April 23, 2018

Poland: the End of Democracy?

People carry the Polish flag during a protest against plans to further restrict abortion laws in Warsaw
People carry the Polish flag during a protest against plans to further restrict abortion laws in Warsaw

In April, cinemas across Poland began to screen a new black comedy film Mug (Twarz in Polish), a relatively obvious criticism of the power of the church in Polish society that paints a vivid picture of small towns and villages—the so-called Poland B.

This is a land of picturesque landscapes where people go to church to confess, slaughter pigs for Christmas and use a rather colourful array of profanities. In the film, people are building an enormous statue of Jesus that has to be larger than the one in Rio de Janeiro. During its construction, the film’s protagonist takes a tumble from the scaffolding and is given a face transplant. Life with a new face turns out to be quite a challenge in the small community. What is interesting about the film is that Poland does actually have a gigantic 36 m tall Jesus statue in the city of Świebodzin.

This is a powerful symbol, but there is also another Poland that already produced avant-garde and feminist pop-art in the 1970s, which continues to look very modern even today. This part of the country has been called Poland A and it is centred around large cities where people are worried about their rights, willing to organise protests and generally more liberal. In simple terms, Poland A votes for current opposition parties and is not satisfied with the country’s situation while Poland B is—especially with the lavish benefit packages (for instance, starting from the second child, the government pays families a monthly bonus of 500 złoty, which is approximately 120 euros)—and votes for the ruling Law and Justice party PiS. The voting habits are naturally of great interest and analysed very carefully. Every now and then, strange conclusions are drawn solely on the basis of voting structure and a quick look at the map of Poland. For example, it is thought that people’s political preferences are connected to the partition of Poland in the 18th century or old German borders. Funnily enough, parallels are even drawn between voting habits and the country’s wild boar population and the number of outhouses.

Are there actually two Polands? Members of the PiS like to say that Poland A and Poland B are inventions of the oppositional powers and in reality, Poland is unified. One may agree that such a division is somewhat artificial, but it makes an impression and is therefore widely distributed by media. Contrasts and conflicts sell well and are easy to understand, but do they contribute to the development of the country?

Unfortunately, Poland has also been featured in media as an example of how democracies die. Even though Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of a book of the same name, focus on the US politics, they also provide examples of similar processes in other countries including Poland. Their research shows that nowadays, democratic backsliding happens gradually rather than suddenly. Modern “dictators” do not exercise power with help from the military but rather through small amendments to laws and therefore, the process is not clearly felt by the general public. In the case of Poland, it can be said that the people were vigilant and in several instances rushed to the streets as soon as a problem occurred. The European Union has kept a watchful eye on the situation, too. Court system reforms have received most attention. Several ratings indicate a sharp decline in the fields of democracy and economic freedom in connection to these reforms. For instance, the conclusions of the Nations in Transit report by Freedom House state clearly that the largest decline in democracy in the history of the report was measured in Poland (https://freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/nations-transit-2018). Moreover, Poland’s decline was noted by V-Dem and the country also ranked lower in the index of economic freedom (V-Dem.net, heritage.org).

Due to problems with the rule of law, the European Commission considered triggering Article 7, i.e. taking measures against Poland up to the point of expelling it from the European Union. Still, at some point, both sides understood that confrontation would not reflect credit on either. Recently, there have been signs of a compromise and it is possible that voting over Article 7 can be avoided at the Council of the European Union, even though it is still unclear. The Polish government has taken steps towards amending some laws and conciliatory rhetoric has been heard. At the same time, the European Union believes that some of these changes are cosmetic and the reason for the Polish government’s acquiescence lies in the negotiations concerning the financial perspective of the European Union. The connection between the situation of the Polish rule of law and financial allocations has also been pointed out by the Polish government itself.

Poland has made the news with other problems, too. One of these was the so-called holocaust or the Institute of National Remembrance law that largely began as a wish to improve Poland’s image and avoid the use of the phrase “Polish death camps”—at least according to the official explanation. However, the situation spiralled out of control and led to the deterioration of the relationship with both Israel and the US. Paradoxically, it also meant that there was more talk of “Polish death camps” than ever before, which caused severe damage to Poland’s image.

The current government’s ties to the Catholic church also led to a situation where the government wishes to tighten the already-strict abortion law by prohibiting abortions in cases of genetic disorders and rape. This plan triggered several waves of protests as women took to streets to join the so-called Black Friday marches. The domination of the church affects the lives of ordinary people, too—Poland is moving towards closing all shops on Sundays because “a proper Polish family goes to church on Sundays and eats their dinner together at home”.

However, the situation in any of these cases is not black and white. For instance, even the members of the PiS are ambivalent about the abortion law, admitting that it is a relatively unpopular measure. At the same time, the oppositional party Civic Platform (PO) has acquired a right wing that supports the tightening of the law. This controversial step is thought to be beneficial to the Left Democratic Alliance (SLD), which has long been dormant, but now has the chance to “stand up for the right cause” due to the government’s behaviour.

As might be expected, the European Union is also perplexed by Poland’s stance on migration, as it is against the so-called quota refugees. Every now and then some Western diplomat is surprised that Poles do not show any solidarity even though they have suffered so much throughout history. The mentality of Central Europe differs slightly from that of the West—it is not as politically correct. It is thought that it is generally easier to live in a homogenous society void of ethnic tension. However, against this backdrop it is very peculiar that there are so many new controversies and internal divisions within the Polish society. Whether we like it or not, it appears as if human nature always forces people to seek tensions even when they seem to be hard to find.

The other thesis presented by Levitsky and Ziblatti in their book concerns the polarisation of the American society—its division into two large factions. As their main remedy against the death of democracy, the authors invited the two sides to hold a dialogue. The opponent must be seen as a political adversary rather than an archenemy that cannot be bargained or reasoned with. This kind of contrast can be clearly observed in Poland. The current leader of the opposition PO has maintained a certain level of popularity and their former chairman and the current President of the European Council Donald Tusk is about to return to Polish politics. According to polls, he is the most popular choice for the leader of the country next to the current President Andrzej Duda.

The Polish society differs that of the US in many ways. Firstly, there are no ethnic tensions in Poland, as previously said. Secondly, the political system is far from being bipartisan: aside from the PiS and PO, the parliament consists of both the Left Democratic Alliance and the relatively new right-wing party Modern (Nowoczesna), but also the protest party Kukiz’15 and the largely agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL). Consequently, the polarisation of the society has not properly taken hold and I believe that compromises are possible. It is important for the Polish society to understand that there is a need to hold a dialogue and to move forward together—and not just because of external pressure.