Why Poland matters

In yesterday’s post I explained why I thought it more likely than not that Poland’s hard right government – nominally led by prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki but controlled by Law & Justice party leader Jarosław Kaczyński – would retain office at tomorrow’s election. Why should we care about this?

Part of the answer is obvious. Despite its general absence from the Australian media, Poland is an important place; it is the sixth-largest country by population in the European Union (fifth, if Britain leaves) and the largest to join since the 1980s. Its strategic location has made it a bridge (and often a battlefield) between eastern and western Europe for many centuries.

But it has had a special political significance in recent years. Together with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, Poland has been at the forefront of a drift away from democracy in central Europe. Kaczyński openly rejects the liberal foundations of the EU, espousing instead a blood-and-soil nationalism that seems like a throwback to a past that Europe was supposed to have left behind.

Thirty-odd years ago, as the Soviet empire was crumbling, there was much debate among pundits about whether a peaceful transition from totalitarianism to democracy was possible. The road from authoritarianism to democracy, while often rocky, was at least well-trodden, but prior to 1989 no totalitarian regime had been dismantled from within.

Now we know the answer. It was done then, so it is certainly possible with the much softer targets of the modern “illiberal democracies” (as they sometimes misleadingly style themselves). Democracy has had a bad few years, but even recently we have seen authoritarian leaders removed by the ballot box in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the Maldives.

But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. And although Hungary and Poland are often bracketed together (as I did above), Orbán has had much longer to work on his project and his control is much more comprehensive. In the absence of a major crisis, it is very hard to see him now being peacefully removed from within.

Poland’s Law & Justice, however, has only been in office a single term. While it has damaged some of the institutions of Polish democracy, the voting system has not been doctored, independent media continue to thrive and the opposition has a solid base in local government. For most of the term the combined opposition parties have held a lead in the polls, and they are still well within striking distance.

Kaczyński, unlike Orbán, has never had a two-thirds majority in parliament, and he knows that his support base is not as broad as he would like. In 2015 I remarked that “As is the way of the world, a party with the support of only three out of every eight voters will now take itself to have a popular mandate for radical change,” but in fact it has proceeded with a certain degree of caution.

So far, the damage that Kaczyński has done – like his more familiar soulmates Donald Trump and Scott Morrison – has been ideological rather than structural. He has poisoned the well of democratic discourse, promoting xenophobia and encouraging his followers to believe that the institutions of peace and civil co-operation are bankrupt and the future belongs to the nationalist strongman.

We have been down this road before, and it leads nowhere good.

There are other differences between Poland and Hungary. I mentioned one yesterday: that while Orbán, like most of the European right, is firmly in Vladimir Putin’s camp, Kaczyński, as a Polish nationalist, is strongly anti-Russian.

Another is that unlike most of the European hard right, which tends to be either non-religious or Protestant evangelical, Law & Justice has deep roots in the Catholic church. While it has shown little sign of it so far, there may come a point at which the church would act as a restraining factor.

So this election is not – fingers crossed – in the nature of a last stand for Polish democracy. But if Law & Justice gets a second term, it will be seen, not unreasonably, as a repudiation by Poland’s voters of the Enlightenment values that are under siege around the world.


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