I dined and lunched in Warsaw with Poles of the worst sort on Thursday and Friday, or, rather, ‘Poles of the worst sort’, the description recently used by Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the right-wing Law and Justice Party, to describe all opponents of his party. These Poles of the worst sort have been my friends for between ten and twenty years, and I have never known them more anxious about their country than now. They are cultivated, intelligent, successful, secular, liberal friends who have enjoyed and been proud of the Poland that emerged from Communism in 1989. Two of them find themselves, for the first time in decades, marching again for a political cause, their freedom.
The Law and Justice Party, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, but represented in Government by Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, now rules Poland. It had never before commanded a majority in the Sejm, but since winning power with an absolute majority, last year, the Government has set about building the kind of ‘illiberal democracy’ promoted by Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary. Together with Hungary, and perhaps Slovakia, Poland might yet form an axis of right-wing intolerant nationalism radically at odds with the founding liberal values of the European Union. Only the Czech Republic, one of the most secular nations in Europe, adheres still to the liberal values it embraced after the fall of Communism.
The Polish Government has moved so fast and so far in an illiberal direction that, following attempts to challenge the independence of the civil service, place the public media under Government control and attack the constitutional court, the European Union has begun to probe its undermining of democracy. What the EU might eventually do about it is questionable. There is no realistic option that sanctions might ever be applicable.
Poland’s economy is the 23rd largest in the world, and its estimated GDP per capita (at purchasing power parity) of 27,654 USD places it 49th in the global rankings. The country was one of the few to continue growing during the recent financial crisis.
Poland has been conspicuously successful. My visit to Warsaw last week was my first for three years, and I was astonished by how the city has changed, even over such a short time, the centre now bristling with impressive high-rise offices. There is a feeling of power, prosperity and confidence to the city. The previous Government had not been notably incompetent.
Why, then, has the country lurched to the right?
It might be yet another case of popular frustration with the political establishment. Clandestine recordings of conversations at a restaurant frequented by ministers of the last Government apparently revealed a cynical contempt for the electorate amongst the ruling classes. This might have been a factor. My friends suggest that it is the young who have elected the new Government, and who most ardently support it, apparently attracted by its blunt, uncompromisingly Catholic, and occasionally xenophobic, attitudes.
Poland’s Foreign Minister, Witold Waszczykowski, has worried about “a new mixing of cultures and races, a world made up of bicyclists and vegetarians, who … fight all forms of religion.”
This is unpleasant rhetoric, nationalist, and socially illiberal. It is ironic that the Government has criticised recent German commentary as Nazi in tone, when their own language hints at racism and the intolerance of minorities of all kinds. But even the Catholic Church, a keen supporter of the Law and Justice Party, offers no particular views on vegetarianism and bicycling.
Where, I wonder, would the Polish Government stand on such issues as gay marriage, asylum seekers, and abortion? I asked my friends when we might see legislation passed in Poland to allow gay marriage. Their incredulous laughter was answer enough.
Read more in this excellent commentary from the New York Review of Books.