Author Archives: Brian Porter-Szucs

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We Deserve More

In my post yesterday on the final results of Poland’s parliamentary elections, I mentioned in passing Jarosław Kaczynski’s speech from Sunday night, in which he declared that it was now “time to eliminate all those things which hinder our possibilities. We have to remember that we are a formation that deserves more. We got a lot, but we deserve more.” He went on to say that the Party’s strategy going forward would be to “commit to even better work, to new inventive ideas, and to przyjrzenia się the social groups who did not support us.” The key term in that last sentence is ambiguous; it means “look into” or “study” or “monitor” or “observe” The implied threat, however, is clear enough. As a reporter for the opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza put it, that statement “made my hair stand on end, because what will that “przyjrzenia się” look like?” The answer was there in Sunday’s speech, when Kaczyński said that “the elites, who work for our enemies, are stigmatized. And ladies and gentlemen, they will be stigmatized further.” As I wrote last week, the PiS party platform for this election confirmed that their primary goal was to undo the work of those who governed Poland since the fall of communism, because of the conviction that “abandonment of loyalty to the Polish state by a considerable part of the elite is without a doubt a major characteristic of the system created after 1989.”

Lest there be any doubt about the implications of this rhetoric, Kaczyński gave another speech after the final results were announced on Monday, and it became evident that the opposition had taken control of the Senate. He insisted that this was not a concern, because “we could have a tie in the Senate today, if we wanted to remove the individuals who from our point of view do not deserve to be there….We will work to ensure that the Senate in fact becomes a place where the war, which is so destructive for Polish politics, will be contained or prevented.”

The coming months will be extraordinarily dangerous for Poland’s opposition, yet the leaders of all the opposition parties were surprisingly cavalier this past weekend, seeming to care more about maneuvering among themselves and shoring up their own power bases within their organizations. The left showed unqualified excitement at regaining parliamentary representation after four years in the wilderness, because their 12% showing will provide them not only with enhanced political prominence, but a much larger budget thanks to the 11.4 million złoty (about 3 million dollars) in state subsidies they will now receive. The leader of the Polish Peasant’s Party, Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, breathed a sigh of relief because the PSL’s respectable showing will quash challenges from party rivals. Conversely, Grzegorz Schetyna, the head of the centrist Civic Platform party is now facing calls to step down because his party failed to significantly increase its support.

Pardon my language, but what the fuck!

I get it. I myself succumbed to cautious optimism in my blog post yesterday. Under the normal rules of politics, the politicians of the opposition parties would have reason to be somewhat pleased by their better-than-anticipated showing yesterday, and they could feel bolstered by their control of the Senate and their increasingly good odds of winning next year’s presidential election. But haven’t they learned since 2015 that PiS does not play by the normal rules of politics? The leaders of the opposition now have targets on their backs, and Kaczyński is a wounded bear (or better, a wounded duck) who has already started to lash out at his “enemies.”

After the 2015 elections, I wrote with some relief that the results were not too bad, because PiS lacked the super-majority needed to change the constitution, thus preventing them from following in the footsteps of Victor Orbán in Hungary. Back in those simpler times, I didn’t imagine that Kaczyński would simply ignore constitutional constraints, defy legal requirements, and proceed with his plans. That is precisely what he did, announcing repeatedly that he needs to break the independence of the judiciary in order to set the groundwork for his further ambitions. Since PiS controls all the mechanisms of power in Poland, they can do whatever they want. There are only three real constraints: the very slim possibility that the EU will someday decide to enforce democratic standards among members states, the possibility of public protest of a sufficient scale and duration, and the desire (so far) of Kaczyński to avoid looking too dictatorial.

The elections of 2019 were, by all accounts, honestly counted, though because the state media is now a propaganda mouthpiece, we should not characterize the campaign as unblemished. It is wonderful that Polish commentators and politicians continue to take free elections for granted, but if Kaczyński wanted to steal an election, he has all the power he needs to do so. And if he decides to arrest a couple senators on trumped-up corruption charges, as implied by his statement yesterday, no one could stop him. Of course this would violate the principle of parliamentary immunity, but there is no longer enough judicial independence in Poland to allow anyone to hope that the courts would step in to prevent such a move.

I really want to be wrong. I underestimated PiS’s willingness to abandon legal constraints in 2015, and maybe I am overestimating their willingness to do so now.  Maybe Kaczyński really does believe in the whole package of “illiberal democracy,” the theory of which is based on periodic free elections, but unquestioned and unconstrained central power between elections. Given what he has said over the past 48 hours, however, I would not want to bet on this. I don’t think Kaczyński would stop at anything if he thought he could get away with it.

The upshot of this is that the consolidation of authoritarian rule in Poland henceforth will not be prevented by the one-vote majority that the opposition has in the Senate. Nor can they assume that if they run a good campaign and win the presidency next year, PiS will simply accept defeat and move on.  These institutional hopes will only work if 1) the EU continues to do little more than issue toothless expressions of disappointment at PiS’s constitutional violations; 2) surveys continue to show PiS support in the high 30s or low 40s; and 3) protests against constitutional violations continue to mobilize crowds in the thousands or tens of thousands (rather than hundreds of thousands). In the absence of a dramatic wild card like a deep recession, I don’t see points 2 or 3 changing. There might be some hope that point 1 will change, but it is concerning that Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming president of the European Commission, had to depend on Polish and Hungarian support to win her position, and has shown signs that she understands the consequences of this.

