I won’t recapitulate the dramatic events of the past week; they were summarized nicely in an article from Friday on Politico.eu. Suffice it to say that Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawidliwość, or PiS), has now fully consolidated his control over Poland. After neutralizing the Constitutional Tribunal and transforming the public media into a tendentious propaganda outlet, the state has now subordinated the remainder of the judiciary. Henceforth, all judges will hold their positions at the government’s discretion. The highest appellate court (which in Poland is distinct from the Constitutional Tribunal), will now consist of people who owe their jobs to PiS, and can be removed at any time.
Today (Sunday, July 16) there were large protest demonstrations in all of Poland’s major cities. I was present for the Warsaw event; here are some photographs:
PiS controls the public media in Poland, which means that most people watching on TV saw messages like this scrolling across their screens:
Lest there be any doubt: I was there, and can confirm that these are not just misleading “spin,” but bald-faced lies. Not that it matters: all those watching the official state TV have already been primed to accept this rhetoric at face value. The rest of the population watches private TV networks where independent reporting is still possible, but there is virtually no overlap between the two audiences. It is unclear whether this propaganda is only designed to shore up support among the PiS base, or whether there are plans to use the new power over the courts to actually prosecute opposition activists. Certainly, the charge that the protests constitute an attempt by “militants” to overthrow the government would open the door to such extreme measures.
My own suspicion is that few (if any) arrests will be forthcoming, because they are not necessary. There have been multiple protests since PiS took power, and the government simply ignores them. Mr. Kaczyński now controls the executive, legislative, and judicial branches; he now controls the police and the military; he now controls enough of the media to guarantee that his message dominates the agenda. Although he does not directly control the Catholic Church, his supporters in the clergy do. Barring protests massive enough to actually disrupt the regular flow of life (and those are unlikely), the government can simply go about its business.
Many in the opposition had been looking to the local and regional elections next year as an opportunity to slow down the assault on liberal democracy. I fear that those hopes are now in vain. The government has already tried to bring down some popular local politicians with trumped-up corruption accusations, but until now that hasn’t worked because the cases have been blocked by the judiciary. That will no longer be a problem, so we can anticipate a wave of trials that will compromise, even if they don’t actually imprison, key figures in the opposition. Moreover, the PiS-controlled courts will be the ones to judge any accusations of electoral fraud. It is inconceivable that they will lift a finger against future irregularities. Ironically, even if PiS legitimately wins, such a victory will now be under a cloud. My expectation is that PiS will claim victory in the elections next year, and in the parliamentary elections that come a year after that. The opposition will be taught that resistance is futile, and more and more Poles will join PiS in order to remain plugged into the system of patronage. They will then support PiS in future elections, because if the government does ever fall, all those who gained positions under its auspices will fall as well.
The III Polish Republic that was established in 1989 has now come to an end, for all practical purposes. The constitution is a dead letter, and there are no longer any open doors for meaningful political contestation. Symbolic opposition—sure. Angry articles in the press and public expressions of dissent will continue. But the sort of resistance that can have an impact of policy or act as a constraint on the will of the leadership—that’s over.
If the III Republic is gone, what do we have now? What will the “IV Republic” be like? Supporters of the government insist that they believe in democracy, and in a sense, they do. Theirs is a democracy in which “the sovereign” (their preferred term for “the people”) has ultimate authority over all things. The sovereign selects a government, and anyone who opposes that government thereby challenges the democratic will of the people. There can be no legitimate democratic opposition, by definition. This is the essence of “illiberal democracy.”
On the surface, life is going to proceed without dramatic changes for most people. For those in the majority, that’s always been the case in illiberal regimes. The image of the communist era as a time of “totalitarianism” was misleading precisely because it suggested a reign of omnipresent terror and oppression. In reality, the vast majority of people in the Polish People’s Republic didn’t need to worry about the state’s apparatus of repression, and the same will be true in the new IV Republic. The minorities are the ones who will suffer: ethnic minorities, ideological minorities, religious minorities, sexual minorities. They may (or may not) be “tolerated” by the state. But it will not be their state.
Like many people, I thought Poland had turned a corner in the 21st century, and that the country had consolidated a system of constitutional democracy based on the rule of law and respect for diversity, individual rights, and European political norms. I continue to believe that most Poles, or at least a very large minority, share these values. I continue to firmly reject any suggestion that Poland is inevitably destined to sit on Europe’s periphery, prevented from integration by some sort of inherent “backwardness”. Nonetheless, I’m forced to acknowledge that for the foreseeable future, this is Kaczyński’s country.