Tag Archives: Kaczyński

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The Disunited Right

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Whenever I pretend to be a pundit I usually end up humiliated (Andrzej Duda never had a chance to defeat Bronisław Komorowski, PiS couldn’t do too much damage because they lacked the votes to change the constitution, etc.).  But it seems that I may have gotten something right, despite my best efforts. After the elections last fall, I argued that it was going to be very difficult for Kaczyński to sustain discipline and unity within his own camp going forward.  The Zjednoczona Prawica (United Right) had really been “PiS, etc.” during the first term, but the elections changed the landscape by increasing the strength of the other right-wing parties, Zbigniew Ziobro’s Solidarna Polska and Jarosław Gowin’s Porozumienie (Agreement). The former consists of ideological hard-liners who resent what they see as compromises made by PiS.  For Ziobro, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is just a technocrat, and not a true believer. On the other side, Gowin casts himself in the Christian Democratic tradition, though he is far, far to the right of Angela Merkel. Perhaps a better parallel would be the Republican party of the US, as it was in its pre-Trump iteration. In other words, Porozumienie advocates social conservatism (what Americans would recognize as a “family values” agenda) combined with a commitment to private business and free markets. 

It was easy to forget that Solidarna Polska and Porozumienie even existed as separate entities during PiS’s first term. After last October, however, they increased their parliamentary strength vis-à-vis PiS.  If we broke out the three members of the (up until now) United Right, the current balance of power in the Sejm would look like this:

In recent weeks the tensions between Kaczyński, Ziobro, and Gowin have been bubbling to the surface.  First came the controversy over the presidential elections, which were originally scheduled for May.  Kaczyński wanted to push ahead with the original timetable despite the COVID crisis, using a hastily put together vote-by-mail system, under the management of a newly-appointed postmaster loyal to PiS.  The opposition challenged the legitimacy of this sudden change in voting procedures, but more surprising was the fact that Gowin did as well. He insisted on a postponement of the election, and when it became obvious that PiS alone did not have the votes to push forward, the vote was indeed delayed.  Andrzej Duda won anyway, though it was much closer than it would have been in May. Gowin actually appeared to be standing on principle: he believed that a victory under those conditions would not be seen as legitimate.  He was probably right, and he may have saved Kaczyński from himself.  Anyway, in the aftermath of this Gowin lost his position as vice-premier, even though his party technically remained part of the ruling coalition.

As the summer came to an end, the three parties were negotiating about a reconfiguration of the government—a common process after an election, even when the incumbents win.  It was reasonably certain that Morawiecki would continue as prime minister, but the balance of the ministerial posts given to the coalition members was in question. This is where the story gets indecipherably complicated, and I won’t even attempt to lay out the many personal conflicts that have been in play.  The short version is that Ziobro wanted more authority, and was positioning himself to either 1) merge with PiS and establish himself as Kaczyński’s heir; or 2) build Solidarna Polska so that it could stand alone as an independent party to PiS’s right. Gowin, meanwhile, wanted to get back into government, but on his own terms. Needless to say, Kaczyński wanted to put these two upstarts in their place.  Both as a matter of personality and as a matter of ideology, Kaczyński does not tolerate dissert.  The foundation of his belief system is that the nation must speak with one voice, and that the state should be disciplined and cohesive. His vision of democracy is that people vote for a leader, and afterwards the losers get in line behind the majority. There is no such thing in his worldview as a “loyal opposition,” which is why he has routinely described his opponents as traitors, foreign agents, criminals, etc. He has paid homage to Carl Schmitt’s idea that politics is about “us” and “them,” and that the ultimate goal was to subordinate others, not compromise and negotiate with them. Given this, there was never any chance that Kaczyński would calmly go forward making deals in order to get his desired legislation passed. In fact, for him any piece of legislation, any state policy, was a secondary concern behind the need for unity and discipline. 

