Author Archives: Brian Porter-Szucs

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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.

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Is Democracy Doomed in Poland?

In the aftermath of last week’s EU elections in Poland, there has been an abundance of lamentation and jeremiads by commentators on the left and center-left. Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) achieved its greatest electoral success ever, both in absolute and relative terms. Last Fall, during local and regional elections, there were signs that the opposition had won enough support in Poland’s towns and cities to make victory in the next parliamentary elections plausible. Now that objective seems further away than ever.

Matters seemed to get even worse this past weekend, as news emerged that the Polish Peasant’s Party [Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe, or PSL] was considering a break from the anti-PiS, pro-democracy European Coalition [Koalicja Europejska, or KE]. For quite some time, supporters of liberal democracy have hoped for the creation of a broad front of allied parties from the center left and the center right, on the assumption that PiS could only be defeated if everyone joined together and put aside the issues that would otherwise divide them. After all, there is little sense squabbling about this or that budget priority, or this or that economic plan, when the very foundation of liberal democracy is at stake. Well, that coalition was finally created, including the PSL, the center-right Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, or PO), the liberal Modern Party (Nowoczesna), the social democratic Alliance of the Democratic Left (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, or SLD), and the Greens (Zieloni). Only the anti-clerical, left-liberal Spring Party (Wiosna) and the far-left Together Party (Razem) ran on their own. For their part, PiS had subsumed nearly the entire nationalist right, except for a small group that we might call the counter-cultural right (Kukiz 15) and an alliance of antisemitic even-further-right fringe parties calling itself The Confederation (Konfederacja). The results were unambiguously a disaster for the center and the left, even if we bring together all the various parties on the PiS and anti-PiS divide. The gap of slightly over one million votes is huge, considering that parliamentary elections tend to bring out 15-16 million voters (out of about 30 million eligible voters).

But let’s not be too hasty to predict a PiS victory in the next elections, which must take place this coming Fall. This balance of power, if it were to carry forward, would not necessarily lead to a significant PiS majority in the next Sejm (the Polish parliament). Polish electoral law requires a party to get at least 5% of the vote, which would cause Konfederacja, Kukiz 15, and Razem to fall by the wayside. The remaining balance would be a Sejm with 232 seats for PiS, and 228 for the opposition (197 for KE, and 31 for Wiosna). That’s an even smaller majority for PiS than they currently enjoy (238 votes), and they would no longer have the cushion of the 26 seats currently held by Kukiz 15, nor the 20 seats occupied by right wing politicians who declared their partisan independence since the last elections. Put differently, if last week’s vote were repeated in the Fall, PiS would be a mere 115,000 votes away from losing power to a coalition of KE and Wiosna.

Polish politics has always been characterized by “wasted” votes—that is, ballots cast for parties that didn’t make it past the 5% bar. Typically these don’t shift the overall balance of power, because there are fringe parties scattered across the political spectrum. But twice in the history of the Third Republic there have been spikes of significant “wastage,” leading to major distortions: in 1993, when the law was first instituted and the right was almost locked out of the Sejm because it hadn’t yet coalesced into a single movement; and then again in 2015, when PiS benefited from that very system. If the results this coming Fall are close to what they were last week, it is very possible that the shoe will again be on the other foot.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is no reason to believe that the vote in the Fall will be a replication of what happened last week. Historically, votes to the EU parliament have been poor predictors of national elections. In this specific case, the dynamic could be altered significantly if PSL does indeed decide to break from the coalition. I might have to acknowledge that my own hopes for a unified opposition were mistaken, because the increase in votes that PiS got in the last election came almost entirely from areas that had once been the strongholds of PSL. That party is unique in modern Polish politics. It is the only currently active party that has a continuous existence from before WWI until the present day, and its ideological identity has been somewhat fluid over that long history. In both the Second and Third Republics, the PSL has served in governing coalitions with both left and right wing parties, and precisely because of their flexibility they have come to specialize in a distinctive form of clientelistic politics. This has made it impossible to expand beyond a narrow base in a few rural areas, but it has also allowed the party to consistently remain above (sometimes barely) the 5% cutoff. It seems that the party’s constituents were willing to accept government coalitions with various larger parties, regardless of ideological profile, because that allowed the PSL leadership to retain control over government offices that could be used to sustain patronage networks. But merging into a coalition before an election meant that the PSL name was not on the ballot, and that the rural voters who would usually vote for the party had to choose between KE (a bloc dominated by urban liberals and leftists) or PiS. Not surprisingly—in hindsight—they went for the latter or just stayed home. This alone could account for most of the increase in the size of the PiS electorate. Significantly, PiS did not gain new voters in any of the districts known for more intense nationalism or religiosity; instead, their gains were in rural areas in the north and west of the country that had up till now demonstrated a somewhat more centrist (perhaps coldly pragmatic) profile. In other words, these are not areas that are ideologically aligned with PiS, but rural areas that can be swayed to vote for Kaczyński’s party if the economy seems strong (which it does) and if all the other options are linked to the cosmopolitan sensibilities of Poland’s liberal elite. Meanwhile, the remaining parties within KE will not have to worry about the concerns of the PSL, allowing them to offer a clearer message that aligns with the priorities of their urban, liberal base. That, in turn, could help them generate some more excitement and spur higher turnout.  