Life will doubtlessly be more complicated and stressful for Kaczyński in the months ahead, whatever happens. The only remaining question is whether and how he decides to resolve that complexity. 

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Final Results

The votes have been counted, and the picture hasn’t changed much from last night. In percentage terms, the exit polls turned out to be reliable:

If we look at the raw numbers, we see that the three parties supporting the basic norms of constitutional democracy got more votes than PiS, but fewer than PiS and KWN together.

Under different rules for apportioning the parliamentary delegates (for example, the Webster/Sainte-Laguë method used in Poland in the 1990s, as opposed to the d’Hondt method used today), PiS would not have been able to form a government without entering into a coalition with KWN – something that might have been impossible because of the latter’s close ties with Putin. As it is, however, PiS did just barely pass the 231 seats needed to govern without any coalition partners.

At first glance it might seem that little has changed. In the previous parliament, PiS also had 235 votes, and Civic Platform (the main party within the Civic Coalition) had 138. But in reality, quite a lot has changed. The social democrats were entirely shut out in 2015, and PSL only had 16 seats. In their place was a large liberal party known as Nowoczesna (literally “Modern”), ideologically similar to Civic Platform but with a slightly stronger emphasis on free market economics and secular politics. That party is now gone, having re-merged with Civic Platform to create (along with the Greens) the Civic Coalition. Meanwhile, on the right, the previous parliament had 42 members belonging to a strange party called Kukiz 15, an eponymous creation of the rock star Paweł Kukiz that drew upon nationalist and far-right imagery, but concentrated mostly on countercultural opposition to “the system” in general. Kukiz himself has joined with PSL, and in his party’s place is a more ideologically committed extremist party, KWN, which combines radical libertarianism, misogyny, homophobia, antisemitism, xenophobia, racism, and open hostility to the EU (and a corresponding fondness for Russia). In other words, Jarosław Kaczyński now faces a genuine (albeit small) challenge on his right flank, and a liberal-democratic opposition that has moved significantly to the left. Previously, PiS could position itself as the populist defender of the welfare state against free-market liberals. That will no longer be the case.

None of this matters if Kaczyński continues to follow the take-no-prisoners, scorched-earth politics that he has used over the past four years. Previously, he just rammed through his legislative agenda with no regard to the opposition, abolishing the process of developing new laws through public parliamentary committees. He went so far as to limit debate to absurdly short sessions, allowing the opposition no time to offer more than brief soundbites leading up to a ritualistic vote. Parliament itself became irrelevant, because everyone understood that the real decisions were made in the PiS party headquarters.

Real power will remain in Kaczyński’s office, but the deployment of that power is going to be much more difficult than it has been so far, thanks to the results of yesterday’s election to the senate, Poland’s upper legislative house. Here the entire center and center-left opposition agreed to a slate of candidates—not quite a coalition, but a promise not to compete against each other. As a result, the outcome more closely matched the overall distribution of popular support, and PiS lost control of the upper chamber.

I’ve included in the chart above one nominally independent candidate who is supported by PiS, and three independent candidates who are supported by KO.

With 51 votes, the opposition will be able to control the senate, which could have huge consequences. In the past, the senate has received little attention, because it has few powers. It cannot originate legislation, and its veto power over the lower house could be overridden with ease, requiring only an absolute majority. With the seats in the lower house as closely divided as they now are, Kaczyński is going to have to pay close attention managing the legislative process, and there is suddenly space for maneuvering that he thought he had closed down. Just as important, a veto from the Senate blocks implementation of any new legislation for 30 days, so the whole system will now move with a deliberate pace, giving the opposition time to mobilize when necessary. Finally, the approval of the senate is needed for any referenda, as well as for the appointment of several vital government positions: the National Ombudsman, the chair of the Institute for National Memory, and above all the “Rzecznik Praw Obywatelskich” (Civil Rights Advocate). The latter official is charged with monitoring the government’s adherence to the constitution, and is empowered to bring the government to court in cases of violation. This has been an irritant to PiS for the past four years, though because of their control over the judiciary they have been able to neutralize the office’s power. Nonetheless, the existence of such a figure, along with the anti-corruption monitoring of the National Ombudsman, offers at least some independent monitoring.

All of this helps us understand the mood among Polish politicians today. The expectation before last weekend had been that PiS would win decisively—in fact, Kaczyński was openly hoping for a so-called “constitutional majority” (enough votes to revise the constitution). Now, his party lacks even enough votes to override a presidential veto. Of course, for the time being that’s a moot point because President Andrzej Duda is a loyal soldier in Kaczyński’s army. But his term expires in less than a year, and if today’s results are any indication, his reelection is far from certain. The presidency in Poland is decided in a two-round voting system, with the top two candidates from the first round proceeding to the second. Even if we assume that PiS can maintain its 43% support (a high point for that party), will it be able to get the additional 7+ points needed in a head-to-head matchup with the opposition? That’s a very open question.

