a compromised, flawed failure—one that “needs to be fixed.”
“The establishment in this country say that everything is okay,” Kaczynski told the Financial Times earlier this year. “But everything is not okay. It is radically not okay. . . . And this is what we want to fix, to change, step by step,” said the short, stocky ideologue with a swipe of silver hair. “This is not revolution but reformation. There is a whole range of things that need to be fixed. By the very nature of change, it will result in conflict.”
There’s no doubt about the accuracy of that prediction. “We only want to cure our country of a few illnesses,” Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski—chosen, like all of the cabinet, by Kaczynski—told the German tabloid Bild earlier this year. Such illnesses include “a new mixture of cultures and races, a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and who battle all signs of religion. . . . What moves most Poles [is] tradition, historical awareness, love of country, faith in God, and normal family life between a woman and a man,” he insisted, blaming the “left-wing politics” of previous Polish governments for the country’s ills.
The depredations of cyclists and vegetarians notwithstanding, Poland’s previous two decades unquestionably propelled the country to historic heights in a variety of areas. No other former member of the Soviet bloc has done so well under capitalism. Poland was the only country in Europe, and one of only a handful in the West, to avoid a recession after the financial crisis of 2008. And while its citizens are still poorer than their European cousins in France or Germany, Poland’s prosperity and wealth have grown at rates surpassing all of its peers.
Poland’s membership of the European Union, achieved in 2004, and NATO, in 1999, provided it international political and security clout, and cemented its position as an independent and important player in its neighborhood. It developed a close and fruitful friendship with Republican and Democratic U.S. administrations alike, as well as the best relations for generations with Russia and Germany, historical enemies that had previously invaded, annexed, and annihilated the country.
In short, using any number of metrics, Poland had never had it so good. Yet 5.7 million Poles, lured more by the pull of economic promises and the push of a lackluster campaign by the liberal incumbents than by a yearning for Kaczynski-led “reformation,” decided that the country needed change.
Part of the reason this turn of events shouldn’t be such a surprise is that statistics can mask truths. While Poland’s GDP growth between 2004 and 2014 was almost twice that of any other EU member state, much of the riches from that boom were banked in the country’s largest cities. Glass and steel skyscrapers filled with multinational companies now tower above the clean, well-laid sidewalks of Warsaw. Cafes, bars, and art galleries dot the similarly metropolitan cities of Krakow, Gdansk, and Poznan, where a well travelled, often English-speaking liberal elite live in suburban comfort comparable with the biggest cities in Europe. But outside of the prosperous cities, and particularly in the country’s east, where a longer legacy of Russian occupation has depressed living standards and development indicators, progress has been slow. The market economy eroded traditional ways of life without adequate recompense. “Poland B”, as politicians and analysts often refer to it, felt short-changed and looked for someone to blame.
Kaczynski sensed this opportunity. His promise to give every family $125 per month for each child born after the first was cynical and expensive, but proved a wildly effective vote-winner. His warnings of the dangers of Islamic immigrants chimed with the country’s deeply Catholic working classes. And promises to tax the foreign-dominated banking and retail industries and redistribute the proceeds to ordinary Poles played on the trope that external forces were influencing the running of the country for their own financial benefit.
Out of office for eight years, the party’s promises of economic redistribution clicked with a swath of mainly lower-class Poles who felt overlooked by the country’s recent economic success. And like many parties on the Right and Left in Europe that reject the liberal center, it capitalized on the mass inflow of more than a million, mainly Muslim, asylum seekers who arrived on the continent from the Middle East during this past year, ratcheting up its anti-immigrant rhetoric and painting itself as the defender of traditional, Catholic values in a Europe under siege. Kaczynski personally warned of the danger of immigrants bringing “parasites” to Poland. His refusal to negotiate with Brussels over a quota system for distributing asylum seekers across the European Union proved enormously popular.
Meanwhile, the previous administration, which had built a solid alliance with Germany and strongly supported the European Union, was cast as a cabal of traitors who had sold Poland out to foreign powers imposing a Western, liberal approach on the traditionally more conservative country. The fear of foreign domination is one of Poland’s strongest cultural tropes: The state ceased to exist for 123 years until the end of World War I due to annexation by foreign powers, was invaded by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 and spent more than four decades under the rule of communist Moscow until 1989.
At the same time, Kaczynski kept himself out of the limelight as much as possible to avoid alienating centrist voters who had grown tired of the current administration but would have balked at the thought of giving him control of the country. He chose Andrzej Duda, a fresh-faced lawyer with solid right-wing credentials, to run for President, and anointed Beata Szydlo, a steely eyed party loyalist, as his Prime Minister of choice. The sleight-of-hand worked: Both won office.
