Poland’s Law and Justice party is losing its lustre

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Less law, more executive: Poland's right-wing Premier, Beata Szydlo. [Kancelaria Prezesa Rady Ministrow/Flickr]

While the recently-elected right wing Law and Justice Party [PiS] is taking advantage of its parliamentary majority to undermine Poland’s constitutional order and increase control over public media, it will fade into insignificance even faster than its predecessors, writes Andrzej Ancygier.

Dr Andrzej Ancygier is a research fellow at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, where he analyses German-Polish cooperation on renewable energy. He is also a lecturer at New York University, and the Freie Universität in Berlin.

The victory of the Law and Justice Party in October 2015 was not a surprise. After eight years of Citizen’s Platform (PO) in power, the only reason to vote for the liberals again seemed to have been the fear of PiS. This turned out to be too small an incentive. The inefficiency, and in many cases ignorance of the previous government, especially in recent years, was the major factor which led to PiS’ victory. Another was the way in which Jaros?aw Kaczy?ski’s Law and Justice Party presented itself to society: as a modern and dynamic team, which had nothing to do with the hardliners that dominated the previous PiS-led government in 2005-2007. Instead of the paralysis associated with the liberal government, it promised to bring about “good change”.

But the PiS didn’t convince everybody. Not even the majority. Out of over 30 million voters, only 5.7 million decided to vote for Kaczy?ski’s party. Half of voters – many of them former supporters of PO, who were tired of voting for the lesser evil again – stayed at home. Over 3.5 million votes went to parties that failed to cross the election threshold. In the end, less than 15% of Polish society voted for the PiS.

It didn’t prevent the PiS-led government, in cooperation with Poland’s President Duda, from introducing a number of legislative and personal changes at an unprecedented speed, including undermining the role of the Constitutional Court, nominating Jacek Kurski, who candidated from the Law and Justice list, as the director of Polish public media, and adopting a law that allows the surveillance of Polish citizens without court permission.

“PiS supporters” versus “the worst sort of people”

But in less than three months since winning the elections, members of the PiS party have already sown the seeds that will lead to the party’s decline. That has been the fate of almost all the parties that have ruled Poland over the last 25 years, but in the case of PiS this fall will be much steeper, once it begins. The main reason is the inability of the PiS leadership – and the majority of its members – to accept and tolerate different points of view. Openness to new trends and changes in the society have been the main factor that have allowed the mainstream parties to stay in power, sometimes for more than a decade – and regain power over and over again. Kaczy?ski and his party are exactly the opposite. For them, the Second World War has just ended and Poland is surrounded by enemies whose main goal is to weaken it. This applies also to the “enemies of the country” in Poland, who disagree with PiS’ exclusive ideology. One of the most surprising examples of this perspective is the branding of Standard and Poor’s recent downgrade of Poland’s credit rating as another attempt by the “leftists” to stop the new government from continuing the “good change”.

PiS politicians are clear about what they stand for and what being a Pole means for them. In his interview with Bild, the Polish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Witold Waszczykowski, declared that a world based on a mixture of races and cultures made of cyclists and vegetarians, who only support renewable sources of energy and fight against any form of religion, is not consistent with Polish values. Earlier in his interview, PiS party leader Kaczy?ski dismissed Poland’s successful economic emigrants, who criticise the government from abroad, as “the worst sort of Poles who have national betrayal in their genes”.

This picture of PiS is very different from the one Poles were presented with before the elections, and different from what they voted for. But it will take a while before the sheen that the new government brought to the Polish political scene dims enough to allow PiS’ voters see the darker side of the party’s rightist ideology, and the tools it will use to enforce it, including surveillance and the control of public broadcasting.

European values at stake

On the international stage, President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Beata Szyd?o are defending the changes in Poland as merely an attempt to repair the country from all the deficiencies and flaws that, according to them, have been inflicted by previous governments. But they fail to explain how undermining the power of the Constitutional Court will reduce the inequalities in society, or how nominating high-ranking members of the party to lead Polish public media or state-owned companies will help to decrease cronyism and corruption. Instead, PiS’ leadership kindly reminds the other European leaders to focus on the “real” problems.

But the EU cannot afford not to deal with the developments in Poland. Having the majority in the parliament does not allow the government to impose its worldview on the whole society and call those who disagree “traitors” and “the worst kind of people”. Poland’s new political elite has already crossed the red line of what a government in a democratic country is allowed to do. It must be admitted that Hungary crossed this line first – and is being used by Kaczy?ski as an example to follow. The EU cannot repeat the mistake of inaction again. If further governments want to follow the path towards authoritarian rule, article 50 of the European Treaty, which allows member states to leave the EU, gives them the opportunity to do so – alone.

The “mixing of cultures and races, cycling and vegetarianism” are all part of Polish culture – just like being an atheist or a devout Catholic, a cosmopolitan or deeply patriotic. The days of those promoting exclusion and xenophobia are numbered.

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