Karl Marx famously claimed that history repeats itself twice, first as tragedy, then as farce. Sadly, the recent parliamentary elections in Poland seem to show that actually the opposite can happen as well. Although the 2005 parliamentary victory of the Law and Justice (PiS) party ended in a short-lived coalition with two small parties — both representing different flavors of the populist right — quickly swept away by scandals, this time PiS will govern alone: it received more than 50% of the seats in Parliament, the first time for a political party in Poland’s 26-year-old democracy to do so. Together with the recently elected President Andrzej Duda, also from PiS, and a politician about whom not many people had heard before the electoral campaign a few months ago, the road to unrestricted legislative change is open. The frequently repeated statement, “at least they don’t have the constitutional majority” that would allow the newly elected government to change the Constitution, reveals the gravity of the situation. Moreover, adding insult to injury, no left-wing politicians won seats. Thus, at present the most leftist among the elected MPs can be compared with Hilary Clinton during her conservative days, whereas local Polish versions of Donald Trump’s offers — from open racism to nationalist xenophobia to “make Poland great again” as a political program — are well represented. There are reasons to be concerned.
The Right Comes Up, The Left Goes Down
There are several reasons for the present situation. The first and the most apparent is that Civic Platform (PO), the incumbent party and archenemy of PiS, failed to win electoral support because it lacked charismatic leadership. Additionally, PiS received many votes from people unhappy with the performance of the ruling coalition of PO and the Polish Peoples’ Party (PSL; also known as the farmers’ party), which also controlled Parliament and had the support of the President. This time, the PO party’s promises — which should have been delivered on after eight years in power — and its threats of PiS coming back sounded like the same old, tired, and unconvincing tune to many.
Indicating much more fundamental shifts among Polish voters, PiS managed to overcome the long-standing division between the PO and left-voting “modern” and more affluent Poland in the west, on the one hand, and “backward”, poor, and conservative PiS-supporting Poland in the east, on the other. Combined with the fact that PiS won among the usual older and more conservative voters as well as among the youngest ones, this indicates a strong swing to the political right, suspicious of the EU and hostile to any traces of otherness. Furthermore, the third-most popular electoral bloc, led by a former rockman Pawel Kukiz, opened Parliament to politicians who can be openly called the extreme right, and by advocating for a flat tax rate regardless of income, the recently formed Nowoczesna (trans. “Modern”) led by Ryszard Petru, a former acolyte of libertarian Leszek Balcerowicz (creator and symbol of Poland’s economic shock therapy after 1989) received more than 7% of votes. Although PO came in second, and PSL, its coalition partner, barely made it past the necessary 5% to get seats in Parliament, overall the new political setup is the PiS party’s greatest victory.
The Morally Intact Community
What is a “perfect” Poland à la Law and Justice supposed to look like? In terms of the economy, many promises have been made, ranging from financial bonuses for families with children to protecting increasingly unprofitable coalmines. However, tax reforms necessary to deliver on these promises are missing. Within international politics, the aim is to free Poland from the “dictate” of the EU, focusing instead on the Visegrad Group, composed of likeminded anti-EU, central-European nationalist states — of which Orbán-led Hungary is a prime example and point of reference for PiS party’s leader, Jarosław Kaczyński. On an ideological level, which constitutes the very basis of PiS activities, the aim is to focus on “our” “intrinsic” values, boiling down to a black-and-white fairytale about the untarnished, “ever virgin” — as the mother of Christ — history of the uniform Catholic Polish nation. No more “slurs” against Poles murdering Jews, no more second thoughts about whether the 1944 Warsaw Uprising led to the utter destruction of the capital, no more discussions of Poland’s history as a multiethnic state, and certainly no public funding for “leftist” art projects that dare question the solidity of the state-religion union.
The meaning of “we” will be limited to “real” Poles, which, briefly put, means those who agree with the government. These are people fed up with the previous PO government’s arrogance, inability to deal with scandals, and reluctance to deliver promises. They are hoping for true law and justice (as the party’s title suggests). These are also people who are distrustful and afraid of anything that is not local and familiar: Catholic, patriarchic, centered on conservative family values, heterosexual, unwilling to accept change or difference seen as obvious threats to the Polish community. No wonder “others,” such as refugees, are not welcome.
