Poland: Restoring Democracy

13 December 2023

Poland: Restoring Democracy

By Gwynne Dyer

It didn’t take the United States long to restore the normal constitutional order after four years of Donald Trump. He is a ruthless and lawless man, but also a lazy and feckless one, and he simply didn’t bother to do all the damage he might have done to American democracy.

Donald Tusk, prime minister of Poland again after eight years when Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) was in power, has a harder job ahead. Kaczyński has had twice as long to entrench his ‘illiberal’ allies and henchmen in Poland’s courts and its media, and he is a wily and determined enemy of liberal democracy.

Where Trump seeks power for its own sake, showing no interest in ideology beyond a rich man’s reflexive right-wing alignment, Kaczyński has been described as “a walking anthology of resentments”. And whereas Trump has no religion beyond the ritual lip-service of any American politician, Kaczyński is a devout and deeply conservative Catholic.

Trump neither knows nor cares anything about history, but the PiS wrapped itself in the Polish narrative of victimhood. It subsidised the Institute of National Remembrance to publish hundreds of books a year about the innate wickedness of the country’s Russian and German neighbours. The mass media, now controlled by the state, peddled the same story.

Even the European Union was regularly condemned by the PiS as an enemy because it ‘pushed’ abominations like abortion and gay rights on holy Poland. And this all worked quite well with Kaczyński’s ‘base’, the same conflation of the rural, the religious, the poorly educated and the left-behind that loves Trump in the United States.

And to seal the deal, PiS showered state funds on poorer Poles, especially those in rural areas. Not a bad idea, really, since Poland is no longer poor, but in this case it was serving a larger purpose. “We are preparing a long march,” Kaczyński said in 2018. “One that needs not two but three terms.”

His goal was a deeply conservative and Catholic Poland where a permanent ruling party (PiS) controls the government, the courts, and the media. By last October’s election, with PiS apparently ahead in the polls and heading into its third term, it looked like Kaczyński’s dream was becoming reality – but PiS didn’t win the election.

It got more votes than any other party (37%), but no other party would join it in a coalition. President Andrzej Duda, a PiS member, gave his party two more months to pretend to be seeking a coalition (while actually running the shredders day and night).

On Wednesday Donald Tusk was sworn in as prime minister, but he faces a monumental task, for by now the media, the courts and the civil service are utterly dominated by PiS appointees. Genuinely restoring their impartiality, rather than just replacing PiS placemen with appointees from the coalition parties, will take much time and skill.

More importantly, Tusk has learned the two most important rules of 21st-century elections in Europe. Rule One: everybody loves the welfare state. Even if you are instinctively a fiscal conservative (as Tusk is), don’t touch their benefits or you will be severely punished by the voters.

Rule Two: cultivate the young. Trust the young. If you can just persuade them to vote, you will probably win, because they really don’t like the hate talk. Leave the religion, the sexism, the nationalism, the racism and the xenophobia to the populists, because their core voters will never listen to you anyway.

Actually, the populists already knew that. They don’t waste time trying to convince the general public of anything. They just concentrate on getting their favoured demographics out to vote, and discouraging, deterring or otherwise preventing the wrong demographics from doing so.

That’s why PiS declared that all 600,000 Polish voters living abroad would have their votes assigned to various districts of Warsaw, all of which were bound to vote for one of the three pro-democracy opposition parties anyway. (It’s the younger people who are brave enough to move to the big cities or abroad.)

But the opposition parties held their nerve and told their urban supporters that they should register and vote in their home districts in rural Poland instead if they were originally from country areas.

Don’t pile up huge, pointless majorities in urban constituencies. Trust all those young Poles living abroad to make up for your missing votes and deliver the urban ridings that the PiS thought they would be wasted in. Use yours where it will really count.

That’s what they did, and it worked. Could young Americans be that alert and that clever in November 2024? We shall see.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“Trump…story”; and “It got…night”)