Poland after PiS: handle with care

Neal Ascherson
26 October 2007

The result of the elections in Poland on 21 October 2007 has left Poland's friends in western Europe exultant. The two years of government by Jaroslaw Kaczynski's Law & Justice movement, supported by two of the nastiest and maddest coalition partners ever to share power in post-war Europe, are over. The young and urban voters overcame their distaste for politics and - in a massive turnout - inflicted a thumping defeat on the government. Law & Justice (PiS, in its Polish acronym) will be replaced by the centre-right Civic Platform (PO), led by Donald Tusk, probably in coalition with the Polish Peasants' Party (PSL).

Abroad, there is vast relief, shared by the overwhelming majority of the 2 million young Poles who have found work in western Europe since Poland's accession to the European Union in 2004. The PiS regime had become a continental embarrassment. Its domestic policies were bigoted and oppressive, from its anti-gay rhetoric to its ruthless, witch-hunting treatment of opponents as anti-Polish and potentially treacherous. Its style in foreign policy was often farcical in its crude nationalism, alienating both neighbouring states and the European Union. When Jaroslaw Kaczynski demanded that Poland's human losses under Nazi occupation should be added into the population count allotting voting strengths under the new European treaty, intelligent Poles hid their faces in their hands. When his twin brother Lech, who remains the nation's president, boycotted a vital meeting in Germany because a Berlin cartoonist had compared him to a potato, the same Poles didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

openDemocracy writers track Polish politics and governance:

Adam Szostkiewicz, "The Polish lifeboat" (22 September 2005)

Karolina Gniewowska, "The Polish minefield" (23 September 2005)

Marek Kohn, "Poland's beacon for Europe" (25 October 2005)

Krzysztof Bobinski "Poland's populist caravan" (14 July 2006)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The Polish confusion" (22 June 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "The Polish dictionary" (22 August 2007)

Ivan Krastev, "Sleepless in Sczeczin: what's the matter with Poland?" (19 October 2007)

Now it's over. The new Platform government will be more "European" - i.e. less protectionist, more welcoming to free-market forces. At home, it will carry out what's described in a smart new word as depisacja. This could be riskily translated as "taking the PiS out of everything" - unpicking the web of political patronage with which the Kaczynski twins smothered all public appointments, and trying to repair the damage done to the rule of law. Abroad, Donald Tusk and his team will reassure Chancellor Angela Merkel that they do not regard the federal republic as Hitler's successors. They will cautiously retreat from the Kaczynskis' reckless enthusiasm for President George W Bush by reducing Polish troops in Iraq (it's too late to reverse entirely the offer of missile defence bases in Poland, while Tusk will prefer to forget the CIA's use of Polish territory for "extraordinary rendition" and interrogations). At Brussels, they will try to undo Poland's reputation for obstructive "national egoism", not least by resuming their approach to membership of the eurozone.

The centuries' traces

Yet this is not quite the cloudless, happy return to democracy which it may seem in Paris, Berlin or London. The Kaczynski twins stood for something. They stood for a number of big facts and themes which will not go away. Their fatal style, often primitive and sometimes grotesque, does not mean that Tusk and the Platform - or any future Polish government - will not have to face these facts and themes too.

Many - maybe most - of those who voted for Tusk did so because they could no longer stand the PiS regime, not because they loved the neo-liberal policies of the Platform. And those who voted for PiS on 21 October, still a third of the poll, remain a formidable, highly identifiable social block. They are the small farmers and peasants, the old, the people in pious remote areas, the great mass of unemployed workers and ordinary people who are the losers in the grand transition to capitalism. They live mostly in eastern Poland. The map of election results splits the country into two almost equal halves, pink for PiS and blue for the Platform. But - eerily - it is also a map of the 18th century partitions. The old Russian lands are solid pink, with two blue islands for the cities of Warsaw and Lodz. The "German" west and north is even more solidly blue. History in Poland is indelible.

Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. He was for many years a foreign correspondent for the (London) Observer. Among his books are The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo (1963; Granta, 1999), The Struggles for Poland (Random House, 1988), Black Sea (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996; reprinted 2007), and Stone Voices: the Search for Scotland (Granta, 2003)

Among his articles on openDemocracy: "From multiculturalism to where?" (19 August 2004)

"Pope John Paul II and democracy" (1 April 2005)

"Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (15 July 2005)

"The victory and defeat of Solidarność" (6 September 2005)

"Poland's interregnum" (30 September 2005)

"Victory's lost sister - the wreck of the Implacable" (21 October 2005)

"A carnival of stupidity" (6 February 2006)

"Torture: from regress to redress" (1 March 2006)

"The case for pre-emption: Alan M Dershowitz reviewed" (18 May 2006)

"Scotophobia" (28 June 2006)

"Catholic Poland's anguish" (11 January 2007)

"Ryszard Kapuscinski: from Poland to the world" (25 January 2007)

"Scotland's democratic shame"( 9 May 2007)

"Who needs a constitution?" (22 May 2007) Those "eastern" PiS voters have good reason to fear globalisation and the dissolving of the Polish state as the EU imposes free competition. Old-fashioned nationalism, meaning a jealously independent Poland which guards its frontiers, which protects all its children against misfortune and foreign interference, seems to them the obvious champion against "cosmopolitan" economic liberalism. Here is the alliance, which seems so strange in the west but so natural in post-communist Europe, between nationalism and the "socialist" ideals of equality and the dignity of labour.

The Kaczynskis seemed, by the end, to be heading for a one-party state. The PiS domination of the media, achieved by outrageous purging and political appointments, was almost worthy of Vladimir Putin's Russia. The Tusk government must now try to create a genuinely independent ethic for public service - and not just by depisacja. The hopelessly compromised National Broadcasting Committee, which reduced the award of radio and TV franchises to a pigsty of patronage, will probably be dissolved.

And yet, in their distorted way, the twins were right to see that the post-communist Polish state has problems of weakness. As the political scientist Aleksander Smolar (no friend of PiS) said in an interview on the eve of the election: "it's the quality of the state - its efficiency, its cleanliness - and not so much the economy or foreign policy, which is the fundamental challenge facing Poland". The PiS regime was right to launch a campaign against corruption, ill-managed as it was. It was disastrously wrong to see the state's main problem as infiltration by cabals of ex-communists.

Poland's telescope

In a supposedly globalised world, it's salutary to remember that what matters most about Poland's foreign policy is geography - that the nation lies between Russia and Germany. The Kaczynskis tackled this the wrong way - by paranoid rudeness to both neighbours. Yet they had some justification. Germany's agreement with Russia on a new Baltic gas pipeline avoiding Poland, done without Polish agreement, was crass and awoke the worst historical memories, from the 18th-century partitions to the Nazi-Soviet pact which abolished Poland in 1939. The government outraged Brussels by its repeated veto on EU:Russian agreements as long as the Russians were boycotting Polish food imports (as they still are). In my view, this veto was totally justified. The alternative was to let Poland slither into the "near-abroad" zone of Russian economic blackmail, so brutally illustrated by the plight of Ukraine and Georgia. These are realities which Donald Tusk now has to inherit.

It may be that the European Union has still not grasped how momentous it was to receive Poland into the union in 2004. With Polish accession, the EU moved into a quite new proximity to Russia and its "near abroad" in Ukraine and Belarus. Poland, whose experience of Russia is heavier, longer and more intense than that of any other European nation, is utterly committed to the fate of this region. Once, long ago, this commitment was imperialist. Today, it is about self-preservation, aiming to bring Ukraine and eventually Belarus forwards to stable democracy and membership of both Nato and the European Union. British, French and German diplomats fret about Poland being "pushy" and "obstructive" by constantly shoving the Ukrainian interest into all Brussels discussions, and by blocking agreements with Russia which have a quality of appeasement. But Poland, under PiS or Platform, cannot do otherwise.

If western observers of Poland think such attitudes are mere national arrogance, they do not understand the union they have been living in since 2004. Poland in Europe, and in its position in Europe, is condemned to be an awkward, vigilant partner. If it is not awkward and does not shout rather than whisper deferentially, Poland will be overlooked and eventually trodden underfoot. True, the Kaczynski government did not just shout; it squalled and cursed until it made itself ridiculous. It was a terrible Polish government, and its fall is a brilliant day for democracy. But not all its enemies were ghosts.

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