Tag Archives: Poland

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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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All Quiet on the Eastern Front

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In Erich Maria Remarque’s famous novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, the title is intended to be ironic. The daily slaughter of WWI trench warfare was such that if “only” a few thousand people were killed on a given day, the news would report it as uneventful. As we reach the climax of a tumultuous presidential election in Poland, I have a similar feeling. For five years I’ve been writing the same story: the governing Law and Justice party (PiS) constitutes an existential threat to constitutional democracy and the rule of law, only a minority of Poles approve of what they are doing, they will likely win yet another election anyway, and the results will be catastrophic. The war of Poland against Poland continues—all quiet on the eastern front.

At first glance, the results of the first round of the presidential elections last Sunday, June 28, appeared to be a decisive victory for the incumbent, Andrzej Duda (PiS). At second glance, one can see reason for the leading opposition candidate Rafał Trzaskowski (the center-right Civic Platform, or PO), to be hopeful. At third glance, the sense of doom returns.

Duda’s victory in round one was decisive: with 43.5% of the vote, he was far ahead of the 30.5% that Trzaskowski received. If we assume that turnout in the second round is the same as the first round, then Duda needs to get another 1,262,218 votes in order to get past 50%, while Trzaskowski would have to find more than three times as many: 3,795,391. Despite that imbalance, however, Duda might face the more difficult challenge. Nearly all of the 2,693,397 votes that went to the third-place candidate, Szymon Hołownia, will go to Trzaskowski. In fact, Hołownia has already endorsed his former rival, despite having once compared the difference between the PiS and PO candidates as “between having one’s house burn down and breaking one’s arm.” The candidate of the Left, Robert Biedroń, has also urged his supporters to vote for Trzaskowski, though this would only add a meager 432,129 people to the PO candidate’s total. Most of those who identified with the Left already cast their ballots for Trzaskowski in round one, thanks to Biedroń’s lackluster and at times inept campaign. Meanwhile, none of the eliminated candidates will endorse Duda, who has a very strong base with PiS supporters but very little beyond that. If we add up all the votes of the opposition, and all those that went to Duda, then it becomes clear that the PiS government is quite far from a majority.

But then comes our third glance. Among those who voted for losing candidates in the first round, there are almost two million whose views and values are not represented by either Duda or Trzaskowski. Władysław Kosiniak-Kamisz was the candidate of the agrarian party, PSL. The 459,365 votes he received in the first round came as a crushing blow, considering that back in April it seemed plausible (albeit unlikely) that he would make it to the second round. The PSL is bitterly opposed to PiS, since both compete for the same rural voters. On the other hand, those who vote for PSL might not feel that same rivalry. They tend to be devout Catholics, and thus unlikely to support a cosmopolitan, urban figure like Trzaskowski. During the campaign, Duda has leaned heavily into his homophobic worldview, expressing views that have elicited an outspoken denunciation from around the world. In response he said that he could not be homophobic, because “in the presidential palace I am often visited by people who have a different sexual orientation than mine. That is not the slightest problem for me.” While such lines provoke derision in Warsaw, Poznań, Wrocław, and Gdańsk, his earlier claim that LGBT rights were “worse than Bolshevism” and his description of sex ed as “experimenting on children” could earn him some support from a portion of the PSL electorate.

An even bigger wild card is the fourth-place candidate, Krzysztof Bosak, who represents a new party called Konfederacja. As the name suggests, it is an alliance of several small far-far-right movements. Bosak offers a nationalist, xenophobic, antisemitic, misogynistic, and homophobic intolerance that goes beyond what even PiS would accept. They oppose PiS because they think the current government is insufficiently resolute, but Konfederacja voters would seem to be a likely source of extra votes for Duda. However, another tone within the discordant cacophony that is Konfederacja consists of radical libertarians. They look upon PiS as fundamentally unacceptable because of the generous social welfare programs that have been introduced in the past five years. As Bosak said after the first round, “Andrzej Duda uses free-market slogans, but he has signed 30 laws that have raised taxes.” To put this in American terms, Duda is akin to Steve Bannon, while Bosak is more like Rand Paul. Aside from these ideological differences, Bosak understands that if his small party is to have a future, PiS has to lose. Only if Jarosław Kaczyński is dethroned as the leader of the right will there be space for alternative right-wing parties This helps explain why pre-election surveys found that fewer than two thirds of Bosak’s voters would support Duda in round two.

If we put all these numbers together we get around 9.3 million votes for Duda…and around 9.3 million votes for Trzaskowski. Ensuring that their supporters get to the polls will be crucial for both candidates, and in this regard the well-oiled party machinery of PiS gives them a distinct advantage.  On the other hand, Poland’s worsening COVID crisis will be a major problem for a party that draws its support disproportionately among older voters. If the election were just dependent on votes of people under 30, then Trzaskowski would win by almost 5%, but if only those over 60 voted, Duda would win by almost 30%.  If those with just an elementary school education picked the winner, then Duda would get over 70%, but if just those with higher education voted, his total would fall to 26%.  If we assume that those with more education are more likely to participate in the election, then Trzaskowski will have an advantage. It’s going to come down to a very small number of votes, one way or the other.


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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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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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