The recent upheaval in Turkey has been seized upon by opponents of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to accuse it of leading the country in a similar direction. On a political chat show on Sunday, an opposition politician claimed that Poland is currently under a ‘dictatorship’ of the same type as Turkey’s. When pressed further on what was clearly an exaggerated claim, he admitted that ‘there are dictatorships and there are dictatorships’ – the point being that ‘Poland is on the wrong track’.
The same day, a former deputy prime minister in the PiS-led coalition government of 2005-7 wrote that it is ‘very instructive watching events in Turkey to apply lessons to our country’. He admits that PiS’s chairman, Jarosław Kaczyński is ‘not a dictator for now’, but warns that ‘history teaches us that every dictatorship begins with the overthrow of independent institutions’, something that PiS has started to do with Poland’s constitutional court, judiciary and media.
On Monday, another political commentator similarly called on PiS ‘to understand the Turkish lesson’ and ‘turn back from the path…of nationalism, irrationality and destruction of institutions’. If it does not, then ‘just like in Turkey, this project…will escalate political polarisation beyond the bounds of stability’.
Perhaps most telling are the words of Kaczyński himself two years ago, which have been widely circulated on social media in the last few days. Back then, as leader of the opposition, he explicitly stated his desire to follow the path set out by Recep Tayyip Erodgan, saying: ‘We must do everything so that Poland will be the same as Turkey is today’. Achieving such ‘greatness’, he added, would require ‘first a change of government and then the reconstruction of the Polish elites’.
How valid are such parallels ? Transnational comparisons are always fraught with difficulties, especially in two environments as different as Poland and Turkey. Yet certainly in terms of ideology, rhetoric, policies and support, Kaczyński’s PiS and Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) have much in common.
Both are socially conservative and envision a more prominent role in public life for their country’s dominant religion (Roman Catholicism in Poland; Sunni Islam in Turkey), though not in terms of direct political power, but rather as a guiding force for the country’s moral and social values.
Economically, both are relatively business friendly and understand the importance of foreign investment. Yet they also aim to redistribute wealth towards the less well off by expanding social welfare, especially for families. One analyst notes that ‘redistribution through social services and welfare programs is a crucial source of electoral strength for the AKP’; and very similar claims have been made regarding PiS’s use of generous social-spending promises (especially its new child-benefit programme) to build popular support.
Whereas western audiences are used to the left-right political divide being defined largely by socioeconomic outlook, in both Turkey and Poland it is instead characterised mainly by cultural-religious issues. This has allowed PiS and AKP to fuse conservative values with relatively statist socioeconomic policies in a way that cuts across the traditional lines of western politics.
In terms of foreign policy, both PiS and AKP aim to return their countries to former greatness. In practice, this can often result in a paranoid, conspiratorial outlook, seeing enemies everywhere. The Turkish government speaks of Jewish and Western plots against it, which Erdoğan ascribes to the fact that there are ‘circles uncomfortable with Turkey’s success’. In precisely the same vein, the Polish government promotes a deeply conspiratorial mindset in which outsiders (especially Germany) want to prevent Poland’s development, keeping it as a ‘colony of other powers’. Russia has been openly accused by the defence minister of causing the plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczyński (Jarosław’s identical twin), with the intention of removing a ‘leadership that aims to lead Poland to independence’.
Such rhetoric results in spikey relations with neighbouring powers: Turkey has recently been on difficult terms with Israel and Russia; PiS has often had strained ties with Germany and shares a mutual enmity with Russia. Both Poland under PiS and Turkey under Erdoğan have regularly been in conflict with the EU. Interestingly, one of the new Polish foreign minister’s first state visits outside the EU was to Ankara, where, in stark contrast to western European leaders, he talked enthusiastically about how Poland ‘want[s] to see Turkey in the European Union in the near future’.
The idea of needing to overcome enemies in order to return their countries to greatness also infuses both parties’ attitude towards domestic opposition. Toni Alaranta describes how the AKP ‘conjures the specter of an imagined, threatening “domestic other”’ in the form of ‘an elitist and undemocratic…regime’ that must be purged in order to ‘normaliz[e] the political system’, thereby ‘freeing society’. This corresponds closely to the belief that underpins PiS’s political philosophy, which is that a secretive post-communist uklad (system) remains in power behind the scenes, and must be dismantled in order for Poland to be truly free.
In Turkey, this means that ‘those who oppose the…conservatives in power can be depicted as defenders of [the] elit[e]…against the “genuine Turkish nation”’. Whenever protests against the government arise, the AKP portrays ‘the demonstrators as artificial and as somehow alien to the true Turkish nation’. This has been precisely the approach taken by PiS since returning to power, with participants in mass anti-government protests dismissed as puppets of the post-communist elites or ‘Poles of the worst sort’ who ‘want to keep Poland as low as possible’.
