Guest contributor and first year Politics and Eastern European Studies student at UCL , Stanislaw Krawiecki, shares his thoughts on the current refugee crisis in Europe, in particularly Poland’s role in the crisis…
On the one hand- the refugee crisis, one of the defining processes of the contemporary reality in Europe, largely shaping the development of a new kind of nationalist versus global politics. On the other- the European Union, the polity responsible for a cohesive development of Europe and integration of many of its states, as well as an organization committed to spreading and preserving democracy, human rights and aiding those in need. Somewhere there, in the middle of Europe, a shadow of a liberal, open democracy is visible. Law and Justice (PiS), a centre-right conservative party with xenophobic and Euro-sceptic tendencies has been strengthening its grip over Poland over the past 15 months, attempting to eclipse the influence the EU has had on Poland. By controlling both the Parliament and the President’s office PiS have been able pursue nationalistic and anti-integratory policies and force through legislation aimed at weakening democracy.
“We are, and we will be in charge of our own country”- Jarosław Kaczyński recently claimed (rhetoric straight out of the playbook of Donald Trump or Nigel Farage), the leader of the ruling Law and Justice party. Using these words he intended to explain why Poland, inhabited by almost 40 million people, would renege on its EU commitment to take 6-7k of refugees. Whist national sovereignty, used as a justification for striving to improve societal wellbeing may be admirable, used as a means to justify not receiving refugees it is clearly not. Nothing exemplifies the Government’s attitude more than when the city of Sopot’s request to receive 10 orphans from Syria was rejected, citing ‘security concerns’. Indeed, and quite in opposition to the utopian interpretation, the words, and the personality of the speaker himself, reflect an illiberal, nationalistic turn that the country has taken in the recent 15 months and describe miserable characteristic of Polish politics in recent years.
This is a topic of great importance to me, and the wider Polish population, and thus can be highly divisive. Before my assessment of the up-to-date inventions and policies of the government, let me touch on the crucial flaw of the political situation in Poland- the consolidation of power in one hands. Due to controlling the parliament and president office PiS can quickly and simply pass any law. Moreover, the party is led from the behind the scenes by its leader Jarosław Kaczyński, who, despite seemingly being only a regular MP, has the ability to dictate how the President and Prime Minister act. He has invited President Duda for an unofficial, if not covert, visit to his house at night– beyond the scrutiny of the public and the rest of the Parliament. By standards of hierarchy and respect, surely it should rather be the leader of a political party who is invited to an official visit to the Presidential Palace? In the Prime Minister’s case, Kaczyński has called current Szydło’s government “an experiment”. The use of the word experiment portrays a level of control the leader of a party should not have – conjuring up images of Kaczyński deciding the experiment has not been a success and setting up a new party under himself, as happened to Marcinkiewicz’s cabinet back in 2006. Different views and descriptions of this situations have emerged, but it is clear that this means pursuing the policies of PiS, fully and almost without contestation or oversight.
So far, PiS have used their control to achieve full control over public media in order to make it follow party lines. Further, and to the greater detriment of democracy, they’ve paralysed the Constitutional Tribunal, a judicial institution designed to check if laws passed by the parliament are compatible with the Constitution. With limited free speech in media, and lack of contestation from the body that could possibly disallow many new decrees, Law and Justice is now free to perform whatever they want.
We all remember from school what ‘democracy’ stands for. Derived from Greek (demos + kratos), it means the rule of the people, so, in other words, implies sovereignty of the population, and that the highest power in a country lies in the hands of the citizens. However, I believe the term ‘democracy’, is being misunderstood by the current rulers, or even misinterpreted on purpose. In the July 2016 congress of Law and Justice, they stated that their ‘government is sovereign’, clearly not understanding that, although the Polish state and government are obviously independent and sovereign in regards to other political actors and organizations, there is one important exception. Article 4 of the Constitution of the Republic of Poland clearly states that: “Supreme power in the Republic of Poland shall be vested in the Nation”. The idea of democracy itself, combined with the Constitution, clearly shows that PiS’s conception of ‘absolute sovereignty’ of the government is misguided, because it is subordinate to the nation, and thus must reflect the needs and views of the nation. This misconception, followed up by my recent studies in London, has led me to form an opinion that Poland can- and should- be deemed a ‘democracy with adjectives’. Calling Poland an electoral democracy implies that, even though nobody wants to deny democratic character of the Polish state, a very important flaw exists. Namely, the elected consider themselves to have supreme power in the country, legitimizing it by the simple fact that they have been elected. Thus, they claim that the elections on their own transfer supreme power from the nation to the (indirectly elected) government. Thus, instead of the rule of nation through the elected, Poland experiences the rule of the elected. Why? Because now they are in charge.
What does this mean for the current situation of Poland? Because of this, PiS consider themselves to be legitimized in defining the interest of the Polish state. To base policies on the perceived ‘interests of the state’ is nothing unnatural for the elected. However, claiming they have a monopoly on deciding what interest is, creates another hole in Polish democracy. They intend to ‘nationalise’ the Polish economy and claim that the (highest in the region) economic growth of the previous 10 years is not enough to deny them the right to reverse economic policies. Also, they refuse to cooperate with the European Union, despite the fact that binding agreements on commonness of EU policies had been established. Most importantly, Law and Justice claims that because it was elected, it reflects the view of the majority in implementing their own policies, and dissent is now unspeakable. However, this does not mean that every idea they have indeed reflects the view of the electorate. Moreover, it does not mean that they have the right to impose any policies without taking into account the views of the minority (if it is a minority). This could be compared to the Tory government pursuing a hard Brexit without taking into account views of not only the ‘Remainers’, but also many of the ‘Leavers’, who would rather see a more lenient exit from the European Union. For instance, refusing to receive refugees or completely changing the educational programme of Polish schools should be done with taking into account the people most touched by the changes might actually be strongly against it, and even if not, the people’s views, both positive and negative, have to be taken into account. But no, the principle seems to be, once and forever, “now WE are IN CHARGE”.
