The new government of Poland has dismissed the bosses of the country’s national TV broadcaster, as well as its radio and state news agency. The new parliament has used legally dubious powers to remove the non-executive boards of the same organisations, and has even taken the TV channel off air in an extraordinary breach of European norms.
This lede – all of which is true – might sound like it is about to turn into a piece decrying the actions of a new far-right or populist government, but the reality is far stranger: it is the new ‘moderate’ government, led by one-time Brexit negotiator Donald Tusk, which has taken these extraordinary measures.
There is a rationale to the actions. The populist former government, the Law and Justice Party (which abbreviates to PiS in Polish) had amounted a full-scale takeover of these previously non-partisan national institutions and turned them into little more than party propaganda outlets.
Any new government trying to pull its country back towards liberal democracy and away from populism would be holed below the waterline if it had no means of communicating with the public through relatively fair and relatively unbiased coverage.
Pretending that the last government had been a normal one and waiting years to replace people in the broadcasters through conventional means would probably be too slow – but by using the weapons of populism against the populists, it is possible that in trying to stop the rot the new government has become part of it.
Populists in power raise the stakes, because they attack the institutional legitimacy of everything around them – look how Viktor Orban has all but destroyed Hungary’s civil society and how Donald Trump has dramatically politicised the USA’s judiciary, and shattered the trust the public had in it.
When the ‘mainstream’ ousts a populist, there is a temptation to pretend everything is normal and to act as if the previous few years didn’t happen. This happened the first time Viktor Orban was voted out of office in Hungary, and replaced with a fairly weak and uneasy mainstream coalition government. That government got almost nothing done, letting in a revitalised Orban who on his second time in office hesitated far less in wielding state power against his opponents.
Under Joe Biden, the Democrats have mostly taken the approach that Orban’s enemies did – acting like it’s business-as-usual, the grown-ups are back in charge, and that it’s safe to go back into the water now. By allowing various criminal probes into Donald Trump to proceed they have lost any (slim) hope of getting credit for that, though, and are now left reliant on outside forces to prevent a Trump return. Populists are more dangerous the second time round, after all.
In this context, it’s not nearly so difficult to see why Tusk’s new administration thinks extraordinary action might be necessary: ignoring the former government and hoping it goes away has spectacularly failed elsewhere, so what other options are they?
All of this makes Poland a significant 21st century experiment. Is it possible to use the armoury of populism against it and then to relinquish those weapons and return to mainstream checks and balances? A crucial first test will be who gets appointed to Poland’s broadcasters and how able they feel to criticise the new government and its actions.
But bigger tests will be to come. Many governments have seized emergency powers, some of them with good intentions when they first do so. The challenge isn’t seizing them, though – it’s giving them up again.
Poland’s new government has hardly claimed martial law – they’ve circumvented some controls on how boards and executives are appointed. But what is crucial is they set out when and how they will cut corners, and when they will stop doing so. It matters for Poland, and it could soon matter far beyond Poland’s borders.