Jakub Stepaniuk reflects on the nature and implications of the rise of the far-right in Poland
Political events in Poland surprise the population, global political pundits, and the wider world on an almost daily basis. Attempts by the far-right to introduce a regressive, nationalistic program have reversed the development of Poland’s democracy. As a consequence, the principles of the constitution, expressions of patriotism and the understanding of civic freedoms which made us conscious citizens of the European Union are losing their meaning. They are instead becoming vacuous slogans which legitimise even the most controversial policies. This process is recognised by some as the pursuit of an unprecedented, brighter future. To many others, including myself, it resembles the darkest moments of Poland’s authoritarian history. This makes me uncertain about the future of my society. The possibility of radical and severe consequences is not fantasy.
Headlines in Western newspapers frequently speak of a ‘Far-right Polish government’ introducing yet another ‘staggering act.’ However, their work often misconstrues the extent and nature of the far-right in Poland. The origin of this confusion lies in a failure to clearly identify and define this political grouping. In many countries, the belief in values of nationalism, Euro-scepticism and protectionism are its ideological foundations. This makes the position of Poland’s leading PiS (Law and Justice Party) ambiguous. Political practices and ideas in Warsaw differ significantly from those found among the Western far-right. Nonetheless, we can see one similarity in the use of references to the ‘nation’ and the ‘people’. They employ conservative notions of church, family and tradition, fused with ideas about nationalism. Society and its progressive values are blamed for past failures, generating hostility towards political opponents.
In contrast to some of their Western counterparts, and beyond merely making statements alleging international conspiracy, the Polish far-right are actively working to increase their power. Inspired by Budapest and Ankara, the PiS wishes to implement a set of minor laws to amplify their authority far beyond a mere parliamentary majority. They include the seizure of the independent judiciary system and the free media, and would eventually see the enforcement of a new constitution and the erection of a monolithic and restrictive state structure. These changes cannot be achieved overnight. The leader of the party, Jarosław Kaczyński, has already spent two years reshaping the constitutional tribunal, public media and education system. He has just won the battle for a structural demolition of the Supreme Court and KRS (National Council of the Judiciary). These are all steps towards autocracy.
Nonetheless, for right-wing success this change must be gradual – almost imperceptible. Protests against the Supreme Court seizure in July illustrated that the push towards dobra zmiana (‘good change’) can be slowed or even halted. The PiS is afraid this social dissent could reverse their ‘progress’. They are therefore deploying the techniques used by any party wishing to succeed these days. They humiliate those who potentially or actively push for change, proving demonstration redundant.
The way the PiS seized and maintained general support matches the basic concepts of anti-liberal and antidemocratic revisionism outlined by Jan-Werner Müller in his book, What is Populism?. The proposal of a few social reforms along with a well-delivered electoral campaign with catchy slogans in reference to an exaggerated depiction of reality sufficed to coax out all the democratic defects of Poland’s young civil society. Pursuit of what the PiS depict as entirely new might mean in practice the reimplementation of something very old: Socialist authoritarianism and the anti-Semitic purges of 1968. The gullibility of the Polish people greatly puzzles the West, especially as Poland was once said to be the most pro-European and economically prosperous of the post-Communist states. The blame for this victory should be placed on previous governments, who neglected the need to transfer ideas of civil society from elites to the ordinary population through education. The inadequacy of such education among the population allows the PiS to reconceptualise autocratic reforms, using ideas of patriotism, tradition and progress.
Returning to the question of whether the far-right actually threatens political discourse in Poland, we might ask how well the party is represented in parliament. There is only a handful of far-right politicians among the 460 representatives. Where, then, do fascism and racism lie? Penalised by the constitution and other laws. So why is it even a concern?
The PiS is dangerous because of their appeal and the widespread normalisation of their views. Eventually, nationalism will no longer mean nationalism, but the representation of the nation’s general will. Racism will not mean racism. It will just be trivial racial segregation. Fascists? How dare liberal critics undermine the right to free speech? Soon the liberals will be the fascists who need to be imprisoned. Slogans of ‘White Poland’ or ‘Islamic Holocaust’ during the far-right independence march? People have misheard. The Interior Minister did not notice them. Indeed, vulgar phrases and flares serve as cheerful patriotic expressions. Once repeated by meaningless hooligans, far-right discourse is slowly entering schools, universities, and state and private services.
During the far-right protest in Katowice at the end of November, pictures of six opposition members from European Parliament were symbolically hanged on the gallows. Police said that they did not see any reason to intervene. If nationalists decide to swap the pictures for real people in the future, would the police maintain their impartiality?
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