Unlike their Western European analogues, the Polish parties with far-right leanings are not pro-Russian.
Why are right-wing politics in general, and the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in particular, so popular in Poland? Does Poland exhibit pan-European tendencies or will European states preserve their original characteristics in terms of internal and foreign policy?
First, I would like to introduce the PiS ideology, if we can even call it such. The party is identified as conservative in social matters but it inclines to the left on economic questions—an interesting combination. The PiS would like to impose taxes on Western companies operating in Poland, support poor families, create new jobs and lower the retirement age. In terms of values, however, the PiS is a strong supporter of the Catholic faith and is against same-sex marriage, artificial insemination and abortion. The party is also recognised as “mildly Eurosceptic”, which is supposed to mean that it is not against the European Union per se and will not demand that Poland leaves.
In general, Poles seem to think that the time may be right for the PiS, which won the election, to take charge—this would soften its viewpoint on several topics, since it would actually be necessary to lead the country and it could no longer hide behind populist rhetoric.
But why is being right-wing socially acceptable in Poland? People claim that it is a recent development—in earlier times, PiS supporters were frowned upon and considered very similar to other far-right forces in Europe. Recently, however, their popularity has increased, first and foremost owing to protest votes. People were tired of the Civic Platform (PO), whose time in office had been marked with many scandals. The latest of these happened just before the parliamentary election on 25 October—Monica Zbrojewska, the deputy Minister of Justice, was removed from her position for alleged drunk driving. There have also been ʽWatergatesʼ and accusations of corruption. People felt that the PO had become out of touch and arrogant.
Other movements are also after protest votes in Poland, such as Kukiz’15, led by the punk star Paweł Kukiz; the only notable policy of the group’s programme is to introduce a winner-takes-all electoral system in Poland. This group may, of course, simply be anti-establishment. Nevertheless, Kukiz came a surprising third in the first round of presidential election in spring 2015.
The list includes Korwin-Mikke (an extremist right-wing party), Democratic Left Alliance, Polish Peasants’ Party (PSL) and the newly-formed liberal party Nowoczesna. The latter won seats in parliament, unlike Korwin and the Democratic Left Alliance; the smallest party to be represented was the PSL. This situation guaranteed that the PiS achieved a majority in parliament and can rule without coalition partners. It also prevented the formation of the potential “coalition of fear”, i.e. an alliance of small parties rallied together by the PO against the PiS (does this seem familiar in the Estonian context?).
Poland’s turn to the right became evident in the presidential election, when the ruling PO nonchalantly observed everything that was going on and had no doubt that president Bronisław Komarowski would be re-elected. Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of PiS, seemed to have thought the same, since Andrzej Duda, more or less a dark horse at the time, was selected as the PiS candidate. It was a great surprise when Duda won the election, contrary to opinion polls. Some conspiracy theorists think that the Polish media supports the PO and had let their imaginations fly. As a result, the opinion poll results and the analysis of people’s general attitudes are said to have been completely wrong. It may be claimed that the media saw a potential victory by the PiS as a catastrophe for the country. Is it a catastrophe that this happened?
In foreign policy, there is a clear difference between PiS and other European right-wing parties: the attitude towards Russia. (Estonia is definitely also an exception in this respect.) While people like Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and leader of the French National Front Marine Le Pen publicly support Russian leader Vladimir Putin and are on good terms with him, a Moscow-friendly turn in foreign policy is not in sight in Poland. Jarosław Kaczyński’s twin brother Lech died in a plane crash near Smolensk in 2010, and Poland is still rife with conspiracy theories, even including the possibility of a paid hit. Poland is a strong supporter of NATO—both the PO and PiS would like a stronger NATO presence on Polish territory. What is the reason for so different an attitude compared to other Visegrád states? History undoubtedly plays a vital part. There is a long history of conflict between Poland and Russia, going back to the Great Smuta and False Dmitri in the 17th century, and it continued with the division of Poland, Katyn and the traumas of World War II. For example, every resident of Warsaw knows the story of the 1944 insurgency, when the Red Army was across the Vistula River and did not come to the aid of the Poles when they were being killed as the city was razed to the ground by the Germans. It could be argued that Hungary (in 1956) and the Czech Republic (1968, as part of Czechoslovakia) also suffered enough during insurgencies put down by Soviet force. It must be that these traumas do not cut so deeply into the national psyche of these countries compared to Poles.
This is also evident when one observes relations between Germany and Poland, which are currently at an all-time high, despite the horrors of the 20th century. But the PiS attitude towards Germany could be called rather selfish.
The PiS victory was also fuelled by the refugee crisis in Europe. Although prime minister Ewa Kopacz (PO) was initially sceptical, her government did not vote against quotas, unlike, say, Hungary. As things stand, Poland should accept around 7,000 refugees. The Western press uses Kaczyński’s words about the refugees bringing unknown diseases and parasites to Poland as an example of uncivilised behaviour. It should be borne in mind that similar discussions emerged elsewhere as well, including in Estonia. The Poles like to emphasise that there are ethnic Poles in Siberia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine—let’s bring them back home first and then we’ll see. Administrative problems emerged even in integrating 200 Polish refugees from Ukraine—and these were ethnic Poles with a “Polish card”, i.e. citizenship with all the concomitant rights. However, problems still occurred.
Poland strongly emphasises the concept of a nation-state based on ethnicity rather than on civil citizenship, in which case the sense of belonging is based primarily on living within a state’s borders. Ninety-eight per cent of the Polish population are ethnic Poles and the rest are culturally similar Ukrainians or Belarusians. One Pole admitted to me that, upon seeing dark-skinned men walking somewhere, the first thought was: “Oh dear, the refugees are already here!” Students of Middle Eastern origin who come to study at Polish universities say they are constantly scared and admit that they keep their suitcases packed, just in case. A Middle Eastern journalist received several threats for expressing positive views about migration. Europe is stuck in its idea of nation-states and this can clearly be felt in Poland.
During Kopacz’s term there were some signs of drawing back from policies based on conservative values, but this now seems to have come to an end. Discussion of loosening regulation of artificial insemination and legalising same-sex cohabitation may now take on a completely different tone. On the former, PiS supporters genuinely believe that children born by this method may have health issues. They do not even want to hear about euthanasia because God is capable of miracles and can save even the terminally ill. The word “gender”, signifying feminism, has basically become an expletive in Polish society.
Following the elections, one part of Poland is in shock while the other is jubilant. I will end with the words of Jacek Rostowski, a former economy minister: “How can a government with the best economic record in Europe be humiliated at the polls by a Eurosceptic, nationalistic and economically illiterate opposition? One reason for the opposition’s victory is, of course, universal: after a time, people everywhere want change.”
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.