Moreover, these alleged foreign and domestic conspiracies are seen as closely interrelated. As Turkish scholar Dogan Gurpinar notes, the AKP has created a ‘conspiratorial universe in which the domestic and international cannot be dissociable’. This fosters an environment in which politics is not ‘a game of pragmatic give-and-takes but an ultimate and perpetual struggle between good and evil’.*
Much the same can be said of PiS, which draw links between the alleged post-communists at home and their supposed allies abroad. Kaczyński has suggested that anti-government protesters get their orders from the Russian embassy; conservatives regularly describe the government’s opponents as targowiczanie, a reference to traitorous 18th-century Polish nobles who helped Russia bring about the partition of Poland. It is regularly insinuated that the former Polish government played some role in causing, or at least covering up, the death of Lech Kaczyński in league with the Russians. Opposition media outlets, many of which are German owned, are accused of trying to manipulate Polish public opinion in Germany’s interest.
As consequence, PiS has created a political environment in which, as in Turkey, opponents are not treated as legitimate representatives of a constituency with concerns that should be taken seriously, but as traitors intent on keeping Poland in chains. As such, any compromise with them would be a capitulation tantamount to treason.
The similar ideology and rhetoric of the two parties has also resulted in a comparable profile of support. The AKP is described as ‘a broad right-wing coalition of Islamists, conservatives, nationalists, centre-right, and pro-business groups’. If you substituted Islam with Catholicism, you would have a pretty accurate description of the various currents represented within PiS. Both parties also rely for electoral support on similar demographic groups: older, less educated and more religious voters.
…Different Actions (So Far)
While there are, then, clear similarities between the profiles of PiS and AKP, the real question is over the extent to which Kaczyński intends to lead Poland down a similar path to Erdoğan’s Turkey. In this regard, it’s worth pointing out that, when Kaczyński in 2014 expressed a desire to emulate Erdoğan’s achievements, this was at time when it was absolutely clear that, whatever benefits he had brought to Turkey, these had come at the expense of increasingly authoritarian rule. That year, strong criticism of the Turkish government’s attacks on democracy and human rights were voiced by the US government, European Union, Council of Europe, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others.
What is particularly striking is that the criticism Turkey faced then is almost identical to that which the current Polish government has received since coming to power in November. In the reports linked above, Turkey was censured for, inter alia:
- ‘Serious concerns regarding the independence of the judiciary and separation of powers’ (the same charges PiS has faced for its actions towards the Constitutional Tribunal);
- ‘Limitations on media freedom’ with ‘dozens of journalists fired or forced to resign’ and those who remain feeling the need to ‘self-censor’ for ‘fear that criticising the government could prompt reprisals’ (similar to the accusations made against PiS after its takeover of state-run media);
- ‘Vaguely written and broadly defined anti-terror statutes’ that place ‘restrictions on internet freedoms’ and hand ‘unprecedented powers to the country’s intelligence agency’ (exactly the same has been said about Poland’s new anti-terror law);
- ‘Vilifying…individuals sympathetic to some religious, political, and cultural viewpoints’ (as noted above, PiS is prone to demonise its opponents in a similar manner);
- Using ‘laws on defamation…to limit free speech’ (see the treatment of historian Jan Gross, who was questioned for five hours by prosecutors on potential charges of ‘insulting the Polish nation’).
Yet it is important to note that, while the charges made against Poland and Turkey may be qualitatively similar, quantitatively they are on a completely different scale. What PiS has done in Poland since coming to power is nothing like as extreme as the situation in Turkey two years ago, let alone today.
Whereas the Turkish government has taken over private media outlets, imprisoned hundreds of journalists and blocked social media, PiS has merely exerted influence over public broadcasters, something that every incoming Polish government since 1989 has also done (though never quite to the same extent as now). While Turkey has used its anti-terrorism laws to suppress opponents, in Poland such a threat remains entirely theoretical. And Poland is hardly the only Western country that, when faced with the dilemma of balancing security and freedom in the fight against terrorism, has erred towards the former. Germany, the US and others have also given their intelligence services far-reaching powers, often with limited judicial oversight.
Equally, of course, PiS has only been in power for a few months, whereas Erdoğan has had years to shape the state as he wishes. Give Kaczyński more time, opponents argue, and he will follow a similar path. Yet, while vigilance is necessary, there is no indication that PiS has any desire to go to such extreme lengths. The party has so far remained committed to democracy, civil pluralism and fundamental rights, albeit within a more majoritarian framework and with greater emphasis on conservative, religious and patriotic values. (Although in this regard it is worth remembering that Erdoğan and the AKP were initially regarded as relatively liberal and democratic, only moving in the opposite direction over time, in particular when they faced threats to their power.)
In theory Poland’s EU membership also acts as a constraint, although PiS’s ongoing dispute with the European Commission has shown how little direct power EU institutions have over member-states’ internal affairs. Moreover, the future direction – and indeed existence – of the EU itself is far from clear at the moment.
Claims of a Turkish-style ‘dictatorship’ in Poland are clearly overblown, and motivated as much by partisan opportunism as by genuine analysis. Yet this should not disguise the fact that there are valid comparisons to be made – and that these have indeed been made by Kaczyński himself. Since PiS came to power there has been lots of talk of the ‘Orbanisation‘ (or even ‘Putinisation‘) of Poland – yet ‘Erdoğanisation’ has barely been mentioned. So far, the closest parallels clearly are with Hungary (whom Kaczyński also explicitly aims to emulate). But Turkey offers a warning of where, when taken too far, the ideology, rhetoric and policies favoured by PiS can lead.