One might not normally consider admiration for Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s autocratic rule, tolerance for Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and inability to improve the lives of one’s people a blueprint for modern European democracy. But then again, this is Poland. Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the parliamentary opposition, PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or Law and Justice), promised nothing less than having “Budapest in Warsaw” after he lost the previous elections in 2011. His belief in one-party rule and autocratic control of all state institutions hasn’t changed since then. What has changed, however, is that he now has both. After little more than twenty-five years of democracy, Poland will be ruled by one party yet again.
In last Sunday’s parliamentary elections, Kaczyński’s right-wing PiS won 37 percent of the vote and more than half the seats in the lower chamber of parliament (the Sejm). The conservatives won in sixty-one districts (out of a hundred) where Poles chose members of the senate. With his own man already sworn in as president of Poland—Andrzej Duda, age forty-three, surprisingly ousted incumbent Bronisław Komorowski in May—Kaczyński’s party now has complete power.
The political views of the Polish right aren’t that hard to predict: they are vehemently anti-Communist, hostile to even moderate social democracy, devout and closely linked to the Catholic church, nationalistic in rhetoric, and isolationist in foreign policy except in relation to the most powerful of NATO allies (the United Kingdom and the United States). But what is more interesting than the ideological orientation of the ruling-party-to-be is the context that has allowed it to flourish.
Europe, unable to provide adequate humanitarian, legal, and diplomatic answers to the influx of refugees from war-torn Syria, is struggling to achieve even a basic compromise on an issue that is tearing the European Union (EU) apart. The previous government, led by Ewa Kopacz, voted to adopt an EU-wide quota system for resettlement of migrants, albeit with the reservations that this wasn’t a permanent solution and that individual countries would be allowed to restrict the number of refugees and migrants they would accept. That proposal set Kopacz’s center-right PO government (Platforma Obywatelska, also known as Civic Platform) apart from its neighbors in Eastern Europe. Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary (part of the “Visegrad Group” or “Visegrad Four,” of which Poland is the largest member) were against such an EU-wide action, their leaders spouting Islamophobic and anti-refugee rhetoric with an eloquence and charm that could only be matched by Donald Trump. The split—not only symbolic, but political—between western Europe and the Visegrad Four couldn’t be greater than it is today.
What might have been viewed as a warning by the previous PO government—which was unwilling to risk voting against the Germans or lead the anti-European vanguard with Viktor Orbán by its side—is now seen as an opportunity by the future ruling party to exploit the EU’s weaknesses in order to build even more support in Poland. Just a month before the elections, Jarosław Kaczyński warned of “Sharia zones” in Sweden and France and has bemoaned the waning of national identity because of migrants “occupying churches . . . only to treat them like toilets.” With such anti-refugee hysteria at its peak, Kaczyński’s speech secured him a resounding win over the incumbent PO candidate. But even setting the refugee issue aside, he would probably have defeated the ruling party anyway—wheels had been set in motion months, if not years before.
In 2014 the country was riveted by a wiretap scandal involving key PO politicians. Although the prosecutor general’s office still hasn’t reached any final conclusions, it’s widely believed that Poland’s political and business elites were being recorded for private gain, possibly blackmail. Regardless of the motives of the perpetrators, when the transcripts of the recordings surfaced, the public witnessed just how big politics in Poland actually works—deals were brokered at the dinner table accompanied by vulgar chat, expensive wine, and meals worth the monthly wages of the average Polish citizen.
While the material leaked to the press didn’t reveal anything obviously incriminating, the PR damage it caused swept many important figures, including former Prime Minister Donald Tusk (who now chairs the European Council), off the political stage. Poland’s “moderate” right wing (namely, the PO) was left without its leader. Major cabinet reshuffling followed: Ewa Kopacz took over as prime minister, but the crisis only escalated. Full-blown attacks from the right-wing press served the final blow to the PO, by creating more room for not only the main opposition party, PiS, but also for anti-state, anti-establishment, and far-right elements to elbow their way onto the Polish political stage.
In February 2015 the Polish mining industry, important for reasons both symbolic and economic (as many mines are state-owned), faced a push for privatization from the EU, which prohibits large budget transfers to state-owned companies under what is deemed, in Brussel-ese, “illegal public aid from the state.” The government had to maneuver between protesting miners and EU officials, trying to appease both, while not succumbing entirely to either’s demands. When it was revealed that the privatization “compromise” plan was drawn, not by the government, but by a private consulting firm, an already difficult mission became impossible. Another major backfire for the PO.
