Poland's populist caravan

Krzysztof Bobinski
13 July 2006

It is an irony worth savouring. Poland, which marked its final break with its claustrophobic Soviet bloc past by entering the European Union in May 2004, now risks heading back to the isolation which marked the post-war communist period.

The twin brothers Kaczynski – Lech, Poland's president, and Jarosław, who on 14 July 2006 is sworn in as prime minister after the summary dismissal of Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz – are ruling the country with the support of the populist right, and risk isolating their country in relation both to their European partners and to the United States.

The brothers embarked on their conservative revolution when their Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (Law & Justice / PiS) party won legislative and presidential elections in September-October 2005 on promises to crack down on corruption and aid those excluded from the benefits of the post-1989 switch to a free-market system. After the ejection of Marcinkiewicz, the party's original nominee as prime minister, it now looks as if the PiS revolution is to be accelerated.

Krzysztof Bobinski works at the Unia & Polska Foundation , a pro-European NGO in Warsaw. He was the Financial Times's correspondent in Warsaw.

Also by Krzysztof Bobinski in openDemocracy:

"A stork's eye view from Poland"
(May 2001)

"Poland's nervous 'return' to Europe"
(April 2004)

"Poland's letter to France: please say oui!" (May 2005)

"Democracy in the European Union, more or less" (July 2005)

"The European Union's Turkish dilemma" (December 2005)

"Belarus’s message to Europe" (March 2006)

Ambition and constraint

Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, a rightwing provincial politician, had been brought in to head the government when the brothers decided initially that voters would not accept twins occupying the top two posts in the country.

For a time, Jarosław Kaczynski took a back seat and watched as Marcinkiewicz pursued increasingly pragmatic policies which recognised that inaugurating a “fourth republic” – to emphasise even further the break with the post-communist era, and Kaczynski code for a conservative moral revolution – risked destabilising the country and undermining its moderately successful economic record (including low inflation, and annual GDP growth of almost 5%).

Marcinkiewicz, who struck a chord with the population and far outstripped the twins in opinion-poll popularity, was also dismayed at the coalition partners which PiS foisted on him as the price of a stable majority in parliament. These were the rightwing nationalist Liga Polskich Rodzin (League of Polish Families / LPR) headed by Roman Giertych and the populist Samoobrona (Self-defence) led by Andrzej Lepper, a potato farmer who also speaks for those who have not done well out of the post-1989 changes.

And as Marcinkiewicz was being ditched, his deputies Roman Giertych and Andrzej Lepper were in Częstochowa, Poland's national shrine at ceremonies celebrating Radio Maryja, a rightwing fundamentalist Catholic radio station with a million loyal listeners who vote the way Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, the Maryja director, tells them to. Rydzyk and Radio Marya played and continue to play a key role in building support for the PiS government and its allies.

It wasn't meant to be like this. PiS and its present great opposition rival the Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform / PO) went into last autumn's elections promising to establish a grand coalition government. But PiS's unexpected if narrow victory in the parliamentary election and, Lech Kaczyński's presidential win over the PO's Donald Tusk two weeks later, put the two parties on a confrontational course which made a post–election alliance impossible.

Lech Kaczyński promised that once elected he would look after the poor and dispossessed who since the fall of communism had been cheated by the "elites". This line made a rapprochement with the populists and the rightwing nationalists possible. But Kaczynski's assertion that a PO victory would open the way to dangerous "liberal" experiments closed the door to a deal with the pro–market Civic Platform. The break left the PO unable to mount a serious challenge to their erstwhile partners, rather like the way the Democrats in the US are unable to make a credible case against George W Bush's Iraq policy.

The Kaczyński twins, having acquired full power, now stand at a crossroads. Their record to this point has shown them to be suspicious of the outside world and keen to see conspiracies at home aimed at derailing their attempt to uproot corruption. They want to build a lasting ruling majority based on an appeal to the poor and the anxious, who were tempted to support the twins for the same reasons they had earlier backed the former communists: a hope that the twins could guarantee welfare security.

The brothers' instinct has also been to garner as much power as possible by bringing independent institutions under the control of their party, placing their supporters in key positions in the publicly-owned TV and radio stations, and accusing those who seek to defend the very idea of the division of powers as being supporters of post–1989 governments which were tainted by corruption.

The brothers do not command majority support in the country. A mere quarter of Poles thought that the takeover of the country by the twins was a good thing; almost two–thirds didn't like the idea. This reflects the balance of feeling in the country about its new rulers.

openDemocracy writers dissect Poland's post-communist politics:

Marek Matraszek, "Ukraine, Poland, and a free world"
(2 December 2004)

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

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

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

Poland's interregnum" (30 September 2005)

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

Poland in the world

If Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński chose to rule Poland from the nationalist and populist right, seeking to bolster their credibility with Radio Maryja by contesting the tolerant gains Europeans have made in questions of morality, they will become increasingly isolated at home and abroad. And young Poles will continue to go abroad en masse to less claustrophobic political climates.

In the four days between his nomination and his formal appointment as premier, Jarosław Kaczyński gave two signals that his ability to grasp the realities of government at speed is no less than that of his predecessor Marcinkiewicz. First, Kaczyński has appointed a mainstream economist, Stanisław Kluza, as finance minister – a sign that he will not yield easily to inflationary policies which, given the demands of his electorate, could blow the budget wide open.

Second, Jarosław was quick to take a telephone call from Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, in a time of worry that relations between Poland and Germany were spinning out of control after a satirical article in the German newspaper Tageszeitung. The article, mockingly critical of the twins, led the Polish president to call off a trilateral summit with Jacques Chirac and Merkel, and left the Polish authorities demanding that the German government "do something" about its publication.

The fact that both sides later said the conversation marked a "new beginning" in relations between the two countries may indicate that in foreign relations, Kaczynski may yet allow pragmatism to rule.

But a twofold dilemma remains: that the brothers' psychological make–up militates against more open policies, and that their promises to their voters on economic issues and to their key allies like Radio Maryja on "moral" ones make a shift to the centre in domestic and foreign policy very difficult.

Poland's partners in the European Union are for the moment aghast at developments in the country. The brothers' efforts to change the moral climate in Europe on issues like tolerance of homosexuality have provoked outrage among liberals and the left throughout the continent. And the United States, which the brothers (like many Poles) look to as the ultimate guarantee of Poland's security is also worried, because Washington doesn't want the country to have bad relations with Germany now that Berlin is once again its favoured partner.

Nor does the US want to be identified with a government which has Roman Giertych, the leader of the LPR – a party with anti–Semitism etched in its DNA – as education minister. Moreover, Israel has openly stated that it will boycott the education ministry as long as Giertych is at its head.

The Kaczyński twins' primary motive has been to seize the levers of power rather than to respect the niceties of democratic institutions. Their political momentum until now has been fuelled by their righteous sense of zeal in rooting out corruption and the "evil networks" they see as parasites on the country. In this sense they are extremists - and it is rare for a democracy to be ruled from either extreme without endangering its democratic institutions. An opening to the political centre is badly needed in Poland.

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