Reevaluating the Populist Surge in Poland

/Jorens Jakovļevs/

By now, even the most disinterested spectator should have noticed that the European political discourse has undergone enormous changes in the last couple of years. Right wing populist parties that were on the fringe have entered the scene with a bang, and signs show that they are here to stay. Except, perhaps, for its Hungarian partner in crime, nowhere is this nativist upsurge more obvious than in Poland where the ruling Law and Justice party has managed to turn the country on its head. To make sense of the radical changes in the former poster-boy of European integration Jorens Jakovļevs explores the genealogical development of Polish identity.

On November 13, 2017 thousands of people gathered in the streets of Warsaw in commemoration of the 99th anniversary of the Polish Independence day. Following the decline and the eventual disappearance of the great Polish kingdom in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, the suppressed national revolts in the 19th century, and the horrors of subsequent Nazi and Soviet occupations during the Second World war, the very fulfillment of national sovereignty feels like an achievement in an of itself. “Independence Day can be celebrated with a smile on our faces and with joy in our hearts because there really is much to celebrate and much to be proud of” – declared Donald Tusk, the liberal Polish president of the European Council, who had overseen his country becoming a major player in the European Union and NATO while recording uninterrupted economic growth throughout the downfall of ten years ago. Poland has not yet perished! White and red flags were waved as Poles from across the country celebrated their nation, which was finally able to stand firmly on its two feet.

Except that they did not. The day will no doubt live in infamy as it marked one of the largest white nationalist gatherings in Europe since the 1930s. Underneath the burning flares, xenophobic rhetoric and far right symbols intertwined as 70’000 people marched the streets of one of the most homogenous and fastest growing countries in Europe to demand the preservation of ethnically pure and white Europe. Even more alarming was the government’s reaction. The march was referred to as “a beautiful sight” by the interior minister Maiusz Błaszczak and no alarm whatsoever was raised within the government. The Polish government, lead by the right wing Law and Justice party (PiS) since 2015, has been accused for undermining the independence of the judiciary and politicizing the state media, all while legislating historical narratives and passing some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. The embrace of authoritarian tendencies and the decline of liberal democracy have come to define contemporary Poland.

The question that logically arises is why would all these phenomena be present in a country which has gained so much from opening itself to the outside world. Why, despite the apparent improvements in the standard of living and life expectancy are Poles angry with the established order? Why, after the long and staunch fight for civil liberties and freedom of speech under state socialism, are they willing to risk it all? How come nativist sentiments and narratives that seemingly belong to a bygone era are resonating in a region that has been spared from unrest, bloodshed and immigration?

While it does seem that searching for an objective logic behind it would be a fruitless exercise, bound to cause cognitive dissonance in anyone, plenty of experts have attempted to resolve these contradictions. It has all been said before – ‘the end of history’ belongs to the past; polarization and fragmentation of the public sphere, accelerated by the shifting media landscapes is changing the established social norms and relations; emphasis of identity politics in the current ‘post-fact’ era has become the norm. However, it appears that the Eastern European populist leaders rather than following a path marked elsewhere are trailing it on their own terms all while attaining widespread support from their citizens. These capable demagogues are preaching to the worst instincts of their voters. The resonance of PiS’s an- ti-liberal sentiment has exceeded the worst expectations of foreign policy experts and civil society observers. The picture painted by liberal Western analysts is indeed a grave one and suggests a deliberate abduction of democratic values and institutions. Government has a say in the appointment of judges; the state owned news media has become a mouthpiece for the PiS ideologues high ranking government officials are spreading unfounded conspiracy theories about the tragic plane crash in Smolensk. The 2010 crash which killed many elite statesmen including then president Lech Kaczyński representing PiS, has routinely been blamed on the political opposition and foreign forces, facilitating an atmosphere of paranoia and division. The institutionalized misinformation and erosion of democratic checks which is apparent in almost every level of society threatens civil liberties of the Polish people, and is severely undermining Poland’s future in united Europe.

The temptations of vesting the populist government with such tremendous abilities of manipulating public opinion are powerful ones and appear to be helpful in explaining the anti European discourse that has emerged. Instead of echoing the universal diagnosis about the bleak state of the misinformed Polish homo-orientem, I propose that the appeal toward PiS’s vision of Poland primarily has its roots in the unique Polish historical consciousness that developed during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union and has its roots in an enduring self perception that emphasizes the goodness of the Polish nation.

The fact of the matter is that many Eastern European nations have never shared many of the values that, albeit loosing their appeal in the current times, continue to form one
of the sturdiest pillars of classical European identity. Freedom of speech, independence of the press and the judiciary, have been intrinsic elements of the liberal democratic system, which the West seemingly had managed to export eastwards with great enthusiasm on the receiving end after the collapse of socialism in Europe. To understand the revolt against the hegemonic regime of institutions, thought and expression in Poland, which is based on the liberal democratic European model, one has to abandon short term thinking on the subject and investigate the very basis of Polish and eastern European identity and the importance of democracy vis-à-vis nationalism in country’s historical consciousness and institutions of cultural memory. Unlike the wealthy Western European states, which having consolidated their hegemonic position in the larger world system have well delineated identities, Polish self-positioning has been characterized by a continuous liminal process of becoming. As of late, this has been the process of becoming European; in the post World War Two era it was the process of becoming a friendly member of the Soviet-lead second world. But above all, throughout Polish history, it has been the process of establishing itself, of being in charge of own affairs and destiny. Along Catholicism, the Polish struggle, which manifests itself prominently in the national mythology, has been the defining feature of the very specific set of beliefs that compiled together form the basis of the righteous collective identity of Poles. And collective it is indeed. Unlike the Western tradition of Enlightenment, which emphasis the rights and utility of the individual, defining watershed moments of Polish history – the January insurrection, the Warsaw Uprising or the Solidarity movement – have put the aspirations of the collective at the forefront.

Despite the seemingly significant strides made by liberalism in Poland, it’s becoming more and more apparent that the foundations of its building blocks are no less stable than those of Amsterdam’s canal houses. Liberal policies have not only aggravated various existing inequalities, but to a large number of Poles, the anti-thesis to despotism has never been liberal democracy as envisioned by Western observers. Emancipation is not thought of in terms of the individual but rather the nation. Likewise – freedom does not equal the right of the individual to do what he pleases but rather denotes the agency of Poland as a whole. The current phenomena can thus be traced back to era of dependence and foreign hegemony and should be vie- wed as manifestations of the almost dialectic interaction between the two sides of Poland – one, who’s identity and self identification

is invested in the tradition of the Enlightenment and liberalism; and another, which holds on to the premise of Poland’s special path and destiny, which it has to take into it’s own hands and not bow in front of any external forces that dictate of disrupt their vision. By analyzing Poland from such perspective, the appeal of the right wing demagogues does not seem surprising. Even more so, when faced with the harsh social realities exacerbated by the structural setup of the EU – mass emigration, brain drain, declining birth rates and the increasingly obvious development of a two speed economy – the appeal of populists who emphasize the importance of family, tradition and homogenous community seems rational.

For the last decades, two versions of Poland have coexisted and the conflict between them has become more easily discernable in the light of growing social polarization and political hostilities. To destroy the seeds of toxic nationalism that have already been sown in the Polish soil one must come to understand the deeply rooted identities and desires of the people. Only then can a viable alternative to the broken promises of the dominant liberal class be provided.


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