Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
Elections in November brought the Law and Justice party to power in Warsaw. They represent the losers from Poland’s economic modernisation who feel left behind by the post-communist change. As nationalists and believers in a kind of Catholicism long vanished from Western Europe and the more developed parts of Latin America, their voters feel besieged by the modern world, and let down by an elite they consider tired, self-centred and corrupt. Par for the course in today’s populist-friendly times? Not exactly. Poland escaped the financial crisis and was the only country not to suffer from a recession because of it.
After eight years of rule by the centre-right Civic Platform, a case could be made for putting a new team, with fresh ideas, in charge; more could be done to distribute the gains from Poland’s economic transformation more widely, and though the country is now seen as less corrupt than it used to be, trust in institutions is low and they could be strengthened.
Instead, Law and Justice’s economic programme combines the fiscal irresponsibility of Gordon Brown with the sentimental pseudo-capitalism of Ed Miliband. Despite running a large budget deficit, they plan to cut the retirement age to 60 for women, taxes are to be lowered but only for “good” small businesses but not evil large corporations, while foreign investment is equated by the party’s supporters with “colonisation.” The new government is even considering banning the foreign ownership of banks.
Outside economics, their agenda is not so much populist as paranoid. Obsessed with a plane crash that killed president Lech Kaczynski, his surviving twin brother Jaroslaw, now eminence grise of the party, insists against all available evidence that the aircraft was brought down by the Russians. They see enemies everywhere and are determined to deal with them. One of their first acts was to seize direct control of the state media and embarked on a programme of “repolonising” it. In schools, time spent on languages, maths and sciences is to be replaced with “patriotic education.”
A convicted criminal has been made coordinator of intelligence. The president had to pardon Mariusz Kaminski, who had been convicted of abuse of office when he ran, of all things, the anti-corruption bureau, to appoint him to the post.
Their most serious confrontation is with the constitutional court, which they are trying illegally to pack with friendly judges, plunging the country into constitutional crisis. When 50,000 Poles took to the streets in defence of the rule of law, Kaczynski denounced them as “traitors” and “the worst sort of Pole”. Even more sinister is the new defence minister, Antoni Macierewicz. Discussing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion on a radio programme, he told a listener “experience shows that there are such groups in Jewish circles.”
This is rather more serious than just the election of another unpleasant Viktor Orban-style buffoon in another Eastern European country. With 40 million people, Poland is far bigger and, as even British schoolchildren are still taught, strategically located between Russia and Germany. Its previous government’s diplomacy was essential to preventing Russia from isolating Eastern Europe’s natural gas market and played a vital part in helping Ukrainian institutions reform. Now, rather than reforming Ukraine’s institutions, Poland’s government is intent on destroying its own.
Law and Justice’s divisive assault on its country’s democracy is not proving popular: the most recent opinion poll shows it rapidly losing support. Financial analysts are starting to get worried. Law and Justice deceived the Polish public by promising to run a centrist administration and then trying to ram constitutional changes through before opposition could get organised (the illegal swearing in of constitutional court judges took place in the middle of the night, for example).
If they are to avoid destroying their country by plunging it into prolonged political instability, Law and Justice need to find a way to climb down. They won a mandate for moderate change in economic policy based largely on disillusionment with the previous incumbents and apathy, not to create what their wilder supporters call a “Fourth Polish Republic.” As it is, they are leading their country to disaster.