This is why the mood at PiS headquarters today was subdued, even angry. The body language of Kaczyński over the past 24 hours has been unmistakable, and his speeches have been far from triumphant. He told his audience yesterday that “it is time for reflection;…a time to improve how we are seen by society; a time to eliminate all those things which hinder our possibilities. We have to remember that we are a formation that deserves more. We got a lot, but we deserve more.”

Those words captured Kaczyński’s frustration, but they also constitute a clear threat. In the coming months we can expect a concerted campaign to “eliminate” everything that stands in his way, everything that (in his view) prevented the Polish people from appreciating his greatness. He has itemized these hindrances many times: the cultural “elites,” the judiciary, any independent officials or agencies within Poland (including local self-government), EU oversight, and above all the independent media.

PiS still has power, and it would be naïve to imagine that they won’t use it to the utmost. The opposition is a bit stronger than it was last week, but it still lacks the means to block Kaczyński’s plans. We can expect the regime to become more openly repressive than before, as it attempts to shut down or marginalize the opposition media and strip city and provincial governments of their autonomous power. Kaczyński does indeed believe that his party “deserves more,” and he will do whatever he can to get more. But he is now in a bind: if he pushes his authoritarian measures vigorously, he will risk alienating centrist voters in the run-up to the presidential elections.  If he moderates his ambitions, he will leave the opposition with significant platforms from which to challenge his authority. Moreover, PiS has been able to capitalize so far on an unprecedentedly strong economy, but most signs point to a recession on the horizon. Can the party retain support in the mid-40s in the face of an economic downturn?  Finally, the EU has indicated that it is henceforth going to take a much harder line on the erosion of liberal democracy among members states.

Kaczyński might think he deserves more, but it is more likely that he is on a path to eventually get what he truly deserves.   

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According to the exit polls, the results are as follows:

  • PiS: 43.6%
  • KO: 27.4%
  • Lewica: 11.9%
  • PSL: 9.6%
  • Konfederacja: 6.4%

If these numbers hold, the Sejm will be divided as follows:

  • PiS – 239
  • KO – 130
  • Lewica – 43
  • PSL – 34
  • Konfederacja – 13

There is a 2 percent margin of error in the exit poll, so things could still change. The window of hope is tiny, though. Even if PiS were to fall below 231, the presence of Konfederacja gives them an easy coalition partner.

Even though this is a very narrow victory, Kaczyński will seize the opportunity to push forward his vision without regard to the opposition. In the months ahead, we can expect:

  • The continued purging of the judiciary.
  • The loss of local government authority, replaced by officials appointed by PiS.
  • The subordination of the media to a so-called “media ethics board,” which will be used to harrass and close down opposition TV, radio, and print journalism.
  • A campaign to purge or discipline teachers, who up until now had been largely opposed to PiS’s plans.
  • New restrictions on public assembly, and a few narrowly targeted arrests to ensure that protest is understood to carry risks. Protests will continue, but they will be small and ineffectual.
  • Increased marginalization of Poland within the EU. Poland can expect a reduction in payments from EU transfer programs, and probably administrative sanctions as the aforementioned measures are taken. Support for EU membership will likely decline, as PiS supporters come to see Brussels as an enemy.
  • Economic troubles as sanctions combine with the inevitable recession (all signs point to a downturn soon). This is probably the only remaining threat to Kaczyński’s power.
  • Large scale emigration of Poland’s educated professionals, which will weaken the economy but facilitate the progress of the PiS revolution.

Poland has enjoyed almost three decades of unprecedented economic growth, cultural openness, and strong civil liberties. It is hard to see how any of that can be sustained after today.

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Election Update

The 17:00 turnout numbers are in, and the picture has changed dramatically. The highest figures are coming from Poland’s urban areas, and the overall figure (45.94% turnout) is almost 7 points higher than at the same time in 2015.The map is from Polls close at 21:00 (3 pm EST).

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Early Voter Turnout

As of noon Polish time, voter turnout is at a record high of 18.14%. That’s almost two points higher than the figure for noon on election day in 2015. Unfortunately, the regional pattern is grim: the biggest numbers are coming from the regions in the south and east where PiS enjoys overwhelming support (see the map below from If this pattern holds, it will be a dark day for those who care about the future of liberal democracy in Poland. But it isn’t quite time for despair yet, because it could be that this pattern reflects the custom in many rural areas of going directly from mass to the polling stations. Urban voters might simply be more likely to sleep in. Very soon we will have the figures for turnout as of 17:00, and that will tell us more.

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What is at Stake?

The following appeared in The Global Post on October 12, 2019.

As a historian, I am inclined to take the long view on political developments, and I usually cringe when people describe an upcoming election as a choice between the apocalypse and salvation. But this weekend’s Polish election deserves all the hyperbole we can muster.

In 2015, the far-right Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) of Jarosław Kaczyński managed to take power after winning 38 percent of the vote, thanks to the peculiarities of Polish election law and the fragmentation of the parties of the left. The new government quickly transformed the state-run media into a propaganda mouthpiece, purged the civil service, strengthened partisan political control over state-run businesses, and above all, eliminated the independence of the judiciary.

