Blog

  • -

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.


  • -

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.


  • -

Independence Day

Tags : 

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!


  • -

It’s Official

The official results of the local and regional elections in Poland are now in, and the biggest story is what did not happen. The Polish Electoral Commission has confirmed results in line with the independent exit polls, and so far there have been no reports of significant voter suppression,intimidation, or fraudulent tabulation.            

Perhaps the top-line result was the turnout: 54.96% of the electorate voted last Sunday, an even larger figure than was initially forecast. That’s not only the largest turnout for local and regional elections in Poland’s history, but one of the largest for any election.

Once the votes were all counted and the complex arithmetic of Poland’s electoral laws were applied, the delegates to the country’s 16 regional assemblies (aggregated together) ended up as follows:

The differences between the votes cast and the actual seats gained reflects a longstanding feature of the Polish electoral system. Just as with elections to the national parliament, parties receiving less than 5% of the vote in any particular województwo receive no seats, and their votes are distributed proportionally among all the remaining parties. Because of this law, the far-right supporters of Paweł Kukiz have no representation at all, even though they got slightly more votes than the Non-Partisan movement (a group formed specially for these elections, bringing together local politicians unaffiliated with any national party). The latter group was concentrated in a few districts where they did quite well, whereas the former was scattered across the whole country. Still, the rough ideological distribution of the country is reflected here more accurately than during the 2015 parliamentary elections, when the disproportion between the votes cast and the parliamentary seats allotted was enormous.

The most important feature of the distribution of seats (and votes) was that PiS is the largest single party, but that they fell short of a majority in most parts of the country. They did better than during he last round of regional elections (in 2014), but worse than they had hoped. Whereas previously they could establish control in only one województwo, today they have control of six. Two additional regions have no majority party, and coalitions will be needed to govern.

As originally predicted, the opposition won all the major cities, except for a couple that will have to a run-off between the top two candidates. In those, the opposition candidate is the overwhelming favorite. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Poland is divided into urban and rural worldviews. Instead, we have on one side PiS supporters who come mostly from rural areas and small town towns concentrated in the southeastern part of the country, and a diverse democratic opposition that encompasses both the remaining rural areas and every city of over 100,000 people.

If this is the best PiS can do after three years of heavy handed propaganda in the official state media, massive purges of every public institution, and an unabashed seizure of control over the judiciary, then they have a very serious problem. Many despaired in 2015 that “the Poles” had taken a turn away from democracy and shown themselves vulnerable to authoritarian, xenophobic, nationalist appeals. I never believed that, and today I’m even more confident that there has been little change in the long-term trends in Polish public opinion. PiS has never won more than a third of the popular vote, and they only took power because of quirks in the electoral law and because the left was so fragmented and disorganized in 2015.

The remaining question in my mind has always been: how far will Kaczyński go to retain power? He has been willing to use heavy-handed institutional pressure and patronage to gain loyalty over the structures of the Polish state. He has been willing to use the state media to spread programming as tendentious as anything seen in the communist era. He has threatened to “re-Polonize” the remaining private media outlets. He has defied the constraints of the Polish constitution and destroyed the independence of the judiciary. Against this backdrop, it seemed plausible that he would be equally willing to rig elections to ensure his victory. Nothing could truly stop him, given that the European Union has demonstrated that its enforcement mechanisms are toothless. So why didn’t he?

One possibility is that he doesn’t want to. Despite everything, perhaps he isn’t as authoritarian as so many of us have assumed. Maybe his talk about “illiberal democracy” is sincere insofar as he continues to believe that governments need to get an honest popular mandate. Maybe.

It seems more likely to me that he made a deliberate decision to allow these elections to go forward without interference because of two factors. First, the purge of the judiciary is not yet complete—in fact, Kaczyński decided to switch course last week and honor a European court ruling to temporarily re-hire some of the previously purged judges. I presume he did so because he didn’t want another clash with the EU to peak days before the elections. Without a reliable judiciary, it would still be difficult for PiS to get away with systematic voter suppression or manipulation, much less outright fraud. Second, Kaczyński probably believed that he didn’t need to shape the results of these elections. Most signs before the elections, until the very last week, pointed to a more decisive PiS victory. Even now, the ruling party is declaring victory because they did, after all, retain their status as the largest single political party in the country (even if this status ignores the fact that nearly every other political party is aligned against them, and would happily form an anti-PiS coalition). Since PiS can spin this as a victory, why bother with fraud? I don’t think this spin will work in the face of their dismal showing in Poland’s cities, but perhaps it’s good enough for the party base.

