Poland's new nationalist leaders leave some Poles regretting their votes

In just two months, the right-wing Law and Justice party has revamped the mechanics of government, particularly by defanging Poland's Constitutional Tribunal. That has already cut the party's domestic support by 25 percent.

Alik Keplicz/AP
Protesters wave Polish and European Union flags during an anti government demonstration in Warsaw on Saturday. Thousands of Poles participated in demonstrations across Poland to protest moves by the new right-wing government to neutralize the Constitutional Tribunal as a check on its power.

Since joining the European Union, Poland has stood out as one of its most enthusiastic supporters. And coupled with robust economic growth and ambition for the world stage, it’s been a point of reference for post-communist Europe.

But as 2015 comes to a close, Poland has literally rolled up its EU flags, been rebuked by Brussels, and churned with protests at home. In fact, in the two months since the Euroskeptic, right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party won a majority in parliamentary elections, many are asking if the poster child of Europe is now on an anti-democratic slide.

It is unclear where PiS, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, wants to take Poland. The government has defended its domestic reforms – the most controversial being a weakened constitutional court – saying they only want to carry out a campaign promise to improve the lives of all Poles.

But many worry that a new era is in store for Poland, which could ultimately divide the nation and turn Poland into the problem child of the EU. That could impact everything from the fragile solidarity on the refugee crisis and relations with Russia and Germany, to testing the EU's legitimacy as a defender of democracy and human rights.

Daniel Hegedus, a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, says that the political situation in Poland mirrors what happened in his native Hungary after Prime Minister Viktor Orbán consolidated his grip on power and riled the EU with his support of “illiberal democracy.” Poland, he says, could turn into a bigger conundrum. “It’s a much more important country, it’s simply bigger, and it could cause much more trouble.”

Removing checks and balances?

Much of the change in Poland under PiS has been tonal. The party, which hearkens to traditional and Catholic ideas, attempted to halt the production of the play “Death and the Maiden,” by award-winning Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek in Wroclaw, which they said was “pornographic.” They have threatened to place controls on the media. Prime Minister Beata Szydło removed EU flags from the backdrop of press conferences, and now only uses Polish flags.

What instigated crisis and ensuing protests this month was an overhaul to the judiciary that critics say will remove checks and balances. PiS governs alone without a coalition, the first time that's happened since Poland’s transition to democracy in 1989.

First it attempted to undo the previous government's last-minute appointment of five justices to the constitutional court, which weighs the constitutionality of laws, by rushing through five of its own appointees. And then parliament, where PiS has a majority, passed a law that increases the threshold for court rulings from a simple majority to a two-thirds requirement, which critics say will make it harder to invalidate the work of parliament.

“The role of the constitutional court, an apolitical institution, is even more important now,” says Andrzej Zoll, a former president of the court, known here as the Constitutional Tribunal. 

Elżbieta Witek, a PiS minister and government spokesperson, denies their aim is to consolidate power. “We want to fulfill our promises that we made during the electoral campaign and we want to implement our program, nothing more,” she says.

'Taking back my vote'

PiS’s decisive win in October reflects the appeal of anti-establishment parties across Europe. While Poland fared significantly better than many European members in the past decade, under the centrist, business-friendly Civic Platform, benefits were not distributed evenly. Many Poles who supported PiS were simply tired of the same party in power for nearly a decade. PiS promised to reduce the retirement age, give more benefits to families, and crucially, remains firmly opposed to the EU’s plans to redistribute refugees across the bloc.

But PiS is going farther than many former supporters are comfortable with. Robert Dopierała, a lawyer in Gliwice, wrote a letter to President Duda in December stating simply: “I'm taking back my vote from you,” he wrote. “I know that by giving you my vote, in a way I allowed you to do what you do right now.”

That sentiment might impact PiS in the polls. According to the latest survey published in the Rzeczpospolita daily, PiS has support of 30 percent now, compared to 39.23 percent in October's election.

“I am disappointed by the president’s job, disillusioned by the fact that he is not a president of all Poles, like he promised during his campaign,” Mr. Dopierala says.

Divisiveness has become more common since the election. Mr. Kaczyński called those who have protested against the government "thieves and communists” and "Poles of the worst sort.” T-shirts bearing that phrase are now popular across Poland.

Ripples in the EU

Those outside Poland are on guard. "What is happening in Poland has the characteristics of a coup and is dramatic," EU Parliament head Martin Schulz said on a German radio program this month.

It’s a dramatic statement about a country that under Civic Platform was so pro-Europe that former Prime Minister Donald Tusk is now the president of the European Council. The European Commission sent a letter last week to Poland asking for a suspension of judiciary changes until legality is reviewed. It is expected to examine the issue next month.

To some extent the EU’s mere existence limits the lengths that PiS can take, since Poland, like Hungary, depends on Brussels for funding. Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska, a Polish research fellow at the Center for European Reform in London, says that PiS will use anti-European rhetoric at home, while being more consensual in Brussels, likely following mainstream EU policies.

But they could make it harder for the EU to respond jointly to the migration crisis. Brussels had hoped Poland would accept the redistribution plan and turn the country into an example for post-Soviet countries wary of taking in Muslims. But PiS is vocally opposed to the quota plan. 

While Mr. Tusk worked closely German leader Angela Merkel, PiS has already begun to fan emotional World War II-era flames. Some argue that Poland could further undermine the EU's image if the bloc doesn't use anything beyond rhetoric to challenge the nation. Mr. Hegedus says the EU’s inability to restrain Mr. Orban has brought its soft power into question, and he expects the case to be similar for Poland.

Poles have defenses up though. At one of KOD’s recent protests Andrzej Ława, an IT systems administrator in his 30s, says he will continue to demonstrate until there is a change in direction. “Thousands of people are on the streets, the government has to hear us,” he says. “It will sooner or later start to be afraid of us.”

Sara Miller Llana reported from Paris.

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