By Juliette Bretan
With repeated condemnation from international commentators on increasingly right-wing policies, Poland’s attitude towards the rest of the world is beginning to cause major diplomatic concern. The ruling government remains intent on chipping away at the country’s ties to Europe, pursuing conservative and narrow-minded attitudes in an effort to affirm national identity – a move entrenched in Poland’s tumultuous recent history, which rears its head constantly in current political approaches. The recent recreation of a rainbow sculpture on Warsaw’s Plac Zbawiciela following years of its destruction by right-wing groups is a testament to the conflicting and often explosive attitudes in Polish politics. But Poland’s central political party, combined with the lack of any reasonable opposition, means the future of the country’s politics looks unsteady. After rising so far since gaining independence in 1989, is Poland now on another downward curve?
Not since the fall of Communism in Poland in 1989 has any party achieved such a large-scale victory in state elections as right-wing Law and Justice (PiS), Poland’s current ruling party, attained in 2015. Winning an outright majority of 235 seats out of the 460 in the Sejm, the precedent was set for a definitive rule – and, so far, PiS have certainly lived up to this practice. For the last three years, western media has been releasing a steady drip of reports on their controversial measures, most notably significant curbs to state media, and efforts to control the judiciary; whilst the EU has been floundering to find compromises which will cause the least amount of damage to either party.
What makes the situation even more concerning is that these efforts to control are mostly masterminded by the stocky figure of Jarosław Kaczyński: a back-bencher in the Polish parliament, but also the President of PiS. Kaczyński spends most of his time wielding an idealistic, almost suffocating power; having fingers in every political pie and acting as de facto leader of the country. What Kaczyński wants is a Fourth Polish Republic; a break away from the current Third Republic which some in PiS condemn as merely a post-Communist creation.
Indeed, the issues in Polish politics today are fundamentally written in the history books: the central issue for PiS being the transition from Communism to Polish independence in 1989. For PiS, the agreement reached between Communist authorities and democratic opposition after the Round Table Talks of 1989 was marred by concessions and a betrayal of Polish identity. Despite 29 years of improved social and economic affairs in Poland, the Talks are seen to be rather a sign of failure, with concessions to former communist authorities, and a fall in fortunes for some Poles as a result of the ‘shock therapy’ economic policy, cited as suggestions of an inadequate power shift. Accused of following both a politics of memory and a revision of memory, PiS thus advertises themselves to the nation as the bastion of Polish sovereignty – or even the retrievers of Polish sovereignty, following years of unstable governments and political crises.
The elections immediately after the Talks were peppered with power fluctuations between post-Solidarity and post-Communist parties. The progeny of Solidarity’s democratic opposition splintered into an abundance of independent parties groups vying for power, leading to a series of failed attempts at harmonious control. The first relatively concrete government came in 1997, a centre-right coalition between AWS and UW, though this nonetheless suffered setbacks with significant internal divisions concerning entry to NATO and the EU, causing its ultimate collapse into the two political parties (PiS and current opposition Civic Platform, or PO) seen today.
Kaczyński, who had jumped ship from AWS to be an independent member as the coalition came into force, worked on the formation of a new party, PiS with his identical twin brother Lech. Lech remained in AWS and was appointed Minister of Justice from 2000 to 2001, after which PiS was formally created.
Both brothers had played a part in the original Solidarity efforts of the late 1980s, though by the 1990s had condemned Lech Wałesa and the liberal intellectuals who agreed with the Communists as betrayers of Poland, an argument which resurfaced in 2016 after the release of files suggesting Wałesa’s cooperation with the Communist secret police. PiS was the solution to this so-called treason – with the softer Lech as party President, they set out to negotiate the rocky Polish political climate of the early 2000s. Leadership switched to Jarosław in 2003 as Lech became Mayor of Warsaw.
By 2005, Polish politics had settled into a two-party system between PiS and PO, the former of which won the election that year by a small number of seats. Elections between the two political parties between 2005 and 2011 gained the moniker ‘Donald versus the Duck’, a reference to the then-PO leader Donald Tusk, and the resemblance between the Kaczyński name and the Polish word for duck, ‘kaczka’.
Jarosław refused to take the Prime Minister role in 2005 in order to support his brother’s Presidential campaign, a strategy which came to fruition when Lech was declared President later in the year.
Meanwhile, the leftist opposition in Poland deteriorated cataclysmically: the underlying distrust of leftist politics since the fall of Communism exploded onto the scene with various scandals in the 2000s, creating semi-stagnation in Polish politics. The most notable leftist party, SLD, was embroiled in the Rywin-gate corruption scandal of 2002, and has never recovered, with the central political forces today, aside from PiS and PO, a cocktail of centrist and rightist parties.
As commentators have also pointed out, maps of Polish voting patterns follow the old Polish territorial schism of the eighteenth-century partitions, indicating that even earlier history plays a role in Polish politics today. Swathes of semi-nationalist and conservative religious attitudes, flirtations with PiS values, are usually to be found in the past Russian zone to the east, whilst those behind the more liberal ideals of PO are to be found in the crescent then under Prussian and Austro-Hungarian control. The infrastructure and technological divisions between east and west in the years following the partitions have persisted to this day, with richer regions to the east of the old boundary, prompting diversity and urbanisation.