The final possibility is that something is happening behind the scenes within the PiS leadership, as various party factions fight for power. President Andrzej Duda, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Gowin, Minister of the Interior Joachim Brudziński, and Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak have all made gestures suggesting that they are jockeying for a leadership role when Kaczyński someday retires. It could be that their efforts to demonstrate electoral backing for their various protégés and proxies created a need to run these elections cleanly.

No one can breath easily after these elections—not PiS, and not the opposition. Even the fact that the balloting appears to have been free and fair provides no assurances that the same will be true in 2019 during the high-stakes parliamentary elections. It’s quite possible that one result of these elections will be that PiS will strip the cities and województwa of their autonomy and funding so as to negate the power of the mayors and the regional assemblies. But one thing is clear: prior to last Sunday, it felt like PiS was an unstoppable machine, moving without any meaningful resistance to take over one sector of public life after another. Today the forces of democracy have reason—uncertain though it may be—to hope that a corner has been turned. One feature of authoritarian governments is that they tend to appear impregnable until the first cracks appear, after which they crumble like a house of cards. Could this be the first hairline fracture? 


  • -

Exit Poles

Tags : 

Exit Poles            

The awful pun in the headline was too obvious to pass up. My apologies.

Voting has concluded for local and regional elections in Poland. Official results won’t be available until Monday or Tuesday, but the exit polls provide us with a general sense of what happened. Turnout was extraordinary, at 51.3%. That’s more than any other local election in Polish history, and even more than most parliamentary elections.

Some of the headlines right now (11:00 p.m. Polish time) are proclaiming that Jarosław Kaczyński’s party, Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) has won most of the regional assemblies [sejmiki wojewódzkie], taking nine to the opposition’s seven. Similar language is being used to describe the overall partisan breakdown of the vote on a national level—a symbolic accounting only, since this wasn’t a national election. Technically this is accurate, but only if we define “win” as “get more votes than any other party.” True, that’s a definition that makes sense in a zero sum game, but it has no relevance here.

In this chart, KO is the Koalicja Obywatelska [Civic Coalition], an alliance of center-right and center-left parties formed just for this election. PSL is the Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe [Polish Peasant’s Party], an agrarian party in staunch opposition to PiS. Kukiz is the ill-defined right-wing party formed by the former rock star Paweł Kukiz, and it’s the only group that would likely collaborate with PiS. The Non-Partisan Movement is a loose coalition of local government officials who wanted to focus on issues specific to their town or region, and avoid the poisonous partisanship of national politics. SLD [Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, or Union of the Democratic Left] is the remnant of the post-communist party created in the aftermath of the fall of communism in 1989.

Broken down by województwa, PiS did indeed come first in nine of Poland’s sixteen regions, but it hasn’t yet been announced what exact percentage they got in each of their victories.

But this picture is misleading. In all likelihood, PiSwill be unable to gain control unless they have an absolute majority, and with less than a third of the votes nation-wide, it’s hard to imagine that they’ll achieve 51% in more than a two or three regions. For comparison, in 2014 they came first in five regions, but could only control one.

To put these results in perspective, if we applied the rules for the national sejm [parliament] to today’s results, we’d end up with something like this (I’m eliminating the non-partisans, because as a coalition movement they would need 8% to enter the sejm on a national level):

In other words, with these figures, PiS would be soundly defeated, and unable to govern even with Kukiz as a coalition partner. This is wildly hypothetical, because local elections have very different dynamics than national ones. For example, not even the most ardent partisans of PSL believe that they will get anything close to today’s result in elections to the sejm.  On the other hand, aside from SLD, the left did not even try to compete in these local elections, but they won’t be so passive next year. How successful they are will play a huge role in determining the ultimate outcome of this contest. 

