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Is Poland’s golden era of democracy being threatened by populism?

Polish Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski (C) attends the first session of the new Polish Parliament on November 12, 2019 in Warsaw. (Photo by Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP) (Photo by WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images) - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

PAUL KNOTT explores Poland’s enigmatic PiS party which, despite the deliberate weakening of the institutions of democracy and the rule of law, remains genuinely popular and likely to retain power for years to come

The Polish people have fought for centuries to secure their freedom from dictatorship. In the 20th century, a short period of independence was followed by the horrors of Nazi occupation and four decades of Soviet oppression, ending in 1989, when the mass movement inspired by the Solidarity trade union successfully overthrew totalitarianism.

The years since may well have been the best in Poland’s modern history. At first glance, then, it seems hard to understand why so many Poles now support a populist PiS (Law and Justice party, in its Polish acronym) government intent on undermining democracy and rule of law.

Since taking power in 2015, the PiS 
has pushed through a series of laws designed to bring the independent legal system under its control. The government claims its ‘reforms’ are necessary to speed up the court process in Poland, which is indeed too slow.

But their changes do not involve introducing the modern IT equipment and increased support staff that would solve the problem. Instead, the PiS government has focused on grabbing control over judicial appointments, a step that does little to increase efficiency but plenty for exerting political influence.

As part of this plan, the government has tried to force a mass retirement of judges, claiming that the judiciary still needs to be “de-communised”. This makes no sense because most current judges were teenage students when the communist era ended.

The PiS has also instituted a new disciplinary chamber, which it says is needed to punish judges who commit offences such as drink-driving. That might be more believable had the chamber not been used almost exclusively so far against judges who have made decisions that PiS does not like.

The government’s latest gambit is to put their justice minister in ultimate charge of directing which judges hear which cases – the legal equivalent of giving Manchester United the right to appoint their own football referees (help they would no doubt welcome at the moment).

Unsurprisingly, the government’s relentless attempt to undermine judicial independence has generated strong protests from judges, lawyers and those who cherish the rule of law.

PiS’ actions have also put it on a collision course with the EU. Having a free and fair legal system is a basic requirement of EU membership, with decisions of the European Court of Justice having to be implemented by member countries without political interference. This condition is essential to protect the integrity of the EU’s rules-based system and allow its components such as the single market to function.

EU membership remains popular in Poland but could ultimately be terminated if its government continues on its present path. Although other serious penalties such as a suspension of Poland’s EU Council voting rights and the withdrawal of its EU funding are more likely to be imposed in the near future.

Despite this, the fears about the government’s attempts to suppress the rule of law do not seem to have reached everyone in society. PiS and its allies are still polling comfortably above 40%, a level that would preserve their solid majority in any election. The reasons for this support are various.

Unusually for a populist party, PiS does not have a charismatic leader. The party chief, Jaros?aw Kaczynski, is an oddball character who claims not to have a computer and to have never opened a bank account until 2009.

He has largely eschewed the limelight since losing his beloved twin brother 
and political partner, Lech, in a plane crash in Russia in 2010 and his mother, Jadwiga, with whom he lived almost up until her death in 2013. Kaczynski has not occupied the role of president or prime minister since then. But through his leadership of the party he maintains considerable influence. Observers of Polish politics have described how he makes sure to put up front men and women who are unlikely to exert too much appeal in their own right and remains a behind the scenes string-puller par excellence.

Beyond its more successful cities where open attitudes and liberal politics are prominent – notably the old Solidarity stronghold of Gdansk – much of Poland remains socially conservative. Traditionalist Catholicism still has a stronger presence here than perhaps anywhere else in Europe. Critics have accused PiS and its supporters of playing on this expertly, stirring up prejudice against foreigners and sexual minorities in order to strengthen the party’s position.

To do so, they makes full use of the other anti-democratic measures the party has enacted. Since PiS took office in 2015, Poland has fallen from 18th to 59th place in the world press freedom index compiled by the independent watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

One significant reason for this slump was PiS’ seizure of the main public television station, TVP. Some surveys estimate that TVP is the sole source of news for 50% of Poles living in rural areas.

Media manipulation helps Kaczynski and the PiS to portray the legal profession as being part of a distant metropolitan elite who do not share the interests of ordinary Poles.

As often seems to be the case with populists of his type, there is a certain shameless hypocrisy in this. A native of the capital, Kaczynski is himself a lawyer by profession, with a PhD from the University of Warsaw.

As well as attacking judges, PiS and its supporters smear political opponents as being in cahoots with the wealthy business figures who abused their old-regime connections to prosper in the post-communist years. Marrying this array of dark propaganda to genuine economic success is part of a magic formula for electoral triumph for PiS.

While some Poles lack the time, inclination or information to grapple with the complexities of how a free and fair legal system should be run, everyone can understand the benefits of a booming economy that puts more z?otys in their pocket.

The economy has grown by an annual average of 4% since 2004. Real incomes have tripled over that period. Unemployment is at a historic low of 3.2% and employers are imploring Poles to return from the shambles of Brexit Britain to fill vacancies at home.

This success predates PiS’ current term in office but power puts them in a perfect position to claim the credit. And some credit is deserved because they have gone much further than merely maintaining what they inherited.

Last year, Poles under the age of 26 years old who earn less than 85,528 z?oty a year (20,000 euros) were exempted from income tax (it is worth noting that this earnings threshold is significantly higher than the average wage in Poland of 60,000 z?oty).

This follows PiS’ generous “500+” child benefit policy. This programme makes monthly payments to families of 500 z?oty (117 euros) for every child from the second one onwards (and for all children of poorer families). The next piece of 
wealth redistribution will be the implementation later this year of an extra “13th month” pension for the elderly.

Some economists are still sceptical about the cost and effectiveness of the government’s initiatives. But with the economy growing strongly and the budget deficit at a record low of 0.5%, PiS can reasonably argue that its measures are affordable. And by sharing the wealth with the less well-off in ways that no recent democratic Polish government has ever contemplated, PiS can make a compelling political claim to be the party of the people.

Unless Poland’s disjointed opposition parties can cohere around a similarly convincing economic appeal to the broad mass of Polish people, it is hard to see them seriously challenging PiS anytime soon.

All of which makes Kaczynski and his PiS party’s determination to control every lever of power so reckless and potentially tragic.

The impartial rule of law underpins sustained economic success by ensuring that rules are respected equally, contracts are enforced and wrongdoers are punished.

Poland’s economic boom is also closely tied to its EU membership status, which will certainly be damaged if its government persists in undermining the legal system. By doing so, PiS risks wrecking Poland’s hard-won democracy and the genuinely popular achievements it has itself contributed to the country’s current golden era.

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