‘The Turkish Lesson’: How valid are comparisons of Poland and Turkey’s ruling parties?


By Daniel Tilles

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.

ereOn 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’.

Similar Profiles…

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’.


Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski meets Erdogan in April (source: msz.gov.pl)

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.


Turkish anti-government protests (source: voanews.com)

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’.*


Polish anti-government protests (source:voanews.com)

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.


Turkish police raid opposition newspaper as part of government takeover (source: AFP)

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.

* Dogan Gurpinar’s quotes come from a paper he delivered at a conference we both recently spoke at, so I’m unable to provide a link. I’m also grateful to Dr Gurpinar for his comments on a draft of this article.


  1. Marcin Kobierzycki

    “”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’).””

    Actually, this case is much more about how severely Gross offended the Polish Nation rather than “limiting the free speech”. Many professional historians pointed out plenty of mistakes that he made as a non-historian in his “analysis” (such as false evidence for many claims, exaggerating the numbers) as well as in his horrendous conclusions. Despite that, he notoriously repeated his insults in the media. No wonder the legal reaction.

    • Daniel Tilles

      But the right to offend is precisely part of free speech. When Charlie Hebdo publishes cartoons mocking Mohammad, they’re obviously being offensive, but have the right to do so under the protection of free speech.

      Also, the charges currently being considered against Gross don’t relate to the ‘mistakes’ in his books, but to the claim he made in an article last year that during the war in occupied Poland, Poles killed more Jews than they did Germans. The claim is probably accurate (although it’s impossible ever to know for sure), and Gross provided references to support. As far as I’ve seen, no professional historian has proved him wrong (and one historian from the IPN even admitted he was probably right).

      • Marcin Kobierzycki

        There is a difference between a caricature and an insult. In this case an insult which bases on a blatant lie against the entire nation.

        The mistakes I mentioned above, which Gross made while writing his books, clearly show how reliable he is in the choice of “references”. With the effect on his claim from the article.

        A few days after this article was published, head of IPN (Institute of National Remembrance) issued a reply in the same journal where he called this statement false, as all historical knowledge points so. Apart from that, he listed examples of how thousands of Poles helped Jews during the WWII as a part of broader action: including protection by the Polish Underground State (penalisation of individuals denouncing or killing Jews) or the activity of Polish Council to Aid Jews “Żegota”. Surely there were crimes of individuals against Jews, but any attempt to ascribe them to the entire nation is simply acting in bad faith.

        Link to the IPN’s reply:

      • Daniel Tilles

        What’s the difference between a caricature and an insult? A caricature can be just as insulting (and based on lies) as a written statement.

        However, I’ve realised I made a mistake in my previous comment. When I referenced the IPN, it was actually the Centre for Holocaust Studies at UJ I was thinking of. One of their historians said: ‘The claim that Poles killed more Jews than Germans could be really right’ (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/14/holocaust-scholar-questioned-on-claim-poles-killed-more-jews-than-germans-in-war).

        Regarding the IPN’s statement, first of all, as they say, ‘exact numbers are not known’ (and never will be), so it’s difficult to say that Gross is wrong outright. But also, it’s clear in the context of his original article that Gross was not talking about the number of Germans killed by Poles on all fronts of the war; he was talking about what happened in occupied Poland. And it is in those terms that he’s probably right that Poles killed more Jews than Germans.

        Of course, even then his statement is extremely misleading and irresponsible, because it ignores over the historical context, implying that Poles killed so many Jews simply because they were antisemites (or Nazi collaborators), whereas in fact the reality was that life for Poles under German occupation was a desperate struggle (often in competition with Jews). Also, the Germans was heavily armed occupiers (the killing of whom resulted in severe reprisals) while Jews were extremely vulnerable.

        You’re absolutely right that there were also many Poles who saved Jews, but that’s not directly relevant to Gross’ claim about the numbers killed.

    • Easy

      Poland can become a part of a new collaborative group that includes Hungary, Turkey and others. Perhaps soon France and Germany too. Blogs like yours are bringing people together because we see the same arguments and same mindsets stacked against us from NYC to London to Warsaw. There is, indeed, a conspiracy. A conspiracy of hate towards Nations.

  2. Marcin Kobierzycki

    The problem with estimating this number stems from the fact, that crimes on Jews were committed by single individuals and as isolated events they were not part of any larger sentiment. Trying to derive any general rule from such incidents is simply ridiculous. But this is what Gross does.

    The arguments I listed before (protection from the Polish Underground State, Żegota) along with Poles being the most numerous within the Righteous Among Nations show what the broader sentiment was and this fact undermines the Gross’ statement.

    • Daniel Tilles

      Yes, but it shouldn’t be a crime to be a bad historian. As soon as you start prosecuting people for saying things that you find offensive (especially if they are matters of interpretation or opinion that can’t be definitively proved true or false), then you’re infringing on free speech and creating a chilling effect for others.

      As I said before, the fact that many Poles saved Jewish lives has no relevance to the specific question of whether Poles killed more Jews or Germans.

      • Marcin Kobierzycki

        “”As soon as you start prosecuting people for saying things that you find offensive (especially if they are matters of interpretation or opinion that can’t be definitively proved true or false), then you’re infringing on free speech and creating a chilling effect for others.””

        The statement made by Gross was general in its scope and is definitely false. Later, the second attempt in the article was to relate this statement only to the resistance in Poland, which still doesn’t render it reliable, because it would make no sense for any organisation to deal harm to a specific group while maintaining at the same time a large-scale rescue operation that was unprecedented in any other occupied country. Whatever the context/meaning one tries to transpose the Gross’ words, it is still blurring the history. Of course, we can’t estimate the exact numbers, but it changes nothing.

