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OPINION

Next Tusk. Record protests in Poland suggest imminent government change

On June 4, a massive demonstration occurred in Warsaw, where approximately 500,000 people came together to express their support for the Polish opposition and their discontent with the current authorities. The rally, led by the Civic Platform party under the leadership of former European Council President Donald Tusk, marked the largest protest gathering in Poland since 1989 when communism fell in the country. Polish columnist Zygmunt Dzięciołowski provides insights into how socio-economic issues have eroded the ruling Law and Justice Party's standing and why the upcoming autumn presents a more favorable opportunity for the opposition to attain power than ever before.

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One may wonder how many Russian-speaking readers recall the events that unfolded in Poland on June 4, 1989. Likewise, numerous Poles have already faded from memory the significant occurrence of the Communist Party's resounding defeat in the parliamentary elections on that day, which signified the end of the regime. Poland stood as the pioneer in the former socialist bloc to triumph over the old system a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is somewhat regrettable that its historical contribution in the struggle against communism, particularly the role of the Solidarity trade union, Lech Wałęsa, and John Paul II, is not fully acknowledged beyond the borders of the country.

Warsaw, June 4, 2023
Warsaw, June 4, 2023

In all likelihood, the selection of June 4 as the date for a significant opposition rally in 2023 was not a random choice. This anniversary holds significant symbolic importance for many participants who took part in the large-scale protest. This sentiment is particularly strong among the older generation, who vividly remember the bygone era. Nearly four decades ago, the country achieved victory in securing freedom and democracy. Now, there is a prevailing belief among many that it is once again imperative to combat a regime that fails to uphold the values that appeared to have been firmly established during that earlier period.

Nearly four decades ago, the country achieved victory in securing freedom and democracy, but now there is a prevailing belief that it is once again imperative to combat the regime

L&J and propaganda

For nearly eight years, the nationalist Law and Justice party, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, the brother of the late President Lech Kaczyński who tragically died in the Smolensk plane crash, has governed Poland. This political party emerged victorious in parliamentary elections twice, in 2015 and 2019. Additionally, their candidate, Andrzej Duda, was elected as president on two occasions. A significant portion of the population found appeal in the party's agenda, which advocated for a departure from what they perceived as a corrupt European liberalism. Instead, they emphasized the importance of upholding traditional family values and enhancing national sovereignty, while also expressing a desire to resist the perceived dominance of Brussels, which they believed was primarily influenced by Berlin.

The Law and Justice party (L&J) presented its own narrative of history, focusing primarily on patriotic heroism while leaving little room for alternative perspectives. Any endeavors to explore historical truths in certain areas often led to media uproar. For instance, allegations of Poles handing over Jews to the Germans were regarded as provocative, and any claims of Polish anti-Semitism were dismissed as “fabrications by enemies.”

However, relying solely on a patriotic, historical, and Catholic narrative would not have been sufficient to secure victory in two elections. The Law and Justice party, led by Kaczyński, also incorporated a social agenda into their program. The preceding administration's strict financial policies had created an environment conducive to implementing a series of generous social welfare programs aimed at securing the loyalty of specific segments of the population and bolstering support across various levels of elections. This approach proved effective.

The centerpiece of the Law and Justice party's agenda was the “500+” program, which gained immense popularity among millions of voters. This program entailed a monthly allowance of 500 zlotys (approximately 120 euros) for families with children under the age of 18, regardless of their income level. The government also prioritized the welfare of pensioners, considering the aging population and their increasing numbers. Pensions were annually adjusted to keep pace with inflation and the average wage. Additionally, the government introduced an even more generous benefit for pensioners through a special law passed in parliament. Now, each pensioner receives two additional tax-free pensions annually, one in the spring and another at the year's end.

Jarosław Kaczyński
Jarosław Kaczyński

What is problematic about a government that implements generous social programs and celebrates the heroism of its people? The issue lies in the fact that alongside these initiatives, the same government suppresses freedom of speech, undermines the independence of the law enforcement system, hampers the functioning of the Constitutional Court, enacts one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, and establishes a state propaganda apparatus modeled after Putin's regime. Supporters of the Law and Justice party, under the guise of faith and patriotism, receive substantial financial benefits. They have also monopolized key positions in state corporations, such as the lucrative oil concern Orlen. State subsidies are channeled to those who demonstrate loyalty to the party, effectively sidelining others. Patriotic NGOs, charitable foundations affiliated with the Catholic Church, and artists who promote traditional values and the nation's heroic past can expect generous financial backing. Kaczyński and his allies aspire to emulate the governance models successfully employed by leaders like Hungary's Orban and Turkey's Erdogan. Under this framework, courts operate based on instructions over the phone, independent media is silenced, parliamentary discourse is stifled, and compliant historians rewrite history. The underlying message is clear: if you want to live comfortably, keep your head down and avoid dissent.

