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Poland: A Pause on the March to Autocracy

Zofia Romaszewska, now in her 80s, was jailed during the years of martial law in Poland in the early 1980s. She is a national hero for her human rights activities in the 1980s and is now one of President Andrzej Duda’s advisers. Last week she persuaded him to veto the government’s new laws on the courts.

She told him: “Mr President, I lived in a state (under Communist rule) where the prosecutor general had an unbelievably powerful position and could practically do anything. I would not like to go back to such a state.” And President Duda actually listened to her.

This came as a complete surprise, because Duda was a member of the ruling Law and Justice Party and is widely seen as a puppet of its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. On Monday, however, he rejected new laws giving the justice minister the power to fire judges he doesn’t like – including, potentially, the entire Supreme Court – and choose the new judges who take their places.

“As president I don’t feel this law would strengthen a sense of justice,” Duda said in a statement – or rather, an under-statement – on national television. His action has greatly encouraged the hundreds of thousands of people who have been demonstrating in cities all over Poland against the new laws, but there are still many who doubt his sincerity.

Poland is sharply divided between the populists, socially conservative, deeply Catholic, and ultra-nationalist, who form the present government, and the opposition whom they label “the system” or “the elite”. This system allegedly includes both the liberals who led Solidarity’s resistance to Communist rule, and the crypto-Communists who supposedly still exist and are now in league with the liberals.

The whole thing is a paranoid fantasy, but it has a firm hold on many people’s minds in a national culture that wallows in victimhood and self-pity. The Law and Justice government, elected in late 2015 with an absolute majority in parliament, denounces the opposition parties as corrupt traitors under foreign influence, and they in turn mistrust everything the
government says and does – including President Duda’s change of heart.

He’s just playing for time, they think. He’ll get the demonstrators to go home and then he’ll sign some slightly altered version of the laws stripping the judges of their independence. And maybe they are right. Nobody will know for sure until they see the government’s response to his veto.

This is not just about Poland. It is about whether the EU will tolerate an undemocratic government in its midst, and the evidence isn’t in yet.

As soon as it won office twenty months ago, the Law and Justice Party turned the state-owned broadcaster, previously politically neutral, into the propaganda arm of the ruling party. It also destroyed the independence of the civil service, replacing the professionals with its own party loyalists. But when it turned on the courts it started for face real push-back from the EU.

The EU is probably the only reason that the former Communist-ruled states of Eastern Europe almost all became democracies. They desperately wanted to be members of the EU as a safeguard against renewed Russian interference in their affairs – and the EU insists that all its members be democratic.

Not only that, but it carefully defines how democratic states should behave, and a basic principle is the separation of powers: the courts must not be under government control. When the Law and Justice Party introduced laws started taking away the judges’ independence, it ran head-on into the EU’s rules for membership.

Senior EU officials were openly talking about stripping Poland of its voting rights in the Council of Ministers (the closest thing to an EU government) until Duda said he would veto the new laws. If it turns out that he is only playing for time and will soon sign quite similar laws, the confrontation will resume – and the EU might even resort to financial measures against Poland.

Poland is by far the biggest beneficiary of transfers from the EU budget to poorer member countries: in the budgetary period 2014-2020, it is scheduled to get $96 billion. Some or all of that money might stop coming if Poland were no longer a member in good standing.

The Polish government cannot plausibly threaten to quit the European Union: 75 percent of Poles see EU membership as a vital counter-balance to the looming presence of Russia to their east. The EU holds all the best cards in this game, if it chooses to play them.
But will it?

That is not clear. The EU is not famous for its willingness to take bold action, and it would have to overcome the opposition of Hungary, another ex-Communist EU member that also has an authoritarian government (though a less extreme one). But the EU’s own cohesion would suffer if it did not defend its fundamental values, so if Duda is only fooling there may be a real showdown in a month or two.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“As soon…EU”; and “Poland…standing”)

Turkey Referendum

Reasonable people have long believed that the first person in a conversation to mention Adolf Hitler or the Nazis loses the argument. Turkey’s President Recep Tayib Erdogan does not subscribe to this view, and he has no intention of losing the argument.