“The art of the impossible”, as Vaclav Havel called politics, takes yet another form in Poland. Although political actors should, by definition, perform their political actions to achieve a consensus, it is becoming increasingly obvious, that politics in this sense is impossible in Poland. The common ground can never be achieved, because Polish politicians aspire to build their ideas in opposition to their political opponents. It happened in 2005, when PiS first came to power, and again in 2007. They literally halted dozens of investments that had been started by the previous government and reversed numerous policy decisions. Of course, they found substantial explanations for every decision, but their primary concern was to find a way to reverse as much of the previous government’s actions as possible. Similarly, the acts of stopping decisions undertaken by the previous government is taking place right now. Furthermore, the current opposition opposes every single reform proposed by the current government- in a stubborn way. For both sides, the main concern is to make sure to opposes every action of their political enemies, and sometimes it is the only ground on which they do it. The outcome is that Polish politics look more like a quarrel between my parents just before they got divorced, than like trying to find a path to compromise. In refusing to find common ground, the common theme is once again: “now WE are IN CHARGE”.
Now in charge they are turning the education and culture of the country upside down. Once again, at a cursory glance the message looks amenable – preserve Polish values and tradition. However, it means emphasizing what they think is good about Poland, pointing to how WE are better than others. For me, the new history programme in schools worryingly focuses on militarism, a disconcerting throwback to 19th century nationalism. Changes in the education system, both liquidation of middle (secondary) schools and alterations of programmes for each subject, have been widely criticised by many experts. The current Minister of Education has disregarded many criticisms on the basis that “many of them were involved in designing the previous programme, so they have the right to be unhappy”. Such a stance tries to dictate who and what we should believe. In doing so the government labels people as ‘selfish’ or ‘stubbornly opposing the Polish interest of state’, trying to claims for itself the right to define the interests of Poland.
Another point of division in Polish society can be rather surprising. I believe we usually think that national tragedies should unify the nation, but the Polish reality once again proves itself to be distinct. You are reading, and might say: “Do the World Wars not unify the Polish nation?”, “Are you suggesting that common memory of 123 years of partitions, and regaining of independence in 1918 divides the Poles?”. More specifically, you might point to the Katyń Massacre. I would strongly agree with your contributions and that the tragedies in Polish history unify our nation. However, a significant exception has emerged- the Smolensk Catastrophe of 2010, where Polish President Lech Kaczyński with his family, and many distinguished politicians and journalists travelling with them for the 70th anniversary of the Katyń died in a plane crash. It certainly is a national tragedy- there are no doubts about that.
However, what Law and Justice have managed to make out of it is completely unique and ridiculous. Firstly, a separate commission for the investigation of the catastrophe set up by PiS ‘discovered’ a potential plot between the Government – Civic Platform (at the time Law and Justice were in opposition) and the Russian Federation. The accusations reach as far as asserting that PiS’s political opponents committed murder of the Polish president, performing a murder in cooperation with a foreign government. I cannot imagine how a consensus can be reached in a country, when one political side, with no substantial evidence, accuses their opponents of murder and treason. Secondly, the names of the victims of the Smolensk Catastrophe are now being read before every national celebration. Admirable performance, you would say. Well, yes, but having the commemoration of Smoleńsk happen every month surely is an exaggeration, is it not? Moreover, if we read out the names of the “victims of a murder”, because it was the president, then why do we not read out the name of the first President of Poland, Gabriel Narutowicz, assassinated on his 6th day in the office; or the name of General and Prime Minister Sikorski, who, in 1943, died in a plane catastrophe (surprise, surprise) that is till suspected to have possibly been a plot (another surprise)? A simple explanation could be propaganda, because remembering Kaczyński, one of the founders of Law and Justice party, helps maintain the support of the party. Having a ‘martyr’ as a party hero is beneficial, while remembering Sikorski and Narutowicz would be a neutral, patriotic move to raise historical awareness. Another valid answer is that it is PiS leading the country, so “now we are in charge, and we dictate what was a plot, and which names should be remembered”.
I have presented a largely opinionated view on contemporary Polish political reality. Despite a highly critical outlook on the current situation, I am nowhere near reaching the conclusion that democracy in Poland has ended. Rather, it is heading in a wrong direction. Despite a strong grip on power, established by Law and Justice, I see a potential for reversal of the illiberal and authoritarian trends. How? Through people, the essence of democracy. Poland experienced a largely peaceful transition in 1989 due to a well-organized civil society. In recent months, Civil Society Organisations such as the Committee for the Defence of Democracy, have emerged and mobilised people to come out, show the government as well as the world what is unacceptable in Poland- and beyond. The demonstrations against laws limiting the Constitutional Tribunal, or calling for receiving refugees instead of isolating Poland from the crisis, have taken place over the past 2 years. The Poles are once again, after the 1980s movement that pushed through a transformation from communism, proving that they are politically active, and that they will not refrain from coming to the streets to voice their concerns. The truth is, however, that the support for the government is still significant. Despite this, let us hope that people will become increasingly aware of the harm the country is experiencing. Let us take hope from the success of recent demonstrations against corrupt laws in Romania in recalling how Poland will stand up for its democratic rights.