Today’s grim result for Mr. Kaczyński is reinforced by his party’s catastrophic showing in nearly all of Poland’s major cities. As I wrote yesterday, PiS was not expected to win any of the mayoral races for the largest urban centers, but they did even worse than expected. In most cases, there won’t even be a need for a second round. It seems that the opposition has won outright in Warsaw, Lublin, Łódź, Poznań, Wrocław, and Białystok. A second round will be necessary in Gdańsk, Kielce, and Kraków, and the opposition candidates are favorites to win all three. Only in Katowice did a candidate backed by PiS win, and that is only because they decided to endorse the popular incumbent mayor, even though he is not a member of their party. Perhaps the most humiliating defeat of the night came in Łódź, where Hanna Zdanowska got 70% of the vote despite attempts by PiS to remove her from office in 2016 based on trumped-up charges of corruption. Or maybe that prize would go to Krzysztof Żuk’s victory with 60% of the vote in Lublin, a city in the otherwise conservative southeastern party of the country. To be sure, Żuk is himself a very conservative politician, but he is a member of Civic Platform and a firm opponent of the PiS regime. Rafał Trzaskowski’s victory in Warsaw came with only 54% of the vote, but the PiS candidate, Patryk Jaki, got only 31% (with the rest going to a variety of minor party or independent candidates). Jaki had once been a rising star within his party, aligned closely with the powerful Justice Minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, so this result will have consequences in PiS’s internal power dynamics.

In a post-election interview Kaczyński said “we are having a good night. We are happy.” Well, no: this is a bad night for PiS, and an encouraging result for those who hope to turn Poland away from the authoritarian path it has been on since 2015. Having said that, keep in mind that everything I’ve written here is based on the exit polls. These were conducted by the respected international firm IPSOS, based on a massive data set collected at 1,160 randomly selected polling stations all over the country. So it is unlikely that the official results will differ much from these preliminary figures — assuming, of course, that those results are accurately registered. I’m more optimistic than I was yesterday, because normal PR “spin” will be enough to draw a picture of a PiS victory for the government’s propaganda mouthpieces, making more heavy-handed falsification unnecessary. Still, I’ll breathe easier after we get the official results.


  • -

Polish Election Preview

Tomorrow (Sunday, October 21), Poles will go the polls for local and regional elections.These are not typically viewed as high-stakes events, and turnout is usually low. This year, however, is different. Since the Law and Justice Party [Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS] came to power in 2015, they haven’t faced an electoral test, so this is the first opportunity that opposition parties have to demonstrate that PiS can be defeated.

For three years, the march of Jarosław Kaczyński to absolute power has seemed unstoppable. They have ignored mass protest demonstrations and flaunted both the Polish constitution and EU directives, seemingly with impunity. Survey data show that they remain a minority party, with support fluctuating between the high 30s and low 40s, but no other party can rival them. The left is as fragmented as always, though the center-right has created a coalition this election that will unite the two main opposition parties, Civic Platform [Platforma Obywatelska, or PO] and Modernity [Nowoczesna]. Some prominent figures on the left have also joined this coalition, in the belief that the only meaningful political battle now is between those who believe in pluralist democracy and the rule of law, and those who do not. Others are charting a separate course, unwilling to cooperate with what they consider a discredited center-right in a battle with an (equally discredited) extreme right.

Conventional political prognostication is relatively easy at this moment, at least in broad outlines. PiS will remain the largest single political party if all the votes cast in tomorrow’s elections are aggregated, but this does not mean that they will govern throughout the country. Since their votes are concentrated in a few regions, they will rack up enormous victories in some places while losing in others. It is extremely unlikely that they will win in any of Poland’s cities. Their mayoral candidates might advance to the second round, but among urban voters there is a low ceiling for PiS support that will make it almost impossible for them to win. They will probably gain control of a few more regional [województwo] assemblies than they currently have, but that’s an easy bar to clear since they only control one (out of 16) at the moment. I won’t be surprised if they end up with a majority in three or four województwa.

