Poland is not descending into tyranny. It's just defying the EU.
Don't believe everything you read in the Western press
Under the pretense of checking in on Poland a year after the "populist" Law and Justice party took power, Western media outlets are almost gleefully hammering Poland for its supposedly sinister and authoritarian turn. These complaints about the Polish government's supposed deviation from democracy largely focus on two areas: its appointments and reforms to the Constitutional Court, and its reforms of Polish state media. But it's often hard to see that through the media's sneering contempt.
The Washington Post published a news article describing all of Poland's recent politics in terms of a turn to the literal dark ages. The Guardian ran similar warnings. Three days later, The New York Times editorial board condemned "Poland's Tragic Turn," warning that the European nation was backsliding on post-communist reform. Then, just after Christmas, Anne Applebaum took to the pages of The Washington Post (again), essentially to lament that her Polish husband's political party had been thrown out of power by voters, and that Poland had the audacity to continue governing itself without him.
This sudden series of op-eds, and "news" reports that read like op-eds, combined with the protests by out-of-government partisans, has the feel of a coordinated Color Revolution. None of them included even a cursory reference to the Law and Justice party's own rationales. American readers (and journalists), who remain mostly ignorant about Polish politics or history, have no context by which to judge these actions.
The truth is that Poland isn't descending into some authoritarian morass, or moving backwards toward Sovietism. They're just resisting the direction that Angela Merkel, the Eurocrats in Brussels, and other mainstream internationalists have for them. And they're using the means that all new governments use, passing their most cherished reforms speedily, while they can claim to have a democratic mandate. Just as their opponents claim that Law and Justice are doing extraordinary things, so too does Law and Justice see itself as besieged by extraordinary and extra-legal threats from its internal opponents and from the European Union.
Earlier this year I spoke with Ryszard Legutko about Law and Justice's reforms. Legutko was an anti-communist dissident before 1989, and the editor of the samizdat publication Arka. He's a philosopher who was elected to the Polish Senate in 2005 representing Law and Justice. He is also a member of the European Parliament. This year, he released The Demon in Democracy, a book gaining a cult following among Anglophone conservatives for its dissection of progressive ideology, and its account of how ex-communists advanced so much faster in new "liberal democracies" than did anti-communists. It is that aspect of Legutko's worldview — that post-communist reform of the Polish state was incomplete — that informs much of Law and Justice's controversial efforts.
Legutko hardly sees himself or Law and Justice as enemies of Europe. And he objected to the simplistic terms in which his party is portrayed. "This resistance to accept the power of the European Commission and European Parliament has nothing to do with so-called euroscepticism," he said.
Poland's critics claim otherwise. Applebaum speculates that Law and Justice has broken with democratic precedents in its "attack on the judiciary," and its effort to dominate the government. Applebaum conveniently does not mention that the previous Polish government, in anticipation of its electoral defeat, nominated five justices for positions on the Constitutional Court which were to become vacant after elections, breaching a well-established practice of not nominating key positions in the months before an election. Two of these appointments were unquestionably against precedent. And if these nominees had gone through, the Civic Platform party's nominees would have made 14 of the 15 appointments to the Constitutional Court, and would have constituted a major block on the new government's reforms. I suppose it's human nature to accuse one's enemies of doing the very thing you'd do to them. Currently, Law and Justice has six appointees on the court, and the opposition has nine. Although Legutko admits that Law and Justice used "inelegant" measures accomplishing this, he maintains they were within the law and achieved something far closer to democratic representation by doing so. It is this dispute which the E.U. has deemed a "crisis of law and order," in Poland.
Applebaum does mention that she is married to a minister of the former government, Radosław Sikorski from the Civic Platform Party. Sikorski served as foreign affairs minister under the previous government led by Donald Tusk. Sikorski has many American friends, having done a stint at the American Enterprise Institute earlier in his career. And he later achieved a kind of fame in Europe for a speech during the last decade's economic crisis in which he demanded greater European integration and German leadership of the EU. Law and Justice complain that after this speech and Tusk's fulsome praise of EU institutions, Tusk's government could thereafter do almost anything in the internal politics of Poland and still receive either the blessing of the EU's leaders, or at least their benign indifference. He was on the side of "more Europe" — which is ipso facto how Eurocrats judge democratic legitimacy. Tusk has since moved on to become president of the European Council. The election of Law and Justice was a rebuke to his supine vision of Poland as needing more leadership from Germany.
In our interview, Legutko said it was precisely Law and Justice's resistance to simplistic obeisance to their EU betters that generates such intense backlash. "The EU has been in a deep crisis for some time — immigration, Eurozone, Russia, terrorism — and whatever happens, the European leadership has one answer: 'More Europe,' which means more integration, more centralization," observed Legutko. When a powerful nation like the U.K. complains on this point, the EU attempts to mollify them. But, Legutko said, "when it comes from a new member from Eastern Europe, for example from Hungary and Poland, the reaction is that of irritation, aggressive rhetoric, and threat of sanctions."
The case of reforming Poland's state-run media is also a telling one. Legutko says the public media reforms by Law and Justice are aimed at finally depoliticizing these institutions. "For the first time after the fall of communism the public media will have a good chance to be not among the electoral spoils," he says. It's trivially easy to accuse the new Polish government of self-interest. That is because state-run media is a holdover institution from the communist era tilted heavily toward Civic Platform and against Law and Justice, having been already stacked with pro-government voices. When it came into office, Law and Justice did some sacking and shortened the terms of political appointees in the media. To attempt to depoliticize a state-run media with such a pronounced bias in any significant fashion would obviously improve its coverage of Law and Justice.
"The irritation of the EU about the public media in Poland is not that they are legally linked to the government, but they are legally linked with the wrong government," said Legutko.
Are there problems in Poland? Of course. And the head of Law and Justice, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has opened himself up to criticism by reopening investigations into whether Russia played a role in the plane crash that killed his twin brother, Lech. The 2010 plane crash killed the Polish president and dozens of senior military, political, and religious leaders. And experts had concluded that it was solely human error that led to the calamity. It may be succumbing to paranoia to seek Russians to blame for it. But this paranoia about Russian conspiracies has lately afflicted American media as well.
The recent media campaign against Poland has done little to substantiate the panic that greeted Law and Justice's election, even before they formed their government. Meanwhile, the EU is doing precisely what Legutko predicted to me earlier this year, threatening Poland with unprecedented sanctions.
It isn't lost on Poles that even as German and French politicians denounce Poland for rolling back freedom and democracy, and Americans attack its pro-child policies, it is France's government that has been operating under an indefinite and extraordinary "state of emergency" due to terror attacks, and that nearly 70 percent of France's imprisoned population is Muslim. Or that Germany's markets and synagogues are now guarded by machine guns under a surveillance state that is growing to meet the size of the one in Britain or France. The Hollande government in France has all but collapsed in a heap. And the once unassailable popularity of Merkel in Germany has also started to crater.
Despite the negative reaction of Eurocrats and ratings agencies, and the abysmally bad press it has gotten this year in the Western media, Law and Justice has become more popular since embarking on these reforms. And even the ratings agencies may be coming around.
As Legutko put it to me, Law and Justice's leaders said many times that "sheer belonging to the mainstream was a silly program, unworthy of a sovereign nation that has important interests, a strong sense of identity, and its own aspirations proportional to its potential." It's this defiance, more than some profound respect for Polish Constitutional niceties, that has earned Poland's government so much ire.