By Anna Gielewska

This article is published in partnership with VSquare.

Following the victory of government-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda at July’s presidential elections, the ruling national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party now has a period of at least three years in which almost all central state power lies in its hands.

Since the election, there has already been a ramping up of the government’s anti-LGBT campaign, a proposal to introduce new requirements for foreign-funded NGOs, calls to reduce foreign media ownership, and a move to withdraw Poland from a European treaty against domestic violence.

The government has also made clear that it will push ahead with its contested overhaul of the judiciary, setting the stage for further clashes with Brussels over the rule of law.

To better understand what has been happening, how it compares to the rise of populism in places such as Hungary and the US, and what may be ahead of us, we spoke with Anna Grzymala-Busse, a professor of political science at Stanford University and co-author – with Francis Fukuyama, Didi Kuo and Michael McFaul – of the recently published report Global Populisms and Their Challenges.

Anna Gielewska: Will the Polish government go further in conflict with EU institutions or will it continue playing a similar game as Viktor Orban has been doing for years? So to increase polarisation and scepticism in the Polish society around the EU, and taking advantage of the fact that Europe is focused on its own challenges.

Anna Grzymala-Busse: The Polish government will not be able to do this in a way that Orban did. The first reason is that Orban’s Fidesz party is very well represented in the majority party in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party. Manfred Weber [former president of the EPP], and other leaders, protected Fidesz all along, so Fidesz could do whatever it wanted to with impunity. PiS does not belong to EPP and it doesn’t have that political backing.

Secondly, Orban was very precise in how far he would push the European Union and would do everything with enormous legal preparation. Nothing was passed willy-nilly. All of the things were done legally and constitutionally, after he changed the constitution. PiS has been unable to do that. It doesn’t have the discipline and doesn’t have the competence to prepare the ground legally, nearly as well as Orban did.

So it’s much more likely to be castigated by the EU, both because it doesn’t have the political backing and because it’s not as sophisticated.

How might this situation affect Polish society’s attitude towards the EU? Do you think anti-European sentiment will rise in these next three years?

I don’t think that “Polexit” is a real threat. The vast majority of Poles support EU membership and at rates higher than almost any other EU country. So there’s absolutely no public support for this.

Secondly, the enormous financial gains that Poland has obtained by being in the EU mean that it would be suicidal for PiS to try to exit the Union. Billions of euros of subsidies flow into Poland, year in year out, and with that to be cut off, PiS would be left with very little funding to implement its plans.

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Third of all, everybody recognises that this is the cheap anti-EU rhetoric that is employed by populists everywhere. No one cares about that within the EU and Polish voters are also very good at distinguishing that rhetoric from actual plans.

What raises greater concern in Brussels is the breaking of European Union rules, including going after the judiciary. This kind of criticism should be taken much more seriously as it might mean that rather than Poland exiting the EU, the EU might eventually impose sanctions on Poland.

With the judiciary, civil society and press freedom continuing to be limited by the government, how would you assess the state of Polish democracy?

Democracy is imperilled. A liberal democracy necessitates both rule of law and the freedoms of speech, association and media. So if the press is constrained like this and the judiciary is no longer free, Poland will no longer be a fully liberal democracy. There’s no question about that.

However, I don’t think we are anywhere close to where Hungary is, for the simple reason that there is no constitutional supermajority. Hungary looks the way it does because Fidesz in 2010 gained the two-thirds majority that allowed it to rewrite the constitution. PiS doesn’t have either the numbers or the competence to do this.

And so PiS will nibble away at democracy without changing the constitution, the fundamental electoral laws, or the entire system of government. It has been attacking the ombudsman [for human rights, Adam Bodnar], it has been attacking all kinds of regulatory institutions, but it cannot remake Poland into an authoritarian regime the way that Fidesz was able to.

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You have been examining the role of the Catholic church in Polish politics for many years. The church and government have mutually supported each other, including in their anti-LGBT campaign. Will this alliance strengthen the radicalisation and polarisation of the society?

The church has gotten smarter. It’s realised that every single government from 1989 onwards basically gave it what it wanted. The church knows full well that it can bring down a government if it wants to, even if it can’t elect one. It no longer pursues direct involvement in politics but it has its own issues.

The “LGBTQ ideology” and, earlier, the wars over “gender”, are both campaigns to keep people from looking at the church itself: at the paedophilia scandals, the financial malfeasance, the empire of Rydzyk. And here it’s finding a very useful partner with people like President Andrzej Duda, who very happily used the same phrases, even though it met with protest. For the church, Duda and PiS are very convenient, but they’re not necessary.

Polish bishops call for “clinics to help LGBT people regain natural sexual orientation”

Some observers of Polish politics tend to think that PiS radicalises its agenda in fear of the rise of the far-right parties like Confederation (Konfederacja). At the same time, these movements for the last decade seem to have quite stable support, not exceeding 10% of the vote.

That is right and if you look at European democracies almost everywhere you have around 10% to 15% for extreme right-wing parties. Whether it’s Confederation in Poland, the AfD in Germany, the Association of Slovak Workers and some versions of this.

