Poles will cast their ballots in the national parliamentary election next Sunday, and the world is watching to see if they will deliver another decisive victory for the populist, right-wing Law and Justice Party.
Law and Justice formed Poland’s first outright majority government in 2015 since the fall of communism. In the ensuing years, Poland has been seen to be following in the political footsteps of fellow-EU member state Hungary, in a turn toward conservative policies, control of the media and breaking down some of the country’s checks and balances on power.
Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said as far back as 2011 that he idolized Hungary’s trajectory and hoped that one day Warsaw would be just like Budapest.
And despite growing international concern, polls have indicated Law and Justice is likely to control the government for another term. In European elections earlier this year Law and Justice secured more than 45 per cent of the Polish vote, making them confident for the election ahead.
Numerous headlines have surfaced internationally since 2015 that have demonstrated Poland’s move toward increasingly conservative and right-wing policies.
In 2016, legislation was proposed that would have banned abortion in Poland. Even without this legislation, Poland has some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, only allowing the procedure in cases of rape, incest, fetal abnormalities or a risk to the mother’s life.
The proposed ban was voted down after significant public backlash.
Nonetheless, women’s rights are one of the battleground issues in this election for progressive voters. Jakub and Karolina Zarzycki, a married couple of art historians living in Wroclaw, describe Polish society as utterly divided along social justice issues.
Karolina, for example, doesn’t discuss matters like abortion with her family for worry about starting a feud.
“I’m not sure what they think exactly; I don’t discuss these kinds of issues with them. I don’t think they’re right-wing but I think they might have doubts about abortion because of their religious background,” she said.
Poland has a population of 38.4 million and, according to the Vatican’s registry, 36.6 million of those are Catholic. Thus, religion plays a significant role in the country’s politics and the Catholic Church is viewed as aligned with Law and Justice.
“Our bishops are missing the point. Maybe our society is conservative, but with every year we become — maybe not less conservative — but more pragmatic. So it means that the opposition or disagreement with gay marriage or abortion is lower and lower and lower. And the Catholic Church is still in the same position,” Jakub said.
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This summer Poland again made international headlines as a conservative Polish magazine, one that supports Law and Justice, distributed stickers for readers to place on their homes or businesses declaring those areas LGBT-free zones.
Dawid Wojtyczka, a gay rights advocate living in Krakow, said he can remember everything about the moment he heard about the stickers: where he was, the pain that overtook him.
“I think this was one of the worst events to happen in Poland in the last, I don’t know, 10 years when it comes to the LGBT community,” he said in an interview.
“So you can buy a newspaper, you can put up a sticker that LGBT people cannot buy something here. Come on. This is something that happened with Jews. This was the same story on repeat, and we know how that ended. The world knows how that ended. And this was nothing good.”
The ruling party did nothing to stop the distribution of the stickers or to condemn them. Deputy Prime Minister Jacek Sasin said, “As the ruling party, we won’t impose on the free media and the free press what it should write and what stickers it should distribute.”
The uproar led several towns and cities to declare themselves LGBT-free zones.
Wojtyczka is voting for an opposition party, but he isn’t hopeful that any fragment of the fractured opposition is strong enough to upset Law and Justice. He worries what another term under this party’s rule could mean for young members of the LGBT community.
“I’m 30, I’m out and proud,” he said. “But I think, ‘What about that 15-year-old boy living in Poland, in the closet, not feeling any support and seeing such a sticker?'”
While the government refused to interfere with the stickers, Poland’s courts did step in to block their sale.
Meanwhile, Poland has been slipping in world press freedom rankings, and the country has been battling it out with European Union oversight bodies regarding changes it made to influence the independence of the judiciary.
While many blame the right-wing party for inflaming tensions over these and other social justice issues, Tomasz Grzegorz Grosse, a professor of history and political science at the University of Warsaw, says it was also the fault of opposition parties who tried to push a conservative country too far to the left.
“It was rather liberal politicians that raised these topics and raised an attack against the place of the Catholic Church in the social life of Poles. So they brought these topics to the electoral agenda, Law and Justice rather defended the current values and defended the importance of Christian values in Polish society,” Grosse said.
“So if we are trying to investigate who is responsible for the emotions in our campaign, it is for sure, for me, liberal opposition politicians.”
But social justice issues aren’t the only thing voters are considering. In rural areas, where support for Law and Justice surpassed 60 per cent in some cases in the last election, economic policies targeting families have had a big impact.
“The current government is not arrogant, it does not look down at people, it sees people.”
— Teresa Rogucka
Teresa Rogucka’s response to, “Are you voting for Law and Justice?” is, “Of course I am.”
Rogucka is a regular churchgoer in the small town of Korytnica, about 60 kilometres east of Warsaw, with a population of under 900.
“I am a mother, a grandmother, and I am happy with this situation. The current government is not arrogant, it does not look down at people, it sees people,” Rogucka said through an interpreter.
The party’s policy that most appeals to her is the child welfare benefit, which pays parents roughly $170 Cdn each month per child after the first.
Rogucka explained that raising five kids in a Poland that was struggling to support its people has led her to cherish what parents are able to provide for their kids under this policy.
She worries, though, about the divisions that have been created by current political discourse.
“It worries all of us. We don’t want such things, because it is not just a division, it is already a war,” she said.
Grosse points out that while circumstances in Poland are unique, his country is caught up in the global trend toward populism and strongman leadership.
Brian Porter-Szucs is the Arthur F. Thurnau professor of history at the University of Michigan with a focus on Polish studies. “I think when we sit down to write the history of this era we will see that what happened in Poland was a proceeding of what would happen in the United States,” he said.
Hungary and Poland led the way, demonstrating the power of emotion and the tactics of distraction in politics, he said. And while he’s often reluctant to compare current events to history, he says the erosion of a free press and independent courts in an EU country should concern everyone.
‘The liberties … are being rolled back’
“The liberties that have been established after the fall of communism are being rolled back. The public rhetoric has become really poisonous with the rise of extremist right-wing nationalist ideas that hearken back to organizations and ideologies that we haven’t seen since the 1930s in Europe. It’s been extremely disturbing,” he said.
Porter-Szucs is keeping an eye on Kaczynski’s strong desire to rewrite the country’s constitution. In order to do that, Law and Justice needs to secure a two-thirds majority in the election.
Or, as Porter-Szucs says, they can opt for a more informal means of rewriting it.
“The only way he could get around the constitution is by taking control of the courts and making sure that his own people are there to rubber stamp whatever he wants to do,” he said.
“Everything else has been, I think, secondary. The main goal during this first term in office is to make sure that he has complete control of the courts and that the constitution will become a dead letter so that the reforms that he wants to push forward, he’ll be able to do.”
A request to the Law and Justice press office for comment has been unanswered.