After a controversial postponement of the presidential elections in Poland in May, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Poles will be going to the polls this Sunday. The right-wing ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), candidate, President Andrzej Duda, is currently in the lead and will most likely go into a second round of voting, scheduled for July 12th, facing a candidate from the opposition.
Professors Elzbieta Matynia and Jeffrey Goldfarb asked Dr. Jacek Kucharczyk, President of the Executive Board of the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw, to talk about the current situation, before the first round of voting.
Jeffrey Goldfarb (JG): Jacek, it’s great for the three of us to be getting together. I’ll start by asking you a simple question: how are things in Poland?
Jacek Kucharczyk (JK): Well, it’s a simple question. But it’s not easy to give a simple answer. A joke comes to mind, and it goes like this: in one word, it’s good; in two words, it’s not good. I will start with why it’s good. There is at this late stage of the presidential elections a new energy on the side of the opposition. There is hope that the front runner, on the side of the opposition, has a good chance of beating the incumbent Mr. Duda.
JG: Who is the leading opposition candidate?
JK: Rafał Trzaskowski, the Mayor of Warsaw was declared the new candidate of the main opposition party, Civic Platform, after the elections on May 10th were canceled. And his polling is very positive and encouraging. And even though the opposition is, as always, divided, he became the clear front runner, and now it looks like he will be facing off Duda in the second round. It looks fairly clear that Mr. Trzaskowski and Mr. Duda will be fighting each other two weeks after this Sunday…. So, this is the good part. That suddenly there is, let’s call it new hope, like in Star Wars, on the side of the opposition.
The bad thing is everything that was happening with the state of Polish democracy since the pandemic started, which was basically an acceleration of the processes we have seen for the last five years, is still happening.
The dismantling of democracy and the political system, which one could observe before the pandemic, has now accelerated. I would call it a catalyst for authoritarianism. And what is really worrying to me is not so much how the government behaves, because I didn’t have any illusions about their credentials or their self-restraint, but the fact that a large part of Polish voters, those who support the government and have supported this government in recent years, seem to accept its more aggressive, more repressive behavior, and are willing also to tolerate incredible corruption, which came with actions ostensibly aimed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
I am hopeful because Mr. Trzaskowski is really gaining ground in his campaign. But at the same time, it is amazing that there are still probably around 40% of voters – possibly more, we’ll see in the second round – who accept the style of doing politics of the ruling party and the current president, and who are not bothered by everything that has been happening. And as I say, from the very ostensible breaking of the law, breaking of the constitution, as in the opposition to the postponement of the elections on May 10th to more and more aggressive actions against political opponents.
We had just in recent weeks, cases when young people demonstrating against climate change in the vicinity of Duda election rallies were brutally attacked. They were like children really, and they were attacked by Duda supporters. The police were passive. They were just standing by and watching. And Mr. Duda who saw this all, didn’t say a word.
Elzbieta Matynia (EM): What you’re describing strangely brings us back home … whether home is Poland or the United States. Both countries are approaching their elections as a ruthless war, with battles that – if one looks closely – are barely over the issues themselves. The issues appear, of course, but in rallies we see, both here and there, incumbents are summoning their followers for war over Poland or war over America. And frankly, this is hardly a metaphor. And what you just mentioned about a bunch of very young people who came from the organization The Climate Strike, and who came to Duda’s rally in Krakow, and were beaten by Trump’s supporters because they had banners that said simply: “What about climate?” and therefore were identified as enemies. This is why they were attacked by the supporters of Trump. That is where the metaphoric war ends. This is what I am talking about.
JG: You said that supporters of Trump, but you meant the supporters of Duda.
EM: Oops! But that’s how similar it is. This is the biggest kind of mystery for me, that I do not live in Poland, but I actually know how it feels to be there. And the polarization in both countries is strikingly similar.
