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Poland’s future on the ballot in October

When asked what is at stake in the upcoming Polish parliamentary elections, the answer is simple: the future of Poland. Should the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party win a third term, it will complete a process of state capture and set Poland on the path to becoming a fully-fledged autocracy, writes Eugeniusz Smolar in an op-ed for New Eastern Europe.

October 2, 2023 - Eugeniusz Smolar - Articles and Commentary

The "March of a million hearts" in downtown Warsaw on October 1st 2023 gathered the forces of the opposition from across the country.

The "March of a million hearts" in downtown Warsaw on October 1st 2023 gathered the forces of the opposition from across the country. Photo: Bolek Gleichgewicht Aleksandersson

The radically conservative, nationalist government has already created a party-state in which all available levers of power serve the interests of the party. Jarosław Kaczyński, the party’s supreme leader, announced recently that following the election victory, his government will complete “the reform” of the judicial system, the only and not always effective institutional constraint to PiS’s power thus far.

The takeover

Since 2015, PiS with its allies has ruled by fear, conflict and permanent crisis, launching unabated attacks on the laws, institutions and norms of liberal European democracy, including independent media and civil society. From the very beginning, following a known populist blueprint, PiS has been successfully aiming at radicalisation and fragmentation of voters, presenting itself as an anti-elite, transformative movement that represents true Polish interests in the hostile world.

PiS has been delegitimising the opposition and has drastically limited its influence on the legislative process in the parliament. The usage of the Pegasus software against leaders of the opposition, defiant judges and prosecutors was established and condemned by the European Parliament and the Council of Europe.

Since 2015, under the banner of the formation of new elites, PiS undertook replacement of personnel on a massive scale – in central and local government administration, the military, security services, diplomacy, the police, among the prosecutors and judges in a growing manner, and in state-controlled enterprises.

PiS subjugated public radio and television and made it an aggressive, vitriolic propaganda tool aimed at the opposition, to the extent the communists could learn from. Simultaneously, it has been attacking the freedom of the commercial media, taking over some of them and marginalising the NGOs that do not share its policies by withdrawing public funding.

PiS introduced nationalistic orthodoxy in the curriculum at schools and in the cultural institutions it controls, such as theatres or museums, according to which the always heroic Poles could do no wrongs, and academic or journalistic research and debates on past policies and behaviours towards the Jews, Ukrainians, or refugees on the Polish-Belarusian border, amount to the attack on the Polish nation that could be prosecuted by law.

When Agnieszka Holland recently produced a film The Green Border on the fate of refugees who have been seeking safety and a better life in Europe and who were experiencing a “push-back” by both Polish and Belarusian border guards and the army, resulting in more than 50 deaths, including women and children, the minister of justice, Zbigniew Ziobro posted on X (formerly Twitter) that “in the Third Reich, the Germans produced propaganda films showing Poles as bandits and murderers … Today they have Agnieszka Holland for that.”

Unholy alliance

PiS engaged in an unholy alliance with the conservative Catholic Church. Not only did hundreds of millions of zlotys go to the church from the state coffers, but to assure its support, PiS introduced one of the most restricted laws on abortion and other reproductive rights for women. As a result, several women died in hospital, as medical staff out of fear of being prosecuted, refused to perform abortion until the foetus died on its own in circumstances when the health and even life of a woman were in danger. In protest, also against lack of resolve to face accusations of protecting clergy accused of paedophilia, a growing number of believers have been leaving the church, and students of secondary schools refuse to participate in religious teaching on a massive scale. This year in a Kraków diocese not even a single new priest will be ordained, a shock as it concerns a previously deeply religious and traditionalist region, in a country that for decades was known to “export” priests all over Europe.

Volumes would be needed to describe the changes that have taken place in Poland since PiS took power in 2015. Several independent NGOs regularly publish lists of government violations of the rule of law and other examples of violations of the principles of liberal democracy. Unlike many other post-communist countries, post-1989 Poland did not experience systemic corruption. Now, to assure the loyalty of its followers, PiS has created an extensive patronage network, leading to many blatant instances of nepotism and officially tolerated corruption. Very few were prosecuted and only then when it served the interest of the ruling party.

