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Poland is Back in Europe’s Mainstream – and That Could Secure the EU’s Future

It was meant to have been Poland’s “Orbán moment”. Last August, the country’s ruling nationalist Law and Justice party voted that parliamentary elections in October should be accompanied by a referendum. Citizens would be asked populist-inflected questions about selling off state assets to foreigners, increasing the retirement age and illegal immigration. The referendum was copy-pasted from a strategy successfully used by Viktor Orbán to consolidate his illiberal regime in Hungary. It was not simply a cynical ploy to allow unlimited public money to be spent on the ruling party’s electoral campaign, it was an effort to frame the elections as a referendum on Polish sovereignty. To oppose the referendum and to vote for the opposition meant not only that you favoured a loss of sovereignty, but that you endorsed neoliberal economic policies and economic occupation by “foreign” powers such as Germany. Law and Justice was sure that it was a tactic that could not go wrong.

As we know, the ploy failed. The fact that the opposition successfully boycotted the referendum held alongside general elections on 15 October (only about 40% of voters took part) reveals one of the least-discussed consequences of the national populists’ long rule in Poland: the paradox that eight years of culture war against liberalism has resulted in Polish society’s dramatic liberalisation.

Pursuing a strategy of maximum polarisation, Law and Justice initially transformed the soft conservative cultural consensus that defined Polish politics prior to 2015 into a conservative electoral majority – but at the cost of destroying this consensus. As a result, the church-supported government has overseen a dramatic decline in church attendance by younger Poles and anti-church sentiment has led to a pro-choice majority. Many of the opposition’s older voters, who only yesterday were queasy at the idea of equal marriage or the reproductive health policies favoured by the EU, suddenly became reconciled with liberal cultural policies and values. Many probably still feel uneasy about the direction of modern liberal societies, but muted themselves because opposing LGBTQ+ rights and migration into Poland implied support for the hated governing party. Similarly to the way in which Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has given birth to a new, radically anti-Russian Ukrainian identity, Jarosław Kaczyński’s intra-Polish war has created a liberal political identity in Poland that didn’t exist before.

The 15 October elections also represented a kind of closure for Polish post-communist politics. When speaking at the grandiose pre-election “march of a million hearts”, the opposition leader Donald Tusk called the democrats’ mobilisation during the election campaign “the third wave of Solidarity” (the first being in 1980-81, the second in 1989) – emphasising that Civic Coalition positioned itself as Solidarity reborn. Tusk made it clear that the elections were not only about who will decide the county’s future, but also about who owns Solidarity’s past.

These elections may be the last in which the leaders of the two major blocs were members of the heroic generation that toppled communism. Both Tusk, 66, and Kaczyński, 74, were once card-carrying Solidarity activists. But they represented two different strands within the anti-communist movement. Kaczyński pined nostalgically for prewar Poland; Tusk dreamed of liberal Poland. The two visions could coexist in the struggle against communism, but were in constant tension after 1989, both claiming the Solidarity legacy as their political identity.

Jarosław Kaczyński and Donald Tusk voting in Warsaw, Poland, 15 October 2023

Which is the legitimate heir of the Solidarity moment: the nationalist, Catholic Poland represented by Kaczyński, or the liberal Poland exemplified by Tusk? Voters were asked precisely this question. Polish history, in its peak moments, has always resounded like a Chopin nocturne, so we should not be surprised that on election night Tusk sounded like a person who had won not only power but a symbolic battle for the past. He has succeeded in transforming his coalition into the party of national pride, while reclaiming national history for the liberals’ cause.

Law and Justice has failed in its grand experiment to cast 21st-century Polish identity as a neverending war on two fronts, against the Russians and the Germans. Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 film, Katyń, has a short segment that brilliantly expresses the tragedy of Polish history. It captures the moment in 1939, soon after Germany invaded Poland, when the Soviets moved to occupy the eastern part of the country. Two columns of Poles walk past each other: those fleeing the Germans in the hopeof a better chance of survival in the lands occupied by Moscow, and those from the east with fresh memories of Russian rule, who head towards the German zone. For Kaczyński, fighting Russia and Germany is the permanent Polish condition, and he has made this fight his personal religion.

When Russia started its full-fledged war against Ukraine, the Polish government was one of Kyiv’s strongest and most ardent supporters, and Polish society welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees. But Kaczyński did everything he could to convince Poles that the Germans were an even more dangerous – invisible – enemy and that the EU is no better than a vegetarian version of the Fourth Reich. In government-controlled media, Tusk has always been portrayed as a German puppet, the agent of both Angela Merkel and Putin.

Kaczyński, it seems, saw an opposition victory as a bigger threat to Poland’s sovereignty than a Russian victory in Ukraine. It is telling that in his first public remarks since Law and Justice lost its parliamentary majority, he suggested that foreign forces – especially Germany and Russia – were behind the main opposition parties now set to form a new government. In this context, Law and Justice’s defeat is an opportunity for the end not only of the “Polish-Polish” war, but also of the undeclared Polish-German war.

The future is never as bright as it is portrayed in the speeches of the winners on election night. The opposition has won, but these elections reconfirmed the existence of two Polands, and this second, Kaczyński’s Poland, will not disappear. The new governing coalition will also not be an easy one. The opposition’s victory does not mean that mistrust of Germany will disappear or that Polish criticism of Germany was wrong in the first place.

But this victory does signal both a political change in Poland and a mood change in Europe. Europe’s turn to the right now looks less irreversible. Tusk’s victory in Warsaw leaves Orbán politically isolated in the EU as never before. Orbán’s political future now seems to depend on the outcome of the next US presidential election.

At a moment when the war in Ukraine has shifted the EU’s centre of gravity to the east, Poland’s return to the European mainstream is of existential significance. The improved dynamic of German-Polish relations today is as important for the future of the EU as the rapprochement between France and Germany was in the 1950s. A self-confident and pro-European Poland could turn out to be a critical force in reinventing the union. But Poland being Poland, we should be ready for any surprise.

Source : The Guardian