And I’m only wondering to what extent those people who are rallying for PiS, and ultimately for Mr. Duda, know that they are supporting an undemocratic ruling camp against its democratic opposition. I feel we are back in the mid-1970s when the Committee for Workers’ Defense (KOR), the underground publishing houses, Flying University, and later the Solidarity Trade Union, were gradually building a democratic opposition to the one-party state run by the Communist Party.
I’m just bringing this up because we are watching battlegrounds, but my use of the words “battle” or “war” is not just a figure of speech. We just had a rally in the United States, in Tulsa, where the President appeared as a hero, without a mask, with his supporters believing in him completely, whatever he says.
JK: The similarities are also striking when you watch the situation in the United States from Poland. It’s both what the supporters of our authoritarian populists are doing and how they are behaving and what kind of behavior they are willing to accept. The similarity is striking, and there is also the brutality on the side of the police. You have protests against police brutality, which is a long story. There is a difference here because in Poland, a couple of years ago, the police had been quite highly respected, and there was a belief that they were not political. But they destroyed this social capital of trust very quickly, even before the pandemic. They have been clearly acting on political orders.
There’s really a striking similarity between police brutality in the U.S., and the brutality and aggressiveness of Duda’s supporters. Five years ago, it was a completely different picture. If I imagine something like the attack on the climate change protesters happening five years ago at a Duda rally, his support would have been completely destroyed. He would have never won the elections five years ago with the current behavior of his supporters. He was “Mr. Nice,” “Mr. Change.” He and the Law and Justice (PiS) party have become more and more repressive, and they managed to take the voters with them in this direction. That’s very scary … you can actually educate your voters to accept certain behaviors, and really just block information about government corruption.
People when asked in a research study say that basically corruption happened under the previous government. There is no corruption now, they claim, despite the sort of egregious cases of corruption well proven, which are happening as we speak. So, that’s incredibly worrying because even in the best-case scenario of the opposition winning the presidential office, we will still have a very long way to go to restore some kind of normalcy in our society, as far as democratic norms and standards or civic rights are concerned.
EM: What you just said, begs, the question: what has happened during these five years of PiS rule? Both Duda’s and Trump’s electorates believe. This belief in the leader is a classic feature of populism, yet this is not a classic populism. It’s something different, we are still having problems with naming it. What do you think, Jeff?
JG: The appeal of Trump’s authoritarian personality is a distinctive. I think Duda and Trump are not the same in this way. Trump has a kind of vernacular talent to inflame a specific segment of the population, his base, playing it: the president as an authoritarian reality TV star. What I identify with as an American has absolutely nothing to do with Donald Trump and the appeal he has.
And this actually leads me to a question I have about Poland. In 1970, 1980, 1989, there was a political struggle that emerged. It was a struggle for democracy against the regime. There were a variety of different positions in the opposition, but still the big choice was between democracy and totalitarianism. Democracy and anti-democracy. I started worrying about Poland after the changes, when it started appearing that the campaigns were again between a party, or a group of disorganized parties, that was committed to democracy, and an emerging ruling party that first promised authoritarianism and is now delivering it. Politics has become a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.
What amazes me about the United States is that we are now in that situation. I thought that this development was very negative in Poland. A democracy can’t sustain itself if the political contest is between democracy and its opponents. And now, I think, we’re in the same situation. I can’t imagine Trump winning. The horror of it is amazing. It is too great for me to actually face. So mostly I’m thinking about the problems we will face after he’s defeated, which I think is likely. Then we have a lot of work to do. And it has an a lot to do with the diversity of the forces that should come together to oppose Trump. I wonder how does this look like in Poland. My question is not only about the PiS supporters, Duda’s supporters that Jacek spoke about. I’m interested in the people who oppose PiS and Duda. How are they doing? Can they work with each other, as they recognize and respect their differences?