Still, this monolithic vision of PiS has its flaws: by its very logic, it sways toward extremes — whether ultra-religious, on the one side, or nationalist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and racist, on the other. A growing number of Catholic priests adopting hate speech, such as the famously xenophobic Father Rydzyk, owner of the radio station Radio Maryja and its television counterpart TV Trwam (trans. “I endure”), show they can be both. All these elements point in the same direction: violence toward others — and not just as in the classic Weberian version of legal state power, but also perhaps closer to Arendt’s concept of violence as aimed at destroying existing power. In today’s Poland, these forms of violence — illegal according to the law — are found in the blatant hate speech of politicians made visible in the media, on building walls and bus stops, in shouts and signs on posters at anti-refugee demonstrations of ultra-nationalists who praise Hitler and death camps, as well as in racist banners hung by soccer fans on stadiums. But it is also an element of daily life for all who, without leaving the safety of their desks, visits popular Polish Web portals, such as Onet.pl or Gazeta.pl.
Yet, already during the PO party’s eight-years-long rule, judges were unwilling to notice, much less to punish, hate crimes — slurs, beatings — targeted at outsiders, from gays to non-whites. The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence barely made it through the Polish Parliament last year, as MPs accused it of being a threat to traditional Polish values. And now, less than one month ago, President Duda refused to sign a bill that would simplify the process of legally changing one’s gender. At present, to do so, transgender people have to sue their families. Duda’s argument — that gay people could use this law to switch their gender to get married and adopt children — shows how little he understands of the process, how distrustful and paranoid he is about gay people, and how little he cares for those who are different from him.
The State of Presidential Referenda
The aim of PiS has been constitutional change. Already in 2010, while in opposition to the ruling government, PiS produced a draft of a new constitution. It is worthwhile to look at some of its provisions. For instance, in the preamble, it supposedly has an explicit reference to “God Almighty.” The document also proposes a change to the political system from one of a parliamentary rule to another of presidential plebiscitarism. It further grants the president extensive powers, such as the right to dissolve the parliament in the first six months after being sworn in office and without any formal criteria. Additionally, according to the draft, if the president does not like a proposed bill, it can be submitted to a public vote through a national referendum. Then, if citizens veto the bill, the president can dissolve the parliament. Conversely, if the president proposes a bill that is accepted in a referendum, yet the parliament rejects it, the president, again, can dissolve the parliament. Within the castrated legislative, the ruling party would be empowered while the role of the opposition would be significantly limited, giving the former virtually total control over the legislative process. Decisions of the Constitutional Tribunal would be valid only if 80% (that is, at least 12 of 15) of the justices support a given judgment. On the level of ordinary citizens, the draft not only eliminates the constitutional prohibition against discrimination, but also bans abortion under any circumstances, protecting life “from conception to natural death.” At the same time, both freedom of the press and equal access to healthcare regardless of income are no longer found. Interestingly, PiS did not brag about its new draft of the constitution during its parliamentary campaign.
Still, a two-thirds majority is required to change the constitution. Thus, gathering the necessary parliamentary votes will be difficult: PiS will need the support of both smaller parties and of at least several MPs from PO, its main opponent. For all other new regulations, however, the PiS party’s success means it can pass any bill it wants, and President Duda will likely oblige. As such, PiS may also want to neutralize institutions whose support it initially needed to get votes: the Catholic Church and the extreme right.
Rather Uncertain Future
PiS plans to distribute money to large groups of citizens, including miners, farmers, and pensioners; its plans to fund the state budget are far blurrier. As a result, it is not unlikely that other groups waiting in line for their benefits (nurses, teachers) will come out to the streets to fight for their share. In this context, the PiS party’s landslide could backfire because the party will have to take responsibility for all its actions and inactions, including failures to deliver on what it promised. Furthermore, if the party offers little more than lip service to the Catholic Church and refuses to accept its claims to public property such as elementary schools, the hierarchs may feel betrayed. Yet, in this case, it is not certain the public will support the Church, especially now that it has little to do with the vision of a humble institution promoted by Pope Francis.
Will Poles be satisfied with the PiS government? Quite possibly. That is, if PiS manages to introduce its ultra-conservative, nationalist, and xenophobic changes patiently, without hurried revolutionary zeal. Michel Houellebecq’s recent novel, Submission, though set in near-future Sharia France, shows this mechanism well. In Houellebecq’s fiction, Islamist rule in the French Republic is made possible mainly thanks to the steady flow of funds from rich oil countries in the Middle East. In Poland, the state is largely dependent on money coming from the EU, even if PiS publicly claims otherwise. If people do not see the promised benefits, they may turn away from the now victorious party, as they have from previous governments. Without funding, the new government will have only religious-nationalist laws to offer, and even in the whitewashed PiS-approved version of Poland’s history, if there is something Poles are good at, it is fighting against oppressive rulers.