Our editor-in-chief, Daniel Tilles, spoke with Andrzej Nowak, a professor of history at the Jagiellonian University, member of President Andrzej Duda’s National Development Council, leading conservative commentator, and member of Notes from Poland’s advisory board.
They discussed what Professor Nowak sees as “politically motivated” criticism of the Polish government’s plans to hold elections this week and the “colonial, Orientalist” attitude towards eastern member states in the EU, as well as the issues of media freedom and judicial reform in Poland.
Daniel Tilles: The government is pushing ahead with organising a postal election, saying it will be safe and that it has a constitutional obligation to hold the vote. But it has been criticised not only by domestic opponents, but also international organisations like the European Union and the OSCE, who say that elections under these circumstances will not meet democratic standards. Do you think these concerns are justified?
Andrzej Nowak: They are based on extremely tendentious, politically motivated and rather scant information about the realities, both legal and political, in Poland.
First of all, there is one basic question that should be posed: what is the alternative to the constitutionally obligatory term of these elections? To that we don’t hear any answer from the critics.
Introducing something like martial law [declaring a state of natural disaster] would not only postpone the elections, but also have very concrete economic consequences [having to pay compensation] as well as political consequences for the stability of the state, making its whole functioning chaotic and paralysed.
Neither the opposition in Poland nor others take this particular problem into consideration. Outside critics – be they from the EU or the OSCE – don’t have any knowledge of the realities of the constitution and of the political system in Poland and are basing their critique only and exclusively on the extremely tendentious opinions of the political opposition in Poland.
Also, beyond the legal constraints on the government to organize this election, we also have a concrete political democratic situation. According to all polls taken before the pandemic, in February and March, the current president was the absolute favourite. So to say that the pandemic makes his probable election somehow unfair is exactly the opposite of the truth.
Polls did show Andrzej Duda as favourite. But in the likely second round of voting, when he would face whomever finished in second place, they often gave him an advantage of just one or two percentage points against his leading rivals, sometimes even half of a percent. So there did seem to be a genuine contest shaping up.
And of course things can change very quickly. Five years ago, if you looked at the polls in January, Andrzej Duda was 40 percentage points behind the then-incumbent Bronisław Komorowski but things changed very quickly because there was a very effective campaign by Duda. Do you not think that the opposition are being denied a democratic election because they are unable to campaign under current lockdown conditions?
But who can conduct a campaign in current conditions? Are there any mass gatherings of President Duda’s followers? I haven’t seen any. Of course the situation favours those who are in power, like in any other country, because they are working against the pandemic because that’s their duty to do so. But it was not this government that selected the time of the elections and somehow coincided them with the pandemic. It is simply a matter of sheer and unhappy coincidence.
And according to the current polls, the advantage of President Duda over any of his contenders is simply huge. The political motivation of the opposition to avoid this verdict is obvious. And that’s why they are attacking the government for organising the elections in accordance with the constitution, at the latest constitutionally available term and in the least dangerous form.
There is probably no completely safe form at this moment, but the idea [of postal voting] that the government has proposed in the parliament is to make it as safe as possible. And by the way, there is something that should be presented to a western readership. In Poland, we have something like 23 times fewer deaths from coronavirus per million people than in France, 42 times fewer deaths than in Belgium, 20 times fewer than in the UK.
This may be due to the more peripheral position of Poland, but it is also due to the effective efforts of the government. So these apocalyptic visions of thousands or tens of thousands of people endangered by a postal election in Poland is simply an aggressive manipulation that should be contrasted with the real difference between the situation in Poland and western Europe.
You mentioned that polls show President Duda as the overwhelming favourite to win the election. But polls also consistently show that a large majority of the public want the election to be postponed, based on concerns over whether they can be safely and fairly conducted. It appears many will not participate. Do you not think the government should take such views into account?
I go back to my original answer. What is the legal alternative? One is to declare a state of natural disaster, which would mean the first possible election date at the end of August. This is something legally achievable. But the opposition say elections should be postponed by one year. That is completely unconstitutional, illegal.
The only reasonable alternative was proposed by the now-former deputy prime minister Jarosław Gowin and backed, though with some doubts, by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. The opposition together with the ruling party would vote together to change the constitution, enabling the postponement of the election for two years, when they would probably be completely safe and the whole political campaign would be more or less normal.
