How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
October 2015 brought a political earthquake to Poland. For the first time since the end of communist rule, a single party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, or PiS), formerly in opposition, managed to gain an absolute majority in the general elections. At the same time, a bunch of extreme right-wing populists gained parliamentary seats for the first time since the 1930s. Meanwhile, a liberal party that had ruled Poland for eight years (Platforma Obywatelska, or PO) lost over a third of its parliamentary seats and the government with it. The United Left, a motley collection of postcommunist leftovers, didn’t manage to win even a single seat, signaling its terminal demise. And a brand-new left-wing party, created and run by an anonymous collective of young people, almost made it to the benches despite not being able to afford a single television spot or billboard poster.
It is not surprising that the elections generated considerable media interest worldwide. What was surprising, though, was the media’s almost universal focus on the ideology of the victor, PiS, and the ruin it could supposedly bring to domestic and international politics. There was hardly a single positive mention of the party in the West (or in Russia, for that matter); well before the party had even formed a cabinet, or presented its leading personalities or its policies, the verdict was already passed.
The main criticism was that the PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, could become a dictator. Since his party won an absolute majority, it would be able to appoint the prime minister, Speakers of both houses, the constitutional court, and other key posts (PiS member Andrzej Duda had been elected president a few months earlier). Yet the PO was in an identical position when it was in power. And during its rule, it worked with coalition partners to purge the public media, the state-owned enterprises, and the whole state apparatus of all but loyalists. As a parting gift, the PO even filled the constitutional court with its own appointees a week before the October election, precipitating a war of procedural tricks with PiS, which is now using its newly won majority to get PO’s selection declared null and void.
The makeup of the constitutional court is particularly important because PiS has pledged to revise Poland’s highest law. Although critics have warned that PiS’ reforms could damage Polish democracy, some reforms may actually improve its functioning. In particular, the precise delineation of powers of the president and the government is a worthy goal and should be started as soon as possible. The opaque language of the relevant paragraphs in the current Polish constitution prevented the appointment of a commander in chief of the armed forces for almost a year—and at the worst possible moment, in the middle of the Ukrainian crisis.
Such analysis is missing from Mitchell Orenstein’s recent article, “Paranoid in Poland,” which focuses more on the specter of Kaczynski, who “lurks” in the background, is possessed by “apparent obsession,” and has a history of “leading witch-hunts against domestic opponents.” Yet Orenstein does not name even one person who was persecuted, for specifically political reasons, by or on Kaczynski’s orders.
Orenstein describes Kaczynski as a nationalist extremist, but again, facts to support that claim are thin, amounting to guilt by association. PiS, according to Orenstein, is “closely affiliated” with a radio station that “essentially blames Jews for imposing communism on Poland,” yet there is no publicly known relationship of any kind between PiS and the station. Yes, the great majority of those listening to it voted PiS. But that doesn’t mean much; opinion polls have shown that PiS won in every age and every professional group of the Polish electorate. Apparently, the only group that voted overwhelmingly for PO was prison inmates. Should PO then be called a party of convicts?
Orenstein warns readers to be worried that Kaczynski may try now to “avenge the death of his brother,” Poland’s former president, who died in a plane crash in 2010. Orenstein does not specify who will be the object of the avenger’s fury, but he is certain that it will endanger “a rapprochement in Russian-Polish relations,” which, he argues, was initiated by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yet Putin has been the biggest stumbling block to improved ties, namely by holding military exercises that simulated a nuclear attack on Warsaw, with a simultaneous amphibious landing on the Polish coast, a land tank incursion from the Belorussian border, and the mass internment of the Polish minority in Belorussia.
Such are the omissions in Orenstein’s piece—and in the scores of others that have already appeared in a number of Western newspapers and magazines. They were eagerly picked up by the so-called mainstream Polish media, which consistently supported PO, and have driven a wedge between Western liberals and the Polish public.
If the West wants to be alarmed, it should perhaps look to another newly formed political party, Kukiz 15, led by a reformed alcoholic rock singer, Pawel Kukiz. It came from nowhere to claim the third-largest number of Polish votes and, as a consequence, of parliamentary seats. Kukiz is a real populist demagogue, claiming that his aim is “to break the constitutional system.” His views are so extreme as to make Kaczynski look positively liberal by comparison. Among the members of his caucus are at least ten people already identified as being associated with ultranationalist fringe groups with fascist sympathies.
Those in the West who condemned PiS might have applied their work to Kukiz 15. It is as if they used all their heavy adjectives on PiS and were left with none to describe the new phenomenon. Let’s hope that they have not cried wolf while the real threat snuck past them.