Poland is back. Not so long ago, the country was seen as an effigy of democratic backsliding, rather than a post-communist success story. In 2017, the European Commission made its first use of the Article 7 procedure against Poland over concerns about eroding separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary. On the campaign trail in 2020, Joe Biden warned about ‘what’s happening from Belarus through Poland and Hungary and the rise of totalitarian regimes in the world’. In doing so, he placed the Polish government in the company of some of the worst dictators on the planet.
But within days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Poland managed to reclaim its place as a sober regional power. It ditched the excesses of its recent past in favour of a laser-sharp focus on building a global coalition to help Ukraine succeed.
If that sounds like an overstatement, it shouldn’t. By mid-April alone, the Polish government handed over military aid worth over €1.5 billion (approximately £1.3 billion), including 200 T-72 tanks. At a time when many Western governments continue to withhold heavy weaponry, Poland is sending 18 self-propelled AHS Krab howitzers and training Ukrainians crews to use them. Polish diplomacy has been indispensable in building momentum for additional sanctions on Russia, including the partial oil embargo, and for keeping the prospect of Ukraine EU accession alive notwithstanding resistance from ‘old’ member states.
Without so much as a peep from domestic opponents of large-scale immigration, the nation of 38 million has taken in perhaps as many as 3.6 million Ukrainian refugees. They have been provided with shelter, food, medical treatment, and economic opportunities, very often thanks to spontaneous, bottom-up efforts of civil society organisations and volunteers.
Poland’s leadership by example is heartening to everyone, familiar or not with the country’s centuries-long struggle for independence and freedom, including from Russian and later Soviet dominance. Hand-in-hand with its stepping up on the world stage, the putative threat posed to Polish democracy by its ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) seems more abstract and distant than ever.
It’s true that fears over the undermining of independence of the courts and media have not been unfounded. Poland’s government has lowered judges’ retirement age and fired a big segment of the judiciary, including 27 out of 74 judges of Poland’s Supreme Court. The justice minister concentrated powers over judicial appointments, dismissals, and disciplining judges. Last year, through special legislation, the government threatened to revoke the licence of TVN24, a US-owned news channel that has been frequently critical of the PiS government.
But the problem of ‘incumbent entrenchment’ – where a leader outstays his welcome – has never progressed as far as in Hungary, a country with which Poland is, not always fairly, often compared. Poland has demonstrated not only a capacity for Orbán-like brinkmanship but also for changing its ways for the better. President Andrzej Duda, a PiS loyalist, vetoed the ‘Lex TVN’ bill which threatened the freedom of the country’s media. After a European ruling against PiS’s efforts to roll back the retirement age of Supreme Court justices, the Polish government backed down and allowed the judges to return. PiS recently backtracked from its efforts to subject judges to further political control by scrapping the ‘disciplinary chamber’ at the country’s Supreme Court, created as part of its PiS-driven ‘reforms’.
The European Commission’s threat to withhold EU funds if the politicisation of courts was not reversed was an important contributing factor. No less important, however, are the vibrancy of Poland’s civil society and media scene, and the existence of a far greater number of independent players and veto points than in Hungary. In Budapest, some self-styled conservatives are happy to play a supporting role to Moscow while engaging in US-style culture wars. But in Warsaw, the looming threat of Russia has revived a cross-partisan ambition to establish Poland as a trusted counterweight to the appeasement policies of Germany and France. President Duda is also playing a growing role as a moderating force, with the view of positioning himself favourably for post-presidential life after 2025, either in Polish politics or internationally.
While this is all happening against the background of a much larger, tragic story to the East, Poland’s return to the forefront of European politics – together with the toning down of its domestic illiberalism – is a welcome development. It is a course correction for the largely self-inflicted marginalisation suffered by Poland after PiS’s arrival in power in 2015.
For PiS, this change has not meant an abandonment of its distinctly Polish brand of conservatism, blending a Catholic view of social and cultural values and the embrace of a muscular economic role played by the government. The governing majority has not given in on its restrictive abortion legislation or its fiscally expensive natalist agenda. Both may be irking progressives but neither is in itself a challenge to liberal democracy.
Yet by taming the excesses to which such ideas have led in the past, Poland may provide a glimpse into the future of right-wing politics after the populist-driven realignments across the Western world. And whatever one thinks of particulars of PiS’s policies, the picture of Warsaw today is not one of an unmitigated disaster, quite the contrary.
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