Poland’s New Transition: Now from Democracy to Dictatorship?

Once, Poland was a success story of postcommunist transition. Throughout the 1980s this largest satellite state of the Soviet Union in Europe faced unprecedented privations symbolized by rationing cards, never-ending queues and shortages of absolutely all essentials. The situation eventually delegitimized the communist regime and simultaneously radicalized the population. The only solution to this dilemma (apart from following the option of a bloody civil war with Soviet involvement) was a negotiated change to democracy and a free market economy. That is what followed, despite economic difficulties heaped on the state’s inhabitants (especially in the countryside and in the urban areas with rapidly decommissioned heavy industry) in the course of the systemic transition. In 1999 Poland joined Nato and half a decade later, in 2004, the European Union (EU). The prudence and efficiency of governance in economy was such that after the current economic crisis hit in 2008 Poland was the only EU member state where economic did not plummet and actually continued to grow. In the new eastern half of the EU, the country became the partner of Germany and France in shaping the Union’s future. On the wave of these successes the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was elected President of the European Council (that gathers the leaders of all EU member states).

Enthronement of Christ, King of Poland, November 19, 2016

A sudden turn came in 2015 when the presidential and parliamentary elections were won by the Law and Justice (PiS) party. With the use of the swiftly politicized state mass media this party rewrites the aforementioned economic and political successes as a high treason of the Polish nation. In the party’s propaganda the country is in ruins, its economy robbed blind by international capital, while the foreign ownership of some newspapers and other types of mass media outlets made Poland into a colony, infecting Poles’ minds with rootless cosmopolitanism. The EU is a new Soviet bloc that saps Poland’s national substance by allowing for migration to other EU members, and by imposing quotas of culturally alien (read: Muslim) immigrants on Poland during the ongoing immigration crisis. What is at stake is Polish Christian national values that must be protected at all cost, namely the linguistic and religious homogeneity of the country. Only Poles should reside in Poland, and a proper Pole must be a Polish-speaking Catholic.

This is a program of a renewed exclusivist national revolution, toying with the idea of economic autarchy (or in other words, national self-sufficiency) and even with that of leaving the EU when developmental funds have finally ceased flowing from Brussels’ coffers. PiS’s unabashed populism works, especially propped with the 500+ offer of monthly payments of PLN500 (£103) per every second and further child. It is a significant boost to families’ budgets in the country where the average net industrial monthly wage is around £600, while the minimal net monthly pay is a mere £300. Hence, now this sector of the Polish population gains most who lost economically and socially most during the postcommunist transition. The unrealistic hope is that increased natality will replace migrants who left after Poland’s 2004 accession to the EU and prevent the need of boosting the country’s aging population with immigration from abroad. This program of preserving and growing the ‘national substance’ attracts the nationally-minded part of society who have been successful in postcommunist Poland. The overwhelmingly conservative (that is, illiberal and nationalist) Catholic Church in Poland actively supports the recent changes thus giving even more credence and legitimacy to PiS and its supporters.

That is how democracy works, the majority of voters win. The perennial dilemma is who is going to defend democracy itself when a democratically elected government decides to dismantle a country’s democratic system. And that is what at present is taking place in Poland. The incumbent Polish President and Prime Minister take orders from the PiS Chairman (Prezes) Jarosław Kaczyński. The latter is merely a humble MP with no official role in the government or the President’s office. But both President and Prime Minister, alongside ministers regularly visit Kaczyński’s house and wait for hours on end to be granted an audience with Chairman before taking an important decision. It is Kaczyński who personally decides about Polish politics, who is going to become a minister or a regional governor (wojewoda) and whom to nominate as CEOs and to the boards of state-owned companies and monopolies.

The checks and balances provided by the separation of powers that should limit this increasing arbitrary governance are actively dismantled. The current Minister of Justice is also serving as Public Prosecutor General. PiS does not have a super majority in the Parliament necessary for changing the Constitution, but the functioning of the Constitutional Tribunal (as yet not fully dominated by the party) was effectively stalled by a series of extralegal decisions taken by the government and forced through the Parliament. In late 2015 Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, described the situation in Poland as displaying ‘characteristics of a coup.’ In March and July 2016 Germany’s and President Barack Obama’s respective criticisms of the erosion of democracy observed in Poland fell on PiS’s deaf ears. The Venice Commission (officially known as European Commission for Democracy through Law) is an advisory body of the Council of Europe. Since February 2016 the Commission’s representatives have investigated the situation of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal. The investigation’s successive conclusions were increasingly negative of the Polish government, which thus in October decided to stop any ‘cooperation with the Venice Commission’ on this issue.

Neither the Council of Europe nor the European Union are left with any other instruments to compel Poland to observe the rule of law and the principles of democracy. Naming and shaming have not worked. Kaczyński’s role model is the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who even coined the novel concept of ‘illiberal democracy.’ Both met in September 2016 and in the wake of Brexit proposed that the only way forward for Poland and Hungary is ‘cultural counterrevolution.’ They mean ethnolinguistic nationalism as opposed to ‘cosmopolitan European identity,’ which according to the two politicians, had been unjustifiably imposed by the narrow elites on the continent’s unwilling inhabitants. When it comes to economy, their motto is ‘economic patriotism,’ or semi-autarchy of nation states where companies and banks ought to be overwhelmingly owned by national capital and the state. Kaczyński and Orbán’s invitation to Czechia and Slovakia to join this Central European counterrevolution was rejected, at least for now.

