The ‘remodelling ’ of Poland

The new government’s attempts to remake Polish democracy

For the better part of the past decade, the conventional wisdom in Poland is that its transformation from communism has been an overwhelming success. The country had achieved continuous economic growth for more than 20 years, joined Western political and security institutions such as the European Union and NATO, and became the only country on the continent to pass through the global financial crisis without going into recession. One World Bank economist dubbed the period ‘Poland’s New Golden Age’.

That narrative is now being challenged. 2015 brought a sea-change to Poland’s political landscape, in which the conservative opposition party, Law and Justice (PiS), swept the centre-right Civic Platform (PO) from power. PiS and its supporters believe that the ‘success’ of the past 25 years has mostly been a sham, in which the rich and well connected have collaborated with former communists to enrich themselves at the expense of regular Poles. According to Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the party, “Poland needs remodelling. This is about whether democracy is able to make decisions instead of a handful of people bought by foreigners and internal forces that don’t serve Polish interests.”

Deep imbalances

In two elections just six months apart, the previously popular, PO-backed Bronisław Komorowski was turned out of the Presidential Palace, while PiS became the first party since the country’s transition to gain an outright majority in parliament. The results puzzled international observers.
At the time, Poland’s economy was growing at a healthy 3.5%, and unemployment was falling. The country had gained unprecedented sway in international politics, with the former prime minister, Donald Tusk, becoming President of the European Council.

But these factors hid deeper imbalances that rankled many Poles. While the lives of middle-class, educated citydwellers had improved, people living in rural areas and distant suburbs saw their fortunes stall. As for Poland’s say in the EU , it seemed to many Poles that Germany – whose
World War II crimes against the country still leave a bitter taste – was calling the shots and impinging on Polish sovereignty. “The truth is that Poland’s fast development left out a large part of Polish society,” said Filip Pazderski, a policy analyst for democracy and civil society at the Institute for Public Affairs. “These include the people who had already been left behind by the reforms of the 1990s when state-run factories were shut down, or when state-owned companies were sold off.”

Much of this occurred because investment, though robust throughout the transformation period, was mainly concentrated in the country’s largest metropolises. Older and middle-aged Poles who lived in remote towns were forced to commute hours to low-skilled jobs in the big cities,
often for salaries a third of the national average.

Such Poles also tend to be more conservative, and the elections in Poland coincided with the height of the refugee crisis in Europe. Though few migrants were interested in coming to Poland, with its GDP per capita only about a third of the EU average, conservative Poles worried about an influx of culturally dissimilar immigrants changing the social fabric of the country. PiS staunchly opposed EU -mandated quotas for the number of refugees each member state had to take in. This played well with the disaffected electorate.

Young and restless

It wasn’t just older, conservative Poles who supported PiS. Young Poles voted in droves for the party. Mr Kaczyński, who is one of the most controversial and least-trusted politicians in the country, realised that he needed to put a new face on his party. He tapped younger protégées – Andrzej Duda and Beata Szydło – to run for president and prime minister respectively. This gave many the impression that PiS, whose
two years in power between 2005 and 2007 was characterized by controversy and a deterioration in Poland’s reputation abroad, had changed its ways.

Young people also had reason to be dissatisfied economically. Joining the EU opened up the borders of Western Europe to young Poles studying
or deciding to emigrate for work. What they found were economies far more prosperous than theirs at home. Young Poles with Masters degrees and PhDs found the salaries in their fields at home were far lower than those for unskilled labour in places such as Germany, the UK and Scandinavia. Hardly able to afford single-bedroom apartments and wanting to start families, graduates felt forced to leave their homeland
for better opportunities abroad.

Enter Law and Justice, with campaign promises to reassert Polish sovereignty in the EU , protect cultural values, increase
government assistance and roll back many of the pro-market reforms instituted during the previous government. The party’s plan to bring the retirement age back to 60 years old for women and 65 for men (Civic Platform had raised it to 67 for both sexes) appealed to older Poles. A programme to hand out 500 złoty per child per month (later clarified to exclude the first child) struck a chord with young families. Law and
Justice had found a winning formula.

The party won in parliamentary elections held on 25 October, 2015, with 37.6% of the vote. Rules for apportioning seats in the Sejm, the lower house of Poland’s parliament, meant that was enough to give PiS a majority. It took 235 out of the 460 seats. PiS took its victory not only as a mandate for legislative change, but for deep, systemic transformation.

Courting controversy

The new government set to the task with gusto. It set out to revamp Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, which judges the constitutionality of legislation, as its first ‘remodelling’ project. The outgoing parliament had elected five new judges to the court just as its term was ending.
However, President Duda refused to swear them in, and instead waited for the new parliament chose five of its own. The Constitutional Tribunal
finally ruled that three of the judges who had been selected under the PO-dominated parliament should be allowed to join the court.

The new government resisted, insisting that the tribunal was already packed with judges biased against it. Instead of following the court’s ruling, it rushed through legislation that required the court to come to a two-thirds majority for decisions, and allowed the president and justice minister to
bring disciplinary proceedings against its judges. A series of street protests ensued throughout the country. These were sometimes met with counter-protests by government supporters. While the socially conservative, economically nationalistic PiS had been butting heads with the economically liberal and socially centrist PO for over a decade, it had been years since Poland’s political landscape was so highly charged and divisive.