Two issues brought the conflict to the surface.  First, a law backed by PiS that would give government officials immunity from prosecution for any violations they committed in the course of fighting the COVID epidemic. There are already officially filed charges against Morawiecki  for his role in the aborted May election, in which a number of constitutional provisions were violated in the attempt to change the voting procedures. One might think that this is irrelevant, since the primary project of the past four years has been to subordinate the judiciary to political control – a project which has mostly succeeded.  Yes, the court system is now largely subject to the will of the Minister of Justice, but that happens to be none other than Ziobro, who despises Morawiecki both personally and ideologically. It is an open secret that Ziobro has been using his position to collect information that he might use someday against Morawiecki and other PiS politicians. Not surprisingly, then, Ziobro does not want the law on immunity from prosecution to go forward.

Meanwhile, this week it was time to vote on a law that was a pet project of Kaczyński himself: a set of new rules to protect animal welfare. It might seem like a small-scale issue over which to break a coalition, but it gained symbolic weight because of the context.  The main provisions of the bill would ban the killing of animals for fur, and put a stop to the practice of slaughtering animals without stunning them first in order to reduce their pain. The latter provision would put an end to both kosher and halal slaughter, which is actually a pretty big deal.  Although there is are only miniscule Jewish and Muslim communities in Poland, an increasing number of very profitable firms have been exporting to the Middle East, and to Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe. One might have expected there to be antisemitic or Islamophobic overtones to this issue, but as far as I can tell that is not the case.  Interviews with both Muslim and Jewish butchers, and the public rhetoric surrounding the bill, seem to indicate that this is indeed an animal welfare measure.  Throughout Europe there is a popular view, usually found on the left rather than the right, that ritual slaughter is cruel.  Setting this debate aside, by all accounts it is this belief that motivated Kaczynski’s bill.

To make an already long story a little less long, let’s cut to Thursday.  The bill came to a vote, and PiS declared that it would enforce party discipline.  Despite that, 38 member of PiS, including even the Minister of Agriculture, voted no.  Gowin’s supporters abstained.  The measure passed anyway, because most members of the opposition supported it (how’s that for irony?). 

The past few days have been tumultuous, to put it mildly.  Kaczyński has complained that “the tail is trying to wag the dog,” referring to Ziobro’s power grab. Leading members of PiS have said that the coalition is now finished, leaving only two alternatives: a minority government, or snap elections. A minority government would be, in effect, a caretaker administration.  It would be nearly impossible to realize Kaczyński’s ambitious second-term plans, above all his goal to muzzle or eliminate Poland’s still vibrant independent media.  Snap elections, on the other hand, would probably be disastrous for the right. Taking an average of the past month’s surveys, the entire United Right has 40.8% of the vote. Unfortunately we don’t yet have polling that separates out the three parties of the governing coalition, but it is an open question whether Ziobro and Gowin could independently gain the 5% needed to win seats in the sejm.  Perhaps Solidarna Polska could, but Porozumienie certainly could not.  Either way, this would leave PiS alone with results in the low 30s at best.  Meanwhile, the main parties of the center and left currently have 47% of the vote, though one of them (PSL) is close enough to the 5% mark to raise concerns.  In other words, the results of snap elections would be very hard to predict, but the most likely outcome would be that PiS’s rule would come to an end. 

I’m feeling very nervous even writing that last sentence. To be clear: I do not think that this is the most probable outcome of the crisis, because I cannot believe that Kaczyński, Ziobro, and Gowin would allow things to get that far. Still, over the past several days the rhetoric has become quite heated between them, and even more so between rank-and-file members of their parties. I think all three have overplayed their cards disastrously (from their perspective), and walking this back will be impossible. My guess is that they will try, but even if they do, there is no longer a united coalition governing Poland.  Every piece of legislation will involve careful vote-counting and hard lobbying.

Whatever happens next, the days when the sejm was just a rubber stamp for Kaczyński’s have come to an end. 

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KOD in their own words

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Continuing my effort to make the voices in current Polish debates available to an English-speaking audience, here is a text from the Committee for the Defense of Democracy that summarizes their opposition to the PiS government. As with my previous translation of PiS texts, you are free to use this as long as you credit the source.

