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Two faces of Polish rebellion

The narrow presidential election reveals a country divided

July 13, 2020

3:18 PM

13 July 2020

3:18 PM

The narrowness of President Andrzej Duda’s victory in this weekend’s Polish presidential elections, where he defeated Rafał Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw, by less than two percent, was God’s gift to opinion commentators.

What with Brexit, Trump, et cetera we can write 800-1,200 words about a nation being ‘divided’ and ‘polarized’ in our sleep. Why even write different pieces? Just shift the names around and you are golden.

The problem with this kind of article is that often it obscures national distinctions. In Poland, for example, President Duda’s Law and Justice Party — unlike the US conservatives and the Republicans — is the more redistributionist of the two leading parties. Their child benefit scheme ‘500 plus’, under which parents are given the Polish equivalent of about $125 for every child, among other policies has made them popular among poorer families. That their time in power has been one of economic growth has also made the status quo seem more attractive.

One has to be very careful about applying our pet narratives to different countries, then. Still, at the risk of having my kremówka and eating it, Poland could hardly have such tight election results and not have significant societal polarities. I thought about one when I read the Guardian journalist Christian Davies writes:

‘In five years of observing Poland under PiS, something that has fascinated me is why a nation with such a reputation for rebelliousness seems to have so meekly accepted being pushed around by this government.’ 


I think both opponents and supporters of Law and Justice — as well, in the latter case, as supporters of the more right-wing party Konfederacja — see themselves as rebels. More liberal Poles believe themselves to be rebelling against the national establishment. More right-wing Poles view themselves as rebelling against the continental establishment.

Supporters of Civic Platform, the leading opposition party, or more left-wing parties like Lewica, can at least claim to have an establishment to rebel against. Progressives in Britain sound absurd when they strike a rebellious pose because they have so much more status than traditionalists. Poland is hardly Salazar’s Portugal, or even Orbán’s Hungary, but it does have a conservative government with an imposing influence on the organs of the state, and a powerful and influential Catholic Church. Gay marriage does not exist, abortion is illegal in most cases, and the government has introduced changes to the judicial system that its opponents view as being unconstitutional. While nobody has argued that elections are fixed, the government’s critics certainly maintain that the bias of the state media, the influence of the Church and the overarching power of Law and Justice chairman Jarosław Kaczyński make them far less meaningfully democratic than they might appear. Tomasz Lis, the editor of Newsweek Polska, has described the state in florid terms as a ‘monstrous factory of lies and hatred.’

I am by no means saying that everyone who votes against Law and Justice is a social liberal as we understand the term. Some of them dislike the party as an institution. Some of them want nothing more than to pay less tax. But at least a sizable proportion of them are progressive, and fear that the government is taking them down a path of austere, corrupt Catholic authoritarianism.

On the other hand, a sizable proportion of the Polish right fears that it is they who are under attack. As the only country in EU which protects unborn life in most cases, maintains the institution of marriage as it existed before the millennium and has not accepted levels of non-European immigration that have radically transformed its national demographics, conservative Catholic and nationalist Poles feel the pressure of liberal modernity. They do not think progressivism spreads by means of natural appeal and good faith argumentation, but agree with the academic and Law and Justice politician Ryszard Legutko, who, in his book The Demon in Democracy, described progressivism as a totalizing force which ‘rejects a vast share of loyalties and commitments’ while creating a ‘stifling atmosphere typical of a political monopoly.’

These Poles know they are viewed as the ‘problem child‘ of Europe by most of its political and corporate institutions, and that media and non-governmental organizations are committed to promoting progressive values. This is not a secret. A report from the Open Society Foundation describes how legal cases brought through the European Court of Human Rights are ‘used relentlessly by local advocates, international human rights groups, Members of the European Parliament, United Nations human rights bodies, and many others’ to promote the liberalization of ‘reproductive rights policies’. The EU court continues to try to punish Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic for refusing to accept migrants from North Africa in 2015.

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This explains the heat of intranational hostility. Both sides feel embattled and endangered, and are liable to believe that disagreeing with them represents a form of betrayal. The same can be true in Britain, America and elsewhere, but if there is a Polish twist it is that both sides — with the exception of a handful of Eastern Bloc nostalgists and young radicals — believe they are the true inheritors of post-communist Poland and that their opponents represent the awful reincarnation of darker times. Anti-government writers like Marcin Zaremba and Piotr Osęka often compare Law and Justice to the paranoid bureaucracies of the PRL, while right-wing thinkers like Legutko compare progressive iconoclasm and intolerance to that of communist ideologues and states.

It is not my business to tell Poles whether or not to argue and which side to be on. At the risk of being sanctimonious, one thing that I would advise is not forgetting that good people sit on either aisle. That is almost a truism of course — and can never entirely supersede politics— but it seems especially relevant after such a nail-biter of an election.

This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.


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