Luke Coppen

Poles apart | 19 May 2016

The country’s politics are far more complex – and less right-wing – than outsiders make out

Poles apart | 19 May 2016
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Bono has a new opponent: Liroy, a tattooed Polish rapper whose hits include ‘Jak Tu Sie Nie Wkurwic’ (‘How can I not get pissed off?’). He was outraged when the U2 singer recently claimed that Poland is succumbing to ‘hyper-nationalism’. In an open letter Liroy wrote: ‘Your knowledge on this subject must be based on a rather questionable source and is far from the truth. Both as a musician and a Polish MP I would like to invite you to Warsaw to discuss the subject… and see for yourself the current vibe of Poland.’

It’s obvious where Bono got the idea. Everyone in western Europe seems convinced that Polish democracy is on the verge of extinction at the hands of a right-wing nationalist party that seized power last October. There’s a widespread belief that the ‘anti-liberal’ and ‘anti-democratic’ Law and Justice party (PiS) is trampling on the constitutional court, intelligence services and public media.

For Poles like Liroy, however, this is a partisan narrative, accepted uncritically by foreigners. The ‘Poland lies in ruins’ line, they say, is a crafty piece of spin by the ousted party, Civic Platform. Critics insist that Platforma, as it’s known, disgraced itself in government. Its eight-year reign was corrupt, incompetent, arrogant and slavishly pro-European. Now, they say, the party is seeking to undermine its successor with the help of Brussels.

That is a partisan narrative, too, of course — one eagerly promoted by PiS supporters. An atmosphere of disinformation and propaganda makes it difficult to determine the truth. Poland is the land of spiskologia, conspiracy theory and counter-conspiracy theory, where nothing is what it seems.

PiS is a much more complicated group than most English-language journalists make out. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a 66-year-old cat-loving bachelor, is its chief ideological architect. Described as ‘part Yoda, part KarlLagerfeld’, he is regarded by many as the most powerful man in Poland. He exercises that power indirectly, through two younger, more telegenic figures: Andrzej Duda, the country’s new president; and Beata Szydlo, the prime minister.

Along with his identical twin brother Lech, Jaroslaw starred in the 1962 children’s film The Two Who Stole the Moon. They joined Solidarity, the movement that overthrew communism, but became disillusioned after Poland’s transition to democracy. They believed that Solidarity had agreed to a disastrous compromise, letting outgoing communists retain control of parts of the economy, media and intelligence services. The brothers were determined to undo this uklad (‘pact’), which enemies insisted was a figment of their imaginations.

When Jaroslaw became prime minister and Lech president, they seized their chance. But Jaroslaw held office for barely a year and Lech died in a plane crash in Russia that wiped out much of the PiS leadership. Jaroslaw has worn black ever since.

Despite attempting to keep a low profile, Jaroslaw hasn’t lost his gift for provocation. When the opposition reported PiS to Brussels, he compared them to the 18th-century noblemen who betrayed Poland to Catherine the Great. ‘In Poland, there is a horrible tradition of national treason, a habit of informing on Poland to foreign bodies,’ he said. ‘And that’s what it is. As if it’s in their genes, in the genes of Poles of the worst sort.’

‘Poles of the worst sort’ has become an ironic rallying cry among the new government’s opponents. Protesters at rallies organised by the newly formed Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) wear T-shirts bearing the slogan.

A frustrating aspect of the debate is that commentators rarely define their terms. The new government is typically described as right-wing and nationalistic, but as the historian Adam Zamoyski points out, ‘Their fiscal policy is anything but right-wing.’ PiS is committed to higher welfare spending, tax breaks for the poor and lowering the retirement age.

As for nationalism, it’s true that PiS is less enthusiastic about Brussels than Platforma. Government officials now speak against a backdrop of Polish flags rather than a mixture of Polish and EU flags. Nevertheless, PiS backs Poland’s EU membership, and President Duda is firmly opposed to Brexit.

The true hyper-nationalists aren’t found in mainstream parties like PiS. They are seen marching through cities dressed in black and waving the menacing green flags of the National Radical Camp, or standing on football terraces with banners denouncing the ‘Islamic plague’ (meaning migration). The far right has become bolder, but it still isn’t a meaningful political force.

The extreme right is just one minority among many in a country that is much more diverse than outsiders realise. Poland was, for example, the first nation in Europe to elect a transgender MP, Anna Grodzka. Her party, Ruch Palikota, came third behind PiS and Platforma in the 2011 parliamentary elections while promising to legalise cannabis, gay marriage and abortion. One of Poland’s top sports stars, the fighter Mamed Khalidov, is a Chechen Muslim.

Platforma and PiS arguably share the blame for the standoff over Poland’s constitutional court. Shortly before the election, Platforma appointed five new judges to the 15-member court, even though two vacancies wouldn’t occur until after the new government was formed. After its electoral triumph, PiS feared that a court packed with Platforma appointees would sabotage its reforms. So the party rejected all five judges, nominated five of its own and passed legislation curbing the court’s power. The court then ruled that parts of the new law were unconstitutional. PiS has refused to publish the verdict, creating a stalemate that could split the legal system.

Platforma also accuses PiS of an ideological takeover of public media. Yet journalists at the magazine Wprost laugh at the former governing party’s newfound piety about media independence. Two years ago, agents raided the weekly’s offices after it published a series of embarrassing scandals about Platforma ministers.

In Britain, foreign countries are only allowed to possess one characteristic at a time. China is ‘rude’, Nigeria ‘corrupt’ and Poland ‘nationalistic’. Yet we all know that nations with populations of, respectively, 1.4 billion, 173 million and 38 million can’t be summed up by an adjective.

Is Poland in the grip of ‘hyper-nationalism’? Don’t believe the hype. The curse of Polish politics is not hyper-nationalism but hyper-partisanship.

Luke Coppen is editor of the Catholic Herald.