None of that gets us to the most important question: will these elections be a familiar battle for popular support, or will they mark a new stage in Poland’s descent into authoritarianism? Up until now, despite the government’s flagrant violation of the constitution and their open defiance of EU standards (particularly regarding judicial independence), opposition parties have been behaving as if they were engaged in a conventional political struggle, with victory or defeat determined by popular support. Most assume that PiS will be overthrown through the ballot box, and that continued party pluralism (particularly on the local level) will save Poland from the absolutism seen in Hungary, Turkey, or Russia. In this vision of the future, the key issue will be the ability of the opposition to sustain a united front, because despite PiS’s strong support, Mr. Kaczyński has only one potential coalition partner (a small, fragmented, ideologically incoherent party created by the rock star Paweł Kukiz). No other group would even consider cooperating with PiS, and if the other major parties can consolidate their votes, it is quite possible that Poland’s authoritarian slide will end after the national parliamentary elections scheduled for 2019. Nothing is certain, but PiS is a long way from the sort of overwhelming popular support enjoyed by strongmen like Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

Two signals this week confirm that comparative weakness. First, yesterday the government announced that it would honor the EU court ruling blocking the ongoing purge of the country’s judiciary. This is a dramatic change of tone regarding directives from Brussels, and it is probably aimed at soothing fears that PiS will take Poland out of the EU. A Polish party concerned at all with popular support has to be in favor of the EU, at least rhetorically, because Poles remain the most pro-European people in the Union.

The second, seemingly contradictory sign of electoral weakness came in the advertising of the last week of campaigning. PiS usually tries to put on a more moderate face during election campaigns, and the party’s most controversial figures (including most of leadership) tend to be hidden away. The assumption has always been that the party’s base will turn out regardless, because they understand that the radical core of xenophobia and authoritarianism will continue to guide PiS policies regardless of what is said during an election campaign. Yet this past week we have seen a shift in the tone of PiS ads, characterized by naked fear-mongering, conspiracy theories, and anti-immigrant paranoia. These ads only make sense if the party leadership has reason to fear that their core electorate is having second thoughts.

All this points to a relatively normal (if we can still use that word) campaign season. I understand why the opposition continues to behave as if the basic rules of electoral politics will hold. At the same time, we have to wonder why Mr. Kaczyński went to such great lengths to seize control of the judiciary, even though doing so turned Poland into a pariah within the EU and deepened the partisan divide in Poland into an impassable canyon of calumny and mistrust. He has said openly that control of the courts is not an end to itself, but a necessary first step to ensure that his broader program to transform Poland will succeed. He doesn’t want the niceties of legality to block his ambitions. The most obvious point where the rule of law might stop him would be an electoral defeat.

This is the real reason why tomorrow’s elections are so important. Poland still has a relatively good infrastructure of survey firms with high professional standards, so while the predictions I made above are far from guaranteed (particularly regarding the sporadically surveyed mayoral races in smaller cities), they aren’t likely to be wildly off. We all learned a basic (but easily forgotten) math lesson in November of 2016: when pollsters say that a particular candidate has a 66% chance of victory, the other candidate can be expected to win one out of three times. So there will be no reason to panic if PiS ends up controlling five or size województwa rather than three or four, or if they win a couple mid-sized cities in upset victories. But if we end up with PiS mayors in Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk, Poznań, or Wrocław, or if the ruling party ends up controlling a majority of the country’s regional assemblies, then we should be extremely skeptical. If that happens, there will almost certainly be charges of some sort of chicanery, but those accusations would be adjudicated in the very courts that PiS now controls. The temporary setback that paused the purges this week comes too late for this purpose: while the government doesn’t yet control all the judges, they have enough to ensure that no charges of election manipulation will be upheld.

If this happens, Poland will have taken the most dangerous turn yet. All the earlier debates about framing a strong message for the opposition, or about uniting the disparate supporters of constitutional democracy, will be pointless, because the nature of the battle will have changed. If the ballot box can’t be trusted as a means of changing the country’s leadership, then only extra-parliamentary methods remain. I think everyone is counting on the belief that it won’t come to such a dire point, that Kaczyński will not start arresting opponents, rigging elections, and banning opposition demonstrations altogether. But unfortunately, everything he has done so far has placed him in a position where such an extreme path is entirely open to him. Right now, our only real hope is that he will decide that Poland should continue to hold legitimate elections, even if the results fall short of his ultimate ambitions, and even if they threaten to remove him from power. If he decides otherwise, nothing is left to stop him.


  • -

Three Cheers for Historical Ignorance

In recent years, pathbreaking websites like FiveThirtyEight.com or Vox.com have challenged the norms of journalism and punditry by introducing serious statistical analysis and rigorous background research to the public discourse. The writers who contribute to these sites are accessible, witty, and down-to-earth, but they refuse to accept conventional-wisdom generalizations about what “Americans” think or feel or do. They are always asking for the evidence—and when they get it, they often find that the assumptions of the intelligentsia are wildly mistaken.

