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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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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? 

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Exit Poles

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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.

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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.

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Three Cheers for Historical Ignorance

In recent years, pathbreaking websites like or 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.