JK: Well, this is not a nice picture, actually. Especially when you look at the opposition and how they acted during the last couple of months, with the onset of the pandemic. It was pretty clear that the May 10th elections, which was the original date of the elections, would be both undemocratic and dangerous because of the epidemic. The opposition candidates did not really manage to speak with one voice about this situation. When the leading candidate, that was, as it happened, the only woman running in the elections, Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, criticized and appealed to the government to announce a state of natural disaster that would constitutionally postpone the elections, the other candidates used it as an opportunity to actually get ahead of her and to become the dominant candidate. So, it was as if they were in the primaries, the Polish equivalent of the primaries, whereas, the election campaign was in full swing.As a result, Kidawa-Błońska lost a lot of support. Her backers were confused, uncertain whether they should vote in the scheduled elections. And other candidates, including the left-wing candidate Robert Biedroń lost a lot of support. Now he’s trailing with only 3% or 4% in the polls, having had 15%. So, there was this mini civil war within the opposition, which was extremely destructive for everybody.
I think the only reason why Trzaskowski is now making waves is because he came to the game late, after these battles of the non-elections in May were over. He is a fresh face. He is not a spent force like most other candidates. But since the other candidates, except for Ms. Kidawa-Błońska are still running, I’m really worried how they will act in the most likely situation, when there will be a runoff between Trzaskowski and Duda. I just signed a public appeal, one of the many appearing now for the opposition, to come together in the second round, whoever wins it on the opposition side, but I’m not sure to what extent the opposition politicians will feel the pressure from their own voters to actually make a very clear statement of support.
PiS and Duda have around 40% support. They would never win elections if the rest of the citizens voted against them, and the presidential elections are the best opportunity to do this because there is one person, one vote, unlike in parliamentary elections when you have the party system supporting the strongest party and so on. So, this is a great question, how those Polish voters who don’t support Law and Justice, who don’t support Duda, will act during these two rounds of elections.
If many of them decide to stay at home saying that, “Oh, everybody is as bad as everyone else,” or basically express their grievances to the main opposition party, then we will be in a very, very bad situation.
EM: This is not necessarily very important, but I understand that you have additional reasons to worry. Biedroń, until few months ago a rather attractive candidate for many in the left-leaning public, has announced that although in the second round he’s not going to vote for Duda, he will not support his opponent, that is Trzaskowski. Whatever he said, it was murky enough, and – judging from the social media – for those who are hoping to defeat Duda it added to an already nerve-racking situation.
JG: I think that we have an advantage in this regard: the repulsiveness of Trump is felt by a broad segment of the population. So even if people radically disagree with each other, Trump is a major unifying force. And I take it that Duda himself doesn’t have that magnetic power.
EM: He became very brutal lately, right?
JG: Yes. Right. So Duda has become brutal, I understand, but I’d like to know more about the brutality.
JK: The biggest example that still reverberates is his words about LGBT people and how he wants to declare Poland a zone free of LGBT. And he always adds “LGBT ideology,” but this is clearly a homophobic declaration and an attempt to present himself as the defender of Polish family national religious values. There was some desperation behind this, because he acted like this when his support was already falling during the lockdown. But it also generated a reaction, and a very aggressive reaction on the part of his supporters. We have information about LGBT+ people being attacked in the streets by the so-called ordinary citizens. And not even LGBT+ people, anyone who wears something resembling a rainbow can be attacked. There was even a case when a boy who was simply a very handsome boy was attacked because somebody decided that he’s probably gay because he’s so handsome. So, there is this hateful atmosphere that Duda started because he thought that this would be a winning strategy similar to the 2015 parliamentary elections. At that time, refugees were the big enemy, Muslim refugees coming to Europe. Now, somehow, the refugee issue is gone from public debate and from the public mind. So PiS propaganda invented LGBT as the new threat to public order and to national values. They already tried this once with some success during the European elections last year, and now I think there is a belief that this will again work miracles for Mr. Duda. We are witnessing over the last few days, the last week or two, a striking increase in hate speech and the hate crimes.
This is the major example of aggression. But also, the second group that is being targeted by both supporters of Duda and the police are people criticizing or mocking Mr. Duda. They are being arrested without much legal basis. They spend time in police stations and are often mistreated. There were a couple of well-described cases like this. This is justified under the anti-COVID-19 legislation, which is very ironic.