This is painfully true in Poland as well, where even very smart writers and politicians routinely perpetuate overgeneralizations about what “the Poles” believe (as if “the Poles” were part of a hive mind). Recently more nuance has been noticeable, as people increasingly talk about two Polands, the nationalist-Catholic-rural Poland and the liberal-secular-urban Poland. This helps, but I think the real issue goes deeper.

A recent survey by CBOS provided an example of how deeply the Polish intelligentsia (and most international observers of Poland, who tend to base their impressions on conversations with those intellectuals) misunderstand the Polish population. I wish I had a złoty for every time I have heard someone say that “Poles are very religious” and “history is extraordinarily important to Poles.” I understand why people say that: a casual trip to the country gives one the impression that religious iconography is everywhere, and that historical commemorations are unusually common. But just because political leaders and other public figures promote a particular worldview does not mean that these attitudes will be shared.

The aforementioned survey started with a relatively easy question: “how often do you feel proud to be Polish?” Not surprisingly, 45% said “quite often” and 26% said “very often.” Only 4% said “never” and 22% “rarely.” The insight in this survey came with the next question: “what makes you proud to be Polish?” Respondents could list multiple answers. The most popular response (selected by 24%) pointed to victories by Polish athletes in international competitions. A mere 10% mentioned stories of historical heroism, and only 2% said that they were proud of their country’s Catholic religiosity and traditional values. 8% referred to the symbolism of the nation: the flag, the national anthem, etc.

If we combine this data with other statistical information, this general image is confirmed. We know that just over a third of Poles regularly attend mass (36.7%, according to the most recent figures), and that Poles are startlingly unaware of the historical episodes typically highlighted as seminal for that nation. For example, in a 2016 survey, only 21% were able to identify why 1863 was important, and only 57% recognized why 1989 was a significant year. Amazingly, 43% did not know what 1918 represented for Poland! To be sure, 82% could identify the meaning of 1939, and 74% knew what happened in 966. The only other widely recognized date was the battle of Grunwald in 1410. Moreover, historical awareness has fallen over the past 25 years. Only 966 and 1410 are more widely recognized today than they were in the late 1980s, while every other historical anniversary is less well known. When asked to name the most important historical events of the past century (they could name more than one), only 23% pointed to WWII, and only 8% mentioned the Warsaw Uprising (the most omnipresent event in official public memory). Oddly, just over half said that Poland’s restoration in 1918 was most important, though based on that earlier question, it seems that the remainder didn’t even know what happened in that year. 43% pointed to the election of John Paul II, 33% highlighted Poland’s entry to the European Union, and 30% noted the fall of communism.

I suspect that this same survey would get somewhat different responses today, because the PiS government has been relentless in its promotion of the idea that Poland’s national essence was and is defined by its collective martyrdom during WWII. But we need to recognize this for what it is: a PR campaign organized by state authorities, reflecting the preoccupations of a minority. Admittedly, a substantial minority–but not a majority, and certainly not “the nation” as a cohesive whole.

You might expect that a historian like me would lament the low level of historical knowledge among Poles, but in fact I think it is wonderful. Since the dominant historical stories are marked by martyrology and nationalist resentment, a sober forgetfulness is both healthy and rational. For most Poles, patriotism means cheering the red-and-white in the World Cup (but let’s not talk about that) or the European Track-and-Field Championships this week in Berlin (let’s definitely talk about that). During the 2012 Euro-cup hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine (in what feels like a completely different historical epoch now), I wrote that Polish patriotism had matured by becoming more juvenile. Instead of politically charged, lachrymose, nationalistic bombast designed to nurture resentments towards external and internal enemies, it seemed that people were starting to treat Polishness as something to cheer about, not fight about. Sure, some hooligans tried to turn the former into the latter, but they were a tiny minority (contrary to the misleading international press coverage at the time). Now those hooligans enjoy the backing of the state, and it is easy to imagine that their attitudes define Polishness as a whole. Perhaps I overstated the magnitude of the transformation back in 2012, but the survey data mentioned above shows that the resurgence in nationalist-Catholic martyrology remains a thin veneer that has not yet come to characterize widespread popular attitudes.

