What can we learn from Poland?

Early this month, leading figures on the European populist right met in Warsaw. They had been invited by Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), writes Maria Skóra.

The summit was attended—to name only the most prominent—by the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, the leader of Spain’s Vox, Santiago Abascal, and Marine Le Pen, once more French presidential contender. The main objective was to strengthen co-operation among the fragmented right-wing groups in the European Parliament.

Kaczynski’s speech echoed this alternative vision of European collaboration. He vocally opposed a European Union based on liberal values and ‘political correctness’, as opposed to ‘traditional culture’. He suggested EU institutions infringed on the prerogatives of national sovereignty. For him, the EU should embody intergovernmental co-operation, without ‘interfering’ in domestic affairs—a limited arrangement recognising taken-for-granted national interests rather than a union cemented by universal norms.

Kaczynski’s summit had a clear strategic goal. He wants his legacy to be a Poland that leads a conservative European counter-revolution. ‘Lifting the country from its knees’ is a dramatic phrase often used to depict this claim to restore ‘Poland’s sovereignty’—drawing deeply on the constructed, national-popular, longue durée narrative of victimhood and dismemberment at the hands of great European powers.

Model child

Before the election in October 2015, which saw the PiS oust the centre-right Civic Platform, Poland was seen in western Europe as a model child—a winner of the socio-economic transformation after the fall of the ‘iron curtain’, excelling in European integration. How much of the mooted success actually trickled down, in a neoliberal policy context, remains a topic of heated debate.

The disappointments, frustrations and fears of those who felt their social position rendered insecure were skillfully instrumentalised by the PiS to reach for power. It’s a pattern seen elsewhere, as with the Alternative für Deutschland in the old east-German Länder, or the Donald Trump phenomenon in post-industrial America.

The reconstruction of the state promised by the PiS took a dramatic turn. EU flags disappeared from the parliament, while revisionist rhetoric dominated foreign policy. The far right marched through Warsaw with official protection. The checks and balances of a democratic society—the judiciary and public-service media—fell prey to the governing party.

The opposition remains fragmented and, even if capable of uniting for elections, is so far too weak to prevail. Yet Polish democracy has not died.

Scapegoats and bogeymen

In recent years, many groups have been allocated the roles of scapegoats and bogeymen in the narrative of the PiS and its allies: doctors, for criticising an underfinanced healthcare system; teachers, for opposing the overhaul of education; judges, for resisting reconstruction of the judiciary.

Hostile rhetoric has been coupled with actions targeting women, minorities and foreigners: a ‘pro-life’ near-total ban on abortion, localities declared ‘LGBT-free zones’ and, latterly, migrants pushed back at the Belarusian border in the name of Islamophobic populism.

Mobilising voters using the politics of fear has had tangible consequences. Polish society has become deeply polarised: growing acceptance of the far right among young men is countered by young women identifying with left and liberal values.

The language used in public debate is brutal: amid deeply embedded nationalism, allegations fly as to who is a ‘traitor’. Smear campaigns are aimed at political opponents. One would have hoped that the assassination of the liberal mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, in January 2019 would have put a halt to this madness—sadly, not so.

Citizen engagement

Paradoxically, however, these grim developments have kindled citizen engagement. The attack on women’s rights, focused on abortion, has brought record numbers on to the streets. The dehumanising language around LBGT+ rights has sparked growing tolerance for same-sex relationships.

In solidarity with their persecuted colleagues, judges in courts across the country regularly hold pickets, disregarding the risk of reprisal. The disastrous mismanagement of the situation at the eastern border has resulted in many donations to voluntary organisations helping refugees in Poland. Finally, last weekend, protests broke out across the country, defending media freedom as a US-owned broadcaster had been repeatedly targeted by the government.

Even if politically the situation has not yet reached a critical mass for change, bitter remarks about Poles ‘not understanding democracy’ are unfair. Reports of the death of democracy in central and eastern Europe are greatly exaggerated.

Lessons to learn

Poland shows how easy it is to fall down the rabbit-hole of populism and nationalist demagogy. The trick is to learn from past failures to prepare for future battles—it was not the first and will not be the last country to face democratic backsliding.

The first lesson is for the EU the populists malign. Repeatedly raising awareness in the European Parliament is critical and must be matched by action by the European Commission to address these worrisome developments. We need more effective mechanisms to exert pressure on member states disrespecting fundamental values—before they finally violate them. Otherwise, the EU will implode under its own weight.

Secondly, the attempts by Eurosceptics and the far right to regroup and build capacity to sabotage Europe as we know it should ring alarm bells. There are enough success stories in Europe—as in PortugalSweden and now Germany—to challenge the pessimism and stagnation that feed populism. Transferring this know-how and making connections is all the more important for countries where the progressive, liberal forces are in retreat.

Thirdly, there is no case for resignation. Even if in some places the swing to the right is significant and long-lasting, it won’t be forever. Resistance should not go unnoticed. Keeping the morale of opposition high, sending signals of solidarity, is critical. Even if the 2019 election marathon in Poland was in the end won by the governing coalition, there will always be the next ballot—for example in 2022 in Hungary.

In Warsaw, Budapest or any other problematic capital in the future, defeat must never be accepted in the defence of our democracies. Through small victories, big wars are eventually won.

First published by Social Europe Maria Skóra works at the Hertie School in Berlin. Previously she was head of the international dialogue programme at Das Progressive Zentrum. She holds a masters in sociology and a PhD in economics.

Photo of Jaroslaw Kaczynski by Pawel Kula via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0; of demo against government by Mathiasrex, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0 First published by Social Europe