Yet this obvious solution, which would give Poland stability now and some minimum collaboration between the opposition and the government, was simply rejected by the opposition who want, in complete breach of the constitution, to organise elections in one year from now. Why? Because they guess, probably rightly, that in one year the social and economic costs of the crisis would at their greatest and would make the current ruling party finally unpopular enough to lose the elections.
There is a simple political calculation that is so cold blooded in its presentation by some of the members of the opposition that it makes me tremble. There is an insolence in the way it works, especially with European mass media that simply buy this narrative so easily.
In Poland, state media have been used to promote the government’s message and to criticise its opponents, especially during election campaigns. Do you agree with those, including election observers from the OSCE last year after the parliamentary elections, who say that this use of publicly funded media for political purposes undermines the fairness of elections in Poland?
It is exactly vice versa. Several prominent politicians of the previous Civic Platform (PO) government, with Donald Tusk as its head, stated openly that they can always rely on the most powerful privately owned media to dominate the media market in Poland.
That is especially the case with TVN [the largest private broadcaster], which works simply as a spokesman for Civic Platform, producing aggressive propaganda, formerly pro-government under PO and now extremely anti-government under PiS. The second-largest privately owned TV network, Polsat, has a similar, though not as aggressive, stance.
Public media provides a counter-narrative to create a balancing effect. But the media market still favours the opposition because these private giants are much stronger than public media. Also, regional newspapers are centralised under German ownership. That creates a unique situation in which the Polish electorate is every day influenced by centres of information that are instructed, sometimes quite openly, to attack the current government as aggressively as possible.
This makes the situation less black and white than is seen by the OSCE report and others that concentrate only on public media, which presents a picture of reality that is closer to the current government’s positions than the vast majority of other media outlets, which usually unfairly criticise the government in politically motivated ways. That’s the full picture.
But, even if it is true that Poland’s media landscape is tilted towards the opposition, would you not say that private media are allowed to have biases whereas it is different for state media, because they are paid for with everyone’s money and have a statutory obligation to be balanced? Is it justified for the government to use publicly owned and funded media for its own political purposes?
I completely agree with your general principle, but you have an evident clash of two principles here: one that you just presented, and another, which is more vague but also important, of giving people access to information and comparing different perspectives. This is a principle of fairness.
If you have a media market dominated by one type of information and one specific political angle, when you add, with public money and the instrument of public media, another perspective that contrasts and counters this information, is it bad or good?
It seems to me that from this principle of fairness, of openness to different perspectives, the situation in Poland is incomparably better than it used to be. Previously under Civic Platform, public media were used in the same way as now to promote its agenda – which made something like 90% of the main electronic media controlled by one narrative. Now you have something different.
Yes, public media are being misused as an instrument of the pro-government narrative. But this government was elected by a big enough proportion of the vote to gain an absolutely unquestionable democratic majority in the parliament.
That is, together with the principle of access to different perspectives and angles of political commentary, what makes the answer to your question more nuanced and less black and white than is presented by manipulators such as Mr. Tusk and his blind followers.
The elections have been yet another area where there has been criticism of the Polish government from Brussels. There has also recently been condemnation of the government’s new disciplinary system for judges. Do you think that the EU is justified in raising these concerns and seeking to intervene?
Of course it’s not. Because it is motivated by the majority that informs the European Parliament and is led by the EPP and Tusk, together with socialists and liberals that have their own obvious political agenda.
But there is something more that should also be exposed here. This is something I call a traditional Orientalising practice of western European elites, who look at East Central European countries as newcomers, as proteges, or even as patients to be cured by western therapies from the barbaric traumas that these easterners had to go through.
This is a perspective you can take from Larry Wolff’s brilliant book Inventing Eastern Europe on the emergence of a Western colonial, or I would rather say imperial, way of looking at East Central European countries.
These ideologies of “eastness” turned this part of Europe into a kind of natural recipient of lessons and instruction from Western cultural civilisational and ideological centres. This is historically completely unfair and inaccurate, but also is now contested by the fact that some East Central European countries are more or less catching up in terms of economic development.
The EU is not the bad guy in my narrative – absolutely not. I understand how important it and its openness has been to this process of catching up in economic and other dimensions for East Central European countries. Nevertheless, these mental structures on the part of western European media, political and academic elites die very hard.
