fbpx
Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Gangster Tactics in Liberal Poland Recall a Bygone Era

The new government’s war on its political enemies raises the old question—could it happen here?

06.24.2023,Wroclaw,,Poland,,Donald,Tusk,At,The,Wroc?aw,2023,Election
Credit: DarSzach

“The eurocrats are out for blood,” a Brussels-based colleague warned before Poland’s October parliamentary elections. That was hardly shocking news, as Poland’s then-governing national-populist Law & Justice (PiS) party inspired inexhaustible hatred from the E.U. establishment. Yet few predicted the swiftness and severity of revenge.

Just one month after taking power, Donald Tusk, two-time prime minister, former president of the European Council, and Brussels darling, is rekindling memories of a previous era with a string of highly visible gangster tactics. This is the same Tusk who made “rule of law” and reversal of “democratic backsliding” the hallmarks of his election campaign.

Advertisement

On Tuesday, police raided the Presidential Palace in Warsaw (President Andrzej Duda, elected separately from parliamentarians, is unofficially affiliated with PiS) and arrested two PiS former cabinet ministers, both current members of parliament, after a public game of cat and mouse. They are figureheads in a seesaw of anti-corruption measures and countermeasures that have played out between PiS and Tusk’s Civic Coalition (KO) for over a decade. One of the prisoners, Mariusz Kamiński, declared himself a political prisoner and vowed a hunger strike. (The Polish journalist Krzysztof Mularczyk has examined the complexities of the arrests at length.)

Government voices fall flat with their assertions that “everyone is equal before the law.” In one glaring example, the KO politician Włodzimierz Karpiński recently entered the European Parliament—with its attendant legal immunity—directly from prison. 

Furthermore, Duda had previously pardoned the MPs, a fact that Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal and Supreme Court confirmed. The arrests mark the latest example of a parallel system of justice in which legal constraints favorable to the previous government are ignored. 

Last month, police raided and cordoned off the headquarters of state broadcaster, TVP, and some of its channels suddenly ceased transmissions. The new government sought to bypass the legal process for appointing heads of public bodies and name a new media board by decree, a move a Warsaw court rejected

If campaign promises count for anything, kangaroo courts await key PiS figures.

Advertisement

The social front has also been eventful. On a recent morning show under the new TVP regime, guests unfurled a large rainbow flag. The new Minister of Family, Labor, and Social Policy sported an anti-Christian shirt and campaigned to slash Catholic Church funding. The newly created Minister for Equality has vowed to enact measures on abortion and same-sex unions. Marshal of the Sejm (akin to Speaker of the House) Szymon Hołownia posed for a photo with illegal migrants and NGO migration activists in the parliament building.

A giddy Brussels has seen enough: It has promised to unfreeze withheld funds that could total €111 billion, including preferential loans, with an initial €5 billion to be delivered to Polish coffers by year-end.

This social tumult is possible after a coalition of anti-PiS forces backed into a victory in the October elections. Tusk’s Civic Coalition leads a patchwork of leftist, centrist, and establishment-right parties united only by hatred of PiS. 

PiS won a plurality of votes, but it had depleted its goodwill after eight years of single-party rule, and no coalition partner emerged to help it form a government. In a surreal development, political descendants of the Solidarity movement are sharing a government with descendants of the communist-era Polish United Workers’ Party. Traditionalist agrarians sparred with radical feminists during government-forming negotiations. Working in the coalition’s favor is extensive institutional backing

Bucking the establishment is hard political work. In Hungary, often mentioned in the same breath as Poland during the previous eight years, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party has won four consecutive elections thanks to the popularity of the very policies (resistance to migration, warmongering, and unbridled NGO activism) that create conflict with Brussels, as well as the incompetence and fragmentation of the opposition. As its tenure progressed, PiS increasingly failed to replicate that formula. In fact, it displayed some of the self-destructive tendencies of the Hungarian opposition. Tusk and allies, enjoying widespread international and establishment support, didn’t need the extra assistance.

While many Poles, perhaps a majority, specifically cast a vote against PiS, they did not necessarily cast a vote for LGBT activism, measures targeting the Catholic Church, and devolution of powers to Brussels. Nevertheless, whether they like it or not, they signed up for the whole package. Therein lies an intensifying dilemma in the increasingly liberal and undemocratic “liberal-democratic” West: vote for a party that is flawed and in desperate need of new blood, or accept these measures wholesale. 

The TVP episode, though jarring, was a development Polish society could ultimately swallow. The broadcaster’s programming had become too tendentious, and an ideological shift was inevitable after the PiS departure from government. (One should note that Tusk’s party also had politicized TVP during its previous stint in power, and that relatively few Poles obtain their news from government sources; left-wing private broadcaster TVN boasts the most-watched news show in Poland.) 

Yet a palpable shift in mood has occurred in Poland and beyond after the Presidential Palace invasion. The BBC, reliable for favorable Tusk coverage, claimed these “methods were similar to PiS’s,” and cited a statement from the NGO Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights asserting “the new government’s changes ‘raise serious doubts.’” Thousands gathered in Warsaw on Thursday in a “Protest of Free Poles.”

E.U. figures recognize the Tusk government’s behavior is publicly indefensible. “We will not comment on specific events in E.U. member states,” declared European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer on Wednesday. This is a duplicitous claim from a body that has consistently interfered in Polish government. 

“We are not at the end of the road on the rule of law in Poland,” wrote Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in June 2022. “We will continue to enforce the ruling [on alleged rule-of-law infringements] and apply penalty payments until Poland complies,” she added. “[Tusk’s] experience and strong commitment to our European values will be precious in forging a stronger Europe, for the benefit of the Polish people,” she gushed after his reinstallation as prime minister last month. She had publicly rooted for him to recapture the PM job while PiS was in power.

To circumvent these objections, establishmentarians weave a narrative of illegitimacy. Journalist Anne Applebaum, wife of KO politician Radek Sikorski, told anyone who would listen that Poland’s elections would be neither free nor fair (although ultimately fair enough, apparently, for her side to take power). Politico’s Jan Cieński described “a Euro-lite version of North Korea.” These sentiments set an expectation that all’s fair after the votes are tallied. Those who notice President Biden’s speeches (“They want to rule, or they will ruin”) might reach a similar conclusion.

Echoing the political scientist Pierre Manent, John O’Sullivan notes that “the centrist establishment consensus in Europe does not really accept the right of the ‘extremes’ to come to power. When they do, it thinks it is legitimate to use supra-national legal and political powers to constrain and even oust them.” 

Tusk’s supra-national legal and political power means buyer’s remorse for some Polish voters. It offers a warning to European countries like Hungary, Slovakia, and the Netherlands, which have elected anti-establishment governments. And it provides a blueprint to Washington, should any enemies of democracy rear their heads come November.

Comments

Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here