Poland after a Year of Populist Rule

Author: Ralf Hoppe and Jan Puhl
Published: 8/ 12 /2016
In downtown Warsaw, on that part of Marszalkowska Street that hasn’t yet become flashy and expensive, there is a narrow and inconspicuous building. It is the home of Poland’s resistance movement. Piotr, an attorney who serves as the treasurer, is sitting at the window inside a small apartment on the third floor, facing his colleague Anna. Both have been here since early in the morning, typing away on their laptops. Thousands of things must be taken care of ahead of an approaching demonstration and they also have to quickly send a delegation to Suwalki, where five activists are facing charges, to talk to the public prosecutor.
“It would be best for Mateusz to do it,” says Anna, hoping that he will stop by soon. Mateusz Kijowski is often their first choice for all kinds of gatherings. Piotr puts on a kettle for tea.
The office is the headquarters of KOD, or Komitet Obrony Demokracji, the largest protest movement Poland has seen since the Solidarnosc trade union in the 1980s. Kijowski is the founder, strategist and face of the movement, a lanky, relaxed-looking man. He is the most important adversary of the national conservative government of the Law and Justice (PiS) party and its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
Some 8,000 people are part of the KOD, from Gdansk in the north to the Carpathian Mountains in the south, and they include lawyers, teachers and business professionals. “Resistance is a civic duty,” says Kijowski, adding that he is wary of his political rival. “Kaczynski is obsessed with power,” says Kijowski. “He wants to control people. That’s his obsession. So what is at stake here is democracy, our freedom and European values.”
Kijowski, 47, is an amiable man. With his gray hair pulled back in a ponytail and two silver rings in his left ear, he could just as well be a performance artist or a music teacher. He was running an IT firm until a year ago, but now work is on hold there so that he can devote all of his energy to politics. He says he is tired.
But this isn’t the time to rest, he adds. “Poland was excluded from Europe for so long, and it took us decades to get to where we are today,” says Kijowski. “All of that is now on the line because of this one man, Kaczynski.”
Fatigued Polish Society
The conservative party leader is considered highly intelligent and well educated, but he is also a polarizing figure. Kaczynski may not have the Las Vegas touch of a man like Donald Trump, nor does he possess the rhetorical skills of Dutch politician Geert Wilders or the common touch of British pub politician Nigel Farage. Nevertheless, very similar sentiments have made Kaczynski’s success possible.
Consistent with the right-wing populist worldview, he promises to protect a fatigued Polish society from globalization. He also promises revenge – revenge against the arrogant elites. One year ago, such sentiments led the Law and Justice Party to a triumphant victory when it secured the absolute majority in the Polish parliament. In public opinion surveys, the PiS still maintains a strong advantage over the opposition.
The country’s public television and radio network, along with a number of partially state-owned enterprises, were forced to strictly adhere to the party line. Museums, theaters and film producers will now only receive government subsidies if they produce “national content.” In a dangerous move, the PiS has also targeted the constitutional court, essentially neutralizing it.
Foreign investors are viewed with suspicion and the government intends to introduce special taxes for foreign-dominated sectors, like banking and supermarkets. When the European Commission introduced proceedings against the government in summer, Warsaw responded angrily by accusing the EU of meddling. The atmosphere between Warsaw, on the one hand, and Brussels, Paris and Berlin, on the other, is icier than it has been in a long time.
Kaczynski is fond of insisting that he is pursuing a “cultural counterrevolution.” The EU is undermining precious Polish traditions and the country’s culture, he says, and he accuses “liberals” of doing harm to the sacred fatherland. And then there are all those unpleasant types who dominate the street scene in big cities, people who the PiS summarily dismisses as vegetarians, bicycle riders and beneficiaries of globalization, people who want to introduce gay marriage and who would bring scores of Muslim refugees into the country if they had their way.
From Sullen Minority to Angry Majority
Kaczynski has skillfully leveraged such clichés to assemble a heterogeneous movement of outrage. But what really motivates Kaczynski and his PiS supporters? Why is Poland, a country that has benefited from globalization and EU membership to a greater degree than most, listening.
The economy has grown by almost 27 percent in the last nine years, partly as a result of the estimated €60 billion ($64 billion) Poland has received in structural aid from Brussels since it joined the EU in 2004. But many people in the country have not benefited from those blessings, and today almost one in eight Poles of working age still earns only about 1300 zloty a month, or roughly €290. Over the years, a sullen minority has turned into an angry majority.
Yet the success of the PiS is actually a middle-class phenomenon, say election researchers and sociologists. They note that the PiS can count on the votes of the disadvantaged, such as those from impoverished industrial regions. But these people were ultimately not the key to the PiS majority. The middle class helped put Kaczynski in power – people like white-collar workers, store owners and craftsmen, especially those living far from major cities.
To understand the PiS phenomenon, it is worth taking a trip to provincial Poland, to a small city called Nowy Scz, where the PiS achieved its largest urban result in the 2015 election, receiving 60.5 percent of votes cast.
Nowy Sacz, with a population of 82,000, is part of a self-sufficient world, a model for the new Poland of Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The city’s median strips are mowed and the facades of prewar buildings in the pedestrian zone are freshly painted.
It isn’t difficult for Nowy Sacz to appear well-tended and charming, because it’s an affluent city. There are probably more millionaires per capita here than anywhere else in the country. There are many rags-to-riches accounts of millionaires who started out in their garages and now run large companies. One of them is Ryszard Florek, who founded Europe’s largest window manufacturer. And there are Marian and Józef Koral, whose company makes ice cream. Unemployment is at 6 percent in Nowy Sacz, economic growth is robust and Patryk Wicher couldn’t be happier.
More Polish
Wicher teaches marketing at the university in Nowy Sacz, is a member of the city council and has been a PiS supporter right from the start. As he takes us on a tour of the neo-Baroque city hall, he says that he is very satisfied with the new direction in Warsaw.
Wicher agrees with the PiS that the EU should stay out of Polish politics. He says that Brussels should relinquish rights and that national competencies should be expanded. Poland does not want to become more European — in fact, he says, Europe should become more Polish.
Kaczynski’s administration is also unwilling to honor a commitment by the previous government to accept at least a few thousand refugees. And Wicher agrees with that, too. Migrants should be helped, says Wicher, just not in Poland. “The objective of aid should be to stabilize their countries of origin. Refugees should be housed in transit centers in countries that are linguistically and culturally similar to their own.”
He goes on to provide further insight into his worldview, his belief, for instance, that the EU should not stick its nose into everything. Repeating a PiS campaign slogan, he adds that Poles should stop crawling around on their knees in front of others.
Nowy Sacz is a model of the small, manageable world many Poles yearn for: Polish nationalist and safe from the impositions of globalization, but otherwise Western and deeply subsidized by the EU.
PiS promised its voters something of a sociopolitical filter, saying that it wants to preserve Poland as an intact and uncomplicated Eden. At the same time, however, Poles should be able to travel abroad, and the country should, of course, continue to receive subsidies. Kaczynski promised all of that.
Wicher joined the PiS because he admired its founders, twin brothers Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The Kaczynskis were involved in the Solidarnosc movement, but only on the fringes. They were too radical with their repeated and angry demands for a harsh reckoning with the communists.

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