The Committee for the Defense of Democracy


Translated and Annotated by Brian Porter-Szűcs


Ireneusz Doman Domański , “In Defense of Democracy.” (January 18, 2016).


Dear Europeans, Dear Citizens of the United States of America,

Maybe somewhere in France, Portugal, Great Britain, Germany, Romania or Czechia, in the USA or in some other free and democratic country, you are with some surprise asking the question: what’s going on in Poland?  Why are those Poles once again taking to the streets? What do they want?

I am not surprised by your surprise. After all, it might seem that nothing happened.  A new president was democratically elected, a party with the lovely name Law and Justice took power in democratic elections. It has a majority in both houses of parliament, it has formed its government.  Normal stuff.

So why, in November of 2015—that is, right after the elections—Krzysztof Łoziński, a writer, columnist, and member of Amnesty International who is known in his country as a figure from the period of struggle against the communist dictatorship, declared on the website Studio Opinii that it was necessary to create a Committee for the Defense of Democracy.

Why, within a few days after his call, KOD began to take form spontaneously and energetically, first on Facebook, and then in genuine reality? Why have the defenders of democracy received the support of Lech Wałęsa, Nobel Prize winner, legendary leader of Solidarity, former president of Poland?  Why did thousands begin to sign up on mass?  And why did thousands take to the streets throughout the entire country, in order to demonstrate and protest?

Łoziński wrote in his text, “the question often arises, what should one do when faced with open attempts to tear down democracy?”  Yes, there’s a lot of evidence that step by step democracy is being torn down here, and Poland risks being pushed to the margins and, in the near future, isolation. As a result of democratic elections, a right-wing group bearing left-wing postulates has risen to power. It is challenging the accomplishments of the past quarter century in my—in our country.  The country that I am proud of.  The one that that gives pride to many of my fellow Poles in Europe and around the world.

What else, other than poisoning or outright tearing down democracy, is paralyzing the Constitutional Tribunal, the pillar and guard of democracy in every democratic country?[1] How else can one label questioning the rulings of the Tribunal and refusing to honor them? Pushing through parliament at night (often at four in the morning!) legislation widely considered by constitutional experts and all sorts of legal organizations to be unconstitutional?  The legally and morally dubious “suspension” by the President of legal proceedings against an indicted politician of his party, so that he can become a government minister and direct the special services?[2] President Andrzej Duda has a law degree, and he is both a graduate and a faculty member of the academically respected Jagiellonian University. The law department of JU has already repudiated his actions!

Politicians from the government camp talk about placing Donald Tusk, the former Premier of Poland, and current head of the European Commission, on trial.[3] The Vice-Premier and Minister of Culture attempts to influence the repertoire of the theaters.[4] Representatives of the government proclaim that the will of the nation is above the law, above the Constitution! They proclaim that they have a mandate based on the will of the nation in order to do whatever they want.  There have been calls to arrest the Chairman of the Constitutional Tribunal if he does not surrender, and does not subordinate himself to the newly imposed principles of applying the law.  I should inform you, therefore, that the group currently in power got the votes of 18.7% of Poles eligible to vote.[5] That is a mandate to govern, but not to appropriate the country, not to nullify the Constitution that was accepted in a national referendum.  That is not a mandate to change the system.

In the Polish parliament the opposition is stripped of its voice.  They repeat a vote or change the composition of a parliamentary commission, if it so happens that the results are inconvenient for the current government. Delegates from the opposition receive drafts of important legislation at the last minute before debate, without any chance to become familiar with them.  All their suggestions and corrections are rejected. Legislation is voted on in haste that allows the government to assume control over the public media and carry out a purge in the editorial boards of the radio and television.[6] There are plans for legislation that would allow widespread surveillance and control over the internet and mail.[7] The nonpartisan civil service is being liquidated so that party functionaries can be named to all positions.[8]

Can you imagine this in your countries?  In Great Britain, Germany, Portugal, Czechia, or the USA? ….