If the PiS regime lasts beyond one parliamentary term,  and continues to marginalize alternative worldviews (particularly in the school system), then their worldview could become more deeply entrenched. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened yet. It is also possible (maybe even likely) that interest in history will go down as the schools focus more on the memorization of names and dates from heroic stories, and as the media is increasingly saturated with tendentious stories about a pantheon of Great Poles. The eye-rolling boredom of teenagers will do more to scuttle Mr. Kaczyński’s historical politics than any complaints by professional historians. Hope for the future rests on the ability of the next generation to forget what they are taught in school, and instead pay attention to sports.  That strikes me as a solid foundation for optimism.   


  • -

Public Opinion is Irrelevant

Ok, public opinion is not irrelevant – that’s a clickbait headline. But it really is the case that public opinion is not going to be the key factor in determining the outcome of the regional and local elections that will be held in Poland in late October or early November.

Calling these “regional and local elections” is misleading. Yes, the offices up for grabs include the governors and the provincial assemblies for Poland’s 16 województwa, along with the mayors and town councils for every municipality in the country (from the smallest village to the largest cities). Parliamentary and presidential elections won’t come until 2019, and in the past those have been the elections that mattered. This time, however, the local has been nationalized. I think every politician in the country realizes by now that the results of this year’s vote will be crucial on a number of levels.

First, the democratic opposition desperately needs to demonstrate that PiS can be stopped. Since Jarosław Kaczyński took power in 2015, he has shown that he can violate Poland’s constitution with impunity and seize control of nearly every lever of power in the country. He and his lieutenants have violated both norms and laws without compunction, daring anyone to stop them. No one, neither within Poland nor in Brussels, has figured out how to do so. Since the supporters of liberal constitutional democracy believe in following legal procedures, there is little they can do when faced with an opponent who has no such compunctions. This fall we will see the first elections since 2015, and if the anti-PiS forces are defeated at the ballot box on top of everything else, it is hard to see a path forward that will restore constitutional rule and liberal democracy in Poland.

Aside from the issue of morale and symbolism, there is real power at stake. Poland is not, yet, an entirely centralized country. Independent local and regional self-government was established after the fall of communism precisely to serve as a bulwark against the sort of authoritarianism Kaczyński is trying to impose. Since the województwa and the cities have their own autonomous budgets, they have been able to blunt some of the force of the PiS takeover. This is mainly because most of them are still controlled by PiS opponents. In the last elections, PiS was only able to come out on top in five provincial assemblies (out of 16). Even there, they were short of majorities, and in four out of the five they were unable to find coalition partners. In other words, they currently control the government of only one województwa (Podkarpacie, in the southeast tip of the country). Meanwhile, the cities have never been friendly territory for PiS, and they occupy the mayor’s office in a mere 11 out of 107 municipalities (the largest being Nowy Sącz, with just under 85,000 people).

Since PiS is so weak at the local and regional level, they are almost certain to improve their situation—there’s nowhere for them to go but up. Given that all the public Polish TV and radio channels have been converted into partisan mouthpieces for the regime, and considering the relatively strong economy, they should certainly be able to gain more votes than they did in 2014. Nationally, they have hovered around 38%, precisely the percentage they won in the 2015 parliamentary elections. They haven’t lost any support, nor have they had any lasting gains. But that support is not evenly distributed. In a few województwa (according to a recent survey by IBRIS) they are more popular than they were at the time of the last local and regional elections, while in several others they have fallen. Nowhere—not even Podkarpacie—does PiS enjoy the support of a majority, and in only two provinces do they top 40%. This general picture is not likely to change between now and October. PiS will be short of a majority everywhere, so everything depends on how the remaining political parties behave.

The two large liberal parties in Poland, Civic Platform and Nowoczesna, have already established an electoral alliance for the regional and local elections. That will not be enough. The vagaries of local elections are extremely complex, with polling that can never be as reliable as national polling. But just playing with the numbers IBRIS has given us, this alliance will likely be able to govern in only four województwa. Meanwhile, PiS should be able to govern in 10, assuming they can build coalitions with a smaller right-wing party. The two remaining provinces are too close to call.