But big questions remain. If PSL does run on its own, will their voters switch back in the Fall, or will they feel betrayed by their old political patrons and instead stick with PiS? Kaczyński will doubtlessly work hard over the coming months to demonstrate his party’s largesse to precisely these swing districts. Even if these voters do return to the PSL, will it be enough to keep the party about the 5% level? If not, that will just draw votes away from the anti-PiS opposition. Finally, what will happen to the other three small parties that either just missed or just passed the 5% line: Konfederacja, Kukiz 15, and Wiosna? In all three cases, a tiny shift in the vote totals one way or the other could make an enormous difference, and completely change the balance of power.

The bottom line is that the results of the parliamentary elections are by no means a foregone conclusion. Surveys have shown that among the overall population, the divide between pro-PiS and anti-PiS is well within the margin of error. No matter what happens, there won’t be an overwhelming mandate in either direction (despite the claims that the winner is sure to make). Given this context, everything will depend on the complex and tedious details of partisan maneuvering and campaign strategy. That’s the kind of politicking that rarely inspires enthusiasm, but at stake this year could be the future of liberal democracy in Poland.

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Dark Clouds

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After last fall’s local and regional elections in Poland, the democratic opposition entered 2019 with great hopes. Despite receiving slightly fewer votes overall, the largest opposition group was able to win control of virtually every city in the country, and nearly all the larger towns as well. The EU elections today were supposed to be the next landmark on the road to repudiating Jarosław Kaczyński’s far-right, authoritarian, nationalist Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS). Those elections took place today (Sunday, May 26), and the results are not good. Although the distribution of Poland’s 52 seats in the EU parliament will not significantly impact the balance of power in Brussels, these elections give us some important signals about the Polish parliamentary elections that must be called before December, 2019. 

At the moment all we have are preliminary results based on exist polls, so everything I write here could change when the final count is announced. But based on those surveys, PiS came in first with 43.1% of the vote, with a large centrist alliance called “The European Coalition” (Koalicja Europejska, or KE), trailing at 38.4%. As disheartening as that might be, this is not the truly bad news: much more concerning are two additional aspects of today’s vote.

The first involves the fate of the smaller parties. There are three main groupings that have a chance of entering the Polish legislative body, the Sejm, next Fall: 1) a leftist party called “Spring” (Wiosna), led by a prominent LGBTQ-rights activist named Robert Biedroń; 2) an ally of PiS in the current Parliament led by a former rock star, Paweł Kukiz (named after its founder and the year it was formed: Kukiz 15); 3) a new coalition of neo-fascist, ultranationalist groups for whom even PiS is too moderate, called simply “The Confederation” (Konfederacja). At the time of this writing (after midnight, Polish time), Wiosna has 6.7%, Konfederacja has 6.2%, and Kukiz 15 has 3.8%. If the vote next Fall were to replicate today’s, the next Sejm would look as follows:

  • PiS: 208 seats
  • KE: 192 seats
  • Wiosna: 31 seats
  • Konfederacja: 29 seats

Kukiz 15, along with a handful of other smaller parties, would fall below the 5% barrier needed to qualify for any parliamentary seats. The arithmetic is painfully obvious: the supporters of liberal democracy would have 223 seats, and the forces of nationalism and “illiberal democracy” would have 237. Poland would have at least four more years of authoritarian rule, but this time they would be dependent on Konfederacja to govern. This would push them even further to the right—which would be quite an accomplishment. The leaders of Konfederacja are a motley assembly of fringe politicians, which might presage an unstable coalition—the only potential upside of all this. They are united by a few core commitments to antisemitism, xenophobia, and anti-feminism.

