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Polish Fever

Polish Fever

The political temperature continues to rise as Poland heads into parliamentary elections—which can only be expected in a divided democracy.

Dalibor Roháč

In our 21st century, every upcoming election seems like the most important in history. The upcoming Polish one is no exception. In the view of opposition activists, Poland is just one step away from becoming a Catholic version of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey should the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) win on October 15. According to PiS, meanwhile, its center-right Civic Platform (PO) challengers—led by the former prime minister, Donald Tusk—are either agents of German interests or appeasers of Russia eager to destroy Poland’s independence.

While hyperbole is understandable in the heat of a campaign, Poland’s unhinged election season risks having real consequences. Last month, on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, PiS’ Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak published contingency plans for a possible Russian invasion prepared by his PO predecessor in 2011. Focusing in on the worst-case scenario in which Poland would be defeated within two weeks, Błaszczak accused PO of being ready “to give up half of the country” to Vladimir Putin.

Demagoguery aside, the irresponsible nature of the disclosures cannot be overstated. The plans reveal sensitive information about Poland’s defense posture, military bases, and logistics plans, which, while they may be outdated, still likely bear some relationship to how the present-day Polish military would approach the country’s defense. In a disturbing turn of events just days before the election, two of Poland’s most senior military commanders, including the chief of the general staff, tendered their resignations. 

In addition to calling for German reparations, PiS has fomented conspiracy-mongering around the 2010 plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, which killed the former Polish President Lech Kaczyński—twin brother of PiS’ leader, Jarosław Kaczyński—alongside almost one hundred top government officials. There is no evidence that the disaster, which eerily echoed the 1943 crash that had killed the country’s prime minister in exile, Władysław Sikorski, was anything but a tragic accident. However, in PiS’ information and media ecosystem, hints of (at a minimum) Russian involvement are commonplace—not to mention suggestions that Tusk’s government at the time essentially conspired with Putin to have its domestic political opponents liquidated. 

In turn, the PO campaign alleges that the immigration-skeptical PiS government has been issuing large numbers of Polish work visas to mostly Ukrainians and Belarusians through corrupt schemes. Investigations, including by EU institutions, are ongoing and the scale of actual bribery is unclear. Nevertheless, what the case illustrates is the extent to which Ukraine is slowly becoming a subject of political controversy within Poland—a surprising development given the broad-based consensus about the threat that Russia poses to Poland.

The most divisive Ukraine-related issue by far has had to do with imports of Ukrainian grain and other agricultural commodities into Poland. Those spiked because of Russia’s blockade and bombing of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. Earlier this year, Poland and four other East European countries pressured EU institutions to introduce a temporary ban on grain imports that expired on September 15. Thereafter, Hungary and Poland (and for a brief moment, Slovakia) introduced their own unilateral bans—most likely in violation of EU law.

Ukraine threatened to challenge the bans with the World Trade Organization. The week of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stated in an interview that Poland was “not arming Ukraine any longer.” It was not immediately clear whether the statement announced a new Polish policy, deliberately escalating the kerfuffle with Kyiv—or whether it was just an imprudent off-the-cuff remark, referring to the fact that Poland has arguably run out of older military equipment to give away and needs to rebuild its own stocks. The fact that Polish President Andrzej Duda and even members of Morawiecki’s cabinet quickly sought to downplay the comments signaled that unintended damage to the relationship with Ukraine had already been done. 

While an agreement on facilitating export of Ukrainian grain through Poland has finally been reached, some PiS-connected voices argue that it is in fact Ukraine’s policy toward Poland that has changed for the worse—and that Kyiv is now seeking to build a partnership with Berlin, bypassing Warsaw. In the heat of the moment, comparisons of the current situation to the 17th-century Khmelnytskiy rebellion (in which the ancestors of today’s Ukrainians fought Polish nobles), or to the wartime alliance between Nazi Germany and Ukrainian nationalists, seem no longer off limits. The situation has not been helped by honors extended (by most accounts accidentally) by Canada’s House of Commons to a Ukrainian SS veteran during Zelenskyy’s visit to Ottawa. His unit, the Waffen SS Galicia, participated in massacres of Polish civilians, among other war crimes. 