The mining crisis remains unresolved to this day, with little prospect of being tackled without mass layoffs or yet again pouring money into an industry that can’t cope with either the low prices or the stiff competition of the global coal market. The mining crisis has also enabled major political realignments: unions and workers allied with the far-right populists and the PiS who supported them all the way, while the left remained divided, unable to effectively address the mining issue and constrained by its green commitments.
The third act of the Polish tragedy was the Greek crisis—Poland backed Brussels on austerity and slashing public spending. Former Prime Minister Tusk played—for better or worse—the role of bad cop in the final stage of negotiations. And while Polish support for the Greeks has been far from unequivocal, the PO’s strategy of echoing Germany’s pro-austerity stance and “Brussels-is-always-right” dogma wasn’t viewed as credible by either the public or the opposition. Intellectuals and public opinion on the left and the right condemned (rightly so) Warsaw’s involvement in an issue in which the country isn’t directly involved, given that the euro isn’t Poland’s national currency and won’t be anytime soon.
Moreover, blaming a smaller nation for Europe’s economic crisis and taking stronger Germany’s side did nothing to impress Poland’s conservative electorate, which is far more eager to support the “autonomy” and “sovereignty” of the nation-state against the EU. It didn’t help that in its campaign, the center-right PO repeatedly compared its opponents to the allegedly reckless Alexis Tsipras, who had already won three Greek elections (including the referendum) by the time the Polish electoral campaign had even begun. The left-wing Syriza party had already effectively repurposed nationalistic rhetoric, and for this reason, simply wasn’t enough of a threat to the Polish electorate, who are generally proudly patriotic (and, at times, nationalistic).
Looking back at last Sunday’s election results—it’s easy to see why another scenario was hardly possible. Even if Europe wasn’t already divided by national egos and the (genuine or professed) desire for “autonomy” of nation-states, the PO gave nationalists and conservatives proof that a right-wing victory was needed, in fact, three times in a row. The wiretap scandal portrayed pro-Europe elites as corrupt, alienated, and arrogant—a sentiment that widely resonates with the anti-elite and insurgent mood that currently prevails in post-crisis Europe.
And the left? Even if there were a strong left in the country, the war in Ukraine and the Syrian refugee crisis have in turn amplified isolationist, militaristic, and chauvinist responses from the right to such an extent that the left’s traditional messages of pacifism, humanitarianism, and tolerance have been marginalized, thereby also rendering them politically ineffective; the left has stumbled for fear of alienating a largely conservative voter base. And this has happened not only in Poland, but in the entire region—leaving progressives of all sorts (and even the moderate right) with no allies and an impatient, emotional, and fragmented electorate demanding immediate action, blunt statements, and uplifting rhetoric, all of which the right can deliver in spades. The more extreme the response demanded, the easier it is for the right to deliver.
Of the two left parties that ran in the elections—one, the rejuvenated and reinvented party of the old guard (Zjednoczona Lewica, or the United Left) and the other a Podemos-inspired grassroots movement and leaderless collective of young socialists and social-democrats (Razem, or Together) taking their first shot at a campaign—neither will bag even one parliamentary seat. The combined win for both parties barely exceeds 10 percent—ZL got 7.5 percent of the vote while Razem won 3.4 percent. The reasons for these results are a whole different story—involving familiar complaints that the old left is outmoded and corrupt and the young left, inexperienced and lacking roots in a blue-collar base—but what we must remember is that even at best, what was at stake for both of these parties was only a couple of dozen seats in a parliament housing 460 members.
One thing is certain: Eastern Europe is hooked on Orbán’s recipe, Poland especially. All five Polish parties that qualified for the parliamentary elections represent a spectrum of positions on the political right—from neoliberalism to national populism. One of the platforms in the election was, for example, a movement by Paweł Kukiz (Kukiz’15), a singer who led a motley crew of libertarians, businessmen, nationalists, and celebrities on the promise of “destroying the party system” and changing the constitution. Of course, extremism is represented too—nine future members of the parliament signed a so-called “National Contract” promising to “preserve the nation’s ethnic composition,” “refute Jewish financial demands towards Poland,” “support all moves towards militarizing the nation,” and go after the leftists, queers, and traitors. A recent demonstration led by nationalists promised hanging for the prime minister and a machete for the throats of Muslims.
Was this to be expected? Yes. Was it avoidable? Maybe. But, in the words of Jacek Kuroń, opposition leader and pro-democracy activist in socialist Poland, “democracy is a system that guarantees we’re not going to be ruled better than we deserve to.”
Jakub Dymek is an editor at Krytyka Polityczna. Follow him on Twitter at @jakub_dymek.