This is why KOD exists, modeled on the Committee for the Defense of the Workers (Komitet Obrony Robotników, or KOR), which a was active in my country during the times of the communist dictatorship. I come from Radom. A city, where in June 1976 there was a massive rebellion of workers against the communist party, brutally repressed by the militia. Then the workers in Radom burned down the building of the central committee of the party that had the word “workers” in its name. To defend the people imprisoned and repressed in my city, KOR was created.  Jacek Kuroń, one of its leaders, a person with the best opposition bona fides, said then “don’t burn the committee headquarters! Create your own committees!”  We did just that.

And since the threat to democracy in my country is real, KOD quickly became a mass movement. A movement that not only does not question the results of the democratic elections, but respects it. We will not burn down any committee headquarters. We are not aggressors. We stand against the aggressors, in order to stop them.

Mateusz Kijowski, the leader of our movement, the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, wrote our manifesto on November 20:

Democracy in Poland is threatened.

The activities of the government, its disrespect for the law and for democratic norms, has forced us to express our decisive opposition.

We to not want a totalitarian Poland, closed to those who think differently than the government commands. We do not want a Poland full of frustration and demands for revenge.

We want Poland to be a place for all Poles, equal before the law, with their convictions, opinions, ethics, and aesthetics.

We do not accept the appropriation of the state, the division of Poles between better and worse, contempt for “others.”

We also do not accept views detrimental to the principles of democracy and human rights.

We are determined to speak openly and decisively, with a loud voice, about decency, law, and mutual respect. To express our opinions not only at home and on the internet, but also on the streets and the squares of our cities and in the countryside, if the need arises to gather there to express our opinions and our demands.

We invite everyone for whom the values of democracy are important, without regard to political views or faith, to join us.

We do not accept violations of the Constitution and the introduction of an authoritarian government through the abuse of democratic mechanisms.

There are among us people of various viewpoints and political orientations, from right to left, believers, agnostics, and atheists.  We are united by the fact that we are free people, and we want to continue to live in our own democratic country, in which no one will tell us how to live and what values to hold.


Signed: The Committee for the Defense of Democracy.

In December, 2015, the BBC asked Polish president Andrzej Duda about the anti-government demonstrations that the Committee for the Defense of Democracy organized in many Polish cities. “Those demonstrates consist mainly of those who used to govern Poland and were removed from power by the Polish voters in parliamentary elections,” said Andrzej Duda. He added that those people do not want to accept this fact, therefore—the President said—they are inciting society and organizing demonstrations.[9]

This is the narrative of those currently governing Poland. Thus spoke Jarosław Kaczyński, the chairman of the party that created the government.  He is himself a rank-and-file parliamentary delegate, and formally is not responsible for anything. But he is the one who calls us “the worst kind of Poles”[10] He is the one who, commenting on the protests, said that some Poles cooperated with the Gestapo (sic!), and others with the Home Army, the Polish underground army during the Second World War.[11] His party comrades call us “communists and criminals” who have been cut off from our food supply. People, who cannot accept the loss of power

That is a lie!  None of us, none of the thousands of people with the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, nor any of the participants in the demonstrations, lost any power. We never had it. I’m an ordinary Pole who is proud of the success of my country, who has enjoyed its growing (until now) prestige, who greatly values the freedom we fought for years ago, and who is ready to defend that freedom. That brutal language serves to divide Poles, to build walls.  The chairman of the group currently in power tries to realize his political vision. He does not have the power to change the Constitution.[12] Therefore he tries to weaken the mechanisms of oversight that protect the law and democracy: the Constitutional Tribunal, the free media, the independent judiciary, and independent prosecutors.[13] In mid December, 2015, Lech Wałęsa said on Radio Zet, “This is leading to misfortune, this will end badly, with fighting; they are driving us to a civil war and therefore, to avoid that, we must prepare structurally and organizationally, and already start gathering signatures for a referendum. If in a referendum there are more votes to end the term of the Sejm than were cast for PiS in the elections, then it would result in physically pushing them aside.”[14]

Many, among them politicians from the camp currently governing Poland, have said, “But this is a democracy, since you can demonstrate on the streets.” I answer them: it still is, but you are striking blows against it. But as long as it is, we will defend it, so that you don’t take it from us. Because we do not want to fight for it again, like during those long years before 1989. We did not want to create the Committee for the Defense of Democracy. But we had to. Because we do not want to create a Committee to Fight for Democracy. Unless we must

Then we will.



