Opposite Poles: Why political middle ground is disappearing in Poland

Since the conservative Law and Justice party came to power last year, Polish politics have become extremely polarized – to the point that it is tearing apart families and friendships.

Alik Keplicz/AP/File
Anti-government protesters shout slogans in front of the Constitutional Tribunal in Warsaw last month.

Some lifelong friends avoid each other, because inevitably conversations turn political – and unpleasant. Families have set up rules about what can be discussed at the dinner table.

Others haven’t managed to put out the fuse: One political figure told journalists that essentially her sister, an opposition supporter, was now dead to her.

Welcome to Poland in 2016, a place of hyper-politicization, ever since the ultraconservative Law & Justice Party (PiS) took power – and its opposition responded in force.

Polarization is hardly exclusive to this country. From Donald Trump supporters and opponents in the US to Brexit backers and their foes in Britain, members of the rival factions feel like the orbiters of different spheres.

But if those strains have steadily grown, the sudden disappearance of a middle ground in Poland struck like a storm – and actually rolls back trust that had been gained with difficulty.

In some ways it is not unlike Venezuela under the late Hugo Chavez, where the sides were so entrenched they could not see the merits, no matter how deserving, of the other.

Judging from the stream of letters to the editor received any time a story on Poland is published in the US media, the situation recalls Venezuela’s “Bolivarian revolution” in another way: American readers have taken up post-Soviet Poland as a cause, with conservatives lambasting a perceived liberal slant the way leftists once decried alleged bias in American coverage of Mr. Chavez.

On the ground, the polarization is impacting friendships, workplaces, and families. But for sociologists, the biggest threat is to societal cohesion.

Under Soviet rule for 45 years, Poles learned too well how to distrust authority. It was their closest kin that they counted on. And only slowly were they beginning to counter that skeptic reflex.

“After communism, we in society were working on having much more trust in other people,” says Rafał Jaros, head of the Institute of Social and Economic Research in Lodz. “And now I think we are going backwards. We can’t trust other people because we are now concentrated on how people are different from us.”

PiS was ushered into power last October and became the only party since the country’s 1989 transition to democracy that garnered enough votes to govern without a coalition partner. While many voted for the party as a protest against its predecessor, the scandal-plagued Civic Platform, it continues to enjoy support from two broad swaths of the population.

First are those who share its conservative values on everything from abortion to gay marriage. Second are voters beckoned by its economic policies. While inequality has actually decreased in the past decade, perceptions are the reverse, says Mr. Jaros. So PiS policies, such as subsidies for each child, draw supporters who overlook the party’s conservative or nationalist politics, he says.

In turn, the PiS administration has alienated critics who feel it is moving Poland – a free-market poster child of post-Soviet Europe – away from the European Union, as it takes control of courts and media.

'I don't have a sister'

Poles have responded by going into two different trenches. One PiS lawmaker, Krystyna Pawłowicz, has a sister who supports the Committee to Defend Democracy (KOD), which has been the main force organizing street demonstrations against PiS.

When a journalist asked Ms. Pawłowicz about their relationship, she replied, “I don't have a sister.”

This might be a dramatic example, but Mariusz, an anthropologist in Warsaw who declined to give his last name, says the most innocent conversations can lead to real political battles.

When he had childhood friends over recently who were applauding the child subsidy they get for their two children, Mariusz opined he’d rather see that money put toward making prekindergarten more accessible. They immediately wrote him off as a “liberal.”

What’s been most painful, he says, is the racism in his own family. He says his grandmother opposed Poland’s taking in refugees – even though she was a war refugee herself.

“I come from a small mining town in South Poland near the Auschwitz camp, and it was unthinkable to say that somebody should be gassed,” he says. “But today people say these kind of things, for example that migrants or gays should be gassed. My aunt said even that black people are stupider than we [white people] are.”

“We have a domestic cold war in Poland,” he concludes.

Divisions in Poland are not new. In fact they are hundreds of years old, as Poland was partitioned by the Prussian, Russian, and Austrian empires, creating gaps in development that are still evident today. The poorer east, for example, is where PiS finds some of its strongest support.

An internal 'us' and 'them'

The space is growing between the two, and some fault the government for sowing divisions. As Poles, for example, protested against changes to the country’s constitutional court, which critics say is intended to give PiS more power to push through legislation, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski dismissed them as “Poles of the worst sort.”

PiS supporters feel equally singled out. Agata, an environmentalist in Warsaw, says listening to talk around her company’s watercooler is an exercise in ridicule.

“Every day I have to hear about what 'Pisiors' [the derogatory term of PiS supporters] have done and said. People send to all workers links to articles criticizing PiS, and during lunch time they always … deride PiS politicians,” she says. “It is not nice to hear every day that people who support PiS are backward and stupid.”

She keeps silent – both about her views and her political loyalties.

Sociologist Maciej Dębski, from the University of Gdansk, says divisions today are worse than during communism. “At that time the front line was between ‘we’ the Poles and ‘them’ the USSR. The common goods were freedom and solidarity,” he says.

“Today division is within the society, there is no outside enemy.”

He himself has stopped seeing some family members. The others have made a pact: no political or religious talk.

There is one upshot.

“There is a good side of this because we talk more about family,” he says. “We know each other better now.”

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