Other controversial moves brought more strong reactions. Despite promises to the contrary during the election campaign, new Prime Minister Beata Szydło tapped Antoni Macierewicz as defence minister. Mr Macierewicz believes that the 2010 plane crash near Smolensk, Russia, which killed then-President Lech Kaczyński (Jarosław’s twin brother) and 95 others was not an accident, as both international and Polish investigators have found. Instead, he says, it was a planned attack, potentially resulting from a bomb on board the plane. The government has opened a new inquiry into the crash, with the investigators appointed by Mr Macierewicz himself. “I am deeply convinced that this decision and the work of the [investigators will lead to] a final decision,” Mr Macierewicz said, adding that the new probe would “allow us to find out what happened, but also who is responsible”.

Changing the channel

Another incident that raised eyebrows occurred in November, when Culture Minister Piotr Gliński ordered the Marshal of the Lower Silesia voivodeship to halt the production of a play by a Nobel Prize-winning author in the city of Wrocław, claiming its sexually explicit scenes were “pornographic”. The play was being performed in a theatre that received nearly half its funding from the state. The marshal, Cezary Przybylski,
however, refused to shut down the play.

Later, Minister Gliński took part in an interview on public television station TVP INFO where he was questioned about the incident. During the tense discussion, the interviewer demanded that Mr Gliński answer her questions, frequently interrupting him. The latter insisted on giving a long
explanation of his position. Mr Gliński finally told the journalist, Karolina Lewicka, that her station was “broadcasting propaganda, and that will soon be over”. Ms Lewicka was suspended from her position only hours later, though she was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing by an ethics commission.

Such controversial political moves boosted the standing of the opposition, especially the new party Nowoczesna (“Modern”) founded by economist
Ryszard Petru. The economically liberal party, backed by the architect of Poland’s economic transformation, Leszek Balcerowicz, was formed
in the summer of 2015, after Andrzej Duda won the presidency. Mr Duda’s decisive win, viewed against the backdrop of Bronisław Komorowski’s lacklustre campaign and the uninspiring leadership of then-Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz of PO, Donald Tusk’s successor, made clear to many that the ruling party was due to lose the October parliamentary elections.
Mr Petru’s party attracted many educated, middle- and upper-class voters that had previously formed PO’s core constituency. Though it had only received 7.6% of the vote in the parliamentary elections, by January it was leading in opinion polls. PiS has since regained the lead, but some surveys still put Nowoczesna in a close second. The question now is whether PO, which still holds far more seats in parliament (138 to Nowoczesna’s 28), will be able to regain traction and work together with Nowoczesna to offer a clear alternative. “The opposition owes its big rise in the polls more to fears over the PiS government’s actions than to their own political initiatives,” said Norbert Maliszewski, an expert in political marketing at the University of Warsaw.
The rise of the opposition in the opinion polls did not stop the government from pushing through more controversial legislation. Mr Gliński’s statements during his interview were prescient, as in late December the government moved to take much greater control over state media. A new law effectively dismissed the management of all public television and radio broadcasters, and allowed the Treasury Ministry to appoint their replacements. The government argued the move was necessary to correct biases and “deal with the extremely unreliable work of the
public media,” according to Ryszard Terlecki, the head of PiS’s parliamentary caucus. “If the media criticises our changes . . . we have to stop it,”
Mr Terlecki added. “Public media are not involved in party political disputes, they should just accurately inform the public.” Opponents said the government was working to turn public media into a propaganda arm.

International reaction

PiS’s initiatives – especially its changes to the Constitutional Tribunal and public media – began to cause a stir internationally as well. In January, the EU ’s executive arm, the European Commission, held a debate over whether to sanction Poland under Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, which aims to protect human rights and democracy. Had the Commission voted against Poland, it would have lost its voting rights at the European Council (which comprises member states’ heads of government) – the first time such a punishment had ever been issued. Ultimately, the Commission decided not to take any action against Poland, though western European politicians continue to express concern. Also in January, rating agency Standard and Poor’s downgraded Poland’s long term foreign currency sovereign credit rating from A- to BBB+, with a negative outlook. “The downgrade reflects our view that Poland’s system of institutional checks and balances has been eroded significantly,” the agency said in a statement. The Finance Ministry countered that the rating did not reflect “economic and financial analysis.”

“This decision is contradictory to assessments presented by other rating agencies, the biggest international financial institutions and financial-market participants,” the ministry added in a statement. Nevertheless, the złoty tumbled on the news. Since the downgrade the złoty has regained some of its value against the euro, but still remains around 4% weaker than at the end of last year.

There was also reaction from the United States. Three senior senators, including former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Szydło in February urging her government to “recommit to the core principles of the OSCE and the EU , including the respect for democracy, human rights, and rule of law”. The authors, who also included Democratic Senators Ben Cardin and Richard Durbin, said the legislation on media and the Constitutional Tribunal “could serve to diminish democratic norms in Poland, including the rule of law and independence of the judiciary.” Ms Szydło replied that her administration was only correcting imbalances put in place by the previous government, and that Americans should not be “lecturing” Poland.

Worst behind us

The government has decided to react to the international concern with a charm offensive. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski toured European capitals looking to explain the new government’s position, and penned opinion pieces for international newspapers looking to clarify the reasoning behind the controversial legislation.
At a debate in the European Parliament in January, Szydło told MEPs: “I see no reason to devote so much time to Polish affairs,” adding that “there has been no violation of the constitution.” “Nothing bad is happening,” she concluded. Whether that is true or not depends on your point of view,
but what is certain is that the PiS government plans to continue its path to transform Poland. In an interview with wSieci magazine, Ms Szydło said: “No matter how much the opposition tries to interfere, whether inside the country or outside, they will not break us. We will survive and we will carry out the changes that are vital for Poland.”

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