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The Polish autumn

Adam Szostkiewicz
25 October 2005

The Polish national anthem opens with a line saying that Poland shall not perish as long as we are still alive. The we in it are the Polish forces fighting under Napoleon in the hope of regaining independence for the nation partitioned among foreign powers – Prussia, Russia and the Habsburg empire – in the late 18th century.

It is in this spirit that much of Polish politics was conducted over the next century and a half: a mixture of patriotic idealism, moral absolutism, and messianic feelings, as well as blunt pragmatism and deep mistrust of the motives of the other parties claiming similar aims.

Also in openDemocracy on the Polish autumn:

Adam Szostkiewicz “The Polish lifeboat”

Karolina Gniewowoska, “The Polish minefield”

Neal Ascherson, “Poland’s interregnum”

Marek Kohn, “Poland’s beacon for Europe”

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This pattern seems to repeat itself even today as Poland enters the seventeenth year of its democratic experience after almost five decades of communist rule.

The double elections Рparliamentary and presidential Рof 2005 produced an unprecedented situation of the two rightwing aspiring coalition partners clashing over the government they promised to form. The unexpected outcome was that one of these parties РPrawo i SprawiedliwoϾ (Law & Justice / PiS) Рwon both polls.

This spectacular double victory came as a shock to its rival Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform / PO), which had expected to win the presidency for its soft-spoken liberal conservative leader, Donald Tusk. PO lost for a variety of reasons, but the death blow might have been the campaign revelation on the eve of the presidential election’s decisive second round that Tusk’s grandfather served in the Wehrmacht during the final months of the second world war.

The Poles’ ordeal under Hitler’s Third Reich included, for some, conscription into the Nazi army that violated their conscience as well as their will. Tusk’s grandfather, after two or three months of service, fled to join the Polish forces fighting alongside other allies in the west. His grandson Donald said he did not know about all this; quite simply, the matter was not discussed in the family after the war. Indeed, it was clearly absurd to charge Donald Tusk with any responsibility for his grandfather’s life, and yet it worked – such is the trauma of Polish-German war sixty years on.

The PiS operative who was the messenger of bad timing was sacked by the party for this indecent political act – but the message itself created aftershocks. After leading in the polls into the final days of the campaign, Tusk lost.

The use of historical records in the campaign thus proved highly effective. It is anathema for an average Pole to have anything in common with the Nazi regime. We love the heroic, and hate going into details which do not fit the black-and-white vision of national past.

Tusk’s victorious rival, Lech Kaczynski – the twin brother of the PiS leader Jaroslaw – was clever enough to use these Polish fears in the run-up to the elections. His mantra was the defence of Polish national interests against revisionist forces in German or Russian politics, whatever they might be. Kaczynski’s own credentials seemed crystal-clear: with a Warsaw family background of anti-Nazi resistance, and a policy of outright rejection of any possible German compensation claims for the properties lost to Poland after the war.

A final factor may have tipped the scales in the PiS’s favour: the party’s welfare-protectionist agenda. Many Poles seem to have joined other European nations in a mood to reject the more radical socio-economic reforms demanded by globalisation. Not all Poles, to be sure – after all, the liberal-minded PO fared quite well in both elections, becoming the second-largest party in parliament.

The Polish dance

What is the landscape after the battle? With the smoke and cries gone, a new crisis is looming. As I write this, the future of the putative coalition is deeply insecure. Both parties are flexing their muscles. PiS have offered the PO half of the government’s portfolios, including foreign affairs, defence and finance; for themselves, they reserve security, justice and civil administration.

The PO are not happy with this “generous’’ offer: it demands what it calls a genuine partnership in the new government – or else the PiS can go it alone. The balance of power, they say, is in danger after the presidential election and it would be saved by giving a PO responsibility for internal affairs and civil adminstration.

As coalition talks stumble, more voices are heard within the PO camp, suggesting a complete withdrawal from the coalition even before it has materialised. These doubting radicals point to the growing differences between the two parties as a moral and political justification for leaving the task of govening to the PiS alone.

The PO, they argue, is for Europe, for good relations with Germany (Poland’s biggest trade partner), and for a liberal economy; while the PiS stands for a state-directed economy and opposition to a further pooling of national sovereignty within the European Union. In fact, after the collapse of the leftwing vote in Polish politics, the PiS has – for now – taken its place.

A symbolic proof of this shift might be the support given to the PiS by two significant politicians: the leftist-populist Andrzej Lepper, a “third force” in Polish politics at present, and Józef Oleksy, the experienced and well-connected Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej (Democratic Left Alliance / SLD) post-communist social democrat prime minister.

It is ironic indeed that the Civic Platform now has to struggle with the PiS rather than the post-communists, while the staunchly anti-communist PiS are ready to lure and embrace the leftwing orphans. What good can come out of it? Well, but as long as we are alive, Poland shall not perish.

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