        Besides, would you argue in the same manner, as in your quote, with reference to Holocaust denial?

      • Daniel Tilles

        ‘The statement made by Gross…is definitely false’ – no it’s not. It’s impossible to know the exact figures (as you yourself later wrote). Many historians (such as the Polish one I cited) believe that, if talking purely about occupied Poland, Gross may be right; others disagree.

        ‘Would you argue in the same manner, as in your quote, with reference to Holocaust denial?’ – yes, absolutely. Holocaust denial should be protected as free speech (as I’ve written in the blog previously: http://wp.me/p4jybz-oY). If someone says something false, you don’t lock them in prison, you prove them wrong.

  3. Fauconnier

    “‘Would you argue in the same manner, as in your quote, with reference to Holocaust denial?’ – yes, absolutely”.

    It is fortunate then that most of Europe disagrees with You. There are Laws against Holocaust denial in most countries in the European Union (but not in Turkey, what a shock). In recent years historians and “historians” guilty of that crime had to face trials. David Irving alone stood trials in many countries until finally being sentenced to three years of prison by an Austrian court. Other notable examples could be Roger Garaudy sentenced in France in accordance with the Gayssot Law or Ernst Zündel who was jailed in both Canada and Germany.
    Your text implies that the actions that Poland takes or could take against Gross somehow emulate Erdoğan’s Turkey. In fact they emulate some of the most respectable democracies in the world. It is also worth noting that Polish “Reduta Dobrego Imienia” that first took legal actions against Gross openly follows the model of the American Anti-Defamation League.
    The funny thing is that I agree that some of these countries went too far in their zeal to penalize such lies. I have no problem with laws against Holocaust denial. I am concerned by all kind of new laws against “hate-speech” that have emerged recently. For example I’m OK with the Gayssot law, but I’m against the Taubira Law and other similar laws introduced in France in the last twenty years. I even sympathize with Pierre Nora and his “Liberté pour l’histoire” (Freedom for history) movement that wishes to abolish all these laws stating that they limit the freedom of speech and freedom of research. I write this to clarify that I understand Your point. And I could agree up to some extent. It is certainly difficult to find a just middle. Freedom of speech should be preserved on principle, yes, but that doesn’t change the fact that in some extreme situations we should be able to retaliate against those who abuse it in the most despicable ways. I refuse to live in a world were individuals such as Irving, Garaudy or Gross are left unchecked because freedom of speech, freedom of speech, oh the holly freedom of speech. Nope, sorry, that is just unacceptable. We cannot be left defenseless against liars and manipulators. Simple as that.

    • Daniel Tilles

      ‘There are Laws against Holocaust denial in most countries in the European Union’ – actually not quite. Less than half of EU member states have such laws.

      ‘David Irving alone stood trials in many countries until finally being sentenced to three years of prison by an Austrian court’ – He was actually found guilty of Holocaust denial in Germany as far back as 1992, long before the Austrian case. Apart from that, he hasn’t been on trial in ‘many countries’ – only Austria. (His famous trial in Britain was one in which he was the plaintiff, not the defendant.)

      ‘I refuse to live in a world were individuals such as Irving, Garaudy or Gross are left unchecked’ – I never advocated leaving them unchecked. I said that their lies should be exposed and proved wrong. By putting them on trial, all you do is give them unwarranted attention and turn them into martyrs. The Gross case is a great example. Hardly anyone would have noticed his article, let alone the single part of it where he made the accusation about Poles killing more Jews than Germans. But by mounting a media and legal campaign against him, Poles have brought far more attention to his claims and attracted lots of sympathy for him.

      • Easy

        This sympathy is quite useful because it reveals which of the Poles’ friends feel they are really Poles’ friends and which are only friends of Poles of Gross’ sort.

  4. Marcin Kobierzycki

    You narrow the scope and attempt to relate to the occupied Poland. For the reasons mentioned above, there would be no sense for the Polish Resistance to turn against Jews (some of them were members of that resistance already) and it’s noteworthy that Polish civilians either largely joined the ranks of the resistance or fought along them against the Nazi Germans (as during the Warsaw Uprising). Thus one can’t compare large casualties sustained by Germans in such operations to singled out crimes committed on Jews by criminals.

    Concerning the remark on exact numbers – implying that exact precision is required to disprove falsities of Gross is methodologically wrong, when one knows that magnitude of both numbers are completely different. And all historical knowledge points out that the number of Nazis killed by Poles largely surpasses the number of Jews killed by criminals in the occupied Poland.

    I’m just trying not to repeat my arguments.

  5. Maximilian Schonbucher PHD

    Hi Daniel Tilles (Pedagogical University of Cracow),
    I just discover today your Facebook site:https://www.facebook.com/notesfrompoland/?hc_ref=PAGES_TIMELINE#
    You are living in Poland among us Poles in Cracovia…
    This gives you opportunity to spill a venom on Polish People our Country and our Heritage..
    Your Facebook side promote Anty-Polish sentiment,.Slender of Poles and Poland,lies and Hate.Members of your side are involved in “Polish Death Camp” Historical distortions: “Brendan Desmond McMunn Which Polish Death Camp is the most educational to visit ?
    September 10 at 2:27pm”….for example…I want continue anymore.Your hate of Poland and Polish People is so repugnant for me and my Family that i decide to inform Polish League Against Defamation about your and your friend Stanley Bill (University of Cambridge),activities in Poland and Facebook.
    First thing in the morning i will go to Prosecutor Office in Cracov and i will demand to open investigation against you personally.
    I/m a Polish Jew (as like you, presumed) and i will NEVER let this neo-nazi British Hasbara slander Poles
    In the event of Brexit & your contempt of Poles i/m just wondering what is your purpose to still live in Poland ?

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