The argument – the referendum, more precisely – is about whether Erdogan should be given absolute power in Turkey for the indefinite future. He was seriously annoyed when various German municipalities dared to doubt his rendezvous with destiny.

Their crime was to withhold permission for Erdogan’s government to hold referendum rallies in German cities. Germany is home to 1.4 million Turkish citizens, and in a tight referendum their votes matter, so Erdogan was quite put out.

“Hey, Germany,” he said last week in a rally in Turkey. “You know nothing about democracy. Your practices are no different from those of the Nazis.” The German government was astonished and rebuked him publicly.

Erdogan’s devout supporters only grow more enthusiastic when foreigners criticise him. And with 140,000 Turkish officials, judges, soldiers and journalists arrested, dismissed or suspended since last July’s failed coup attempt, most of his domestic critics have fallen silent: Reporters Without Borders now ranks Turkey 151st out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom.

And yet, the referendum that is supposed to grant Erdogan virtually unlimited power could go either way. It will certainly be close, because the country is still split right down the middle – and it’s no longer left vs. right. It is primarily secularist vs. Islamist.

When Erdogan first appeared on the Turkish political scene as mayor of Istanbul in 1994, he was an openly religious politician in a country that had suppressed any public expression of Islamic values for decades. He even did four months in jail for reciting a religious poem in public.

In 2003, Erdogan became the country’s first devout prime minister, and many secular Turks welcomed him in power. “Kemalism”, named after modern Turkey’s secular liberator Kemal Ataturk, had become corrupt and oppressive, and Erdogan spent his first two terms in office dismantling the secularists’ stranglehold on the state apparatus.

His main ally in this exercise was Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher whose followers
were appointed to tens of thousands of positions in the civil service, the judiciary, the police and the army. But Turkish liberals also supported his attempt to negotiate a peace deal with the militant Kurdish separatist movement PKK, and all the while the Turkish economy grew at a highly satisfactory 5 percent a year.

Things began to turn sour in 2013, when protests grew at Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and there was a bitter split between him and the “Gulenist” movement. His policy of keeping the border with Syria open for Islamists fighting the Syrian regime (including Islamic State) drew strong criticism both at home and internationally, and secularists began to suspect that his ultimate goal was an Islamic state in Turkey.

These suspicions deepened when Erdogan gave up the prime ministership in 2014 and got himself elected president instead. The presidency was a ceremonial non-political office, but he planned to turn it into a powerful executive post that concentrated all power in his own hands. That required a referendum – but his ambition may have played a big part in his loss of the parliamentary election in early 2015.

In order to win back control of parliament he had to make an alliance with the hard-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP). To get their support he had to break the ceasefire with the PKK and reopen the war against the Turkish Kurds. Then Russia and his own NATO allies forced Erdogan to close the border to Syrian Islamists, and Islamic State terrorists started bombing Turkish targets as well.

Erdogan narrowly won the second parliamentary election in 2015, but he almost lost power to a military coup last July. He calls the coup attempt a Gulenist plot, but it was so badly organised that it was probably a panicked last-minute response to a secret government plan to purge all Gulen’s followers in state institutions, including the army.

Since last July Erdogan has used the coup attempt to whip up support for the planned referendum in April that would grant him untrammelled power as executive president. Turkey has been under emergency rule, with mass arrests and government by decree. Nasty, but not necessarily effective.

His default mode is outraged anger, so incidents like his “Nazi” accusation against Germany are ten a penny. Nobody in Turkey is even surprised – but the Turks may yet surprise him.

The Turkish economy is crashing, internal and external wars are multiplying, and there are far too many people in jail for months on end without being charged. Despite a reign of terror in the Turkish media, Erdogan’s victory in the referendum is still not assured.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 15. (“When…public”; and “His default…him”)

The Berlin Provocation

Twelve people were killed in a Christmas market in Berlin on Monday, mown down by a terrorist in a big truck. Elsewhere in Germany, if it was an average day, another ten people were killed in or by motor vehicles. They are all equally dead; the only difference is the motivation of the man in the truck.