The second concerning aspect of today’s vote involves the turnout. This was, by far, the highest turnout for an EU election in Polish history: 43%, compared to figures in the 20s for the other three elections since Polish accession. But seen from another direction, this is below the figures typically seen in parliamentary elections, which tend to get about half of the eligible population. As a general rule, the smaller the electoral sample, the better represented are wealthier, more urban, more highly educated voters. In other words, elections to the EU parliament should have been an opportunity for the liberal and leftist opposition to score a relatively easy success, compared to the parliamentary elections. The fact that they did not win today suggests that their chances in the fall are even smaller. 

Is there any silver lining in today’s results for those who hope for Poland to return to the path of liberal democracy? Perhaps. In an interview last week, Kaczyński said that PiS would “definitely” not form a coalition government with Konfederacja, because he considered that party to be pro-Russian. On the other hand, he made his statement as part of an argument against “wasting” votes on any smaller right-wing parties, based on the claim that PiS could only govern if it won an absolute majority on its own. If push comes to shove in the fall, PiS could easily remain in power as a minority government, counting on the fact that an opposition divided between KE and Wiosna on the one side, and Konfederacja on the other, could never cooperate in a vote of no confidence. On nearly every issue of substance, Kaczyński would be able to count on the support of Konfederacja, much as he can rely on Kukiz 15 in the current Sejm. 

The second (very thin) silver lining is that today’s results will frighten all those who support a return to democracy, and inspire further unification. A bit more than 1% of the vote went to a small leftist party called Razem, and maybe that dismal figure could finally convince those voters that they need to hold their noses and vote for a party that is more centrist than they would prefer. The poor results will also weaken the position of the leader of KE, Grzegorz Schetyna, and that in turn might facilitate a return to national politics of his biggest intra-party rival, current European Council President Donald Tusk. Though his political skills can easily be overstated (and often are), he is undeniably a talented tactician who has a long history of electoral success. On the other hand, the disappointing showing of the coalition might lead to its breakup, which could be catastrophic if even one of the constituent parts falls below the 5% barrier in the Fall. 

Ultimately, it’s hard to be optimistic this evening. No matter how we try to spin this, the results today are a disappointment for those who are hoping that Poles will eventually repudiate the model of “illiberal democracy” that unites PiS’s Poland with Orbán’s Hungary, Erdogan’s Turkey, Trump’s USA, and Putin’s Russia. 

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The Adamowicz Assassination

I am finding it impossible to write a calm, dispassionate reaction to the events of the past few days in Poland. Perhaps I will return to this issue later with more distance. Right now I am sad, outraged, and afraid.

If anyone needs further evidence of the dangers posed by the PiS government in Poland, Sunday’s brutal assassination of Gdańsk mayor Paweł Adamowicz should dispel any doubts. If anyone still believes that Jarosław Kaczyński’s movement is a normal conservative party, with only marginal differences contrasting them from the center-right Civic Platform party that leads the opposition, this week should clarify the situation. If all that has happened since 2015 hasn’t been enough to justify collective condemnation of PiS by every decent person who cares about Poland, hopefully this will be a turning point.

Historians tend to be muckrakers, and my instinct is to be skeptical about something that appears to be unambiguously good and virtuous. One of the rare exceptions would be an institution that has existed in Poland for over a quarter century, the Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy, or WOŚP. The name literally translates as “The Great Orchestra of Holiday Aid,” and it is the largest charity organization in Poland. Every year in late December and early January, volunteers from WOŚP collect money in order to purchase medical equipment that hospitals and clinics would not otherwise afford. To celebrate the culmination of each year’s fund drive, concerts are held in early January in most Polish cities and towns, with a who’s-who list of the celebrities making appearances. These are truly joyous events – I had the pleasure of attending the 2017 celebration in Warsaw, and it left me with fond memories. The sums they collect are huge: this year they raised over 92 million złoty (about 24 million dollars), the third-best total in their 27 year history (#1 and #2 were 2018 and 2017). The self-described “director” of the Great Orchestra was Jerzy Owsiak, a radio host with the laid-back personality of a former hippy. His long-time catch-phrase, “róbta co chceta,” (“do whatever you want”) captures his worldview of libertine tolerance.