The blatant example that will have international repercussions is the officially introduced system of awarding Polish Schengen visas to more than 200,000 people from India, Pakistan, and several African countries who had to pay thousands of dollars to the intermediaries officially recognised by the foreign ministry in Warsaw. A deputy foreign minister regularly provided the consulates with the lists of people who should be immediately awarded their visas. Most of them travelled to other EU countries and some tried to cross the Mexican-US border illegally which provoked official strong reactions in Washington and in European capitals. There is no doubt that the majority of money paid for the visas wound up in private pockets of PiS loyalists.

Foreign policy

PiS has fully subordinated foreign policy to party interests. In 2016 and 2017 I co-authored three analyses of PiS foreign policy assumptions.[1] I am afraid that its “achievements” exceeded our apprehensions. The government’s policies led to Poland’s isolation within the EU. Numerous violations of the rule of law hurt relations and several rulings by the European Court of Justice resulted in fines amounting to more than 600 million euros and growing daily.

As a consequence, Poland could not benefit from the billions of euros of the post-pandemic Recovery Plan, the largest stimulus package ever financed by the EU. The money was badly needed especially since internal investment shrank dramatically resulting from insecurity, legal changes and political pressures on private business.

Attempts to build a bloc of populist, EU-hostile movements around Europe have antagonised most governments and mainstream political parties in member states. Somehow, it appeared to be unimportant to PiS that several of them support Russia in the war against Ukraine.

Relations with France and Germany have been seriously damaged, to say the least. The EU Commission and the European Parliament’s majority have been treated as hostile forces that try to limit Poland’s sovereignty and future development. Russia is dangerous per se, but in official propaganda, it is Germany that has been presented as the real threat. Jarosław Kaczynski frequently peddles such statements as: “We do not fit into the German-Russian plans to rule over Europe. An independent, economically, socially and militarily strong Poland is an obstacle for them. From a historical perspective, this is nothing new.”

As a consequence, Poland’s importance and ability to form coalitions in the EU decreased dramatically. Except for Germany, which for historical and strategic reasons has opted for a wait-and-see tactic, there are no visits by European leaders to Poland while leading EU member states refrain from diplomatic consultations with Warsaw.

A shocking example of PiS’s subordination of foreign policy to party interests in the country is the announcement by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki that Poland will no longer deliver weapons to Ukraine. This is the result of the conflict over the import of grain and other Ukrainian agricultural products, contrary to the position of the European Commission. Both governments made frosty statements and imposed an embargo on the import of certain agricultural products. At the same time, the government announced the suspension of several forms of assistance for refugees from Ukraine.

Thus, Poland, which set an example to other countries in helping the heroically fighting Ukrainians, starting with the delivery of about 300 tanks after the outbreak of the war in 2022, destroyed the common front of the West. Not only will this have far-reaching international implications, including in the United States, but it also calls into question future relations with Ukraine and Polish participation in its reconstruction. This is all due to PiS’s desire to win right-wing, often anti-Ukrainian, voters in the approaching elections.

Therefore, when asked: What is at stake in elections in Poland? I am convinced that at stake is Poland’s future.

Eugeniusz Smolar is a foreign and security policy analyst at the Centre for International Relations in Warsaw. Under communism, he was a member of the democratic opposition, political prisoner and émigré. He also worked as a journalist and former Director of the Polish Section of the BBC World Service in London for many years. Following his return to Poland, he became the deputy chairman of the Management Board of Polish Radio. He is also a member of New Eastern Europe’s editorial board.

[1] Change in Poland, but what change? Assumptions of Law and Justice party foreign Policy. Stefan Batory Foundation, May 2016

Polish views of the EU: the illusion of consensus, January 2017

In a clinch. The European policy of the PiS government, September 2017

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