Kaczyński himself has recently re-iterated that this last point was always the most important because his broader goals could not be achieved if judges retained the power to block his measures. The courts, he said, were (and to a small extent remain) the “last barricade” that PiS must remove from its path.

PiS’ Popularity

Despite all this, it must be acknowledged that millions of Poles have seen their lives improve since 2015. Kaczyński’s disdain for intellectuals and experts has allowed him to ignore the economists who would urge frugality or austerity. Instead, he has taken advantage of a period of global economic growth to stimulate consumption and slightly reduce income inequality.

PiS has designed their social spending programs carefully, with generous social welfare targeted at specific communities, social groups, and institutions. Their so-called “500+” program of cash payouts for children rewards large families, their investments in coal win them support from an important segment of organized labor, and their campaign promises for ongoing social-transfer programs are precisely aimed at key constituencies.

Understandably, many Poles will cast their votes based on these accomplishments, and that’s the main reason why surveys suggest that PiS will increase their percentage of the vote from the high 30s to the low 40s.

But a review of PiS documents, particularly the unusually comprehensive party platform, makes it crystal clear that all these economic and social policies are a means to an end. In a revealing passage, the platform acknowledges that PiS’s first objective is the “repair of the state, beginning with the creation and strengthening of its historical, axiological, and pragmatic legitimacy, and ending with the repair of its structure.”

However, the authors conclude, these plans could not be carried out during the first term, “because of the need to achieve enduring social support, and, as follows, the stability of the government against constant attacks.” There was, in other words, “a tight bond between particular initiatives in various areas, including an obvious bond between the policies about the development and repair of the state on the one side, and an increase in the purchasing power of social groups not heretofore acknowledged by the authorities.”

‘Repairing’ Poland

What, then, would this fundamental “repair” of the state entail? The answer lies in PiS’ understanding of what has happened in Poland over the past 30 years. Back in 1989, most of the world thought that communism had been overthrown, but contrary to appearances, PiS tells us, “the elements of continuation decisively outweighed the elements of change.”

Above all, there was no relaxation of an alleged leftist cultural project to “expand liberal values” and “violate social norms.” The authors of the PiS platform claim that the “abandonment of loyalty to the Polish state by a considerable part of the elite is without a doubt a major characteristic of the system created after 1989.” This traitorous elite then employed a “massive system of manipulation” aimed at concealing their true aims, which involved things like the undermining of Polish patriotism and the “active realization in Poland of a German historical policy.”

In political terms, this anti-Polish conspiracy promoted a perverse understanding of the state as “essentially a collection of independent institutions” without the power to defend the nation with unity and determination. Those institutional divisions of authority made it nearly impossible for “democratic control mechanisms” to institute desired reforms, punish corrupt and disloyal opponents, and override the resistance of entrenched institutions of the local authority.

The only way to repair the damage inflicted by the treasonous communist and post-communist elites, the PiS program insists, is to ensure that those who truly represent the Polish nation pursue a coherent, determined, and above all unified policy. In addition to establishing control over the judiciary, the platform identifies a few other areas that will require concerted effort in the next term of PiS rule.

Local Governments and Education

First, local self-government threatens to place obstacles on PiS’ path because every city in the country with more than 100,000 people is controlled by the opposition. Therefore, the party platform outlines plans to strengthen the position of an office known as the “wojewoda.” This person represents the central government in each of Poland’s 16 provinces (województwa), serving as an unelected state or provincial governor.

In the past, this problematic office has had limited powers, but the plan for PiS’ second term entails making “the office of the wojewoda the key organ of government administration” on the local level, giving it “real supervisory authority” as the executive branch of government with a “significantly increased role.”

Parallel to this, the PiS program states that the authority of local school boards to manage education will be curtailed. There has long existed a figure known as the “curator of education,” appointed to each district by the wojewoda as a representative of the national Ministry of Education. This official will gain enhanced authority to manage local schools: “We will not allow the state to be deprived of the possibility of shaping educational policy,” promise the authors of the PiS platform, “and we will provide the necessary tools (financial and otherwise) to make this possible.”

Freedom of Media

Perhaps the most unsettling of PiS’s election promises, however, involves the media. Kaczyński long ago transformed the state-run broadcast services into propaganda mouthpieces, but Poland retains a robust independent media infrastructure. PiS has long discussed “re-Polonizing” the media by eliminating foreign ownership, but this is a battle that they cannot win: the largest opposition news channel is owned by the U.S.-based Discovery Network, and the combined opposition of the Americans and the E.U. would be too much even for PiS.

Instead, the party platform proposes the creation of a new media ethics board that will function as a licensing body, akin to those that already exist for doctors and lawyers. Despite assurances that “this will not in any way limit the principle of openness in the journalistic profession,” we learn that the new board will allow authorities to “care for ethical and professional standards, carry out self-regulation, and assert responsibility for the process of educating future journalists.”

It is left unstated who will appoint the leadership of this media ethics board, but PiS has already created a judicial ethics board, with political appointees in charge, to purge the legal profession.

