It has seemed to turn the corner from a relatively liberal democracy to a Catholic nationalist and authoritarian state. Huge crowds have protested for days outside the parliament and the presidential palace against the dismantling of the last bulwarks against one party rule. Meanwhile the EU has been plunged into crisis as the President of its parliament, a one-time Polish Prime Minister, has warned of Poland being plunged into a dark period with consequent sanctions from the EU. What has led to this crisis in both Poland and the EU and what are the likely consequences for both?
Poland has been ruled for the last few years by the rightwing nationalist and ultra Catholic Law and Justice Party, which represents in many ways a similar demographic to those who have supported Brexit – those feeling left behind by globalisation, modernisation and particularly the EU. It has been many years since the Left has been in power in Poland and the gap was filled initially by a pro-European and vigorously pro-globalisation party of the Centre Right, Civic Platform, a conservative party built on the lines of New Labour. This party was supported by the business class, upwardly mobile graduates and the population of many of the larger cities in Poland. It advocated policies similar to those of many social democratic parties in Europe – an embrace of the EU, the liberalisation of laws applying to finance and banking and a modernisation of Poland. The fact that Donald Tusk, its main representative, is now the popular President of the European Parliament (for a second term) demonstrates how close this party was to the EU and the dominant European People’s Party, the largest bloc in the parliament to which Merkel’s CDU also belongs.
During Poland’s first years in the EU and the flow of capital into projects in the country but also a parallel flow of migrants out of it, searching for a higher standard of living in the richer Western European countries, this party was the main recipient of votes from a grateful nation. The old party of Lech Walesa and Solidarity was consigned to the sidelines and seen as old fashioned and too Catholic for the modern shiny Poland which the EU was helping to construct. But this period also led to significant social progress for women, the LGBTQ community and others marginalised before by the church and the conservative parties. Much of this was also helped by the introduction of EU laws and equality legislation.
But while this modern new Poland prospered there was another Poland, a Poland of ‘losers’ from globalisation who grew increasingly bitter and resentful. These were the people in the countryside and the small towns in particular who saw their agriculture devastated and rising unemployment and reduction in pensions for the elderly. They also resented the move away from Catholic ideas and influence. Spurred on by the Church they waited and seized their chance.
The new party of the Right, Law and Justice, decided to reverse the reforms which the previous government had enacted in terms of social policy but also reacted against the perceived domination by the EU and above all by the old enemy, Germany. It would recreate a traditional Catholic Poland and like all populist movements it called for a war against the elites. The other old enemy is, of course, Russia, which the Law and Justice Party, and in particular Kaczinski, its leader, holds responsible for the death of the ex-president, his brother, in a plane crash in 2010.
Where was the Left in all of this? Small, weak and marginalised and still tainted by the experience of Communism in Poland pre-1989. While it had built importance alliances with the progressive movements around women’s and LGBTQ rights it had not really penetrated the trade unions or the major working class areas of the big cities. Furthermore, many of those who would have supported the Left had emigrated, despairing of both the conservative attitude in the country but also seeking a better standard of living in Western Europe. In this respect there are some parallels with Ireland since independence.
But the new Right was determined to construct a new Poland and not to allow the pendulum to swing the other way. They started a la Turkey by purging the army, the civil service and other institutions of those deemed unreliable or accused of having had any links with the former Communist regime – this could include those associated with the party.
The final hurdle was the Supreme Court and its judges who also play a role in deciding electoral law. So on the grounds that the Supreme Court and most of the judiciary in Poland were supporters of the hated ex-Communists and also in league with the scheming EU to overthrow Polish nationalist and Catholic values, a law was proposed which would allow the government to replace the judges and to appoint others at will. What was also significant was that the proposed law also stated that all new judges would have to be guided by ‘Christian principles’ in their judgment and it was clear what this would mean – ultra Catholic values opposing the rights of both women and LGBTQ people. This would also open the doors to effective dictatorship in Poland.
The result was electrifying with mass rallies and protests lasting days across Poland. Polish society was mobilised en masse. And the sight of a 75 year old Senator Jan Rulewski, former leading member of Solidarity, who had been a political prisoner in the 70s, addressing the Polish Senate in a prisoner’s uniform and warning about Poland becoming a country above the law, was electrifying. All of the Polish ex presidents, including Lech Walesa, appealed for the law to be dropped.
For the EU, this has been a critical moment in its history. Already Hungary has effectively abolished democracy and the EU has been helpless to act. The Polish government has drawn its inspiration from this and it is significant that Hungary offered full support to Poland and threatened to use its veto powers in the EU to prevent any sanctions being applied against Poland. The EU now faces a bloc of two authoritarian crypto-Fascist states in its East and has been shown to be virtually powerless to act against them.
At the final moment, the Polish President vetoed the new law (although one of the three proposed new laws was allowed). The President, who is an ally of the Law and Justice Party, claimed that he was most influenced by former Solidarity members who had been imprisoned by the Communist regime and believed that a system uniting judicial and executive power was being instituted. Many believe that this is a cynical act on the part of the President and that an amended version of the proposed law will be passed next time.
But it also raises big issues for the Polish Left. The protest movement has mobilised civil society against the government and the Left and the Razem party have played a part in that. In Berlin, where many Polish migrants live, a Razem speaker played a major role in the demonstration there. This may be the boost which the Polish Left needs and may awaken the young in particular to the dangers of an ultra-Catholic dictatorship with parallels with the governments of interwar Poland.
But the Left in Europe must also demonstrate more support for Poland and for those fighting for a more open tolerant and democratic Europe. The Poles called for support from Europe and for the European family not to forget them. This is an essential lesson for all of the Left in Europe. The fates of Poland and Hungary today could well be those of all of Europe tomorrow without awareness and solidarity among the European Left and progressive movements.
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