Oh, sorry, there’s another difference too. On Tuesday, if it was an average day,
another ten people were killed on German roads, and another ten on Wednesday, and another ten on Thursday, and so on ad infinitum — 3500 in the average year. So is traffic a bigger threat than terrorism?

Does this comparison offend you? Why? Would you be offended if I said that driving is more dangerous than flying, because 3500 Germans die on the roads each year and only fifty a year die in plane crashes? Of course not. Yet if I say that traffic accidents are a much bigger threat to human life than terrorism, it sounds almost transgressive.

Three other people have been killed in terrorist attacks in Germany this year, so the total this year will be probably end up at fifteen. That’s the highest number since 1972, but there are 80 million people in Germany, so the average German’s risk of being killed in a terrorist attack is considerably less than the risk of drowning in the bathtub.

The sensible response to such pinprick attacks is prevention: good intelligence-gathering and smarter security measures, not mass arrests and foreign wars. That will reduce the number of attacks and hopefully keep them small (no more 9/11s). It’s not possible to eliminate terrorism entirely, any more than a “war on crime” can end all crime. It can, however, be kept down to nuisance level.

Terrorism is a very small threat that is designed to look very big. It achieves that goal by attracting massive media coverage that inflates it into an apparently huge threat.

The media provide that coverage because they know that people are fascinated by violent death: a single murder is more newsworthy than ten thousand peaceful deaths. I’m contributing to that massive media coverage right now. It’s not the content that matters, it’s the volume of coverage. (“If everybody is writing about it, then it MUST be very important.”)

Terrorists want that wall-to-wall media coverage because it may provoke a huge over-reaction that ultimately serves their own purposes. In the case of the current wave of Islamist terrorism, they hope it will build support in the Muslim world for their revolutionary project and ultimately bring them to power.

In the early phase, they wanted to provoke Western invasions of Muslim countries that would drive more Muslims into their arms (as in the case of the 9/11 attacks). Now they are trying to panic Western governments into abusing and oppressing their own Muslim citizens. The basic strategy remains the same, and it has proved very successful.

Without the Western over-reaction to the 9/11 attacks (especially invading Iraq), there would be no Islamic State today. And they aren’t doing too badly with the present attacks either.

Chancellor Angela Merkel knows that, and her response to the Berlin attack was deliberately low-key: “I know that it would be particularly difficult for us all to bear if it turned out that the person who committed this act was someone who sought protection and asylum in Germany.”

But Horst Seehofer, the leader of the Christian Social Union, the permanent political partner of Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union, urged the chancellor “to rethink our immigration and security policy and to change it.” He was implicitly saying that she was wrong last year to give shelter to almost a million refugees, a majority of them Muslims.

Frauke Petry, the co-leader of Germany’s far-right ‘Alternative for Germany’ party (AfD), said it more plainly: “The milieu in which such acts can flourish has been negligently and systematically imported over the past year and a half.” Angela Merkel is now under great political pressure to “crack down” on Germany’s Muslims, including millions who have been born there.

As for Donald Trump, he was tweeting within hours: “Today there were terror attacks in Turkey, Switzerland and Germany – and it is only getting worse. The civilized world must change thinking!” (He says he has a “big brain”, but even so he should attend the intelligence briefings. The Swiss attack actually involved a Ghanaian-born Swiss citizen shooting Muslims in a mosque.)

The US Precedent-elect later expanded on his thoughts: “Isis and other Islamist terrorists continually slaughter Christians in their communities and places of worship as part of their global jihad. These terrorists and their regional and worldwide networks must be eradicated from the face of the Earth, a mission we will carry out with all freedom-loving partners.”

