Poland’s leader stands up for the animals

Human nature is a complex thing. Rare indeed is the villain in whom some redeeming quality can’t be found – something that their defenders can latch onto to divert or mitigate criticism. The strategy is sometimes referred to as the “Hitler was kind to animals” argument.

What makes it a fallacy is that the premise is true but irrelevant. Hitler was indeed kind to animals, but the disproportion between that and his evil deeds is so great that no sensible person thinks it does any real work of mitigation. As Macaulay said in response to a similar plea for King Charles I, “A good father! A good husband! – Ample apologies indeed for fifteen years of persecution, tyranny, and falsehood!”

And now we have a contemporary example. Poland’s far-right government is under attack and facing possible collapse because of its leader’s insistence on pursuing, of all things, a bill to promote animal welfare.

Jarosław Kaczyński, the chairman of the ruling Law & Justice party, is of course no Hitler. But his political project has involved turning Poland away from the liberal and democratic road, and his five years in power have seen significant departures from European standards on the rule of law. His concern for animals, however, is apparently quite genuine.

Among other things, the bill would ban fur farming, keeping animals in circuses and ritual slaughter for export. The last of those might get some traction with Kaczyński’s anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish supporters, but otherwise it seems completely at odds with the usual far-right program. Farmers’ groups are firmly against, including the government’s own agriculture minister, while Polish Greenpeace, for example, is strongly supportive.

Far-right movements usually combine two things; a culturally authoritarian program, and a devotion to the leader. Problems arise when some particular enthusiasm of the leader happens to clash with the general tenor of the program.

It’s made more difficult in this case by Law & Justice’s position in parliament. Although its ticket won a majority in the lower house at last year’s election, with 235 seats out of 460, some of those are held by coalition partners. Porozumienie (“Agreement”) and Solidarity Poland each have 18 seats; although they run with Law & Justice in order to avoid the 5% threshold, they do not have the same personal loyalty to Kaczyński.

Now they are unhappy about the animal welfare bill. Politico reports that Solidarity Poland’s MPs all voted against it last week, and that most of Porozumienie’s abstained: it passed the lower house only with the support of the opposition. There are doubts about whether the coalition can survive, but the leader of Solidarity Poland, justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, is one of the government’s key figures; carrying on without him may be difficult.

Events earlier this year surrounding an aborted presidential election had already demonstrated that Kaczyński’s control was less than total. Now the opposition is gearing up for a possible early election. Porozumienie in particular is basically a centre-right party; if the government falls apart, it’s not hard to imagine it co-operating with the opposition, which already covers an ideologically broad front.

Quite probably Law & Justice will manage to patch things together again. Kaczyński last week told reporters that “It’s going to be fine.” But if this crisis does ultimately bring down his government, that will involve the sad reflection that it was not due to the harm he had done to his country and its place in Europe, but rather to the one occasion on which he had tried to do good.

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