Thanks to a collapse in support for the country’s traditional left-wing parties, a splintering of liberal votes, and the peculiar mathematics of Poland’s electoral system, Law and Justice converted 37.6 percent of the votes cast in October into the first parliamentary majority in the country’s democratic history, to the surprise of many inside the party and the shock of its opponents. Kaczynski’s party thus came to control all arms of Poland’s political apparatus: parliament, senate, and presidency.
But that was just the beginning. Having seized formal political power with both hands, Kaczynski took the Party’s unprecedented electoral success as unquestionable justification to vehemently oppose any challenge to its authority. It moved swiftly to acquire as much control as possible by capturing, dismantling, or neutering institutions that have in the past acted as checks and balances on parliamentary power. The key, and the first target of his effort, was to shackle Poland’s capacity for judicial oversight.
Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal is the highest court in the land and one bestowed with the power to overrule parliament by judging whether new legislation is legal according to the constitution. This court, whose members are appointed for nine-year terms by parliament, had proved to be a thorn in Kaczynski’s side during his previous term in office, which ended prematurely after two years in 2007. He learned his lesson. Utilizing the pretense of some political skullduggery by the previous administration, which had attempted controversially to squeeze two extra appointees onto the court before it lost control of parliament, Kaczynski announced a full overhaul to correct the court’s alleged bias.
The changes to the court, which included swearing in five new judges of the party’s choosing, adjusting the majority needed to pass a resolution, and changing the way the court prioritized cases, in effect rendered it toothless. Protests erupted. The court itself ruled that the reform was illegal, but the government refused to publish that decision. When human rights groups condemned the changes as an “assault” on democracy, Kaczynski labeled the critics “enemies of Poland.” Amid all the shouting, the court ground to a halt and the country lurched into a full-blown constitutional crisis.
Within two months of winning control of parliament, Law and Justice had succeeded in paralyzing the judicial institution that had stymied its efforts in the past. Since then, the crisis has rumbled on, and the party has had essentially free reign to legislate in parliament. The results are manifest.
Amid the throttling of the Constitutional Tribunal, Kaczynski purged management positions in Poland’s public television and radio channels, replacing them with party apparatchiks. The intelligence agencies and public prosecutor, too, have been brought under political control. Executives not close to the government have been sacked from major companies. So deep is the party’s hatred for the previous administration, and so insatiable is its desire to exert its authority, that even the management of a world-famous horse stud operation has been purged. Though not without repercussion: Two pedigree horses died at the prestigious Janow Podlaski stud farm after the government replaced the three experience breeders who ran the farm with a former economist.
Such a root-and-branch overhaul and politicization of institutions is not uncommon in post-Soviet states following electoral reversals. Since 1989, most have yet to build fully professional and apolitical civil service cadres. Bureaucratic and administrative culture is still often affected by a communist hangover of political bias. But Law and Justice’s assault on notionally impartial structures of Polish society has been noteworthy for its speed, aggression, and complete disregard for compromise or political inclusion.
It is also unusual in that it amounts to one-man rule, but the ruler rules from behind. Officially, Kaczynski is merely just another member of parliament. But since their respective elections, the President has made midnight visits to seek his counsel and the Prime Minister has faced an almost weekly assessment of her performance from the party leader in media interviews.
Orchestrated from his drab, whitewashed office on the second floor of a non-descript dated office building on a street corner in Warsaw, Kaczynski exercises his party’s power de facto and without opposition. His modus operandi is to disparage, mock, or undermine opponents rather than counter their arguments. The party’s critics are portrayed as underhanded traitors with questionable morals or suspicious backgrounds who are acting against the democratic right of Polish voters.
Attempts to challenge him or his party’s right to govern are not tolerated in Kaczynski’s illiberal democracy; they are instead derided as examples of subversion or insurgency. “In Poland, there is a horrible tradition of national treason, a habit of informing on Poland to foreign bodies,” Kaczynski said after some opposition politicians complained to European authorities about Law and Justice’s actions in office. “And that’s what it is. As if it is in their genes, in the genes of Poles of the worst sort.”
Kaczynski’s animosity toward his political enemies draws on a deep-rooted personal grievance, too. After the fall of communism and the surrender of their common enemy, Poland’s political elites divided into two warring camps. Those preferring compromise and reconciliation with institutions and officials that had worked for the communist regime won the debate. Hardliners calling for a full purge of anyone associated with the previous regime were overruled. It is a divide that remains today: Kaczynski has never forgiven the liberals who, in his eyes, betrayed the revolution.
Then, in 2010, Kaczynski’s twin brother Lech, serving as Poland’s President, died in a tragic plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, that killed all 96 on board. Jaroslaw, who was extremely close to his brother, was devastated, and has worn black clothes ever since. In the years that have followed, nationalist politicians have claimed that Russian authorities orchestrated the crash. Others have alleged that the liberal government in power in Poland at the time was to blame. While multiple investigations have ruled the crash an accident Kaczynski has accused his political enemies of being “responsible for the tragedy, at least in moral terms.”