But here’s the real news: if the PO/Nowoczesna alliance were expanded to include the agrarian party (Polskie Partia Ludowa, or PSL) and the social democrats (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, or SLD), such a coalition would form a government in 15 out of 16 województwa.

Averaging across the country, the aforementioned IBRIS survey shows PiS at 34%, PO/N at 26%, SDL at 10%, and PSL at 12%. This should not be surprising. It roughly reflects the balance of forces that has existed for the past several years. Unlike Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary, Kaczyński’s PiS does not have, and is unlikely to ever have, the support of the majority of Poles. On the other hand, neither are they likely to ever fall much below a third of the electorate. So the choice for everyone else is stark: will they set aside their (very real and substantive) differences in order to defend democracy, establishing a wall of isolation around PiS? Or will they stick to the old norms of politics and maneuver to maximize their own party’s position? Neither SLD nor PSL are likely to overtake the liberal PO/Nowoczesna coalition, but the latter alliance on its own cannot defeat PiS. Everything depends on how the politicians deal with this reality—because they aren’t going to substantially change it.

In 2015, PiS did not win because they convinced a majority of the electorate to support their vision for anti-liberal authoritarianism and nationalism. They conducted an overtly misleading moderate campaign, and even then they only got 38% of the vote. Their majority rests on the electoral rules that eliminates all parties earning fewer than 5%, then distributing their votes among the large parties.  This transformed that 38% into 51% of the parliamentary delegates. The gap between overall voter preference and the actual results was cavernous.

The same thing could easily happen again this Fall. If the smaller parties strive to go it alone, the electoral system will swallow them up and PiS might end up winning in most of the województwa. Even if those parties don’t end up below the 5% mark, they may or may not agree to an anti-PiS coalition. But if they do, they’ll govern in 15/16 provinces. Either of the maps below is possible under exactly the same distribution of the popular vote.

In other words, Poland’s fate is only partially in the hands of the voters. Much more depends on the political choices—and compromises—that the politicians offer them.


  • -

Commemorating the Warsaw Uprising in 2018 (update)

After writing up my impressions of yesterday, I learned that I had missed one of the key events of the day.  A much larger ONR gathering had taken place a bit earlier at an intersection in Warsaw’s commercial center (scandalously named the “Dmowski Roundabout.”).  Again it is impossible to estimate the size of the crowd, because that’s always a crowded space and many of those present were wearing anti-fascist stickers to protest the presence of the ONR.  Regardless, there were easily a thousand or so ONR supporters present.  When they tried to march downtown for a planned convergence on Castle Square for the concert I wrote about yesterday, they were blocked by city police.  A spokesman for Warsaw stated that the group was propagating hate-speech and was therefore prohibited from marching. After a tense standoff, the ONR members walked along the sidewalks to the Castle Square, but quite a few just went home.  The noteworthy aspect of this story is that the municipal government, which is still controlled by liberals opposed to Poland’s authoritarian regime, was able to act with decency and independence.  Just because the ruling party at the moment is opposed to liberal democracy, that doesn’t mean that all aspects of public life have been (yet) subsumed by Mr. Kaczyński. It’s hard to remain optimistic, however. The city had the legal (not to mention moral) right to ban that march, but if the ONR had challenged that right in court, the case would have gone to a legal system which is now completely controlled by the ruling party. It is hard to imagine anything resembling a fair trial under these circumstances.  My first reaction to the story of the blocked ONR march was to recall how vitally important the local self-government elections later this year will be.  If the elections are free and fair (a big “if”), the opposition is heavily favored to win in Warsaw and the other major cities. But my second reaction to the story is to remember that the judicial system is now a mere arm of the ruling party, so local self-government will be operating in highly constrained circumstances.  Yesterday’s episode went well, all things considered, but the future remains grim.


  • -

Commemorating the Warsaw Uprising in 2018

August 1 is the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, an attempt by Polish underground partisan units to liberate the capital city from Nazi rule before the Soviets could arrive. It has become the cornerstone of the current Polish regime’s memory politics, because it has all the elements that they like to promote: a sense of dual victimization from both Nazis and Soviets; a resentment towards the Western Powers for not intervening; a story filled with suffering and pain; and of course a martyrological conclusion. The iconic illustrations on posters all over Warsaw this week are of young people who died during the fighting—the ideal innocent victims. I’ve written often enough about why I consider this martyrological historical vision to be harmful, so I won’t rehearse those arguments here. What I want to note instead are three events that I noticed while walking around downtown Warsaw this evening.

