Tag Archives: PiS

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Well, that didn’t last long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Board is Set

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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.