The right in Poland—particularly the leadership of the Catholic Church—could never stomach Owsiak’s accomplishments. Here was an avowedly secular pop-culture icon who embodied a cosmopolitan ethos of cultural openness while simultaneously doing more good for more people than anyone else in Poland. Those on the right see WOŚP as competition for the official Catholic charity, Caritas. Owsiak’s inclusive message that good deeds can be carried out by anyone, regardless of their religious or ideological affiliation, is precisely what generates so much anger from his opponents, because they see him as a purveyor of “moral indifferentism.”

Caritas and WOŚP both direct over 90% of the money they collect to the programs they support, and both do magnificent work for those in need. But in the eyes of the bulk of the Catholic hierarchy as well as the current Polish government, WOŚP represents cosmopolitanism, communism, liberalism, atheism, Judaism, and all the other forces they imagine to be arrayed against Poland. Once PiS took control of the public media in Poland, they refused to rebroadcast any of the events WOŚP sponsored, though thankfully there are still—for now—some independent media available to take over the broadcasts. Priests give sermons instructing the faithful to shun anyone collecting funds for WOŚP, and the right-wing media spreads absurd lies about Owsiak in order to undermine his efforts.

I’m not going to link to any of those who have criticized WOŚP, because they are the ones who need to be ostracized and boycotted, particularly after the events of last Sunday. The details of their lies aren’t relevant: suffice it to say that they spin imaginative stories that identify Owsiak as a communist agent (of course) who uses WOŚP to gather funds for self-enrichment and the financing of political parties opposed to the Polish government. A few days ago the state TV broadcast a “satirical” show that depicted Owsiak as an ignorant puppet manipulated by the leaders of Civic Platform, the largest opposition party. A close viewing of the money being collected by the Owsiak puppet showed that the bills were marked with the Star of David, though to be fair this antisemitic detail could only be perceived by enlarging a screenshot of the show—in other words, that particular offense must have been an inside joke (among people whose moral standards are revealed by the fact that they considered this funny).

This background provides the context for what has just happened. On Sunday night the mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, was on stage at the city’s celebration of the WOŚP finale. He won re-election a few months ago, as part of the wave that brought every single major Polish city (and all but a handful of smaller cities) under the control of the opposition. He achieved this despite the fact that the PiS government had mounted a campaign accusing him of corruption, using the control they’ve established over the legal system to launch an official investigation that succeeded only in showing that he had made an error on a financial disclosure form. On Sunday, an assailant burst on stage to attack Adamowicz with a knife, inflicting injuries that would lead to his death the next day. Shortly thereafter, Owsiak announced that he could no longer endure the hatred and carry the burden of responsibility for those who supported his efforts. He has resigned as director of WOŚP.

The killer had a history of violent behavior and had been imprisoned in the past—in fact, during the assassination he shouted out that he was carrying out an act of revenge against Civic Platform for incarcerating him. Defenders of PiS claim that we must not politicize this act of a deranged individual. Indeed, the state television has issued an “alarm” (their term) that hostile forces could be expected to exploit Adamowicz’s death on behalf of unspecified “interests.” It appears to be accurate that the killer was mentally unstable, but the same can be said for the vast majority of political assassins. The question is: why did his violence express itself in this specific way? Why did the killer choose the WOŚP celebration to carry out his deed? Why did his twisted mind identify the representative of a particular political party as responsible for his suffering?

That’s where PiS’s unrelenting propaganda equating Civic Platform with nefarious enemies of Poland comes into play. Mr. Kaczyński’s party has spread a message of paranoia, conspiracy, and bigotry, consistently repeating the message that all those opposed to PiS are working on behalf of anti-Polish interests in an effort to perpetuate the nation’s captivity to foreigners. WOŚP is one of the key players in this storyline, because they accuse Owsiak of being part of the broader plot to perpetuate the authority of the communists even after the (supposed!) fall of communism in 1989. This is the same plot that includes Lech Wałęsa, most of the pre-1989 dissidents, and most of the country’s political elite prior to 2015, when (as President Andrzej Duda and others have claimed) Poland truly established its independence for the first time. Not coincidentally, when WOŚP celebrated its 25th anniversary, Polish TV attempted to distract viewers from watching the event by airing a “documentary” claiming that PiS’s opponents had been trying to stage a coup against the government.

