Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Clash or compromise: The return of history in Poland

Poland's politics seems to have come full circle, with ever lower levels of incivility and cleavages cutting ever deeper across society.

A protest against proposed judicial reforms in Poznan, Poland, July 2017 (Photo: Flickr/Sakuto)
A protest against proposed judicial reforms in Poznan, Poland, July 2017 (Photo: Flickr/Sakuto)

Poland today gets almost uniformly bad press in the West, replete with stories alleging that Beata Szydło's government has all but dismantled the foundations of democracy on orders from Jarosław Kaczyński, Chairman of the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS), often identified as its éminence grise. Following the recent attempt by the PiS government (which holds a majority in the parliament) to seize control of judicial appointments and render the Justice Minister the de facto arbiter of the Polish judiciary, the European Commission threatened to impose sanctions on Poland, while the opposition has taken to the streets in the name of defending the country's constitution, the independence of its judiciary and media, and the fundamental division of powers. The political rhetoric has become ever more toxic, with the opposition accusing the government of restoring communist-era totalitarianism and the government branding its critics a 'total opposition', created and manipulated by the old secret police, the communists, and the all-encompassing Round Table arrangement (układ) – a reference to the negotiated transition to democracy in 1989.

The conflict over the judiciary epitomises a larger argument about how different factions see the country's political system, for the Polish judiciary still carries with it baggage from the past, with several judges implicated in the communist trials of the 1980s that sent opposition activists to jail. The government charges that the judiciary's claim to absolute autonomy, including the self-selection of judges, has warped the idea of an independent judiciary, transforming it into a self-contained and self-perpetuating corporation which no longer serves the interests of the people. The opposition, on the other hand, sees the government's legal reforms as nothing more than an attempt to subjugate the judiciary to the parliament and make the justice system, in effect, another arm of the executive by ordering the wholesale removal of Supreme Court judges and giving the Justice Minister the power to make new appointments.

What makes the current 'Polish-Polish war' (as one of my Polish friends called it) so intense is that at its core it is a conflict within the larger community of former Solidarity activists from the 1980s. The deep divisions between them in this internecine fight reflect both the movement's fragmentation and emerging new alignments in Polish politics today, whereby terms such as 'liberal' and 'conservative' are largely misnomers amidst the country's jumbled party loyalties and programs. Those who endorse the 1989 Round Table accords that began the process of communism's unravelling see today's democratic Poland as the legitimate Third Republic. Conversely, those who denounce them as a sellout view the system as a political gargoyle born of shady deals between the communists and members of the opposition, one which can only be undone by a dobra zmiana, or 'good change' (ie, a wholesale purge of the system) that might ultimately lead to the birth of a 'Fourth Republic' – a now fully democratic Poland owned by the people.

This game is still only in its second inning at best, with more shocks to the system likely in the near future. Though President Andrzej Duda has vetoed two of the three proposed laws (he signed into law a measure giving the Justice Minister control over lower court judges) the current deadlock is only a temporary reprieve. As Kaczyński declared in a television interview, the President's veto is 'but a setback', and he vowed to move forward on the reform program. The opposition, though energised by Duda's intervention in the process, is aware that the balance of forces in the Parliament still favours the PiS, which can continue to drive the legislative agenda. The small victory the opposition has won owes more to the public outcry and street demonstrations against the law in Warsaw and other major cities than anything the opposition deputies have managed to accomplish in the chamber. And the government seems to have one powerful argument in favour of its agenda: a clear majority of Poles wants to reform the judiciary, even if they may disagree with the most recent government proposals.

Polish politics seems to have come full circle, with cleavages cutting ever deeper across society and accusations and counter-accusations reaching ever lower levels of incivility, at times bordering on the absurd. And yet, notwithstanding the passion and fury attendant to Polish politics today, it is too early to pass judgment on whether Poland will or will not stray from the democratic norm. Rather than repeating the dire warnings emanating from the media, one should pay close attention to the complex and multifaceted game that is playing itself out in Poland. To claim that Poland is no longer a democracy is absurd, yet it is equally absurd to argue that there are no real risks to how the political process has unfolded over the past two years. The ultimate guarantor of Poland's democratic future are the Poles themselves, who during the dark years of communism as well as today have demonstrated their desire for democracy – there is no reason to believe this has suddenly changed. Admittedly, in a passionate confrontation, much can go wrong – but by the same token, Polish democracy may in fact emerge from this bout stronger and more consolidated than before, now that a younger generation has become politically awakened.

There is no question that Poland's record of achievement is exemplary in post-communist Europe. It has modernised its economy, joined NATO, and is fast becoming a manufacturing powerhouse in the European Union. And yet the process of political transformation is not only about building new institutions. Poland needs to reach a consensus on how best to anchor the country's democratic institutions in its national culture, setting firm parameters of what is permissible in politics and what constitutes a breach of democratic standards.

At present, the country seems trapped in the vortex of a long-delayed and increasingly vehement debate over what kind of a state it should be, especially how much central power should be allocated to the government and to what extent Polish history should infuse the Polish experience of democracy. It is a battle between two political visions: one postulates staying the course of a 'soft landing' from communism, while the other demands a clean break with the past and the elimination from the country's political life of the last traces of that era, including the sidelining of people tainted by the previous regime. This is a serious and long-delayed debate, which nonetheless does not justify rash solutions. In order to address this fundamental question, Poland needs fewer fireworks and more reasoned conversation. How this argument will be resolved (through compromise or an all-out confrontation) will define the country's politics for years to come.

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