Given the centrality of Poland’s support for Ukraine and the need for Polish leadership in Eastern Europe, one can only hope that the fever breaks quickly. But not all news from Poland is uniformly bad. If one tunes out the divisive campaign noise, it is encouraging that PiS’ original plan—namely, to build “Budapest in Warsaw”—has seen only partial success. For all the alarmist rhetoric from PO and Poland’s civil society, it seems exceedingly unlikely that PiS will be able to turn Poland into an Orbán- or Erdoğan-style autocracy, even if it does manage to stay in power after its two four-year terms. 

For one, PiS’ record since 2015 shows only a very limited success in centralizing power. The attack on the judiciary’s independence has been real and remains troubling—though there is no easy EU-level fix to the problem, as some imagine. The country’s public broadcasting no longer pretends to be even-handed, and arbitrary application of license law has targeted some private outlets. There can be, however, no comparison between Hungary’s monoculture and the rich and diverse media ecosystem existing in Poland. Unlike Fidesz, PiS has never reached a parliamentary supermajority, which would allow it to make constitutional changes—and it is unlikely to do so now. At this juncture, the opposition also controls the Senate, which is less powerful than its U.S. counterpart but nonetheless still provides some check on government power.

Secondly, should PiS win the election, forming a government would almost inevitably require a deal with Confederation (Konfederacja), a ramshackle political grouping that blends together ethnonationalism and Catholicism (neither of which is alien to PiS) with free-market libertarian commitments on economic policy (which are antithetical to PiS’s platform).

The prospect brings back memories of the ill-fated coalition government between PiS and a similarly controversial League of Polish Families, which collapsed in 2007 a little over a year into its existence. It is not a foregone conclusion that a PiS-Confederation government would be similarly short-lived. However, it seems clear that the country will face serious economic headwinds soon, and that in the event the two parties may have radically different views of how to proceed.

One potential point of contention is stubbornly high inflation, which has not been helped by the recent decision of the central bank to cut its reference rate from 6.75 to 6 percent—likely to provide a relief to households and firms ahead of the election. Not without reason, the opposition is calling foul and accusing the bank’s leadership of shedding any pretense of independence.

Poland’s public debt, meanwhile, is relatively low, around 50 percent, but its dynamics can easily get out of control. PiS has overseen large increases in the size of entitlement programs and has promised to cut retirement age after the election. Then there is, of course, the entirely reasonable and well-justified (if ambitious and fiscally costly) program of Poland’s rearmament, bringing defense spending over 4 percent of GDP. Maintaining macroeconomic stability will be a challenge for any future government, not to speak of a government that will likely be radically divided on the issue.

A PO-led government would also involve complicated coalition politics, this time with smaller progressive parties on the center left. One hopes that a change of government would provide a foundation for a more constructive dialogue with Poland’s West European partners. Ideally, Poland’s voice would be used not to wage culture wars against Brussels but to keep minds focused on the main challenge facing the EU and NATO: the threat of Russia, and the need to secure a viable future for Ukraine embedded in the Western alliance.

Whether a possible Tusk government can deliver on that promise while also stabilizing Poland’s economy is an open question. One has to wonder whether a change in government would not propel a heavy-handed effort to undo all the perceived transgressions of the PiS era—but in ways that would further degrade political institutions. The opposition’s musings about how it could shorten the central bank governor’s term through ad hoc legislative action—or about how he could be held liable for the politically-inspired interest-rate cutting—are disconcerting. A politics of exception is no way to strengthen the independence of institutions such as the central bank. Rather, it looks like a sure proof way to further raise the stakes in a polarized political environment.

That said, democratic politics in a divided society like Poland’s is bound to be a conflict-ridden enterprise. In that sense, the combative, even nasty, nature of Poland’s debate in the weeks heading into the election is neither surprising nor proof of dysfunction. One can only hope that its cumulative impact will not lead to further diminishment of Poland’s status on the European stage, nor that it will trap the country permanently in a mentality of trauma, conspiracy, and grievance.

 Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor with American Purpose. Twitter: @DaliborRohac

Image: Donald Tusk in Ustron, August 2023, Wikimedia Commons

Eastern EuropeEuropeDemocracyUkraine