In fact, an hour ago, I read that a new version of the anti-COVID-19 legislation was just signed by Mr. Duda. And in one of the bits in small print the penalties for insulting the President are increased. So, Mr. Duda, five days before the election, signs legislation, that anyone who insults the President can be sent to jail for up to three years. And this is part of anti-COVID-19 activities of the government. I mean, this is incredible, but this is happening as we speak.
JG: So, I would like to know a little bit more about this anti-COVID-19 rules, what has happened to democratic life since the pandemic. You say there’s been an escalation of repression. I’ve noticed that authoritarians come in two versions these days. One version ignores the pandemic. That’s our dear leader. And another version actually uses the pandemic to enact anti-democratic legislation in the name of fighting the disease. They fight political opponents using the disease as a cover.
JK: Yes, that’s our case in Poland, the latter case. And as I said, this is the law that was adopted or signed into force today was the fourth subsequent edition of this legislation. There were at least three levels of this repressiveness, and how this was used to enhance the government power vis-a-vis the citizens.
The first level, let’s call it on the level of ordinary citizens: there were some regulations that were sensible, but at the same time, the specific regulations, which were in these laws or were announced by the Minister of Health on the basis of these laws were quite controversial. They were enforced in a rather brutal way by the police. So, for two or three weeks, you couldn’t go into the forest. You could go to many places, including the church, but couldn’t go into the forest. But people who would break this regulation were punished with very, very high fines without the possibility of appeal. So that was part of this regulation giving the police these very, very strong powers. The regulations themselves were extremely inconsistent and frequently modified. What was illegal one week suddenly became legal next week, and the other way around. There was this wave of repression from the side of the police, making everybody a potential victim. But of course, part of this was also a ban on public assemblies, which meant that for example, candidates for presidential office couldn’t run proper campaigns. They were confined to the internet, basically. But also, that people protesting against the government for various reasons could be severely repressed by the police. Even if they observed the regulations, for example, women protesting against the attempt to once again make anti-abortion law more restrictive, were sentenced to fines of the Polish equivalent of $2,500. This is a lot of money in Poland if you have to pay it immediately. There was no appeal.
So those regulations were also used against political protesters. And interestingly enough, also, after most of these anti-COVID-19 regulations were abolished. We don’t have to wear masks anymore, restaurants are open, cinemas are open. But regulations are still used against people who organize protests, even though they observe social distancing rules.
Then the second level is the fact that specific regulations were attached to these laws, anti-COVID-19 laws, that would absolve public officials from responsibility for their actions during the pandemic. These included clear cases of corruption. The biggest story now is the Minister of Health, who was giving money to a company run by his wife and his brother, millions of dollars, not petty cash. And he cannot be prosecuted because of an added regulation.
EM: Please explain.
JK: The company was going to develop anti COVID-19 tests or something like this. But there was also another case which is now discussed when the health ministry bought respirators at three times the market price from a man who is an internationally known weapons trader. And again, there is legislation in this anti-COVID-19 shield as they call it that absolves the minister and his officials from responsibility. So even if we had independent prosecutors, it would be very hard to actually prosecute these people. So, this is the second level.
The third level of repression includes everything that was happening around the elections and the whole game of attempting to hold elections on May 10th. This was motivated by the fact that there was a short period of time when Mr. Duda had an advantage of media monopoly meetings, similar to Trump’s daily briefings, and the PiS party wanted to hold the elections as soon as possible. And they, again, attached all kinds of strange legislation, including transfer of responsibility for organizing the elections from the national electoral committee, which is this body charged with overseeing elections, to the Ministry of Public Assets, an interior ministry.