After Adamowicz’s death was confirmed, people in cities across the country gathered in hastily organized demonstrations to collectively mourn his passing. In Warsaw, they assembled at the site of that city’s WOŚP concert, then walked a few blocks to the Zachęta art gallery. That poignant move starkly demonstrated the historical resonance of this horrible moment. In 1922 Poland’s first President, Gabriel Narutowicz, was assassinated in the Zachęta gallery by another mentally unstable individual who shouted slogans taken from the far right. He also believed he was striking a blow against enemies who were trying to enslave the nation on behalf of a conspiracy of cosmopolitans, Jews, and socialists. As the historian Paul Brykczyński has shown in his peerless account of that earlier murder (also available in Polish), the outcome was distressing. Instead of a broad-based repudiation of the far-right, of antisemitism, and of ethnic nationalism, the assassination convinced leaders of the liberal and leftist political parties that they had to downplay their earlier multicultural and democratic ambitions, lest they further enflame the forces of violence and hatred that had culminated in Narutowicz’s death. For their part, the right adopted the message that the killer was mentally ill and had acted impulsively and excessively, but that his anger at the President had been justified by the danger posed by Poland’s enemies. Already one can hear nearly identical comments by supporters of PiS.

Mr. Kaczyński knows that he is on thin ice at the moment. He has already announced that PiS will not sponsor a candidate to contest the election to replace Mayor Adamowicz, in order to calm emotions and begin a process of healing. That might seem like a magnanimous gesture, but PiS had no chance to win that position anyway, so it counts for little. At this time, calls to avoid politicizing Adamowicz’s death, to calm tensions at this moment of national mourning, to use this moment to get beyond partisanship—all these serve the interests of the PiS regime in their attempt to avoid responsibility for their central role in creating the environment that set the stage for this horrible moment.

It is absolutely correct that this is a time to transcend partisan politics: all decent and honorable people—whether they be conservatives, liberals, or socialists—should join together in their repudiation of hatred, conspiracy theories, manipulative state propaganda, and the demonization (literally!) of liberals and leftists by the Polish government. The partisanship that has hindered the formation of a united front against PiS is indeed a problem, but opposition to PiS itself is not a partisan issue. It demarcates a stark line that presents every Pole with a clear choice.

On Sunday night, that choice became clearer than ever.

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Surrender or Tactical Retreat?

The news arrived with its own metaphor: on the eve of the American holiday of Thanksgiving, the Polish government abandoned its attempt to purge the Supreme Court of independent judges.

This particular chapter in the story of Poland’s descent into authoritarianism began last July, when a new law forced into retirement all Supreme Court judges over 65 years of age, effectively gutting the institution and allowing the ruling party, Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) to re-staff the court with their own loyalists. The decision was reviewed by the European Court of Justice, and in mid-October they delivered the obvious ruling that PiS was violating both the Polish constitution and EU standards of judicial independence. Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland’s de facto ruler, stated that the country would respect the ECJ decision, though until this week it was unclear whether he would follow through with that promise. But now it’s official: the Polish parliament (the sejm) has voted to repeal last summer’s law and re-instate the judges who had been forced out. The opposition was given an opportunity to gloat over the most dramatic public retreat PiS has ever made. The headlines were triumphant: “PiS Gives Back the Supreme Court” or “PiS Capitulates

But why did this happen? Once the ECJ opinion was issued, the old law was null-and-void, and Chief Justice Małgorzata Gersdorf and her colleagues could simply return to work. Why would Mr. Kaczyński make such a public show of retreating before the EU court decision? Answering this question reveals quite a lot about the state of play in Polish politics at this moment. There are two levels to this story, each pointing to a different aspect of the complex machinations that are shaping Poland’s future.

The first level involves a very different sort of judiciary: the court of public opinion. Since coming to power in 2015, it appeared that Kaczyński acknowledged no constraints on his power—not the Polish constitution, not EU rules and procedures, and certainly not the norms of democracy. His success has relied on the conviction that he can violate any rules with impunity, knowing that there are no institutions capable of stopping him. He has governed by the fait accompli, daring his opponents to try to stop him. Since he controls most of the media and all the institutions of administrative and political power in Poland, the only thing anyone can do is stage public protests. PiS just ignores those demonstrations, and the story continues.

