Thousands carrying white and red flags attended a demonstration in Warsaw late last year organized by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD). A voice shouting “Out with the dwarf! Out with the dwarf!” boomed via the loudspeakers.
The voice belonged to Henryka Krzywonos—once a tram driver, today a member of the Polish parliament, and seen by some as a heroine in the history of Solidarity, the movement that triggered the fall of communism across Europe. The “dwarf”—that’s “stingy goblin” to the German tabloids—is Jarosław Kaczynski, the diminutive leader of the Law and Justice Party (PiS). PiS rose to power in the 2015 elections, securing both parliament (where it won enough seats to lead without forming a coalition government) and the presidency.
The name of the KOD movement offers a glimpse into its political narrative, which suggests it’s all about wresting power away from an undemocratic party shortly after it took office. According to the narrative, the heroes of old are once again taking to the streets against the new, oppressive regime of Kaczynski’s nationalist army. The stakes are high.
But things aren’t as simple as they seem.
For one thing, Krzywonos’s image as a heroine was carefully molded by the Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s former ruling party. According to the legend, she stopped a tram on the streets of Gdańsk and said she would not drive it any further, effectively refusing to do her job. In reality, as reported by witnesses from the Solidarity movement, she broke the protest and drove the tram out of the depot; it stopped because the electricity supply was cut off. The legend crafted around Krzywonos provided a common identity for PO as the followers of democratic reform in Poland. The voting public, however, decided otherwise.
Why? During its eight years in office, PO relied on reforms built by its predecessors while introducing no civic improvements of its own. Also, ethically questionable behavior was rampant among its officials as the party morphed into a nepotistic, arrogant machine.
One particularly telling instance saw the party’s politicians manage their dubious affairs in a Warsaw restaurant (aptly named, in translation, “Owl & Friends”), unaware that their conversations were being taped. Those recorded included the former minister of finance, the minister of treasury, and the minister of foreign affairs, as well as the chief of intelligence, the minister of internal affairs, the president of the National Bank of Poland (NBP), the president of the country’s largest oil giant (PKN Orlen), and many others. Thus were these bigwigs exposed in their efforts to expand their influence and retain power through unethical dealings.
When the Polish weekly Wprost (to which I’m a longtime contributor) obtained the tapes and began to make the conversations public, a group of officials from the Internal Security Agency stormed the publication’s office and attempted to tear the editor-in-chief’s laptop away from him. The attempt failed—by then, the building had filled up with journalists from various publications, who had gathered there to support Wprost.
Then-Prime Minister Donald Tusk announced that an investigation would ensue, that the discrediting documents would be published, and that severe measures would be taken. Instead, the PO-dominated parliament rejected a motion of no confidence directed against the cabinet, and the man appointed to lead the investigation was none other than the minister of internal affairs—one of the officials recorded on the tapes. The massive scandal was quickly swept under the carpet.
Then, in 2015, Germany’s Angela Merkel and other European leaders got Tusk elevated to the position of president of the European Council. He had made vehement statements denying any interest in such a position and maintaining that he “still had a lot to achieve in his homeland.” But he made history as the only national leader in memory who—while in office—abandoned his own cabinet, party, and country in favor of a lucrative position abroad. Acting against all democratic rules within his party, he replaced himself with an incompetent named Ewa Kopacz. Not surprisingly after all this, she and the rest of her party soon found themselves in the opposition.
So what did PO leave behind, having ruled in coalition with the agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL)? In the eyes of voters, the Poland that Tusk had marketed as a green island of growth and prosperity actually resembles the setting of Animal Farm. About 2.5 million Poles left the country for greener pastures while the Polish job market began to thrive on “garbage contracts”—employment contracts devoid of health insurance as well as social and pension contributions. During the PO tenure in office beginning in 2007, economic growth plummeted by 50 percent, while the national debt skyrocketed. The debt recently reached 1 trillion złoty ($246 billion), more than half of its GDP. Half of the country’s young people say they want to leave Poland while pensioners prepare themselves for years of poverty. According to official data, in U.S. dollars, the average monthly pension in Poland is $525—and millions of pensioners are forced to survive on $175 per month. In neighboring Germany, the average pension is over $1,500; in the Netherlands, $1,750. Even the pensions of Spain and Greece, beset by financial crisis, are roughly double the Polish average.
In taking office in 2007, Tusk promised to lower taxes. Instead they went up. He heralded coming improvements in the national health system. According to the Euro Health Consumer Index, Poland is currently second-to-last in the European Union in providing health care. The promises were endless; the realities turned out differently. As a result, Poland became a servile subcontractor to foreign corporations, with a well-educated yet relatively inexpensive workforce. What’s more, the tax system enables these corporations to pull their profits out of Poland.
Another interesting twist in the story: Poland, one of the largest nations in Europe, recently abandoned its own foreign policy. In a secretly taped conversation, Radosław Sikorski, the minister of foreign affairs, jokingly referred to the “blow job” Poland had been giving America while at the same time calling for strengthening Germany’s leadership. His predecessor, Władysław Bartoszewski, had been adamant that with Poland’s then-weak economy and lack of influence, it should at least be a “nice” player on the international scene.
Thus it wasn’t surprising that voters would oust PO. The new PiS government promised change and a greater focus on Poland’s national interests. This led, perhaps inevitably, to a sense of unease in Germany. Poland, previously feeble and subservient, now seemed bent on stepping out of the back seat. Germany and France promptly responded by trampling on the Treaty of Nice and thus weakening Poland’s voice in the EU. This seemed to violate the Weimar Triangle agreement among the three nations. Then Germany and Russia established an umbilical-cord agreement transporting natural gas at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, bypassing Poland. Meanwhile, a vicious media campaign began in Germany aimed at the new Polish government.
