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The short summer of democracy and the short-changed feelings of the people: on the causes of Post-Communist Populism in Poland

Political developments in Poland since 2015 are often described as a national conservative revolution, as a sudden authoritarian about-turn. But Karolina Wigura, a sociologist, journalist and historian of ideas, disagrees: in her view, the policy of the governing PiS party was laid out much earlier. A specific post-communist configuration has given rise to a brand of populism that could develop in many other European countries – unless we learn to listen to one another again. An essay on the roots of Polish post-communist populism.

By Karolina Wigura

On October 19th, a 54-year-old man, Piotr Szczęsny, set himself on fire in the centre of Warsaw. His motives were explained in a letter which was published on the same day. “I protest against breaking civic freedoms by the current Polish government – he wrote. – I protest against breaking the rules of democracy, especially against the de facto demolition of the Constitutional Tribunal and independent judiciary. (…) I would like Mr. Jarosław Kaczyński and the PiS-nomenclature to take into account that they are guilty of my death and that they have my blood on their hands.”

The incident caused comments in a dramatic tone, coming mostly from the Poland’s liberal and leftist opposition. Words were uttered about tragic symbolism of this kind of protests, associating Szczęsny with Jan Palach and Ryszard Siwiec, whose self-immolations were protests against communist authoritarian rule in Czechoslovakia and Poland before 1989. “Fire destroys, but also illuminates. Like anger” – wrote the famous Polish film-maker, Agnieszka Holland a few days after the incident in the centre of Warsaw. Despite this, the current governing party Law and Justice (PiS) and its supporters (according to opinion polls – currently more than 40 percent of the population) claim that democracy has not been better in our country since 1989. “Polish democracy is perhaps the best in Europe” – argued Mr. Kaczyński, when recently criticized by the French president Emmanuel Macron.

In this presentation, I will take Agnieszka Holland’s words as a point of departure. If she is right to say that the self-immolation of Szczęsny revealed something important, I would like to look into what it revealed. I will look for roots of PiS popularity, focusing on post-communist factors specific for Poland.

Many analysts perceive the recent political developments in Poland as an unexpected end of the country’s adventure with democracy. Yet there is one thing ever sharper visible in the darkness we found ourselves in. It is the fact that the unprecedented weakening of the institutional buffers of our democracy by the Law and Justice party has been possible due to deep processes which have been undergoing in our society and politics for a longer time. This is not simply an “authoritarian turn” of the Polish society that we are observing, but a result of a much more nuanced and complicated constellation of factors.

Sticking to the comparison used by Alexis de Tocqueville two centuries ago, one might say that what Poland is experiencing under Jarosław Kaczyński’s rule is not a revolution, as it is sometimes said, but a kind of posthumous convulsions of the system once built in the 1990s. Dying of a democracy, as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt recently wrote, is a process. 

Explanations of the recent populist rise in Poland often take into account the model of Poland’s democratic transition. A component only rarely analyzed, however, is that transition since 1989 concerned not only state or market institutions but was also a collective psychological process. In this process, at least three factors from beyond 1989 played a crucial role.

1. The decay of the post-communist mythos of the West

The first of these factors is the decay of the post-communist mythos of the West. This was first described by Jarosław Kuisz in the German intellectual quarterly Osteuropa. After 1989, Poland’s transformation was based on an almost absolutely uncritical attitude towards Western Europe and the US. This was partly due to people trying to extract themselves from impoverishment with Western tools of economic transformation.

Europeans emerging from behind the Iron Curtain, however, were not motivated by simple material aims. Quite the opposite: Western states represented a better world also in a moral sense. Perceiving the West through rose-tinted spectacles had to eventually come to an end, though. Generational change and scandals like the one with the secret CIA prison in Poland, proved the Western morality being as ambivalent as the Eastern one.
Already in 2014, the year of 25th anniversary of Polish democratic breakthrough, the country was in urgent need of finding a new concept of its identity, suitable not only because of Poland’s astonishing developments, but also from the geopolitical point of view – being situated between East and West. As the liberal elites proved unable to fill in this void, the populists skillfully used it, strengthening the narration of hostility towards Brussels, Western values, and style of living, leading to the country’s deepening international isolation.

2. The burned-out generation of the Round Table

The democratic transition in Poland was an accomplishment of the generation of dissidents. The same generation, almost 30 years later, still has the predominant symbolical and real influence on Poland’s politics. At the same time, the divide in the former democratic opposition born of the 1980s Solidarity movement between the “conservative nationalists” and “liberal conservatives” plays Polish politics.
The ex-dissidents were able to embark the country on democratic trajectory. They have, however, proved to be too preoccupied with demonizing the other side to look into the country’s future. Within the years the dispute between those two sides became ever more radical and personal. Poland’s today de facto leader Jarosław Kaczyński and the legendary leader of the anticommunist opposition Lech Wałęsa, today standing at opposite sides, belong to the same generation. The first famously burned a puppet of Wałęsa in 1993 during a public demonstration. The second calls Kaczyński a deceitful coward.

3. Total opposition as a process.

In 2016, the leaders of Poland’s opposition announced that because of the PiS breaking the rule of law, there is a necessity of forming a “total opposition”, meaning that they would oppose literally every step of the ruling government. The concept did not have much to do with the true state of the matters from the very beginning: as Radoslaw Zubek counted, the main opposition party Civic Platform voted identically to PiS in 60 percent of all cases since 2015.
It is important to understand, then, that “total opposition” is not, as it seems, a reaction to PiS itself. It is rather a next stage of a process present on the Polish political scene at least from the years 1997-2001, when Leszek Miller with his Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej decided to block the government of Jerzy Buzek in a disciplined, organized manner. It is worth noting that the total opposition strategy may be one of the reasons for relatively poor outcome of the opposition parties in the opinion polls. Instead of preparing their own vision and programme, they fixed their attention on PiS, which seems not enough credible for the voters.
Poland is today a European laboratory of post-communist populism in action. The year 2015 was bitter for many people in Poland. To many, it was bitter because, as they thought, populist, aggressive, and unreasonable forces have taken control over the country. To many others, it was bitter because it revealed the political, strategic, and moral crisis of the liberal elites.
Today, this defeat of the liberals should be a lesson for us. The populists like those from PiS derive their energy from the weakness of the political scene, from low credibility and seriousness of the alternative leaders. We should take into consideration the citizens’ political emotions, and instead of convincing them that they are irrational, take them seriously and work with them. We have to learn again to listen to the other.  Otherwise the “wave of populism” will not turn around in the foreseeable future.