The question has always been: how far would PiS go? Up until now, they have enjoyed steady public support in the upper 30s, roughly equivalent to their result in the 2015 elections. This makes them the largest single political party, but far short of a majority. As long as the opposition remains fragmented it might be possible for PiS to retain power, but the risk of defeat would always be present. It has been an open question whether Kaczyński retains a baseline commitment to some sort of democratic legitimacy—enough to restrain him from stealing an election or simply ignoring election results. The local and regional elections earlier this month suggested that he might, in fact, fear going quite that far. The results were dismal for PiS, revealing that they have little support in any of Poland’s metropolitan areas, and that their popularity overall remains well below 40%. Nonetheless, the results have been honored and the voting was apparently free and fair. Since the election, a corruption scandal has pushed PiS support even lower—down to 33% according to the survey firm Kantar Millward Brown. One of the most compelling arguments offered by the anti-PiS opposition during the recent election campaign was that PiS would lead Poland out of the EU—either willingly or by provoking the country’s expulsion. Poles continue to see this as an unlikely scenario, but very few of them want it to happen. After three years of anti-EU rhetoric, PiS is increasingly seen as the party of “Polexit,” and that has alienated most Polish voters.

So if Kaczyński hoped to continue to hold legitimate elections, he needed to stage a show of loyalty to the EU. The vote in the sejm on Wednesday gave the PiS leadership the opportunity to say in public that they disagreed with the ECJ, but that as loyal Europeans they had no choice but to honor the court’s rulings. Prior to this moment, Kaczyński has often said that he rejects the concept of “impossibilism.” In other words, he has viewed all legal constraints as mere technicalities that should always be subordinated to the “national interest.” But now PiS has acknowledged the there are some rules they cannot break: if the European Court of Justice speaks, they must listen. This is radically out of character for them, but it makes sense if they want to refashion themselves for the domestic electorate as supporters of continued EU membership. Between now and next year’s parliamentary elections, they will need to work hard to cultivate that image, and this might have been their first step in that direction.

The second level to this story involves the multifaceted nature of PiS’s judicial “reforms.” The forced retirement of the Supreme Court justices was merely one aspect of a protracted assault on judicial independence, and it wasn’t even the most dangerous aspect. The regime has long since neutralized the country’s Constitutional Tribunal; in fact, that is one of the first things they did after gaining power. Then they seized control of the National Judicial Council, which had heretofore been an independent body of the judiciary responsible for nominating judges. The Ministry of Justice has steadily blocked the careers of judges not loyal to the Party, and ensured that every district court in the country has at least a few PiS loyalists who can be assigned cases of political importance. Finally, PiS created two new judicial institutions: the Disciplinary Chamber and the Chamber of Control and Public Affairs. The former has the authority to investigate accusations of judicial corruption and to remove from the bench those found guilty. The latter is responsible for any complaints about election irregularities or violations of campaign law. Needless to say, both bodies have been staffed by judges selected by the PiS-controlled National Judicial Council. With these two bodies, Kaczyński can manipulate elections if he decides to do so, and remove any judges who stand in his way. The whole controversy over the Supreme Court justices becomes moot.

All of these measures have been challenged by various institutions within the European Union, but the removal of the Supreme Court judges had emerged as the headline controversy. Perhaps it is the easiest to grasp in a short news item, because it has easily identifiable victims. In reality, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. By surrendering in such a demonstrative way on that one issue, the PiS leadership is counting on the EU to declare victory and drop the other complaints. They are also counting on the complexity of these extensive “reforms” to create enough smoke to mislead Poles themselves, and blunt the effectiveness of the opposition’s effort to paint PiS as authoritarian. Internationally this may work. With Hungary always promising to veto any decisive measures against Poland, many in Brussels would be happy to abandon the Sisyphean effort to reign in Kaczyński, particularly as the British withdrawal from the Union reaches its denouement. Domestically this may also work, because it’s hard to rally people around abstract causes like judicial independence—even harder now that PiS has supposedly surrendered on the most infamous (albeit not the most important) aspect of their agenda.