Two ministers were supposed to monitor the electoral process, and the opposition managed to stop that. The elections didn’t happen, but they also were canceled on a completely unconstitutional basis. That is, on Friday night before the elections, which were supposed to happen on Sunday, on Friday night, Mr Kaczyński, who is the president of the Law and Justice Party, the Polish Trump, the man behind the man behind the man, appeared on television on Friday night and said, “We agreed with my colleague from my party, that elections won’t happen on Sunday.” The elections then didn’t happen. Even though, at the moment he was talking, there was another version of the election law being voted through the parliament to make elections happen on May 10th. No election because Mr. Kaczyński announced it on television. So, this is the degree to which the rule of law and legality is being completely undermined. And it’s all under the pretext of COVID-19 or anti-COVID-19 legislation.
JG: This has all been very interesting. What’s very clear to me is that the three of us share sensibilities and concerns. And that we agree that the elections in Poland and in the United States, are more critical than any in previous years. Democracy itself is at stake. Human rights are at stake. Decency is at stake. Tolerance, pluralism, all are at stake. In Poland, its status as a European country, as a full member of the European Union, and of its liberal democratic ideals, are at stake. So, I wonder in the United States and in Poland, how broadly shared is this understanding that we have? Do the politicians understand it? Does the citizenry understand it?
I initially thought that many Republican politicians would abandon Trump because they’re patriots, but they haven’t. I thought that many of my friends and colleagues on my left would be more clearly against Trump, ready to support Biden, than they are. I don’t think they sufficiently understand the critical juncture we are approaching. And the general public, I don’t think understands this. So, I wonder what you think about the situation in Poland?
JK: You just described the situation in Poland, describing the situation in the United States. We also, still, after five years, don’t have the clarity about how threatening this ruling party and Mr. Duda are for democracy itself. To cite, the survey I just finished, one of the questions we asked is: does Poland have a functioning democratic system? Interestingly, one third of the respondents said “yes, Poland has a functioning democracy,” which is very, very low. And these were mainly Law and Justice supporters. But then again, only 20% said no. The rest were somewhere in between. There are more studies showing something similar.
Many of the candidates who are running now are basically still using the narratives that there is no difference between this government and the previous government. That they were all bad for democracy and now you have to choose us as the real alternative. So this narrative is still quite present, even though at least some of them, if journalists press them and say, “So what would you say if there is a run off?” They very unwillingly usually say, “Yes, yes, you have to vote for the opposition.” But the consciousness of the threat to democracy itself is still, after these five years, not that widespread as one would hope, as you know, as it’s clear for us here.
That’s, I think, the biggest challenge for the opposition, whatever happens in Polish elections, because even though Duda’s winning would be a big setback, I don’t think it would be the end of the game, because I think that the social discontent is growing. But it’s not necessarily in defense of democracy, of the constitution. The discontent might be focused on corruption, for example, that might bring this government down more effectively than breaking constitutional and undemocratic behavior. We shall see. There is still a big need to build this kind of big tent of the opposition and find common ground. But I don’t think we are there yet. I hope the elections will prove that at least people who, for different reasons don’t want this government to continue to have unchecked power, will come together. But I’m not sure what will happen.
EM: I worry. I worry that what we are observing today is not just an outcome of the last five years, when the visible turn towards de-democratization was launched. I worry that there were and are different parts of the Polish population who became gradually disappointed with democracy as it was taking shape in the country in the course of the past thirty years. I hate to say that. I hate to say that, but various parts of society were left out of the celebrated transition to democracy. Their voices were not listened to; their choices were never considered. Women are part of that. LGBT+ people are part of it. Disabled persons are part of it. Very many issues were never solved, often because of the strong influence of the Church over matters of the state and its citizens.
I worry because, when human, civil, and social rights are not taken seriously, what is democracy good for? What good was the democracy that Poles had prior to PiS. I feel terribly sad saying this, but we disappointed many, many people. I think the same is here in the United States. Disappointment is too gentle a word, but American democracy has disappointed its people. Large parts of its people.
JG: There’s no doubt that in Poland and in the United States, and in many other places, democracy disappoints. And not only them, also me, also us. But the puzzle I have for people who, for example, say in the United States, let’s say Bernie Sanders supporters, or people who were even skeptical about Bernie, well, elections don’t work.
