Ben Sixsmith

The two faces of Polish rebellion

A narrow presidential election reveals a country divided

The two faces of Polish rebellion
Polish President Andrzej Duda and his wife, Picture credit: Getty
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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 2 per cent, was God's gift to opinion commentators. What with Brexit, Trump et cetera we can write 800-1200 words about a nation being ‘divided’ and ‘polarised’ in our sleep. Why even write different pieces? Just shift the names around and you are golden.

The problem with that kind of article is it often obscures national distinctions. In Poland, for example, President Duda's Law and Justice Party – unlike the 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 £100 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 without significant societal polarities. I thought of one when reading the Guardian journalist Christian Davies, who wrote:

'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 opponents and supporters of Law and Justice – as well as supporters of the more right-wing party Konfederacja – see themselves as rebels. Liberal Poles see themselves as rebelling against the national establishment, while right-wing Poles see themselves see 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. 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 brand as unconstitutional. While nobody has argued that the elections were fixed, the government's critics certainly maintain that bias in 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 first 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, others want nothing more than to pay less tax. Nevertheless, at least a sizeable proportion of them are progressive and fear that the government is taking them down a path of austere, corrupt Catholic authoritarianism.

But a sizeable proportion of the Polish right fears it is actually they who are under attack. As the only country in the EU preventing abortion in most cases, maintaining their position against gay marriage and refusing to accept levels of non-European immigration – which 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, but agree with the academic and Law and Justice politician, Ryszard Legutko, who, in his book 'The Demon in Democracy', described it as a totalising 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 organisations are committed to promoting progressive values. This is no secret. Here, for example, is a report from the Open Society Foundation, which 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 liberalisation of ‘reproductive rights policies’. While this article reveals ongoing attempts to punish Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic for refusing to accept migrants from North Africa in 2015. No one is obliged to admire the rebellious stance of Poland in Europe – ‘rebel’, after all, is a neutral term in and of itself – but it is a rebellious stance.

This explains the heat of intranational hostility. Both sides feel embattled 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 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.