So maybe there’s not so much to give thanks for after all.

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Catholicism and Polishness

As we read all the news accounts about the horrifying march of the far-right in Warsaw on November 11, let’s take a moment to remember that they do not represent Poland. They might be the loudest, and they might have support in the current government, but they have little in common with the vast majority of Poles. The Law and Justice Party is doing its best to ruin Poland’s reputation by enabling racists and fascists, but there is another Poland that continues to deserve our respect.

In September a survey by CBOS asked Poles how they planned to celebrate the (supposed) centenary of Polish independence. The top-line result was striking: whereas in 2008 a majority (51%) said that they had no plans to celebrate independence day at all, this year a mere 28% admitted their apathy. However, we shouldn’t make too much of this: 43% of those who were planning to mark the occasion said they would do so by displaying a national flag on their home (a decade ago, only 15%did that).

The other difference that seems significant is that in 2008, 36% reported that they would attend a Catholic mass to mark independence day. We can probably equate this third of the population with those who believe that Polishness and Catholicism are fundamentally the same. Or perhaps some people answered this way because they felt, in 2008, that such a response would be well received by survey-takers—that is, they were following the script of what one was expected to do on a national holiday. Either way, by 2018 that figure was down to 29%, and this survey was taken before the cultural earthquake caused by the release of the movie Kler (The Clergy).

I finally got a chance to see that movie last week, because only then did it arrive at a cinema in Ann Arbor (as part of a magnificent annual event, the Ann Arbor Polish Film Festival). I’m still processing the emotional body-blow that this film delivers, but I have no doubt that it will be remembered as one of the most important cultural moments in recent Polish history. The film has already set box-office records, with just under 5 million tickets sold in Poland alone. When it premiered in the UK, it had the biggest international opening weekend of any Polish film, ever. I trust that everyone will acknowledge that not all Polish priests are like the trio of morally fraught characters represented in the film. Nonetheless, the movie does reflect an aspect of the Church that is undeniable, and that has never before been exposed so powerfully in any artistic medium. In Kler we see a bureaucracy concerned first-and-foremost with its own institutional strength and reputation, willing to cast virtually all other considerations aside in pursuit of its narrowly defined organizational interests. Anyone who has followed the sex-abuse scandals in the US, Ireland, or elsewhere will find the story painfully familiar. Even if it is true that priests are no more or less guilty of transgressions than any other subset of the population, few others are protected by a similar culture of defensiveness and denial, and in few countries is the Catholic Church as powerful as it is in Poland.

Or rather, was powerful. As I have been arguing for a long time, Poland has never been as Catholic as the national mythology suggests. Over the past decade, however, it has grown even less so. Barely a third of the population attends mass on any given Sunday, with somewhat higher figures on Christmas and Easter. Every other measure of religiosity shows the same trend: Poland is secularizing with stunning speed.

The Church appears to be extremely powerful now because it is so closely tied to the current far-right nationalist government. But that is an extremely superficial strength.When the clergy opted for an alliance with the ruling party, they began a process that can only end badly for them. Since partisan political messages have grown routine and most priests have abandoned even the pretense of impartiality, those opposed to the current government (that is, a majority of Poles) have found it intolerable to attend mass. Church attendance and support for the ruling party are roughly at the same level, and they will survive or collapse together.

The claim that there was a time when the Church served as a genuinely national institution, across all partisan lines, was always more myth than reality. But now it isn’t even a myth. The popularity of Kler might be the straw to break the camel’s back of Catholic hegemony, insofar as it brings to the open something that’s been happening for many years.

Polish Catholics worry about following the “Irish path,” referring to the sudden secularization of that country after the clerical sex-abuse scandals broke. In fact, I think the Church will be lucky if it maintains even Irish levels of support over the coming decades. Catholicism is already a sectarian faith in Poland, encompassing only the supporters of one political party. When the current regime loses power—and it must, eventually—the Church will come down with it. In reality, it doesn’t have that much space left to fall.

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Independence Day

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Tomorrow (November 11) will be celebrated in Poland as the centenary of independence. There are a bunch of reasons why this is problematic from a historian’s perspective, but I don’t want to be pedantic.

Ok, yes I do.