The first was on Piłsudski Square, where the official commemorations were staged. Tens of thousands of people gathered to hear a concert of songs composed during the occupation, most of which had lyrics complaining about hardship and oppression. Truthfully, though, I don’t think the lyrics mattered all that much to this audience. Towards the edge of the crowd it was hard to make out what the singers were saying, and the jazzy tunes of mid-20th pop music were more prominent than the words. The proliferation of Polish flags and Uprising iconography ensured that the event was more than just a fun picnic, but the mood was not nearly as lachrymose as August 1 events typically are.

On Castle Square, about a mile away, the mood was very different. Here a small crowd had gathered to listen to heavily amplified metal and rap versions of songs from the National Armed Forces (Narodowe Siły Zbrojne, or NSZ), a far-right splinter group from the 1940s that broke away from the mainstream Polish opposition, the Home Army (Armia Krajowa, or AK). The NSZ resented the fact that the AK expressed sympathy with the Jews, and hoped instead to build a postwar Poland that would put the finishing touches on Hitler’s plans by ensuring that the Jews would never return to Polish lands. In their political ideology they echoed Fascist and Nazi themes of authoritarianism and nationalism, and they were vehemently anti-socialist, anti-liberal, and anti-modern. The memory of the NSZ is currently being whitewashed by the Polish government, which hopes to win the votes of their 21st century heirs, the National-Radical Camp (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny, or ONR). Disturbingly, alongside the young men participating in the show were at least two Catholic priests. I don’t want to overstate the importance of the ONR. It’s hard to know how many of the crowd affiliated with that group, given that the majority of the onlookers were curious and clueless tourists, but I would guess that no more than 50 ONR members were there.

The third gathering was the saddest of all. About 100 meters away were a tiny cluster of antifascist protesters who had hoped to decry the defilement of Castle Square by the ONR. Again, It’s hard to know how many of them there were, but there couldn’t have been more than a dozen. They were vastly outnumbered by the police who had surrounded them, so as to prevent them from approaching the ONR concert. In contrast to the young men on the square, these counter-protesters were mostly my age (let’s call that “late middle age”), and mostly women.

One interpretation of these three snapshots would be that most Varsovians treat August 1 as a banal historical anniversary, and an opportunity for a pleasant concert on a warm summer evening. Both the politicized events were tiny and insignificant, and both were taking place under careful supervision by the police (who intervened in the ONR show when someone lit a red smoke torch). I would be thrilled if this depoliticized, content-free approach was taking hold. It might seem strange for a historian like me to say, but I can’t wait until history becomes boring again in Poland. At least in this country, when history comes alive, bad things tend to follow.

But I fear that we are a long way from turning August 1 (or November 11, or May 3, or any other major anniversary) into holidays akin to America’s infamously vacuous grilling-and-fireworks fest of July 4. The critical mass of Varsovians at the main concert were just expressing respect and benign patriotism, but note how the overall terrain has shifted. People openly evoking the memory of mid-20th century fascists are able to hold a legally authorized demonstration on Warsaw’s most central historical and tourist landmark, while almost no one reacts (and those who do get cordoned off far, far away). It is no secret that many people in the current government consider the ONR to be little more than a somewhat overexuberant youth movement, made up of kids with good intentions but a bad public relations strategy. The vast majority of Poles would oppose the ONR, and if they were ever shown the NSZ program from the 1940s, they would be horrified. Yet most are happy to ignore the radicals, even as such extremist ideas creep closer and closer into official discourse. After all, the concert of wartime songs was so much nicer, and the stories of martyrdom bring a cathartic and patriotic tear to everyone’s eyes. Why pay attention to a few nutcases with bad music?

This is how authoritarian ideologies work: not by convincing good people to believe in extremist ideas, but by shifting the center of gravity so that such ideas appear to be little more unfortunate excesses. I’ve written elsewhere that authoritarian regimes don’t typically oppress the majority; instead, they break down the safeguards that allow minorities to live in safety.  Allowing the ONR to occupy Castle Square while establishing a police cordon around a few antifascist protesters is an eloquent example of this pattern.