President Andrzej Duda’s veto of two laws this month–they would have subordinated Poland’s independent courts to the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS)–delayed briefly the campaign of the Catholic right-wing PiS to bring all three branches of governance under its own control. The president’s rejection of handing the fiercely nationalist party a monopoly on naming Supreme Court justices and all national judges averted immediate disciplinary action by the European Union against the Polish parliament’s breach of rule of law.
However, his signing of a third law granting the PiS parliamentary majority the right to fire and hire all local judges keeps disciplinary action high on the agenda of the wary EU.
Thus, the bitter fight for the soul of Poland that shattered the solidarity of the Solidarity trade union movement two decades ago rages on. So does the EU’s dilemma over chastising members like Poland and Hungary that pocket generous EU financial support but flout the democratic standards they vowed to keep when they joined the Union. Senior EU officials are warning Warsaw that if it crosses the democratic red line by purging judges, it can expect an EU resort to sanctions of reduced EU funding and/or suspension of EU voting rights.
Right-wing populism in Poland runs far deeper than domestic divides in nations like Austria, the Netherlands, and France, which in the past year have managed to keep right-wing populists out of their presidency or governing coalitions. Polarization between prosperous, urban, pro-Europe, and pro-West “Poland A” and poor, rural, anti-Europe and anti-West “Poland B” goes back to the 19th-century extinction of Poland as a state and dispersal of its territory into Prussian, Austrian, and Russian sectors.
Poland A in the west modernized and also developed a cultural affinity with post-Napoleonic France through Frederic Chopin and others. Its identity shone through from 2007 to 2014, when the centrist Civic Platform under Prime Minister Donald Tusk made Poland a poster child for the attraction of EU soft power in Central Europe and jacked Poland’s economy up to the 24th richest in the world. By contrast, Poland B in the east stagnated in the 19th century. Its identity shone through in 2015 as the PiS won a 38% victory for a majority in both houses of parliament.
Given Poland B’s historical lack of democratic experience, the PiS took over the government with a majoritarian winner-take-all mentality. It had no concept of a loyal opposition. Those who stood in its way were to be silenced, including even judges in the independent courts set up in the early 1990s as Moscow’s hegemony in Eastern Europe collapsed and the Soviet Union itself imploded. As a New York Times editorial put it, to PiS chairman and Poland’s most powerful politician, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, “the opposite of authoritarian Communist rule is authoritarian right-wing rule, not democracy.” Link to NYTimes
The stakes of populism and polarization are therefore higher in Poland than in domestic divides in the rest of Europe and the United States. Hostility between the two Poland’s could erupt into bloodshed, commented a veteran moderate Polish journalist in Warsaw. He requested anonymity, as the PiS is also vetting the fourth estate to purge the media of those who are not zealous nationalists, and he is already on his editors’ to-fire list.
He justified his concern as legitimate and not exaggerated by describing the Territorial Defense Force that was founded last year as a fifth branch of the Polish armed forces. It is similar to Ukrainian militias that have helped hold the line against vastly better-armed Russian forces in Moscow’s undeclared war on Ukraine. But Poland’s units of irregular volunteers would not only resist any foreign attack; they would stay in their own regions and, as their champion, PiS deputy leader and Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz announced last year, would also teach “patriotism” and “commitment” to local communities. They are slated to grow to 53,000 by 2019, are well financed and armed, and in the growing atmosphere of paranoia could be used to suppress political dissidents, the reporter contends.
Notably, PiS crowds regularly boo Lech Walesa–the electrician who famously made Solidarity the first independent trade union in the Soviet bloc and triggered imitations throughout Communist East Europe–and label him a Russian agent. The PiS further berates its predecessor Civic Platform government for having sought reconciliation rather than purging all of Poland’s former Communist officials. And last March the government carried its demonization of former Prime Minister Tusk to the point of being the sole EU member to vote against his reappointment to a second term as President of the European Council.
For good measure, the PiS has not only reverted to the 1990s’ Polish Catholic suspicion of what it sees as a “Protestant” European Union that is out to destroy traditional Polish values. It has also reversed the Civic Platform’s reconciliation with Poland’s old enemies of Germany and Ukraine by reviving historical antagonism with both countries.
Above all else, the PiS accuses today’s Civic Platform opposition of complicity with the Kremlin in plotting the 2010 crash near Smolensk of a Polish Air Force jet that was carrying Kaczynski’s identical twin brother Lech, the then Polish President. (Most other observers blamed the crash on the insistence of senior Polish officials on board that the plane must land despite thick fog so they could proceed quickly to pay their respects at the Katyn Forest site of the Soviet massacre in 1940 of 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals.) This month PiS Chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski appeared once again on the podium of the Sejm to shout at Polish opposition deputies, “You are the accomplices! You murdered my brother!” Link to youtube The journalist explained, “He is obsessed with avenging his twin’s death. He lives alone and has no other, normal life. He lives only to avenge his brother.”
Despite President Duda’s two-thirds veto on ending judicial independence, there now seems to be little in the way of domestic democratic institutions to slow down the steamroller of Kaczynski’s revenge. The only potential brakes are EU censure — and the half-year-old pro-democracy anti- government street protests that continue in 70 Polish cities.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and author.