So how will he do that? Invade some more Muslim countries? Round up Muslim Americans and put them in camps, like they did to Japanese-Americans in World War II? If he did anything like that, he would only be serving the purposes of the Islamist terrorists. He would be, in Lenin’s famous phrase, a “useful idiot”.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“Does…transgressive”; and “The media…important”)

Terrorism in Europe: “Our Country is at War”

“Our country is at war,” said French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday, after a priest was murdered near Rouen in front of his congregation by two attackers who claimed to be serving Islamic State. It’s the sort of thing leaders feel compelled to say at times like this, but it does send the wrong message.

French aircraft are already bombing IS forces in Syria, so you could call that a sort of war (though nobody on the French side is getting killed). But that was not what Hollande was talking about. He was saying that France is somehow at war AT HOME, and went on to say “Our democracy is the target, and it will be our shield. Let us stand together. We will win this war.”

Stirring stuff, and the French certainly need some encouragement, because they are still in shock after the recent slaughter of 84 people by an truck-driving Islamist terrrorist in Nice. But the words are wrong, because if the French are at war at home, then who are they at war with? The obvious answer, almost the only plausible answer, is French Muslims. Which is, of course, precisely the conclusion that Islamic State wants the French people to reach.

I’m not saying that the two deluded Muslim teenagers who carried out the attack – both born in France – were aware of the grand strategy behind IS’s terrorist campaign in Europe. The foot-soldiers in any campaign are unlikely to know or care much about such things.

But the men who set IS policy and control the Islamist websites that urge young European Muslims to commit these terrible acts know exactly what they want to achieve. In France, they want to stimulate anti-Muslim hatred, turn the majority against this under-privileged minority, and ensure the victory of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the neo-fascist, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant National Front, in next year’s presidential election.

She is already practically guaranteed a place as one of the two contenders in the second, run-off phase of the French election. If the terrorist attacks radicalise many Christian and post-Christian French people and lead to widespread anti-Muslim violence, Le Pen might even win it and become France’s next president.

Islamic State’s strategy in Germany is just the same, although the country is less fertile ground for Islamist extremism: relatively few of Germany’s Muslims are Arabs, and IS is an overwhelmingly Arab organisation. The far-right parties in Germany are also much weaker than the National Front in France. But IS has just claimed credit for two terrorist attacks in Germany in a single week.

Two IS attacks in Germany, NOT four. The axe-wielding Afghan youth on a train near Wuerzburg who wounded five people on 18 July, and the failed Syrian asylum seeker who blew himself up outside a music festival and injured fifteen other people in Ansbach on Sunday, both proclaimed their loyalty to Islamic State.

But the 18-year-old German youth of Iranian extraction who murdered nine people in Munich last Friday, all but one in their teens, was a psychologically troubled youth obsessed with school shootings and Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. The Syrian asylum-seeker who murdered a Polish woman in Reuthlingen on Sunday with a machete knew the victim, and the police said it was probably a “crime of passion”.

However, both of those men were also Muslims, so in the mind of many Germans there has just been a wave of murderous Islamist terrorism. The two IS-linked attacks actually didn’t even kill anybody, but there is now a political panic that has strong anti-Muslim undertones. The IS strategy is working in Germany too.

Why does Islamic State want an anti-Muslim backlash in European countries? Because it will radicalise many more European Muslims, and also maybe bring to power populist leaders who really do want to “wage war on Islam”.

Islamic State’s ideology claims that the whole Muslim world is under attack by the evil West, and that only IS can defend it successfully. Only if its real target audience in the Arab world believes that lie can IS hope to gain popular support, and perhaps ultimately political power, in the Arab countries, so it NEEDS the West to behave badly.

That’s why Francois Hollande was wrong to say that France is at war at home. Words matter, and he’s playing into the terrorists’ hands.

It’s also why the United States can expect to see a rash of Islamist attacks next October. They wouldn’t even have to be very big to drive millions of American voters into the arms of Donald Trump, and nothing could please Islamic State more than Trump as president.
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Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.