There is still a chance to prevent all this. If Kaczyński is denied a majority of parliamentary seats this Sunday – and it is going to be very close – Poles can begin the arduous task of re-assembling the safeguards of liberal democracy. The coming years would involve a lot of hard work and many difficult decisions, but repairs are still possible. If PiS gets another four years to advance to the next stage of its agenda, incomparably more damage will have been done.

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This is going to be close.

The majority of the commentariat in Poland has reconciled itself to a victory for Jarosław Kaczyński’s “Law and Justice party in Poland’s parliamentary elections next week. With a nearly 16 point lead in an average of recent polls (since October 1), that triumph seems a foregone conclusion.

But there is winning and there is “winning.” If we fill out the details, here is where things stand:

But let’s be careful: the variability in the survey data is considerable. In fact, in the course of writing this post I have had to update the figures in this chart, because new polls are coming in so quickly. In September, different firms registered PiS at levels from 40% (Kantar on 9/26) to 48% (Estymator on 9/19). Although it might seem reasonable to just average out the results, we aren’t necessarily comparing like with like. Companies use different methodologies in everything from data collection (phones, in-person, computer) to sample sizes and demographic weighting. So caveat emptor.

But for discussion’s sake, let’s run with the average above. Poland’s complex electoral law uses proportional representation within each of the country’s 41 electoral districts, each of which has a different number of delegates based on population size. Although Poland does not suffer from gerrymandering comparable to the United States, there are inevitable (though usually slight) deviations from a pure nation-wide proportional representation system. In a race as close as this one, that could matter.

But wait: what is close about a race with one party so far in the lead? First of all, being in first place isn’t enough to form a government. PiS (technically, the “United Right,” consisting of PiS and some small satellite parties) will have very few options for coalition partners if it fails to get 50% of the seats in parliament. The far right Konfederacja party is a coalition of groups that consider Kaczyński too soft. These include several white-supremacist, misogynist, antisemitic, ultra-nationalist, and authoritarian grouplets which are frustrated that PiS hasn’t pushed its revolution far enough. Nonetheless, they would almost certainly enter a coalition with PiS should the occasion arise.

The wild card is PSL, the Polish Peasant’s Party. This is the oldest political party in Poland, with roots in the 19th century agrarian movement. As Poland has modernized and urbanized, this party was marginalized but never eliminated. Its ideological flexibility has allowed it to enter into coalitions with governments of many ideological orientations, based on purely tactical and clientelistic grounds. In recent years it has struggled mightily to retain a constituency, because PiS has drained away nearly all its rural support with appeals to Catholic conservative identity politics and (since taking power in 2015) with an ever growing patronage system in the countryside. There are countless personal animosities between PSL and PiS activists on both the local and national level, which would make a coalition very difficult. To date, every party that Kaczyński has entered into coalitions with has either been de-facto absorbed, or eliminated. The PSL leadership is well aware of this track record. Still, the common ground between these to parties can’t be ignored: both represent culturally conservative, rural, Catholic constituencies. It is by no means out of the question that they might abandon the democratic opposition (with whom they have generally aligned since 2015) and cast their lot with the far right.

But none of this necessarily matters, because everything depends on the application of the complex mathematics of the so-called d’Hondt method, which is the foundation of the Polish election rules. Click on those links for the details, but to make a long story short, this system eliminates parties that get less than 5% of the vote and then redistributes those votes among the larger parties, with a complex system that rewards the largest parties the most. Most of the time this deviates only marginally from a simple proportional representation system, but twice since the fall of communism in 1989 it has resulted in radically distorted results when an unusual number of small parties came in just under the limit:

This year, it doesn’t look like we will see a repeat of 2015 (not to mention 1993). Only two groups, PSL and Konfederacja, are polling close to the 5% mark. PSL has only fallen below that number in 3 outlier polls since July, and Konfederacja has only passed that mark in a small handful.

With all that buildup, here’s roughly what the current survey results would produce in terms of parliamentary delegates:

With this model, PiS is several delegates short of a majority. To get a sense of how close this is, if Konfederacja gets 5% instead of the 4.4% they currently have, the result could look like this:

To get a sense of how weird this mechanism can be, here is what would happen if we just took the best survey results PiS has had in the past month, the aforementioned September result from Estymator:

And here’s the other extreme: the worst poll Kaczyński has seen recently:

Given this range of possible outcomes, and taking into account all the additional complexities mentioned above, the only thing we can predict for sure is that this is going to be very close.

That leads to two very important conclusions:

  • Whatever the result (unless all the polls have been wrong and one side or the other gains a truly decisive majority) we should be extremely cautious in making any generalizations about Polish public opinion. The country is divided roughly down the middle, with each side living in separate media ecosystems and experiencing different daily realities. That’s not going to change.
  • If PiS does gain a majority, it will continue to rule as if it has an overwhelming mandate, with confident affirmations that it alone represents the voice of that “true” Polish nation. It will push forward even more radical measures to curtail liberal democracy, to advance authoritarian centralization, and to brutally marginalize those who don’t fit into its vision of Polishness. In a future post I will describe the proposals outlined in the PiS party platform, but suffice it to say for now that they are as ambitious as they are terrifying. In other words, the stakes of these elections are unspeakably massive, and the fate of Poland is almost certain to be decided by a very small number of votes.

