Tag Archives: Poland

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Dark Clouds

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After last fall’s local and regional elections in Poland, the democratic opposition entered 2019 with great hopes. Despite receiving slightly fewer votes overall, the largest opposition group was able to win control of virtually every city in the country, and nearly all the larger towns as well. The EU elections today were supposed to be the next landmark on the road to repudiating Jarosław Kaczyński’s far-right, authoritarian, nationalist Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS). Those elections took place today (Sunday, May 26), and the results are not good. Although the distribution of Poland’s 52 seats in the EU parliament will not significantly impact the balance of power in Brussels, these elections give us some important signals about the Polish parliamentary elections that must be called before December, 2019. 

At the moment all we have are preliminary results based on exist polls, so everything I write here could change when the final count is announced. But based on those surveys, PiS came in first with 43.1% of the vote, with a large centrist alliance called “The European Coalition” (Koalicja Europejska, or KE), trailing at 38.4%. As disheartening as that might be, this is not the truly bad news: much more concerning are two additional aspects of today’s vote.

The first involves the fate of the smaller parties. There are three main groupings that have a chance of entering the Polish legislative body, the Sejm, next Fall: 1) a leftist party called “Spring” (Wiosna), led by a prominent LGBTQ-rights activist named Robert Biedroń; 2) an ally of PiS in the current Parliament led by a former rock star, Paweł Kukiz (named after its founder and the year it was formed: Kukiz 15); 3) a new coalition of neo-fascist, ultranationalist groups for whom even PiS is too moderate, called simply “The Confederation” (Konfederacja). At the time of this writing (after midnight, Polish time), Wiosna has 6.7%, Konfederacja has 6.2%, and Kukiz 15 has 3.8%. If the vote next Fall were to replicate today’s, the next Sejm would look as follows:

  • PiS: 208 seats
  • KE: 192 seats
  • Wiosna: 31 seats
  • Konfederacja: 29 seats

Kukiz 15, along with a handful of other smaller parties, would fall below the 5% barrier needed to qualify for any parliamentary seats. The arithmetic is painfully obvious: the supporters of liberal democracy would have 223 seats, and the forces of nationalism and “illiberal democracy” would have 237. Poland would have at least four more years of authoritarian rule, but this time they would be dependent on Konfederacja to govern. This would push them even further to the right—which would be quite an accomplishment. The leaders of Konfederacja are a motley assembly of fringe politicians, which might presage an unstable coalition—the only potential upside of all this. They are united by a few core commitments to antisemitism, xenophobia, and anti-feminism.

The second concerning aspect of today’s vote involves the turnout. This was, by far, the highest turnout for an EU election in Polish history: 43%, compared to figures in the 20s for the other three elections since Polish accession. But seen from another direction, this is below the figures typically seen in parliamentary elections, which tend to get about half of the eligible population. As a general rule, the smaller the electoral sample, the better represented are wealthier, more urban, more highly educated voters. In other words, elections to the EU parliament should have been an opportunity for the liberal and leftist opposition to score a relatively easy success, compared to the parliamentary elections. The fact that they did not win today suggests that their chances in the fall are even smaller. 

Is there any silver lining in today’s results for those who hope for Poland to return to the path of liberal democracy? Perhaps. In an interview last week, Kaczyński said that PiS would “definitely” not form a coalition government with Konfederacja, because he considered that party to be pro-Russian. On the other hand, he made his statement as part of an argument against “wasting” votes on any smaller right-wing parties, based on the claim that PiS could only govern if it won an absolute majority on its own. If push comes to shove in the fall, PiS could easily remain in power as a minority government, counting on the fact that an opposition divided between KE and Wiosna on the one side, and Konfederacja on the other, could never cooperate in a vote of no confidence. On nearly every issue of substance, Kaczyński would be able to count on the support of Konfederacja, much as he can rely on Kukiz 15 in the current Sejm. 

The second (very thin) silver lining is that today’s results will frighten all those who support a return to democracy, and inspire further unification. A bit more than 1% of the vote went to a small leftist party called Razem, and maybe that dismal figure could finally convince those voters that they need to hold their noses and vote for a party that is more centrist than they would prefer. The poor results will also weaken the position of the leader of KE, Grzegorz Schetyna, and that in turn might facilitate a return to national politics of his biggest intra-party rival, current European Council President Donald Tusk. Though his political skills can easily be overstated (and often are), he is undeniably a talented tactician who has a long history of electoral success. On the other hand, the disappointing showing of the coalition might lead to its breakup, which could be catastrophic if even one of the constituent parts falls below the 5% barrier in the Fall. 

Ultimately, it’s hard to be optimistic this evening. No matter how we try to spin this, the results today are a disappointment for those who are hoping that Poles will eventually repudiate the model of “illiberal democracy” that unites PiS’s Poland with Orbán’s Hungary, Erdogan’s Turkey, Trump’s USA, and Putin’s Russia. 


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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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