Kaczynski is a fine historian, an avid reader, and a political junkie. He grew up just after World War II in Warsaw, a city that had been callously reduced to rubble by Adolf Hitler’s authoritarian regime and was struggling to survive under the heel of Josef Stalin’s similarly repressive boot. As such, to incorrectly paint him and his Law and Justice Party as comparably dictatorial offends him on both a personal and an intellectual level. But, like his ally Viktor Órban in Budapest, who first coined the phrase “illiberal democracy” to describe his time in office since 2010, Kaczynski is a majoritarian. In his view, democracy is an act that takes place once every four years at a ballot box, not a continual process that informs every aspect of running a country.
Having achieved a parliamentary majority, Kaczynski believes he has been bestowed with the legitimacy to rule without encumbrance, armed with a popular mandate that he contends cannot be challenged, save by those seeking to undermine democracy itself. The party’s crusade against institutions that challenged this theory was swift and blatant. When in late December the party passed laws giving it political control of the upper ranks of the country’s civil service and public media, it justified its moves by pointing to criticism within those bodies. “If the media imagine they’re going to take up Polish people’s time with criticism of our reforms,” said Ryszard Terlecki, head of the Party’s parliamentary caucus, “then it is time to put a stop to that.”
Similar short shrift was given to opposition to legislation that combines the functions of the country’s Justice Minister and the previously politically independent Prosecutor General, which gave the party increased control over criminal cases and the country’s justice system.
Clearly, the Law and Justice Party has brought its own brand of illiberal, reactionary rule to the largest country in Eastern Europe. Despite some internal rumblings, its tenure seems secure on the basis of a potent political formula that happens to resemble that of most interwar era East-Central European regimes: a paternalist and populist form of corporate nationalism.
The party is socially conservative, promoting a traditional moral code deeply rooted in the beliefs of the country’s powerful Catholic Church. Fiscally, it speaks of ending inequality through generous public handouts funded by taxes on mainly foreign-dominated industries. Kaczynski and his party evince a burning desire to turn back the clock, stemming from a deep revulsion for the liberal, progressive steps that Poland has taken since the fall of communism in 1989. It is a disgust that draws on a powerful combination of personal bitterness, political opportunism, and an impressively acute sense of public opinion. And it is a doctrine that is now running a country that is home to 38 million Poles.
As far as the rest of the world is concerned, the party is mostly inward-looking, with a penchant for a strong national defense and deep skepticism for the pan-national approach of the European Union. A thick streak of historical revanchism runs through the party’s foreign policy: Kaczynski never misses a chance to dredge up past crimes committed against Poland and harbors a special distrust for Germany and Russia, the country’s neighbors and historic foes.
Poland’s sharp change of direction has not gone unnoticed by the international community. The most robust response has come from the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union in Brussels, which has agreed to give Poland roughly $16 billion a year in budget support until 2020, its largest beneficiary of its so-called Structural Fund to support development. In January, it reacted to the court overhaul by instigating its first-ever investigation into whether one of its member countries had breached its regulations to uphold “rule of law,” a process that could, in theory, lead to financial sanctions against Warsaw if it fails to respond to Brussels’ demands to allow the court to function.
The United States, Poland’s most important defense and security ally, has attempted to stay out of the fray in public, but is pressuring the Polish government through diplomatic channels to resolve the constitutional crisis. When President Duda visited Washington in March, he was denied an official meeting with President Obama, despite efforts by Polish diplomats, in what was interpreted as an intentional snub by the White House.
Others have been less diplomatic in their criticism. Former President Bill Clinton said in May that, “Poland and Hungary, two countries that would not have been free but for the United States and the long Cold War, have now decided this democracy is too much trouble. . . . They want Putin-like leadership: just give me an authoritarian dictatorship and keep the foreigners out,” President Clinton said, in remarks condemned by Warsaw.
Kaczynski’s opponents in Warsaw are keen for the international community to stay abreast of the actions of his government. But many are well aware that any suspicion of attempts by overseas capitals to influence Polish political discourse just adds fuel to the Law and Justice argument that it is the only party capable of protecting Poland from foreign meddling. Thus, in January, after Martin Schulz, the German President of the European Parliament, accused Law and Justice of “Putin-style politics,” and Gunther Oettinger, the German European Commissioner, called for a tougher response to the party’s actions, Poland’s Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro compared EU oversight of Poland to the Nazi occupation of the country during World War II.
Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister has warned of a “black PR campaign” against the country by foreign actors, while foreign correspondents for international newspapers based in Warsaw have been targeted with hate-speech attacks and singled out for criticism by government officials and supporters.