The PiS party slogan promised “We can do it!” The party’s success in “doing it” threw the old structures into panic. These old structures have their roots in 1989 and Poland’s transformation into a democratic state after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unlike Germany and the Czech Republic, which conducted detailed investigations of their communist collaborators and took action against many of them, Poland turned a blind eye to many of its most prominent communist leaders.
The home of the Solidarity movement, for example, designated Wojciech Jaruzelski as its first democratic president in 1989—Jaruzelski being the general who had declared martial law less than a decade earlier and had ordered the shooting of workers while at the helm of the communist regime. Poland’s first democratic minister of foreign affairs ended up being Gen. Czesław Kiszczak, the former communist intelligence chief. These decisions, made at the infamous “round table,” guaranteed that the most elevated perpetrators could avoid punishment for the deaths of thousands of Poles in the Cold War period. They also never answered for tethering their country to Moscow and bringing it to ruin. What’s more, their new appointments allowed them to anchor themselves in the new structure and seize influential positions in the government and the private business sector.
Only recently—more than a quarter-century after the fall of communism—has Poland begun to recognize the events from the past and shape a new future. It isn’t an entirely clean process. The current debate was started by the widow of General Kiszczak, who approached the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) with documents (for sale) proving a collaboration between Lech Wałęsa, the icon of Solidarity and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, with the communist intelligence services. Poland found itself in the same spot as Germany a quarter of a century ago. The documents, requisitioned by IPN, shed a new light—or shadow, perhaps—on Poland’s democratic transformation. Today, we are forced to face the question of how this background influenced Wałęsa’s decisions and direction as the leader of Solidarity, and later on.
One example was the coup d’état carried out by Wałęsa (then the president) and his comrades (including Donald Tusk), where they overthrew the first democratically elected government led by Prime Minister Jan Olszewski. The reason for their action was Olszewski’s intention to vet the government and rid it of communist influences—similarly to what had been done in Germany. Olszewski released a document listing all the secret collaborators of the communist regime, and the list included Wałęsa. Wałęsa sent a communiqué to the Polish Press Agency (PAP) admitting he signed a few collaboration contracts, but then he quickly withdrew the statement. At night, Wałęsa’s supporters in parliament removed Olszewski as prime minister so that he could not enter the building the following day. It has been alleged that Wałęsa removed and destroyed many of the archived documents that carried his name in the meantime.
But some files on informer “Bolek,” as Wałęsa was known, survived in General Kiszczak’s home, likely as a guarantee against any Wałęsa intransigence. Among these documents are various records, accounts, and confirmations of payment for reports that Wałęsa had passed on to the communist intelligence services. Once a simple electrician, Wałęsa religiously maintained that he had been able to acquire the material goods in his possession thanks to a win in the national lottery.
After PO’s recent loss, Wałęsa received the support of the Committee for the Protection of Democracy (KOD). The speakers at the events of this movement include former leaders, now powerless. As he proclaimed a “total war” on PiS, United Left’s Barbara Nowacka announced that “Today, we are Solidarity!”
One rally in support of Wałęsa, organized in his hometown of Gdańsk, was attended by 15,000 people. Compared to the ten-million-strong Solidarity movement, which overthrew communist rule, it wasn’t much. PO, which has lost the trust of countless Poles, now struggles for attention in Poland and abroad. The leader, Schetyna, reached out to a German friend for an intervention: he turned to the president of the European Parliament, Socialist Party leader Martin Schulz. With Schulz’s help, Schetyna intends to prove to the world that PiS should be punished for “breaking the rules of democracy.”
The main argument for this claim involves the makeup of the Constitutional Tribunal, a judicial organ created during communist times (1982) that over its lifespan repeatedly blocked any attempts to reform legacy communist structures. Last year, expecting to lose the elections but still in office, PO promulgated rules that enabled it to nominate five candidates, including two to replace judges whose terms had not yet expired. The decision violated previous regulations, as the tribunal itself conceded. It would have given the party 14 of the tribunal’s 15 seats and the ability to block any of its successors’ legislative initiatives.
But the new president did not approve the candidates. The current, PiS-dominated government also proposed controversial reforms to the tribunal, took back earlier agreements, and designated its own candidates. Although PO still has the majority in the nation’s highest legal body, the tribunal has found itself in gridlock. At the behest of those affiliated with PO, who are closely aligned with the like-minded European Union political class, Brussels has also come out strongly against PiS reforms vis-à-vis the tribunal.
Poles themselves are less concerned with the tribunal struggle. To the disappointment of the opposition, after a debate involving Prime Minister Beata Szydło streamed on three Polish television channels, 88 percent of the viewers judged her work in a positive light; only 11 percent took a negative view. The trick? She actually managed to realize many of the promises she had made prior to the election at breakneck speed.
So have Poles lost their minds? How could a nation so enamored with freedom bestow power on the “fascist” Law and Justice (PiS) party? How is it possible that they designated a sly, unpopular “dwarf” to stand at its helm, a man who supports the current prime minister and president in their political mission?
Even the fact that rallies are being organized by the opposition means that democracy and pluralism stand stronger today than they have at any point in the nearly three decades since the fall of communism. A sense of attachment to the values of freedom and democracy led Poles to choose PiS and to give it unilateral rule without need to form a coalition government—a first in democratic Poland. We can be sure that if PiS abuses the public’s trust, the freedom-loving Poles will, at the next electoral opportunity, send it packing.
Piotr Cywiński is a longtime contributor to Wprost and co-author of Sezon na Europę and Koniec Europy. He is currently the commentator for Poland’s conservative weekly, W Sieci, and the political portal wPolityce.pl.