Then I wonder how they imagine change is going to happen. You can be very critical of the existing political institutions. And even dismantle them. But then I would like to have at least a suggested imagination of how things can be addressed more justly, absent those institutions. My judgment is that we have to lean on these inadequate institutions, because there really isn’t a viable substitute. But maybe I’m wrong. But then I’d like to know what are radical critics of actually existing democracy imagining? We face, in the United States, an intolerable situation, not only because of Trump, but also the longstanding history of racism … its brutality, not only by the police but also in the suffering of African Americans, Latinos, poor people more generally, under this pandemic. The pandemic is making the gross injustices in the United States so, so clear.
Okay. The institutions we have haven’t addressed those. Well then, if we reject them, then what do we do? Nihilism, complete cynicism, negativity, is actually only resignation.
JK: If I could approach it from a bit of a different point of view. I completely agree, and I wrote about it that women’s rights were not taken seriously since 1989 and since the beginning of democracy, LGBT+, many other issues were not addressed properly. But at the same time, you, Elzbieta, and I were in Professor Fuszara’s offices of the Council of Ministers’ headquarters some years ago (2015) when she was giving the Courage in Public Scholarship Award to Ann Snitow. This was the previous government we had. So even trying to imagine something similar with today’s government, which basically uses anti-women and anti-feminist rhetoric as its staple, that’s really, really a huge gap in political culture and in approaching these issues we are all concerned about.
It’s a backlash that we are facing. It’s not just lack of progress that we were complaining about, or progress that was too slow that was happening in earlier years. But this is full scale backlash trying to take away all these rights, which women fought for and managed to win over the last thirty years. That’s, I think, how serious the situation is.
JG: Of course, the same thing is true of the United States, please one last question: given the challenges and complexities of the present moment, are you optimistic or are you pessimistic? It seems that there’s reason to be somewhat hopeful right now.
JK: Yes, yes. We are still hopeful in the short term about Trzaskowski’s chances. But I’m full of concern, first of all, even if Trzaskowski gets more votes, whether the government will play it fair. There are different scenarios. We didn’t talk about what can happen if PiS doesn’t like the result of the elections. It’s by no means clear to me that they will just let Trzaskowski move into the Presidential Palace. I think it’s that extreme. But I don’t know what are the chances of that happening. I hope less than 50%. But these scenarios are being discussed; quite specific scenarios are being discussed now on the side of the opposition about what happens if Trzaskowski wins the elections and Kaczyński refuses to recognize it. The way Kaczyński has been acting in recent months shows that he’s really willing to fight with any means available. He made threats like this. So, I am optimistic, combined with deep worry and concern.
JG: Well, it’s true here, too. People wonder, for Trump, everything is rigged. He may not accept the defeat. But I think this is an instance where the thickness and deep tradition in the United States, which is absent in Poland, makes it so that this kind of refusal to accept the result of the election is more likely there than here.
EM: Or we think so.
JG: No, no. I think the institutions would work. That first of all, the high-ranking members of the military have already revealed their intolerance for Trump. So, if he tried to do anything, the Armed Forces would not be behind him, the most fundamental base of power. And the Supreme Court, too. But the worry I have is that a kind of civil war could break out. The people who are so excited about Trump might not accept defeat, the Trump forces that are armed. That’s very, very scary. The militias and the people who protest against masking and the closings were armed in the capital building of the state of Michigan. That kind of thing may really happen after what I think is a highly likely Biden victory.
EM: It’s another similarity here, because from what I understand, not only Trump is trying to strengthen the paramilitary forces of various kinds. But Duda is calling for the establishment of new armed forces, the Territorial Defense Units, right?
JK: Actually, it was already established, and it exists, yes. It’s like a PiS militia.
JG: That’s frightening.
JK: We have it and it’s funded by the government.
JG: That’s very frightening stuff.
JK: Yeah, it is. It is.
Jacek Kucharczyk is the president of The Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw, Poland.
Elzbieta Matynia is professor of sociology at The New School for Social Research and director of Transregional Center for Democratic Studies.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research and publisher of Public Seminar.