It is on that basis that such ridiculous verdicts are issued as the one openly stated by the Venice Commission [an advisory body on constitutional law to the Council of Europe], which, after one of its visits in Poland concerning the reforms of the judiciary, simply stated that if the Polish government introduced into the legal system instruments and institutions 100% modelled on those existing in western European countries, it should not be allowed because Poland is a young democracy.
That left me speechless. How could it be that something that operates in some “established” Western democracies could not be accepted as a way of solving problems in Poland or in other eastern European countries, solely on the basis of this historical, colonial, Orientalist, argument that Poland is a young democracy.
By the way, it’s also an extremely absurd observation from a historical point of view, as Poland is hundreds of years older as a democracy than many western European countries – as is Hungary, by the way.
But even within Poland itself, large numbers of legal scholars and judges have expressed opposition to the judicial changes. Opinion polls generally show that more of the public are opposed to the judicial changes than support them, and obviously there have been large protests against them as well. So, even if it is true that there is an “Orientalist” attitude from western Europe, do you not think there are also legitimate concerns in Poland and Brussels about some of these reforms?
It is simply not true that according to polls the majority of the Polish population rejects or criticizes the legal changes introduced by Law and Justice. There were street demonstrations with several thousand people, and at their peak several tens of thousands. But that doesn’t change the fact that the overall opinion of citizens is that the reforms were necessary and that the former system worked poorly.
Of course the elite of that legal system – which has existed unchanged, completely unchanged, from communist totalitarian times – protest and have tried to paralyse these reforms, making them ineffective from the point of view of the average citizen. That’s the other side of the coin. These reforms did not realise their goals because they have been paralysed by the protests not of the majority of the population, but by those who were to be constricted in their absolute.
Opinion polls do show that the public want judicial reform, and are dissatisfied with how the courts function. But they also show that most of the public do not approval of PiS’s changes. For example, in 2016, CBOS found that 45% of people supported the Constitution Tribunal in its conflict with PiS, who were supported by just 29%. This year, in an IPSOS poll, 55% of the public said that the government’s reforms are “an unacceptable attempt to violate the rule of law”. Only 31% saw them as legitimate. So there does seem to be some genuine concern about these judicial reforms.
It is right to say that there are general concerns and a really important numerous part of the population is against the reforms. But I would like to attach this question to the broader one which you also introduced in your previous question. Namely that it is not only a western opinion, shaped by Orientalism or influenced by this old bias against eastern Europe, that forms this critique over judicial changes in Poland. That western opinion is backed by a large part of the Polish population. That’s true.
Again, if you read through theoretical works on Orientalising practices, colonialism, and imperial thinking, you will find that always in a such a situation when a more powerful imperial centre has controls in an economic way, but also in terms of cultural domination, over some kind of periphery, it finds influential groups of so-called collaborators in the peripheral elite that want to present themselves as the best pupil of those in power, both symbolically in the West, and also economic power. These peripheral elites receive both symbolic and occasionally existential profits from the role they play in the periphery.
So returning to the main issue, I believe there is something at stake here – namely the question of giving up being subalterns, at best the leading pupils in the Western school. Poland, together with other eastern European countries, joined the EU 16 years ago. Democratically elected representatives of Poland, be it in the government or in the European Parliament, have the right to present their opinions on Europe, no less than west Europeans present their opinions on Poland.
There should be a dialogue, and not a situation in which we hear only the traditional way of portraying Poland and all East Central Europe – as a source of dangerous ideas, of populism and malfunction. These characterisations should be contrasted, at this particular moment, with the complete blindness of these same political media forces in western Europe concerning such huge crimes (I am using this word consciously) as have been committed, for example, by the leftist government in Spain during the coronavirus crisis.
It doesn’t bother leading European politicians that the government in Spain is responsible for killing tens of thousands of its compatriots by calling for huge gatherings on International Women’s Day on 8 March, when there had already been the first deaths in Spain from coronavirus; all in order to satisfy the ideological needs of the government.
The same applies when you discuss, for example, the issue of elections in Poland compared to France, where President Macron pushed forcefully not to postpone but to hold regular elections in March, just in order to push through his candidate for the mayor of Paris. But again, this doesn’t concern public opinion in western Europe. The centre of malpractice is in Warsaw or Budapest. And in that, I see the old habit of the Orientalising practices.
Main image credit: Jakub Wlodek/Agencja Gazeta
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland and assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, The Independent and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.