pis

Polish Governments Gone Wild (Not On Tinder)

So Tinder turned out to be a disappointment, especially for The Daily Chrenk readers who will not get to see the local edition of “Girls Gone Wild on Tinder”, largely because the local girls simply aren’t going wild on Tinder. I apologise for all the disappointment. Clearly the flower of the Polish single womanhood has to do worse the next time.

The current government, on the other hand…

Herein lies another minor (though important) Polish mystery: the government is behaving exactly the way that Vladimir Putin would like a Polish government to behave, picking up fights with neighbours and allies and generally becoming an international nuisance and a joke. And yet, the government hates Putin too, not least because they believe him responsible for the 2010 Smolensk plane crash, which killed the then president Lech Kaczynski (and dozens of other top Polish civilian and military dignitaries), the twin brother of the current government’s eminence griese and puppet-master, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. For the government and many of their supporters the crash was “another Katyn” (which coincidentally lies close to Smolensk and where Kaczynski and entourage were flying to commemorate) where the perfidious Russia once again tried to decapitate Poland’s elite.

So if they hate Russia too, why are they doing it?

Your guess is as good as anyone’s. I have certainly asked many people that question in the course of my Polish journey without finding a credible – or even incredible – answer.

The government, in office since 2015, is run by the Law and Justice Party, which enjoys the parliamentary majority in the current term, and is thus able to force pretty much any law it wants through the Polish Sejm. Its outlook and temperament are nationalistic, ultra-Catholic, conservative, populist and statist. And slightly authoritarian – they have set their collective heart on undoing all of the previous government’s reforms and completing what they see as the unfinished Polish revolution, which has left communists, real and imagines, unpunished, unchastened and with much institutional and economic clout. I say imagined, because Law and Justice consider just about everyone else but them to be sellouts to Poland’s former rulers, including pretty much all the heroes of the former Solidarity, like Lech Walesa himself (perpetually accused of having been a secret service informer) and most of the politicians of every stripe over the past quarter of a century.

And so, there is the naked drive to replace everyone and anyone in positions of responsibility with “our” people, who will be politically reliable patriots, untainted by the associations with “the arrangement”, as the Law and Justice types call what they see as the conspiracy of silence and cooperation between the post-communists and the democrats. All parties use patronage to various extent, so the purges are nothing new, but they are particularly blatant (such as the recent attempt to sack all of the country’s top judges) and unfortunate, because as one of my interlocutors remarked, Law and Justice doesn’t have “the depth” of institutional talent. Hence, the replacements tend to be patriotically-correct party hacks without much experience or expertise over the areas into which they have been parachuted. The two public TV channels are now the government’s propaganda channels, and they sound so in a rather cringeworthy way. Numerous other institutions are under more or less overt pressure to conform.

Law and Justice (or PiS, as they are known in an abbreviated form from their Polish name Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc) might not be very intelligent, but they are certainly very cunning. Pretty much everyone I spoke to agrees they have been electorally clever with their regular “500+” cash handout per child, as well as cracking down on the enforcement of the Value Added Tax, which has given them a much healthier budget bottom line to play with. PiS has thus built a strong electoral base among the poorer and the less educated part of the population that inhabits “the other Poland” of small town and villages. Not only is the extra money much welcome, and has genuinely reduced family poverty in a very short time, but so is, on the emotional level, the PiS’s appeal to the flag and the cross.

Poland, of course, has a long and distinguished – if often rather tragic – patriotic tradition. In the last three centuries, the country has suffered much, but it has survived, in a large part thanks to the unbreakable national spirit. But PiS’s use and misuse of patriotism is something to behold, and reminds me and many others I spoke to of the inter-war, quasi-authoritarian spirit of “the man on a horse”. Lech Kaczynski, who died in the Smolensk plane crash, has been turned into a national martyr. Monuments to him are springing up all over the country; he is controversially buried in the underground crypts of the Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow, where Polish kings as well as genuine national heroes like Pulaski, Kosciuszko and Pilsudzski have their final resting place; and on the 10th of every month crowds gather on the Presidential Square to mark the monthversary of the Russian “crime”. The names of the place crash’s victims are read out at official commemorations together with those who, for example, have fallen in the Warsaw Uprising or the defence of the Hel Peninsula in September 1939. History is being rewritten to elevate the supposed role of the Kaczynski twins and a few other patriots at the expense of just about everyone else. You would think that the West mistakenly celebrates the wrong Lech; Jaroslaw certainly believes that the wrong one has died in 2010. It’s all a tasteless political exercise that sounds almost comical if it wasn’t so serious.

It took me a few days in Poland, until visit in Lodz, Poland’s virtually unknown second largest city and once the Manchester of the East but now rather economically listless and depressed, to find someone who admits supporting PiS. This is the local Polish variant of the Trump or the Brexit phenomenon; there seems to be such a socio-economic divide between the opposing camps that we may well talk about two different countries. The people I have spoken to, generally educated, professional, and very middle class, admit they don’t know anyone amongst friends and work colleagues who voted for PiS (or at least is prepared to publicly admit to have voted for PiS). Big cities, particularly those thriving ones, like Warsaw, Krakow or Katowice, are more open and liberal ones; the rest of the country more closed and conservative.

Even my liberal interlocutors, though often supportive of Poland taking in at least some small number of refugees (as opposed to the government’s current position of none), when pressed will admit they are relieved that Poland does not suffer the problems associated with the mass immigration in the Western Europe. But that’s about the extent of the policy overlap with PiS. Most people I spoke to seem genuinely terrified of the government’s authoritarian tendencies – its majoritarianism, its drive for control and marginalisation of any independent sources of power and criticism, and its chauvinism and complete disregard for domestic and international public opinion, which is leaving Poland rather friendless and an object of ridicule and derision (PiS, for example, is picking fights with both Russia and Germany, while also giving a finger to the EU in general).

I have heard the PiS government described in one conversation as “national socialist”, for its ethno-religious nationalism as well as for its statists tendency to control and to buy votes. Few expect that Poland will be forcibly turned away from democracy, but many most fear the present direction. PiS benefits from the voter apathy – they have been elected in a particularly low turnout election, and the silent majority remains largely disengaged as long as the economy stays strong. This indeed is in some way the good news amongst the political gloom and doom: people can lead their lives peacefully and prosperously despite the government’s antics. But surely Poland can do better.

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