State subsidies are channeled to those who demonstrate loyalty to the party

At the same time, there is a severe shortage of funds allocated to the healthcare system, resulting in prolonged wait times for specialist appointments, while the prices of private medical services escalate significantly each year. The education system fares no better, with teachers and researchers expressing dissatisfaction over low salary levels and insufficient funding for numerous research projects. Throughout Kaczyński's tenure, people with disabilities have repeatedly protested, demanding greater state support. However, as disabled voters are relatively few and their votes are considered less influential than those of pensioners, the government has been able to disregard their needs for years.

The Law and Justice party displays a lack of receptiveness to any criticism directed at them, adopting an attitude of superiority: “We know better. Those who do not align with us are enemies.” The party frequently accuses its opponents of serving the interests of Moscow or Berlin while displaying apathy toward the well-being of the population. Merely tuning into the first channel of Polish state television reveals a striking similarity to the propaganda techniques employed by Russian state channels. A viewer familiar with the methods used by Russian anchors would be astonished to witness how effectively some Polish counterparts replicate these tactics.

Fortunately, Poland still has opposition television networks that provide alternative viewpoints. The Law and Justice party's attempt to nationalize TVN, an opposition channel owned by American shareholders, failed dramatically. The strong alliance with the United States posed an insurmountable obstacle. Some space for freedom of expression also remains within the realm of print and electronic media, including Gazeta Wyborcza, a daily newspaper led by the esteemed communist-era dissident Adam Michnik, who has served as its chief editor since its inception.

L&J's blunder

Let's consider the case of the Warsaw rally on June 4, which drew thousands of participants. “500,000 protesters is a lie, there were no more than 100,000,” state television says. “Yes, the weather was pleasant, and some individuals came to Warsaw with their children to visit the zoo, enjoy ice cream, and explore the city. However, the protesters' behavior was aggressive and uncivil, and there was significant litter left behind.” Commentators on Channel One, who support the ruling party, assert that the opposition lacks a comprehensive program and accuse its leaders of being solely concerned with their own interests. They warn that a victory for the opposition in the upcoming elections would lead to a catastrophic outcome of historic proportions for the country. Despite the primary funding sources of state television being viewer subscriptions and advertising income, substantial subsidies from the budget are allocated to support the channel's propaganda efforts.

From 2015 to 2020, Poland experienced a period of economic prosperity characterized by a significant decline in unemployment rates and a tangible improvement in people's incomes. This success led to the effective dissemination of propaganda by the Law and Justice party. During this time, the country continued to invest European funds into the construction of modern roads, airport upgrades, and witnessed an increase in exports. Foreign companies also demonstrated a willingness to invest in Polish industries. Despite some government missteps and economic challenges such as the lack of budgetary discipline, Poland remains a notable success story among post-communist nations.

However, since 2020, Poland has been facing mounting difficulties that cannot be mitigated solely through propaganda efforts. The underfunded healthcare system struggled to effectively manage the coronavirus pandemic. Furthermore, excessive budget spending, coupled with the government's staunch refusal to adopt the euro currency, acted as a catalyst for inflation, exacerbated by Russia's aggression in Ukraine. Inflation rates soared by nearly 20%, resulting in the National Bank raising interest rates and subsequently causing mortgage rates to rise. The authorities attempted to label this inflation as “putinflation,” underscoring its direct link to Russia's attack on Ukraine, which triggered a surge in gas and oil prices across European markets. However, these attempts failed to assuage public discontent. Additionally, the ongoing conflict with the European Commission further undermines the position of the Law and Justice party.

In light of the controversial judicial reform, the European Commission has taken measures to halt the disbursement of billions of euros allocated to Poland through the European Recovery Plan, established to aid post-pandemic recovery efforts. The implementation of this reform has raised concerns from the European Commission and the Polish opposition, as they argue that the new laws enacted by the Law and Justice party undermine the independence of the Polish courts. Such developments are deemed unacceptable for Europe, as the preservation of judicial independence serves as a cornerstone for upholding the rule of law.

The authorities attempted to label this inflation as “putinflation,” but these attempts failed to assuage public discontent

Jarosław Kaczyński's party has also grappled with national security concerns, leading to a substantial rise in defense expenditure and the implementation of a program aimed at expanding the armed forces. Nonetheless, recent events have cast doubt on the competence of those responsible for the security services. Over the past few weeks, the defense minister and military commanders have engaged in disputes over the failure to detect a Russian missile that landed in a Polish forest near Bydgoszcz last December.

The challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, ongoing conflicts, the influx of Ukrainian refugees, inflation, and the implementation of strict abortion laws place a heavy burden on any government. In Poland's recent history spanning three decades, there have been instances where a ruling party that pursued a reform agenda for a four-year term failed to secure significant representation in the subsequent parliamentary election or even missed out on parliamentary seats entirely. The political cost of wielding power and implementing liberal reforms can be remarkably high. However, this does not appear to be the case for the Law and Justice party, as its electorate places less emphasis on economic setbacks and instead prioritizes the party's association with patriotic symbols and a defense of traditional national values. L&J activists employ rhetoric centered around concepts such as “patriotism,” “sovereignty,” “Catholic faith,” “church,” “tradition,” “values,” and “crosses.” Supporters of the party's nationalist iteration are determined to prevent the return to power of individuals with different political orientations who are open to liberal reforms and supportive of legislation protecting sexual minorities. The conservative segment of Poland harbors concerns and apprehension about the changes and slogans emanating from Western influences.

The conservative segment of Poland harbors concerns and apprehension about the changes and slogans emanating from Western influences

Polish opposition

Nevertheless, the Law and Justice party does not hold an absolute monopoly on power in Poland. The country remains divided and has been embroiled in a simmering cold civil war for several years. The ruling party faces considerable opposition from various quarters. The younger generation, intellectuals, and urban dwellers aspire to uphold the path of European modernization and integration. While they too are patriots, their vision for the future differs significantly from that of their conservative counterparts.

Leading the opposition parties is the liberal Civic Platform, which lost power in 2015 and has since faced a string of defeats in parliamentary, local government, and European Parliament elections. The Peasant Party and the Left also stand as opponents to the Law and Justice party. Additionally, new political forces have emerged, such as the Poland 2050 party, led by former journalist Szymon Hołownia, and the radical right-wing Confederation party, which presents a peculiar blend of staunch economic liberalism and nationalist rhetoric. Recent ratings indicate that the Confederation party has secured third place, with its primary support coming from the younger generation. As the October parliamentary elections approach, Poland's political landscape appears more diverse than in previous electoral cycles. Some segments of society are calling for opposition forces to unite, concerned that certain parties may fail to surpass the 5% threshold, thereby granting L&J additional seats in parliament and allowing them to form another government. A third term in power for the L&J party could have significant ramifications for the political system; some even fear they might even initiate Poland's withdrawal from the European Union.

Some even fear that L&J might even initiate Poland's withdrawal from the European Union

The recent Warsaw march on June 4 has renewed the hope of those who believe that a third term for the Law and Justice party can be prevented. Even the party leadership was taken aback by the impressive turnout of 500,000 protesters in the capital. According to the latest opinion polls conducted after the rally, both L&J and the Civic Platform party have nearly equal support at 30%. This indicates that the upcoming elections will witness a final showdown between two veteran figures in Polish politics, who first gained political experience during the struggle against the communist regime in the 1980s.

Under Jarosław Kaczyński's direction, the media outlets under his control, including the state television's Channel One, portrayed opposition leader Donald Tusk as a “henchman” of former German Chancellor Merkel, emphasizing his alleged family ties to the Wehrmacht, and labeling him as both a Putin ally and a traitor to Poland's national interests. Whenever Tusk's image appeared on screen, the editors consistently added the caption “Nur für Deutsch” (“Only for the Germans”). Despite Germany being Poland's primary economic partner, Kaczyński and his supporters view it, alongside Russia, as a historical adversary that continues its eastward expansion. While this propaganda may resonate with some television viewers, it does not have the same impact on everyone.

Donald Tusk at the rally in Warsaw, June 4, 2023
Donald Tusk at the rally in Warsaw, June 4, 2023
Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto

Tusk, more than any other Polish politician, possesses significant experience in high-level international politics. When he left Polish politics in 2014 to assume the role of President of the European Council, he faced harsh criticism, even from those who shared his views. At that time, a decade ago, many recognized that a liberal, European-focused Poland would soon confront substantial challenges. Accusations of desertion and seeking lucrative positions were leveled against him. The most humbling moment for Tusk occurred in 2017 when the new Polish government, uniquely among all member states, voted against his reappointment. Following the conclusion of his second term, Tusk did not retire but returned to Poland to once again lead the Civic Platform party. Other politicians who had occupied the position during his absence willingly stepped aside, understanding the formidable task of defeating Jarosław Kaczyński's party.

Tusk possesses charisma and the ability to captivate audiences, making him an adept speaker at rallies, showcasing a certain charm. In contrast, Kaczyński lacks international experience and connections in other countries. However, he has his own vision for Poland's direction and a unique approach to building his party. Kaczyński relies on his political instincts, allowing him to understand the desires and aspirations of the common people. He holds a certain disdain for the Warsaw intelligentsia, and his emotional connection with the populace is akin to that of a passionate soccer fan. Interestingly, there are many soccer fans in the country who resonate with his sentiments.

The upcoming clash between Donald Tusk and Jarosław Kaczyński in the fall will shape the future of Poland. The outcome will be influenced, to a large extent, by the engagement of young people who, at present, harbor limited sympathy for both candidates and yearn for a new generation of politicians to emerge on the political scene.

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