The emphasis on 1918 itself implies that there is some sort of sharp division between a time before (the “time of captivity” [czas niewoli], as it is often called) and the time after (independence). The distinction was by no means so sharp, and the eras on each side were by no means homogeneous.

Most obviously, in Galicia, Polish-speaking elites had been in charge for half a century, much to the consternation of Ukrainian national activists and peasants of all ethnicities. What changed after 1918 was the linkage between Kraków and Warsaw and Poznan, not the on-the-ground power dynamics in Galicia itself.

Moreover, the “time of captivity” was extraordinarily heterogeneous, and only a nationalist ideology manages to blend it into a bitter smoothie of oppression. There were clear spatial and chronological variations in the degree to which Poles were oppressed. For example, Russian efforts to suppress the Polish language were instituted only after the 1863 uprising, and they were applied inconsistently for a while before being abandoned altogether. In some contexts that russification was severe and painful, particularly for the educational system in the 1870s and 1880s. But commerce, publishing, journalism, theater, and most of the broadly defined “public sphere” was never russified at all. In Germany the discrimination against the Polish language was much more systematic and effective, but here too we are dealing with at most a few decades in the late 19th century.

For much of the “time of captivity,” most of the Polish peasants were either serfs or only nominally free sharecroppers. Since the national movement was dominated by the nobles, the emancipatory potential of that movement for the peasants was always in doubt. To be sure, the left wing of the nationalist movement wanted to put an end to serfdom and (later) enact meaningful land reform, but they repeatedly came up against an irresolvable dilemma: the more they pushed their social agenda, the less backing they got from their natural base of support among the nobles, yet if they abandoned the serfs altogether they could never create a mass movement. This single factor was probably the most important reason why the national movement could never succeed, until Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary collapsed of their own accord.

Moving to the date of November 11 itself, what exactly are we celebrating?  Several independent Polands had been declared in the weeks leading up to that date, most significantly in Lublin during the night from November 6-7, 1918.  The creation then of the “Provisional People’s Government of the Polish Republic” embodied both the revolutionary mood of that tumultuous year, alongside the goal of national independence.  It included members from all the major centrist and leftist political parties, excluding only a Bolshevik-backed group to the left and the antisemitic National Democratic Party on the right. For years to come, many would mark the 7th as the date of Polish independence, and it was only Józef Piłsudski’s seizure of power in 1926 that began the process of solidifying the 11th as the moment of commemoration. In fact, only in 1937 did the 11th became an official national holiday. Ironically, the specific event it marks is the transfer of power from the three men who constituted the German-appointed “Regency Council” to Piłsudski, who then claimed for himself the title of “Commander in Chief” [Naczelny Wódz]. One could say, therefore, that November 11 marks the date when two aristocrats and an archbishop gave full authority to a soldier, thereby scuttling the efforts of a broad coalition of center and center-left political parties.

Finally, if we look forward from 1918, we have to wonder whetherthis is truly a “centenary” of anything. The polity that emerged in 1918 onlylasted for two decades, followed by five years of occupation and war, followedby a new country, the Polish People’s Republic (Polska Rzeczypospolita Ludowa, or PRL), which renounced any ties tothe interwar Second Republic. The PRL came to an end in 1989, though supportersof the current Polish government have insisted that genuine independence onlycame to Poland in 2015, with their own rise to power.  So PiS supporters are celebrating 24 years ofindependence spread across the past century.  those on the center-right who associate with the Third Republic arecelebrating 50 years of independence, insofar as they don’t recognize the PRLas legitimate. By the most capacious understanding, including the communist era,we are celebrating just under 95 years of various forms of independence.

Of course I’m being flippant, but there’s a serious point here. Celebrating a centenary of independence on November 11, 2018, is not an ideologically neutral commemoration. It implies recognizing that 1918 marked a clear division between an oppressive time before and a period of liberty after. That’s certainly true for some (for example, women got the vote in 1918, albeit not on November 11), but not really for others (emancipation from serfdom meant vastly more in practical terms than a shift in political power to Warsaw from Petersburg, Kraków, and Berlin). Moreover, it implies a deliberate forgetting of the political divisions of 1918 itself, erasing some viable (at the time) alternatives in favor of the political camp around Józef Piłsudski.  Finally, it flattens the period since 1918 in a way that no one truly believes.

So with that in mind, Happy Independence Day!

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