[1] Shortly before the elections, the previous government filled five vacancies on the Constitutional Tribunal, including two that would not actually be vacated until just after the elections.  President Andrzej Duda refused to swear in any of the new justices.  A subsequent ruling by the court found that three of the appointments were legitimate, though the previous government had overstepped by trying to replace the other two. PiS has refused to recognize this ruling, and has instead nominated its own replacements to the court. Moreover they have passed a new law governing the operation of the court which requires all decisions to be passed by a 2/3 majority with the participation of at least 13 justices (out of 15 total).  The court in turn ruled that law unconstitutional, based on article 190 of the Polish Constitution, which states that only simple majority is required. Law and Justice Chairman Jarosław Kaczyński has said that it was appropriate to block the court from acting because it reflected the priorities of those who wanted to block his reforms.

[2] A reference to the pardoning of Marisuz Kamiński by President Andrzej Duda in November, 2015.  Kamiński was the former head of the Anti-Corruption Bureau  from 2006-2009, having been appointed to that office during the first PiS administration. He was later convicted of abuse of power, and sentenced to three years in prison.  His case was under appeal at the time of his pardon.  He is currently a minister-without-portfolio in the government.

[3] PiS believes that Donald Tusk was part of a conspiracy that led to a plane crash on April 10, 2010, which killed the President of Poland, Lech Kaczyński (Jarosław Kaczyński’s twin brother), along with 95 other Polish dignitaries. All the investigations into the disaster (aside from the ones carried out by PiS loyalists) have concluded that the crash was just a tragic accident.

[4] A reference to Minister Piotr Gliński, who attempted to block a theatrical production that he deemed “pornographic.”

[5] PiS won 37.58% of the vote, with a turnout rate of 50.92%: thus the figure of 18.7%.  They were able to transform that into a slim majority of parliamentary delegates, mostly because the electoral law in Poland eliminates all parties receiving less than 5% of the vote, distributing their votes proportionally to the larger parties.

[6] In January, 2016, the law was changed in order to eliminate the oversight of the country’s Commission for Radio and Television, instead making all personnel directly subordinate to the Treasury Ministry.  In the words of a PiS spokeswoman, “We hope that, at last, the media narrative that we do not agree with will cease to exist.”  An independent media does continue to exist in Poland, but the state-owned media dominates the airwaves.

[7] This law was passed, and signed into law on February 4. It was justified by the government as an anti-terrorism measure.

[8] This law was signed into law on January 7. It eliminates previous rules for competitive and open hiring procedures and gives relevant government ministers the authority to hire and fire at will anyone employed by the state.

[9] This interview can be found here.

[10] From a TV interview on December 11, 2014, available on video here, with English-language excerpts here.

[11] From a speech on December 13, 2015, available on video here, with English-language excerpts here.

[12] This requires a 2/3 majority in the parliament, but PiS is far short of that mark.

[13] On January 28, 2016, the Sejm passed a bill that would place all prosecutors under the direct authority of the Minister of Justice, to be hired or fired at will.

[14] This is actually a paraphrase of what Wałęsa said; his precise comments are here.

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Kaczyński is not Poland

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Democracy is a great principle for governing a country, but a lousy tool for understanding one.

Consider this syllogism:

  • The Poles selected a new parliament through a free and fair election
  • A majority of the new parliamentarians are from PiS (the Law and Justice Party)
  • PiS was therefore able to form a government through legitimate, constitutional means
  • PiS has now provoked a constitutional crisis by ignoring the constraints of parliamentary democracy
  • Therefore, the Poles have abandoned their faith in parliamentary democracy.

