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Why Poland offers a warning to Americans
Despite their different histories, there is a lot to learn from comparing how the Right in both countries consolidate their power.
A proud nation, split in two by social attitudes and political allegiances, where legal abortion is threatened and demagogues ruthlessly enforce their misogynist agenda through politicized courts despite an almost-mythical constitution, with bilious anti-communism used as a justification. The United States? Yes. And Poland too.
Though in some ways these two countries could hardly be more different, the internal political dynamics are shockingly similar – and are leading down a dramatic path of right-wing consolidation in the courts, as we saw with Republican Senator Mitch McConnell’s maneuvers to control supreme court nominations by refusing to let former president Barack Obama nominate a judge before leaving office and then allowing Trump to do so.
The ruling party in Poland was even more brazen, with President Andrzej Duda refusing to let three of the court’s judges take their seats before an election, appointing party-aligned replacements instead, and later two former parliamentarians. In 2021, these justices introduced a near-total ban on abortion, except in cases of rape and incest, removing the exceptions for fetal abnormalities that had previously allowed 1000 abortions a year in the heavily-Catholic country.
Politically, Poland closely resembles the United States, without any major social-democratic movement. It boasts instead a liberal block called Civic Platform, generally hostile to state welfare and nationalized industry, and a religious hard-right block happy to hand state companies to their friends and dole out government cash if it plays well with the voters.
In the EU Parliament, both blocks are right-of-centre, conservatives versus ultra-conservative nationalists. The United Right block is dominated by the European party perhaps closest to the Republicans in style and substance, PiS, a Polish acronym for Law and Justice. Like the Republicans they are dominated by cynical nationalist men who use religion when it’s convenient.
And like the Republicans, their opponents’ attempts to wrongfoot them mostly fail.
Poland has been living out its own McCarthyism since shortly after democracy was restored in 1991 with a process called “lustration,” named after a Roman cleansing ritual. Communism provided a convenient foe for parties looking to definitively forge their own Polish identity after decades, and before that centuries, of oppression. PiS supercharged this when they were first in power in 2006, trying even to legally force civil servants, journalists, CEOs and lawyers to admit if they had worked with the Communist authorities, even when this was legal – this was deemed unconstitutional and helped usher them from power.
And so for PiS, the judges became Communist relics whose “legal impossibilism” blocks their reforms. Their Joseph McCarthy is PiS founder and the svengali of Polish politics Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who said, “Without a deep reform of the courts, fixing the country is very difficult, as this is the last barricade, the last level of decision-making in many different cases.”
Meanwhile PiS are waging a cold war with the European Union over a ruling that declared the supremacy of Polish over European law.
And though PiS’ politics is about as Trumpian as you get in the EU, at first glance the man who drives it could not seem further away from the orange demagogue (or indeed Hungary’s Trump-esque Viktor Orban). Kaczynski is taciturn, tactical and uninterested in attention, except from his cat. After being elected Prime Minister in 2005, he suddenly stood aside to give his twin brother Lech a better shot at running for President. It worked. He prefers to be out of the spotlight, holding power without office. He rarely tweets or grandstands, and is content with pulling political strings from behind the scenes as head of the seemingly all-powerful party.
While Trump is known for his devastating monikers for rivals such as “Crooked Hilary” or “Mini Mike”, Kaczynski is more likely to rail against the supposedly German-controlled “Fourth Reich” of the EU, the Russians for causing the plane crash that killed his brother, or crypto-communists who have infiltrated whichever organization opposes his party’s total power.
Kaczynski redrew the political map with 500+, the election-winning flagship policy that gives roughly $115 a month for each child a family has. This amount of money can be life-changing for families in Poland, where the minimum wage is just $700. Meanwhile, it reinforces the leading right-wing party’s pro-family credentials and gives people from across the political spectrum a hard-to-ignore material benefit for voting for them.
In a country normally hostile to even a whiff of socialism after suffering 40 years of repression by the Soviet Union, this political masterstroke forcefully separated conservatism from free-market libertarianism without building any real state-aligned institutions. And with the US Democrats bogged down in the Senate over the Infrastructure bill and Trump’s popular $2000 pandemic relief cheques, Americans might see similar vote-buying tactics used by the right.
PiS’ program, based on a toxic mixture of nationalism, social conservatism and welfare spending is genuinely popular in Poland, and regularly wins majorities in elections, whereas the US Republicans are largely kept in power outdated, anti-democratic institutions like the electoral college and the Senate or gerrymandering. When Trump was elected, op-eds aplenty abounded about the newly-discovered “left behind.” In Poland, this is nothing new.
Though PiS may seem all-powerful, they are increasingly beholden to a relatively small group of disadvantaged, otherwise powerless people: their base. These are the eastern Polish rural radicals for whom the cruel and unpopular abortion ban was introduced, and who actively want conflict with the EU and other bigger countries. MAGA has nothing on them.
These extreme policies might turn off enough Polish voters to kick PiS out of power, but if they continue their control past the next parliamentary election, and further enhance their power over the courts and with that women’s bodies, MAGA might try to learn from them.
James Jackson is a freelance journalist and commentator who is in Warsaw as part of the International Journalist Program fellowship. He is interested in the political culture of Central and Eastern Europe.
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