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Well, that didn’t last long.

A few days ago I expressed some cautious hope that PiS might, in fact, be defeated in the upcoming parliamentary elections, and that Poland could begin the difficult process of rebuilding democratic norms. I remain convinced that this possibility is very real, thought I admit that it is going to be very close.

But all that might be irrelevant. Jarosław Kaczyński and the various puppets he uses to rule the country are undoubtedly aware that if they lose power, they face a realistic risk of prosecution for all the illegal maneuvers they carried out since 2015. They must also recognize that they have transformed the Polish landscape by politicizing so many things that were previously rarely contested: the memory of WWII, the role of the Catholic Church in Polish life, the authority of local self-government, conservative access to the media, and more. The Church will never again be able to claim that it is above politics, and it will never again be able to expect support from any government not led by PiS. Discussions of historical patriotism will henceforth be forever tainted by association with PiS, and it will be a challenge to de-politicize a whole range of historical commemorations. The reactionary cultural politics of PiS may have played well in the countryside, but the urban youth are far less likely to genuflect before the patriotic platitudes that were taken as unpolitical and unnoteworthy even five years ago. And the media supporters of PiS who worked for propaganda outlets like TVP are going to have a very hard time holding onto their jobs in a post-PiS Poland.

By basing so many cultural touchstones—not to mention their own personal fate—on their continued political control, PiS has elevated the stakes of electoral life. This helps explain what happened a few days ago.

In the middle of the night on July 17-18 PiS pushed through the parliament a seemingly technical piece of legislation designating which specific court will be responsible for declaring the fall elections valid or invalid. Any bill passed at 2:00 a.m. without prior hearings or debate should always raise suspicions. Without going into the details, the bottom line is that the authority for deciding any accusations of electoral irregularity is now in the hands of a “judicial” body that is 100% under the control of PiS.

One member of the opposition, Jerzy Meysztowicz, who managed to be present during the parliamentary fiasco, summed it up perfectly: “If you win the elections, then the elections will be fine. If you lose the elections you will say that they were falsified…. And who will decide? The Bureau for Emergency Control and Public Affairs, the members of which you’ll nominate yourselves. What a brilliant solution.”

Over the coming months we will all continue to watch the surveys and evaluate the ups and downs of this or that party, the coalition agreements of this or that grouping. As we do so, however, let’s keep one thing in mind. There is only one decision that actually matters: will Jarosław Kaczyński decide to honor the results if they don’t go his way? And will we even be able to trust the results if they do go his way? Personally, I want to believe that there are some lines that even PiS won’t cross. I want to believe that even if they’ll violate the constitution, eliminate the independence of the judiciary, turn the media into a propaganda machine, use the most vulgar fear-mongering rhetoric about minorities and migrants—that even after all this, they would still continue to participate in electoral politics with some semblance of honesty. Sure, I knew we could expect the state TV to be deployed in full force in favor of the government, but maybe that could be counterbalanced by the fact that (for now) there are still independent media firms in Poland. [Which, by the way, is the “problem” that Kaczyński has promised to place on the top of his agenda upon reelection]. I was cheered by the fact that the local elections last Fall went badly for PiS, yet were recognized as legitimate. And though the elections for the EU parliament in May went very well for PiS, no one has identified any cause to challenge the legitimacy of those results. But the parliamentary election coming up in three months is the election that counts. Now it is clear that the supporters of democracy do not merely need to worry about winning those elections; they also have to worry about whether they will be legitimate.

The irony is that last Thursday’s maneuver has challenged the faith in democracy that is the core of the anti-PiS opposition. PiS itself has always treated politics as a blood-sport in which any method is acceptable. A pro-democratic opposition that cannot trust elections is no longer able to compete on a democratic playing field, and that changes everything.

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The Board is Set

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After weeks of negotiations, it is finally clear what choices the Polish electorate will face during the elections this coming fall. There will be four significant blocs:

  • Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice, or PiS): the radical-right nationalist party of Jarosław Kaczyński that has ruled the country since 2015
  • Koalicja Obywatelska (Civic Coalition, or KO): led by Grzegorz Schetyna, this is basically the old Civic Platform party that has constituted the primary opposition to PiS for almost twenty years
  • Koalicja Lewicy (Left Coalition, or KL): a union of left wing parties including the old Union of the Democrat Left (the former communist party from before 1989), and several new initiatives, most importantly a new group called Wiosna (Spring), the much anticipated but ultimately disappointing entry of the charismatic LGBT politician Robert Biedroń into national politics
  • Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe (Polish People’s Party, or PSL): the oldest party in Poland, with a constituency among small farmers. Strong in a few parts of the country based on deep clientelistic relationships

An article in today’s Gazeta Wyborcza by Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz captures a very common point of view with the headline: “The lack of a broad coalition is a victory for short-sighted foolishness.” In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, a field set out in this way virtually guarantees that PiS will emerge from the elections with more votes than any other grouping. In the trivial sense of the word, they will win the election. But to govern, getting more votes than others isn’t the goal: it’s positioning oneself to establish a majority by forming a coalition with other parties. With all that’s happened these past four years, it’s hard to see how PiS could form a coalition with anyone.