Investors are taking note of all this. In 2016 so far, the Polish zloty has been one of the worst-performing currencies in Eastern Europe against the euro, and the yield on Polish ten-year debt has risen almost 20 percent since October’s election, as the market prices in greater political risk. In January, Standard & Poors downgraded Poland’s credit rating for the first time ever, citing the government’s “more confrontational” actions and penchant for division with Brussels. Warsaw called the decision “incomprehensible.”
And after its initial shock, Poland’s liberal civic society has shown a dogged determination to oppose the actions of the new regime. In response to the Law and Justice Party’s version of shock and awe, hundreds of thousands have regularly massed on the streets of Poland’s cities in protest. Not since the 1980s, when millions of Poles demonstrated against their country’s Moscow-imposed communist regime in a movement that precipitated the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the USSR, has the country’s civil society been so engaged in national politics.
Indeed, many of those protesting see parallels to the regime that fell in 1989 in the party’s rhetoric and desire for full control, if not the manner in which it seeks to influence the country’s society and economy. Such a crude comparison is erroneous, but for millions of Poles that dreamt of building a liberal Western democracy in authoritarian communism’s wake, the events of the past seven months smell strongly like regression.
Dozens of major protests have already taken place so far this year, mainly decrying the paralysis of the constitutional court and calling on the government to roll back its changes and allow it to function. And protesters triumphed in April after a fierce public backlash to Kaczynski’s support for a church proposal for an outright ban on abortion. The party was forced to hurriedly abandon the plan following major public protests and staged walkouts from Sunday masses.
The abortion episode was the first major retreat of the new administration and as such was seized upon by government critics as proof that sustained opposition could provide some resistance to the government’s overhaul. “Kaczynski over-reached on the abortion issue and he quickly realized,” said a senior member of the ruling party. “Public anger over legislative issues can be tolerated. But the very emotional reaction to this sensitive social issue was totally different.”
Nonetheless, overall public opinion in Poland is still with Kaczynski and his “reformation.” After six months in office, support for his party stood at just under 40 percent, in a slight increase on the October election result, underpinned by poorer voters and those in rural areas. But Poland is becoming increasingly divided. The battle lines drawn during 2015’s election campaigns have been scored deeper: Political debate is increasingly being reduced to whether one is for or against the government; journalists are expected to make their position clear, and doing so can often mean the difference between employment or not.
Polarization plays into Kaczynski’s hands, for he is a politician expertly skilled in the arts of division. Maintaining a climate of conflict and instability keeps his supporters engaged. The outrage and condemnation from the liberal opposition, foreign powers, and faceless EU bureaucrats bolsters his image as the defender of the “true Poland.” For now, aggression and provocation are shoring up his Party’s popularity, not diminishing it.
Last month, just a few days before a deadline set by the European Commission for Warsaw to show progress in ending the paralysis of the constitutional court or face the next stage of its disciplinary process, Law and Justice spent a day of parliamentary business passing a law that implied Brussels was threatening democracy—the very charge Law and Justice stand accused of. “Poland is a sovereign state and you forget about it,” Prime Minister Beata Szydło told Poland’s parliament in May, during a debate that summed up much of the party’s us-versus-them attitude of misplaced, aggressive defiance. “The Polish government will never bend under any ultimatum. The Polish government will never let anyone impose their will on the Polish people. The Polish government will only yield to the will of Polish citizens,” she said, as Kaczynski listened from the benches below.
Generally, normal functioning democracies do not usually feel the need to dedicate a day of parliamentary debate to the question of whether or not they exist. But then Poland is not presently a normal functioning democracy, and, as in Hungary, opposition politicians are beginning to wonder whether the Law and Justice Party would ever allow an election to take place that the leadership thinks it might lose. So perhaps the Orwellian language is not as pointless as it may seem. “In line with the Constitution, the Republic of Poland is a sovereign, democratic state under the rule of law. The country has recently faced threats to its autonomy, which undermine the rules of democracy, law, and social peace,” read the resolution presented to members of parliament and emotionally endorsed by Szydlo.
Boycotted by almost all opposition MPs, the vote passed with 267 lawmakers in favor and four against. As the speaker of parliament read out the result, the Law and Justice benches rose to heartily applaud their victory.
Rafał Trzaskowski, a former Minister for European Affairs and a senior opposition lawmaker, called the vote “a show of incredible weakness.” He asked witheringly, “Can you imagine any Parliament, say, in Britain, Germany, or France, resorting to such a resolution? Sovereignty is a matter of action, not words.” To complete the sense of farce, the visitor galleries above the chamber, typically reserved for diplomats, foreign envoys, and official observers, were filled with high school students looking on in disinterested boredom as the debate unfolded.
“This is not a good day for Polish democracy,” mused Grzegorz Schetyna, the leader of the opposition. Few on the government benches were paying attention. To them, Schetyna is an irrelevance. For now, this is their parliament. This is their country.