Lech Walesa, a national hero 26 years ago for his role in ending Communist rule in Poland as the leader of Solidarity, has little political power in the country today, but he still has his voice. Last week he raised it, to condemn the new Polish government that emerged from last October’s election.
“This government acts against Poland, against our achievements, freedom, democracy, not to mention the fact that it makes us look ridiculous to the rest of the world,” Walesa said. “I’m ashamed to travel abroad.”
Walesa said this on privately-owned Radio Zet, because Polish public service television and radio will no longer invite him to speak on any of their channels. The new government sees him as an enemy, and it now controls public broadcasting completely: all four channels of TVP and the 200 stations of Polskie Radio.
It took them over in an operation that the European Parliament’s president, Martin Schultz, described as having the “characteristics of a coup.” First the new Law and Justice Party (PiS) government packed the constitutional tribunal that might have stopped the media takeover, swearing in five new PiS appointees in the middle of the night. And then it used its parliamentary majority to bring the public service media under party control.
The new Polish Culture Minister, Piotr Glinski, explained that it was necessary to “re-Polonise” Polish society – i.e. cleanse it of all the decadent Western European liberal notions and values that had infected it under the rule of the outgoing Civic Platform government – and that the public broadcasters would therefore be re-designated as “national cultural institutes.”
The head of PiS’s parliamentary caucus, Ryszard Terlecki, was even franker: “Over the past few weeks . . . we have had to deal with the extremely unreliable work of the public media,” he said, referring to the media coverage of popular protests against the PiS’s attack on the constitutional tribunal. “If the media criticises our changes . . . we have to stop it.”
The PiS is the creation of Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his late twin brother Lech, who died in a plane crash at Smolensk in Russia in 2010. The brothers have always had a close political relationship with the Catholic Church in Poland, and the PiS largely owes its recent electoral victory to the support of Poland’s very conservative Catholic bishops.
But it wasn’t all that sweeping a victory, really. The PiS got just over half the seats in the Sejm (parliament), which technically allows it to do almost anything it wants now that the constitutional tribunal has been crippled. But it won those seats on only 37 percent of the popular vote – and now that it has begun to put its agenda into action, recent opinion polls are giving it only 24 percent support.
That doesn’t bother Jaroslaw Kaczynski in the slightest. He has the same knack as Donald Trump for saying nasty, untrue things and making them sound bold and incisive (to his target audience, at least) rather than just stupid and slimy.
For example, he recently warned Poles that Syrian refugees would bring diseases and parasites into the country. He continues to speculate publicly that the crash that killed his twin brother was a plot (presumably a Russian plot), despite the fact that two official Polish investigations have concluded that the cause of the crash was pilot error.
Even the poor, left-behind Poles who are Kaczynski’s target voters are sometimes alarmed by his anger and his extremism, so he wisely decided to let another, virtually unknown party member, Andrzej Duda, run for the presidency last year.
Duda won, so Kaczynski repeated the strategy in October, promoting another relatively obscure and unthreatening party member, Beata Szydlo, as prime minister after the PiS’s victory in the parliamentary election. But most people suspect that he will quickly tire of working from the shadows and take her place as prime minister himself.
What has brought this deeply unattractive politician to power in Poland? It’s largely the same factors that have made Donald Trump a political phenomenon in the United States: an economy that is doing quite well overall – Poland’s economy grew by a third under Civic Platform in the past six years – but that has left a large chunk of the population behind.
It’s even the same chunk of the population that backs Trump in the US: older, more religious, less well educated, living in smaller cities and rural areas. Kaczynski’s victory therefore depends on a very narrow and fragile base, and he may well become more and more radical in his struggle to hold it together.
It is therefore going to be quite exciting in Poland for a while, and probably quite embarrassing for people like Lech Walesa. But it isn’t an anti-democratic revolution with real staying power.
Poles overwhelmingly want to remain part of NATO and the European Union, if only (in some cases) because they still fear Russia so much. You cannot go far down the road Kaczynski wants to travel without coming into serious conflict with the EU’s laws protecting civil and human rights – and when Poles have to choose between the EU and Kaczynski, they will not back Kaczynski.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“The new…stop it”)