Poland: Back­slid­ing fu­ri­ously

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Gwynne Dyer Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

“Poles over­whelm­ingly want to re­main part of NATO and the Euro­pean Union, if only (in some cases) be­cause they still fear Rus­sia so much. You can­not go far down the road Kaczyn­ski wants to travel with­out com­ing into se­ri­ous con­flict with the EU’s laws pro­tect­ing civil and hu­man rights — and when Poles have to choose, they will not back Kaczyn­ski.”

Lech Walesa, a na­tional hero 26 years ago for his role in end­ing Com­mu­nist rule in Poland as the leader of Sol­i­dar­ity, has lit­tle po­lit­i­cal power in the coun­try to­day, but he still has his voice. Last week he raised it, to con­demn the new Pol­ish gov­ern­ment that emerged from last Oc­to­ber’s elec­tion.

“This gov­ern­ment acts against Poland, against our achieve­ments, free­dom, democ­racy, not to men­tion the fact that it makes us look ridicu­lous to the rest of the world,” Walesa said. “I’m ashamed to travel abroad.”

Walesa said this on pri­vate­ly­owned Ra­dio Zet, be­cause Pol­ish pub­lic ser­vice tele­vi­sion and ra­dio will no longer in­vite him to speak on any of their chan­nels. The new gov­ern­ment sees him as an enemy, and it now con­trols pub­lic broad­cast­ing com­pletely: all four chan­nels of TVP and the 200 sta­tions of Pol­skie Ra­dio.

It took them over in an op­er­a­tion that the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment’s pres­i­dent, Martin Schultz, de­scribed as hav­ing the “char­ac­ter­is­tics of a coup.” First the new Law and Jus­tice Party (PiS) gov­ern­ment packed the con­sti­tu­tional tri­bunal that might have stopped the me­dia takeover, swear­ing in five new PiS ap­pointees in the mid­dle of the night. And then it used its par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity to bring the pub­lic ser­vice me­dia un­der party con­trol.

The PiS is the cre­ation of Jaroslaw Kaczyn­ski and his late twin brother Lech, who died in a plane crash at Smolensk in Rus­sia in 2010. The broth­ers have al­ways had a close po­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ship with the Catholic Church in Poland, and the PiS largely owes its re­cent elec­toral vic­tory to the sup­port of Poland’s very con­ser­va­tive Catholic bish­ops.

But it wasn’t all that sweep­ing a vic­tory, really. The PiS got just over half the seats in the Sejm (par­lia­ment), which tech­ni­cally al­lows it to do al­most any­thing it wants now that the con­sti­tu­tional tri­bunal has been crip­pled.

But it won those seats on only 37 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote — and now that it has be­gun to put its agenda into ac­tion, re­cent opin­ion polls are giv­ing it only 24 per­cent sup­port.

That doesn’t bother Jaroslaw Kaczyn­ski in the slight­est. He has the same knack as Don­ald Trump for say­ing nasty, un­true things and making them sound bold and in­ci­sive (to his tar­get au­di­ence, at least) rather than just stupid and slimy.

For ex­am­ple, he re­cently warned Poles that Syr­ian refugees would bring diseases and par­a­sites into the coun­try. He con­tin­ues to spec­u­late pub­licly that the crash that killed his twin brother was a plot (pre­sum­ably a Rus­sian plot), de­spite the fact that two of­fi­cial Pol­ish in­ves­ti­ga­tions have con­cluded that the cause of the crash was pi­lot er­ror.

Even the poor, left-be­hind Poles who are Kaczyn­ski’s tar­get vot­ers are some­times alarmed by his anger and his ex­trem­ism, so he wisely de­cided to let an­other, vir­tu­ally un­known party mem­ber, An­drzej Duda, run for the pres­i­dency last year.

Duda won, so Kaczyn­ski re­peated the strat­egy in Oc­to­ber, pro­mot­ing an­other rel­a­tively ob­scure and un­threat­en­ing party mem­ber, Beata Szydlo, as prime min­is­ter af­ter the PiS’s vic­tory in the par­lia­men­tary elec­tion. But most peo­ple sus­pect that he will quickly tire of work­ing from the shad­ows and take her place as prime min­is­ter him­self.

What has brought this deeply unattrac­tive politi­cian to power in Poland?

It’s largely the same fac­tors that have made Don­ald Trump a po­lit­i­cal phe­nom­e­non in the United States: an econ­omy that is do­ing quite well over­all — Poland’s econ­omy grew by a third un­der Civic Plat­form in the past six years — but that has left a large chunk of the pop­u­la­tion be­hind.

It’s even the same chunk of the pop­u­la­tion that backs Trump in the U.S.: older, more re­li­gious, less well ed­u­cated, liv­ing in smaller cities and ru­ral ar­eas. Kaczyn­ski’s vic­tory there­fore de­pends on a very nar­row and frag­ile base, and he may well be­come more and more rad­i­cal in his strug­gle to hold it to­gether.

It is there­fore go­ing to be quite ex­cit­ing in Poland for a while, and prob­a­bly quite em­bar­rass­ing for peo­ple like Lech Walesa. But it isn’t an anti-demo­cratic revo­lu­tion with real stay­ing power.

Poles over­whelm­ingly want to re­main part of NATO and the Euro­pean Union, if only (in some cases) be­cause they still fear Rus­sia so much.

You can­not go far down the road Kaczyn­ski wants to travel with­out com­ing into se­ri­ous con­flict with the EU’s laws pro­tect­ing civil and hu­man rights — and when Poles have to choose, they will not back Kaczyn­ski.

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