Indeed, even after Polish independence was regained in 1918, again a vitriolic battle was staged between liberal and conservative ideas: Piłsudki’s semi-authoritarian forces promoted a version of multiculturalism based on the cosmopolitan Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, whilst Dmowski’s clan encouraged a marginalisation of minorities, particularly in eastern areas with contested boundaries. Despite a profusion of smaller parties and a plethora of Prime Ministers in the immediate years following Polish independence, a coup in 1926 prompted rigging efforts for the 1928 and 1930 elections to ensure Piłsudki’s views were followed. After Piłsudki’s death in 1935, the position of minorities in Poland became less secure, with a series of damaging measures imposed on some groups. The catastrophic impact of the war and the chaos of Communist which followed drowned Poland in a down-trodden identity – PiS sees its role as to salvage the country’s former glory, promoting a patriotism which fails to correlate with the true multiculturalism of pre-partition Poland. Instead, 19th-Century patriotic songs are again being heard as the country steeps itself in the martyrology of the war. This is Polish self-determination become steadfast.
And all the more so after the sacred partnership between Jarosław and Lech was ripped asunder following Lech’s tragic death in an airplane crash in 2010. Travelling along with several other Polish political heavyweights to commemorate the Katyn massacre, a mass execution of Polish nationals by Soviet forces during the war, the plane came down in adverse weather killing everyone on board. As the accident occurred on an already stifling diplomatic plain, concerns were raised immediately about the cause of the crash, with incorrect flight procedures and uncomfortable investigations noted. After a long-running scuffle between PiS supporters and opposition forces regarding the maintenance of an almost inconspicuous wooden cross outside the Presidential Palace for Lech, with the PiS ‘defenders of the cross’ struggling against its removal, allegations turned to PO – with suggestions that Tusk contributed to the crash in an agreement with Russian authorities.
The plan to erect a life-size statue to commemorate Lech in one of Warsaw’s busiest open areas, Piłsudki Square, has also been hit with political controversy, with PO attesting that creation of the statue does not have support from city authorities or civilians. But perhaps this is also because its position on Piłsudki square will have it sitting beneath the vast, stoic papal cross also residing there – a final end to the ‘defenders of the cross’ saga. It also must not be forgotten that this is to be a statue of one identical twin brother.
Jarosław has encouraged this almost martyr-like commemoration of Lech, which has infused his political efforts with a violent condemnation of opposing forces. He has spoken out against anyone who he feels may upset his idea of the Polish state, defining his opponents as ‘reds’ whilst refusing to cooperate with EU decrees. Poland has not taken its quota of refugees set by the EU – Jarosław claimed doing this would cause ‘social disaster’ – and has also ignored EU threats concerning media control and environmental damage. Poland plunged to an all-time low in press freedom rankings recently, suggesting how dismal the situation is becoming.
Plus, since the end of last year the insipid Mateusz Morawiecki has been given the role of Prime Minister, whose rule has already been brought into question by the internationally controversial ‘Holocaust Bill’, which prevents Polish blame for Nazi atrocities. It has also been suggested that there are significant internal tensions between Morawiecki and Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro – there are allegations that Ziobro wanted to undermine Morawiecki’s position by encouraging the ‘Holocaust Bill’ to run, whilst Morawiecki’s concessions to the EU over Polish judiciary reforms are set to weaken Ziobro’s clout.
The judicial reforms themselves were widely denounced in the international press – though PiS argued it was a method of de-communisation, the BBC pointed out that one of the key PiS members involved in judicial reform, Stanisław Piotrowicz, was a communist-era prosecutor.
Even PiS’s relations to the Polish President Andrzej Duda are under threat. Though Duda has publicly declared he supports PiS’s Christian values, his refusal to cooperate with de-communisation laws has met with resolute determination by the party to succeed without his input. Nonetheless, upcoming Presidential elections suggest Duda may well fall back into the party line, removing this last hurdle to PiS’s grasp of the country.
On October 19th 2017, a middle-aged father, Piotr Szczęsny, made the long journey from the south of Poland to visit Warsaw. Distributing leaflets condemning PiS across the square in front of the renowned Palace of Culture and Science, he then stopped to switch on a speaker to play the song Kocham wolność (I love freedom) by Chłopcy z Placu Broni, doused himself in flammable liquid, and set himself on fire. He died in hospital 10 days later. His leaflets included a suicide note, which proclaimed:
‘You must change this power as soon as possible before it completely destroys our country; before completely depriving us of freedom. And I love freedom above all else. That’s why I decided to self-immolate and I hope that my death will shake up the consciences of many people, that society will wake up and that you will not wait until what politicians do for you – because they will not do anything! Wake up! It is not too late!’
But, given the vital role Poland’s tumultuous history plays in the progress of its politics today, it may, in fact, be too late to make much difference. The politics of memory is a politics of retention – and retention of Poland’s past identity will not be disappearing anytime soon.