It is understandable that many people think of politics in terms of persuading “the people” to support this or that vision. This is the approach represented by PiS, which claims that its legitimacy stems from “the people” (which Kaczyński refers to as “the sovereign” [suweren]), a being who speaks with a single voice during elections. Based on this approach, whoever maneuvers into power after an election should then rule with unquestioned and unqualified authority until the next elections. Constitutional constraints, divisions of power between legislative and judicial branches, devolution of authority to local governments—all these things are irrelevant when faced with the power of “the sovereign’s” mandate. In a telling comment, a PiS politician, Jan Kilian, complained recently in a parliamentary speech that there was a disturbing pattern of “local governments carrying out their own policies without taking into account the policies of the central government.” This is the PiS worldview in a nutshell.

Ironically, it is also the implicit view of those across the political spectrum who argue that the voters need to be presented with a clear two-party alternative, PiS and Anti-PiS. Then “the sovereign” can speak with its singular voice, and the undeniable fact that PiS represents a minority of the electorate will cause them to lose their mandate to govern.

But what if there is no singular sovereign? What if the Poles are, in fact, a typical modern society with enormous differences between town and country, young and old, religious and secular, cosmopolitan and nationalist, rich and poor, etc., etc., etc. Yes, in a theoretical accounting it is obvious that “Anti-PiS” represents the majority of the population, but this includes quite a dizzying array of groups:

  • businesspeople who are opposed to PiS’s fondness for state-owned firms
  • libertarians who are opposed to PiS’s expansion of social welfare programs
  • feminists who are opposed to PiS’s restrictions on reproductive choice
  • secularists who are opposed to PiS’s clericalism
  • cosmopolitans who are opposed to PiS’s hostility towards the EU
  • intellectuals who are opposed to PiS’s heavy-handed and censorious cultural policies
  • local politicians who are opposed to PiS’s centralization
  • constitutional liberals who are opposed to PiS’s elimination of the independent judiciary

I could go on, but the point should be clear: any electoral campaign that is notionally “Anti-PiS” could not even mount a coherent negative political campaign, much less offer a coherent positive vision of how they would govern in a post-PiS world. This is what happened during the EU elections in May. A broad anti-PiS coalition did indeed take shape, but it was limited in its campaign to vague threats that Kaczyński would lead Poland out of the EU, and to abstract complaints about the constitutional violations of the past four years.

Getting a majority to agree that EU membership is a good thing and that the law should be obeyed is not hard. A Polexit referendum would never even come close to passing here, where the benefits of membership are simply too obvious. In fact, Poles are more pro-EU than people in any other EU country, and a survey in April showed support for membership hitting a record-high 91%.

But this misses the point. Let’s imagine a rural supporter of PSL who is a devout Catholic but also a believer in the rule-of-law and a supporter of EU membership. Now let’s imagine a young Varsovian who is strongly pro-choice, socialist, anticlerical, cosmopolitan, and a believer in the rule-of-law and a supporter of the EU. Finally, let’s imagine a business owner who is frustrated by PiS’s social spending and heavy-handed economic centralization—and is a believer in the rule-of-law and a supporter of the EU. If push came to shove, all three of these people might tell a survey-taker that they would vote for some notional anti-PiS. But can you even imagine an electoral campaign in which all three would be inspired to go to the trouble of voting in the first place? I know personally some of those urban leftists who would rather stay home or vote for a hopelessly small fringe-party rather than support a pro-business libertarian or pro-Catholic conservative. I also know some devout Catholics who despise PiS, but would never vote for a party that supports legalizing gay marriage.

The current political playing field may well hold just enough consolidation to ensure that all the major worldviews can find a home, without diluting the votes among parties that will fail to reach the 5% minimum needed for parliamentary representation. After all, PiS did not come to power in 2015 because it was so popular, but rather because the leftist parties failed to consolidate well enough to get any representation in parliament. It looks like that’s been resolved (knock on wood). 

Given the four major groupings that appear to be entering the fight for 2019, and aggregating the survey data from several different sources from the past month, the elections should give us a picture approximately like this:

If we distribute these votes with the smaller parties eliminated, we get a sejm that looks like this:

In other words, no PiS majority, and virtually no path to a PiS government.

For the next few months, all eyes should be on the PSL.  As of today, there is talk of them forming a coalition with a few other local organizations, which could be an incredibly risky move because of yet another quirk in Poland’s electoral law: coalitions require an 8% minimum rather than the usual 5% minimum.  If PSL falls out of the picture, then the math would give PiS exactly half of the parliamentary seats.

One way or the other, it is going to be very close. The biggest danger now, as I see it, is that the opposition politicians are dispirited because they do not see a path towards any single group overtaking PiS’s support.  No single party is going to replace PiS’s singular strength, and no coalition can possible cohere enough to challenge them.  But that does not mean that the game is lost. The fact that some politicians and commentators are acting as if it was lost could become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Yet the actual balance of forces provides realistic ground for hope, and that’s what everyone should be focusing on now.   