If we read accounts of recent events in Poland in the international press (particularly from Western Europe), we frequently encounter a form of this argument. “The Poles” have given up on democracy; “the Poles” are turning away from European values; “the Poles” are returning to familiar patterns of xenophobia, authoritarianism, and “backwardness.” Let’s set aside for a moment the lamentable pattern of orientalist stereotyping, and overlook the hypocrisy of any implication that Poland is in some way different from Western Europe or the US (need I even mention Marine Le Pen or Donald Trump?). My point today is different: regardless of the results of the October election, the current government’s unconstitutional and antidemocratic power grab reflects the preferences of a small minority of the Polish population.

Small changes in electoral results can have huge consequences, and that makes it easy to overestimate actual shifts in popular attitudes, values, and norms. On October 25, just under 51% of the Polish electorate voted, which is actually a percentage point better than last time (2011). This is typical: the turnout over the past 25 years has always been poor, never going much past 53%Voter_Turnout

Out of the 38.5 million Poles, 30.6 million are eligible to vote, but it seems safe to say that the politically engaged population consists of around 15 million people. Of these, 5.7 million voted for PiS last October, compared to 4.2 in 2011. If we group together all the right-wing parties that oppose liberal democracy, we get about 7.8 million in 2015 and 7.3 million in 2011.

Bottom line: the political earthquake that gave PiS the largest parliamentary majority in Polish history (yes, even if we go way back to the interwar years) was caused by a shift in about 3% of the population (if we just count the PiS votes) or about 1% of the population (if we count all the votes going to the various parties of the far right).

Poland has not really changed, even though Polish politics has been frighteningly transformed. In 1992, 52% of Poles surveyed by CBOS agreed that democracy was superior to all other forms of governance; today 64% feel that way. Although CBOS does not report the margin of error for their surveys—which is inexcusable, but that’s another matter—I suspect that much of the fluctuation in this statistic over the years would be accounted for by statistical noise.Attitudes_towards_Democracy

All this makes the events of the past month even more unsettling. Currently a majority of Poles feel that their democracy is threatened, and I share their concerns. The president and the prime minister, acting under the direction of their behind-the-scenes leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, have refused to acknowledge the rulings of the Constitutional Tribunal, Poland’s supreme court. I took some comfort after the elections when PiS fell short of the 2/3 majority needed to revise the constitution, but I now see that I was naïve: Kaczyński intends to simply ignore the constitution and proceed with his plan to transform the Polish political system.

In 1832, US President Andrew Jackson is reported (perhaps apocryphally) to have responded to a supreme court ruling against his administration by declaring, “the court has made its decision; now let them enforce it.” This episode is presented to Americans today as a dangerous challenge to our constitutional order, and the fact that the judicial branch recovered from that moment is held up as a testament to the strength of our system. That story gives some reason for hope, because it reminds us that liberal democracies can survive even a concerted populist attacks. But frankly, that hope weakens when set alongside the many counterexamples of countries that have recently failed to withstand attempts by the far right to seize total power. With Orbán, Putin, Erdoğan, and others blazing the trail, Kaczyński’s political project appears all too realistic.

A sturdier hope comes from the bird’s-eye-view of the Polish population that I’ve offered here. PiS might succeed in dismantling multiparty democracy, and they are certain to do a lot of damage to Poland even if they ultimately fail (and I continue to believe that they will fail). But Poles today are still the same people who have achieved such stunning success over the past few decades, with roughly the same values and norms. Kaczyński must resort to such heavy-handed, anti-democratic methods precisely because he does not embody the will of the Polish people, if we take that phrase to refer to a hegemonic worldview shared by all or nearly all Poles. A few years ago most observers were writing him off as a failed fringe politician, and his rapid return to power has shown us how seriously we underestimated him. But support for his nationalistic project is roughly the same today as it has always been: marginal and extreme.