Kaczyński and Orbán are chairmen of the respective ruling parties in Poland and Hungary. The difference is that Orbán, as Hungary’s Prime Minister, takes political and personal responsibility for decisions taken. On the other hand, Kaczyński has no official role in the structure of Polish governance, but tightly – though solely informally – controls it through the docile government and President. Chairman Kaczyński remains in the shadow but is the undisputed ruler of Poland, though without a shred of democratic legitimacy. It does not bother him, and neither does his supporters. The Polish nation-state, which was established in 1918, experienced functioning democracy only for four years in the interwar period (1922-26) and for 26 years after the end of communism (1989-2015), in total for 30 years. But during the almost century when modern Poland has existed, the norm (for over six decades) has been either dictatorship or totalitarianism.

The populist desire continues to be widespread among Poland’s inhabitants for a providential strongman who would right all the wrongs. The model is Naczelnik (Leader) Józef Piłsudski, who governed Poland with little democratic legitimacy from 1918-22, on the strength of his military successes as Commander-in-Chief of the Polish forces. In 1926 he staged a coup that ended democracy in interwar Poland, becaming the country’s de facto ruler until his death in 1935. Piłsudski preserved the façade of the democratic institutions (including elections and the Parliament), but it was him who without any official function in the government ruled Poland from his private residence. President, Prime Minister and ministers took orders from Piłsudski, like nowadays from Kaczyński. The small difference between these two is that the former’s actual locus of power was the army’s officer corps, while Kaczyński’s power base is his PiS party buttressed by Catholic hierarchs.

Commonly, a dictator is defined as a person (almost invariably a male) invested with effective control over the state’s executive, legislative and judiciary branches of power; with expired or no electoral legitimacy to rule. With as yet the qualified exception of the judiciary, Kaczyński’s personal system of rule fulfills this definition of a dictator. By now, after one year in power, Kaczyński’s dictatorship has been bloodless and softer than Piłsudski’s. Despite Kaczyński’s vociferous anti-Russian line, his style of governing has more in common with the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s system of ‘managed democracy’ or China’s Beijing Consensus than with Piłsudski’s interwar dictatorship prominently underpinned by the military. But looking at examples from the past closer to today’s Poland, the current regime, in spite of Kaczyński’s entrenched anticommunism, curiously reminds of how the Soviet bloc countries were governed. The positions of prime ministers or presidents were purely ornamental in the Soviet satellites. The communist party was the state. The person who ruled was the party’s general (first) secretary, sometimes also known as chairman, like in the case of communist China.

Worryingly, after the quarter of a century of democracy in Central Europe (following the half a century of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianisms), the region’s countries appear to slide toward dictatorship as if in emulation of the gradual liquidation of democracy in this region since the mid-1920s during the interwar period. The generalized rise of populism (be it far-right or far-left) as a new political norm across the entire European Union in the aftermath of the continuing economic and migration crises lends an air of ‘normalcy’ to the installation of Kaczyński’s dictatorship in Poland. In this situation neither the EU nor any EU member state with a strong interest in Poland appear to hold a high moral ground from which they would be in a position to criticize Poland and effectively stop the gradual replacement of democracy with dictatorship in this country. Since the turn of the 1930s, shaken by the Great Depression, the West was similarly lackadaisical in its defence of democracy in interwar Central Europe (especially after the United States washed its hands of the Old Continent in the wake of the Great War). The exasperated acceptance of the interwar region’s rising dictatorships and the appeasement of the totalitarian Germany at the expense of Central Europe’s last semi-democratic polity of Czechoslovakia seemed at that time to be a ‘good value for money.’

Alas, peace of mind is not the same as peace. More totalitarianism, total war and genocide followed in quick succession after 1938. The idea of the European Union (initially known as the process of European integration) was to reconcile the erstwhile enemies and to preserve lasting peace and stability for the entire continent. Unfortunately, in another fit of absentmindedness Britain abandoned this lofty but realistic goal by voting to leave the EU in 2016. At the same time, in the face of mounting economic and political pressures, other member states became increasingly inward-looking with the notable exception of Germany. Economy (or rather national-cum-economic egoism) trumps peace. But it is a short-sighted policy. Free trade is an impossibility when wars rage, border fences are erected and trade barriers rise up. Very few profit of such a state of matters, while the vast majority suffer privations and death. Have Europe and North America learned nothing of the dark twentieth century?

Ironically, in line with Karl Marx’s opinion that religion is the opium of the people, in today’s Poland real-life problems of globalization and economy are addressed with faith, instead of with reasoned and thought-out actions. Since the 17th century the Blessed Virgin Mary has been considered Queen of Poland. The Marian cult is so strong in the country that numerous Polish Catholics wrongly believe Saint Mary to be a member of the Holy Trinity (and some even that she was a Polish woman). In November 2016 the Polish episcopate will enthrone Christ as King, some hope that also as King of Poland. Kaczyński, Polish President and Prime Minister, alongside the representatives of the Polish Parliament may grace this event with their presence. Whether they will or not, one thing is sure: no amount of prayer and religious fervor will save Poland from itself and the outside world.

October 2016