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How to Remember 1989

The following essay was just published by The Global Post

Thirty years ago, on June 4, 1989, there were free elections in Poland – the first multiparty elections since WWII, and the beginning of a cascade of events that culminated in the collapse of all the communist regimes of Eastern Europe. Two years later, the USSR itself would cease to exist, and the Cold War would come to an end. There was doubtlessly an excess of liberal triumphalism in 1989, but it can’t be denied that it was a year of genuine triumph for the forces of democracy, pluralism, and openness. And it all started in Poland.

Sadly, it seems that what goes around, comes around. Three decades after those thrilling events, we are witnessing the re-consolidation of dictatorial regimes in Poland, Hungary, and Russia, while similar anti-liberal forces rise throughout the region. The rhetoric is a bit different nowadays, with the slogans coming from the nationalist right rather than the communist left, but the methods of authoritarianism are frighteningly similar. The Polish, Hungarian, and Russian courts, media, cultural institutions, and educational systems are all under the control of each country’s ruling party, which uses this power to reshape society and stamp out liberal values of tolerance, diversity, pluralism, and respect for legal norms. When we recall that the communists of the 1970s and 1980s had themselves become increasingly xenophobic and nationalistic, even the rhetorical differences fade. Perhaps, in retrospect, the changes of 1989 weren’t as dramatic as they seemed at the time. Should we even be celebrating this year’s anniversaries?

Yes, we should – but with an eye towards the unfulfilled promise of that amazing moment thirty years ago. As we celebrate, we ought to return to the actual hopes and goals of those who brought about the fall of communism, and push aside once and for all the radical austerity ideology that was imposed upon Eastern Europe afterwards.

When the activists of the Solidarity labor movement began negotiating with the communist authorities in early 1989, they had both political and economic demands. Those political goals were achieved beyond their wildest dreams: one of their own leaders would be Prime Minister by the end of the summer, and within a few years Poland had an independent judiciary, a wide-open media landscape, and a multi-party democracy. Solidarity’s economic goals, however, were immediately and ruthlessly discarded. Revisiting those demands today is like peering into an alternative universe, one in which it seemed plausible to demand that that wages be indexed to inflation, that full employment be guaranteed by the state, and that independent unions play a large role in managing firms. Though the label wasn’t used at the time, it was a formula for democratic socialism, not neoliberal capitalism. This is what was promised in the deal that emerged from the “Round Table Talks.”

That promise was never kept. As the new post-communist government embraced a series of radical austerity measures known as “shock therapy,” Poland plunged into one of the deepest recessions every recorded. In fact, if we combine the crisis of the late-communist era with the post-communist recession, and compare that to the Great Depression of the 1930s, we see a shocking result:

That second plunge in the late 20th century recession, which came right after 1989, helps explain why so many Poles almost immediately felt an intense buyer’s remorse about abandoning the communist system. The CBOS survey firm has been asking Poles how they felt about the post-communist transformations, and until recently opinions have been divided, and subject to a lot of fluctuation:

In part, the much-delayed consensus that the overthrow the Polish People’s Republic was worthwhile comes from the fact that the country’s overall economic success has become undeniable. In the aggregate, Poles now are richer than they have ever been before—by a lot.

But note that drop in 1978 and the even deeper drop after 1989. Those who experienced the events of those years would be forgiven for wondering why so many outsiders were celebrating the fall of communism. Moreover, even as incomes eventually recovered and then rose to new heights, it came at the expense of significantly longer working hours, incomparably more stress, frayed family relations and social bonds, and massive cultural change. For all these reasons, those old enough to remember the Polish People’s Republic remain ambivalent even today about the transformations. The growing consensus that 1989 was worthwhile comes primarily from those who came of age after the 1990s, whose “memory” of communism comes from schoolbooks, novels, films, and TV shows that consistently depict the old system in uniformly dark colors.

21st century politics in Poland—and throughout Eastern Europe—has been dominated by a battle between neoliberals (who want to defend both the economic and political system established after 1989) and nationalists (who emphasize the darker sides of the new order, but blame it on a vast conspiracy of foreigners and hidden ex-communists). Now the latter are in power, and they are dismantling all the gains of the former—political and economic alike. The authoritarian regime of Jarosław Kaczyński’s “Law and Justice” party is distinctly awful, and I wouldn’t want to imply a symmetry between them and their liberal opponents. Nonetheless, today’s tragic erosion of constitutional norms is at least in part a consequence of the failures of the 1990s and early 2000s. Missing from the political scene back then was an agenda that would implement all the aspects of the Round Table Accords: an agenda that combined liberal democratic freedoms in the political and cultural realm with democratic socialism in the economic realm.

This year, as we celebrate the anniversary of 1989, let’s remember that path not taken. It’s too late to recover it now, because the living memory of the communist era has been replaced by the politics of memory, and that’s been thoroughly poisoned by the competing distortions of both liberal anticommunism and nationalist anticommunism. No one shouldwant to recover communism—there is, despite everything, something to celebrate with this year’s anniversaries. The sigh of regret that accompanies those commemorations is for the vanished and vanquished agenda of the 1980s: the program that didn’t want to throw the egalitarian baby out with the communist bathwater.