It’s safe to say that Poland has suffered through a great many catastrophes in its history. Poland was occupied by the Swedes in the 17th and 18th centuries and dismembered by the Russians, Prussians and Austrians not once or twice but three times. It finally achieved statehood once more in 1919, only to be invaded, occupied by the Nazis and Soviets, liberated, and forced to endure Communist dictatorship. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, Poland has taken to democracy better than some of its former Eastern Bloc neighbours. However, a new crisis now looms. When I first visited Poland in October last year a parliamentary election was occurring and the predictions were favouring a victory for the Law and Justice Party (PiS is the Polish acronym) led by Beata Szydlo in the Sejm (Polish parliament). The predictions were correct and the PiS regained government after eight years in opposition to the Civic Platform (PO).
Despite running younger and more progressive candidates at the presidential and parliamentary elections, soon after the victory, Jaroslaw Kaczynski – a co-founder of the party – re-emerged as unofficial leader. Kaczynski started PiS with his twin brother Lech and in 2005 they won the presidential and parliamentary elections, with Lech becoming President and Jaroslaw Prime Minister. Following Kaczynski’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency in the aftermath of Lech’s passing in a plane crash in 2010, it was assumed that he would not have much more to do with PiS. He however remains the leader of the party, and such hopes have since been quashed.
PiS campaigned hard on a promise to return Poland to being a lawful state based on Christian and Polish values. The reality has been very different. Legislation has been passed by parliament with major changes occurring in the middle of night during holiday seasons. Kaczynski has been quoted as having nothing but contempt for the Constitutional Court labelling it “the bastion of everything in Poland that is bad.” During the Christmas season, the Polish Sejm also passed laws effectively paralysing the Constitutional Court. The changes stipulated that 13 of the 15 judges had to be present on any vote (when it used to be 9) and any decision required a two-thirds majority (when it used to be a straight majority). Additionally, all cases must wait 6 months to be heard.
With both president and Sejm control, PiS now has sway over both the legislative and executive branches of the Polish government. As the Constitutional Court is no longer able to act effectively, this gives PiS a worrying amount of power.
I was in Poland during Christmas when I heard about these seismic changes. Christmas is a major holiday in Poland with it being celebrated over three days. On December 29th and 30th PiS passed legislation in the middle of night which granted them complete control of the public media and civil service, as well as tax changes on banks and the age at which children go to school. The vulnerable members of Polish society have reason to fear, with Polish liberals labelling Kaczynski and PiS “Putanistic” in their approach to society and culture. PiS, being strongly Catholic, are opposed to any form of marriage equality, and have views on abortion that would please the most conservative of US Republicans.
Many historians, including British Pole Adam Zamoyski describe the recent political changes in Poland as being a return to Soviet-style methods of authoritarianism and economic policy, mixed with a vaunted sense of nationalism and WWII martyrology. This confused mix of authoritarianism and western capitalism is typical of former Eastern bloc nations that are still struggling to come to terms with their past. He argues that the election of PiS was a reaction to the previous eight-year rule of PO, and that Polish citizens are not happy with the rapid power grab that PiS has made. He refutes the claim that Poland has “lurched to the right”, and claims that their election was a protest vote against PO.
Lech Walesa, Poland’s beloved leader of the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) movement and first President of post-Communist Poland had grave fears about the direction of PiS. Walesa claimed PiS has acted “against Poland, against our freedoms, achievement, and democracy”. It is only hoped that the Polish Constitution can bear the strain placed upon it and democracy is upheld.
With another parliamentary election four years away the people have no way of controlling what the government can do. There are fears are that PiS will continue to gain power and potentially stop all elections.
Words by Brad Griffin and European Correspondent Leah Roberts
Art by Clare Moran