If anything, what’s surprising is how well they’ve done in Western Europe. In Italy The League has been in the government, Le Pen came within three points of Macron in the 2017 elections. So the far-right does better in Western Europe than they do in new democracies.

Why does this divisive rhetoric and the type of populism represented by PiS remain so attractive for the majority of voting Poles? 

It’s not the majority of Poles and it’s never been the majority of Poles who voted for PiS in parliament, so I would be careful. But yes, they obtain enough support to win the elections. There are two factors.

One is that the mainstream political parties in Poland have basically spent themselves. The Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) collapsed in 2004 and then Civic Platform (PO, a centrist party) offered the so-called “hot water in the tap” policies [a phrase used to suggest PO provided basic services but were unambitious]. After two elections, they were offering nothing new and they just assumed that voters would vote for them again. That lack of responsiveness and accountability by PO and of the other parties certainly played a role.

The second point: what PiS did was to very precisely target itself to rural Poland, to people who are in the lower middle class. Their runaway success of the 500+ programme [a flagship child-benefit scheme] bought its support among voters who otherwise wouldn’t support the party. And it was brilliantly done. It didn’t destroy the budget and it means the difference for some families between being able to afford clothing and not. For other families that they suddenly can get violin lessons or an extra trip. That brings a sort of dignity to everyday life that I think a lot of Poles felt they didn’t get from the previous governments. It cannot be underestimated.

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The better condition of families’ budgets was seriously challenged by the pandemic and rapid growth of prices caused by inflation. Kaczynski tried to avoid postponing the presidential elections scheduled during the pandemic as he feared that, if it was held later, he could lose it.

PiS again showed how incompetent it is. The whole episode around the elections with the last minute Gowin and Kaczyński agreement, then the post office running the elections, was just a grand show of incompetence. It was just yet another example that revealed that, no matter how committed PiS might be to its authoritarian policies, it is amateurish. It cannot even falsify an election properly. That’s one of the things that the Covid pandemic revealed and this is actually heartening. My standard line has always been that Fidesz and PiS have the exact same commitments, but PiS has half the competence that Fidesz does.

At the same time, Poland has actually handled the first months of the pandemic pretty well: the instant imposition of the quarantine, the encouragement to wear masks, the fact that Poland took shut its borders relatively quickly. Other countries were doing worse.

Number of deaths lower than normal this year in Poland despite coronavirus

How should the opposition in Poland use these next three years?

There are two things that the opposition ought to do. First, not to fight among themselves.The critical thing to do is to offer an alternative to voters. The more the opposition criticises each other, the less credible that alternative would be.

Second, they should demonstrate the consequences of government actions for citizens. It’s not enough to just criticise the government for being anti-democratic and assuming this matters to the family that’s weighing the child subsidy against voting for the opposition. Most voters care about how their own lives change. That kind of accountability and responsiveness has been missing in Polish politics for a long time.

The ruling coalition is not a monolith, and politicians like justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro will try to get as much power as possible. Are those internal battles a real threat for PiS?

So far PiS has managed keeping its fractions and coalition members together. It is also not clear to me who the replacement for Kaczynski would be. I don’t see a split within PiS anytime soon, also because they know that their only future politically is to stick with power.

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One of the most effective tools for maintaining power is media propaganda. Populist politicians, not only in Poland, became immune to any scandals revealed by independent journalists. By using organised disinformation campaigns and propaganda, politicians effectively discourage the audience from demanding the truth.

I think one lesson can be drawn from the pandemic in the United States and what’s been happening to Donald Trump. Trump has always been spreading lies, disinformation, and propaganda. But when the real crisis hit, that strategy proved incredibly shortsighted because no one believed him. Even Republicans don’t trust him with a proper pandemic response. They all trust Dr. Anthony Fauci, the CDC Director, not Trump.

For the opposition, this may sound terribly quixotic, but there is something to be said about simply sticking to the truth and trying to persuade people rather than slinging mud.

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At the same time, many people in the US followed Trump, who didn’t want to wear a mask for months and denied the seriousness of the pandemic.

The propaganda works because it often contains a kernel of truth and it plays on people’s emotions. But if you tell people they shouldn’t wear a mask because it’s an affront to their liberty and their masculinity, that’s very different from asking someone to wear a mask because that way you can be the protector of your family.

The facts and the truth have to be there, but there has to be an attempt to persuade and touch people’s emotions. Liberals are very bad at it. They think that facts are persuasion. They are not.

Anna Grzymala-Busse is a professor of international studies at Stanford University, director of the university’s Europe Center, and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute. Her research focuses on populisms, political parties, state development and transformation, religion and politics, and post-communist politics. She is an author of the books Redeeming the Communist Past,  Rebuilding Leviathan, and Nations Under God.

Anna Gielewska is a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University and a political and investigative journalist, focused on countering disinformation and propaganda. She is vice chair of the board of the Reporters Foundation in Poland.

Main image credit: Jakub Wlodek / Agencja Gazeta

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