A young bank employee, Dorota, looks around anxiously before quietly saying, “Under the current government, we already have less freedom than we had during Communism times.
State television only runs propaganda for the government and the (Catholic) church is inciting hatred against gays and lesbians. For decades, the church has been covering up abuse scandals.”
Dorota said she will vote for the new left-wing Wiosna, or “Spring”, party, founded by the homosexual former mayor of the northern Polish city of Slupsk, Robert Biedron, in the parliamentary elections on 13 October.
In stark contrast to Dorota, 35-year-old biology teacher Piotr will once again vote for the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party, known commonly by its initials, PiS, which has governed Poland’s 40 million people with an absolute majority since 2015.
“Our economy is the fastest growing in the EU and the government takes care of young families,” Piotr says. Since the start of this month, he receives the equivalent of €120 for childcare for his son. Just before the elections, the government conveniently extended the family allowance, which used to be paid only to poorer families starting with the second child, to all children.
Younger Poles that are under 26 and who earn the equivalent of no more than €20,000 a year were also exempt from the national payroll tax. Pensioners were promised a bonus 13th monthly payment for the year, and the minimum wage is expected to be raised.
Under these conditions, it is understandable why the PiS, which remains firmly under the control of its 70-year-old chairman, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is leading in all polls with a 45% approval rate. “Our goal is to build a Polish version of the welfare state,” said Kaczynski at a PiS party convention in the city of Lublin, near the Ukrainian and Belarussian borders. “We must continue to increase wages and the income of society in the next period of government.”
The largest opposition group, the Citizens’ Coalition, or KO-PO, consists of the Civic Platform (PO) party and its two far smaller allies. The alliance, however, has only been polling at 26% in recent polls, far behind PiS. The leader of the coalition, former parliamentary president Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, had her candidacy officially presented to the public only six weeks before the elections. Kidawa-Blonska has promised more funds for Poland’s health service in the event that her party secures an election victory and has vowed not to revoke the previously granted election gifts offered by the PiS.
Kidawa-Blonska is clearly pro-European and has condemned the PiS’ attacks on the EU, many of which attempt to equate the 28-member bloc with the much-hated Soviet Union.
In the weeks leading up to the election, three of Poland’s former presidents – Lech Walesa, Aleksandr Kwasniewski, and Bronislaw Komorowski – warned in a joint appeal against another victory for Kaczynski and the PiS, saying, “On October 13, we have no normal elections. Rather, it will be decided whether Poland will become a democratic state governed by the rule of law or whether it will slide further towards an authoritarian dictatorship.”
Their appeal comes at a time when a major rift in Polish society has begun to the country into regions that are bitterly opposed to one another at the ballot box. In the urban areas and in western Poland, the Civic Platform’s liberal and pro-EU positions dominate, whereas in the east of the country and in its many rural communities, the right-wing PiS has the solid backing from the majority of voters as it follows a deeply socially conservative and strictly nationalist political agenda.
Kaczynski and the PiS regularly attack the German government and have demanded billions in reparations the destruction caused by the Nazi invasion of Poland during World War II – a move that has become standard pre-election fare from Kaczynski’s supporters. The PiS has also held to its close alliance with the Catholic Church by demonising abortion, women’s and LGBT rights. The Archbishop of Krakow, Marek Jedraszewski, warned in one of his sermons in August against “rainbow-coloured plague” that he claimed was a threat to Polish society.
Jedraszewski’s use of a coloured metaphor to describe his opposition to the LGBT movement was a direct reference to Poland’s recent past when he equated the imagery of a “rainbow-coloured plague” with the “red plague” of Soviet-backed Communists that ruled the country until 1989.
“Since Pope John Paul II, the Polish Church has always worked towards the unity of Poles, but homosexuality and gay marriage must be condemned as “incompatible with the revelation,” said Jedraszewski, who leads a church that was badly shaken this year after several paedophilia scandals came to light.
Before the European elections in May, a documentary on the Internet, which was seen by more than 10 million Poles, dealt with the abuse of children by priests. The government doubled the prison sentences for the abusers, but not before Kaczynski already publicly stated that any attack against Poland’s Catholic establishment is an attack on the Polish state itself.
In the countryside, the PiS has been successful in ist attempt to stop the rural exodus, even the opposition admits this fact. According to Civic Platform parliamentarian Marek Krzakala, several police stations in rural areas that were closed by his government between 2007 and 2015 have been reopened under PiS rule.
This has helped to institutionalise the national-conservative course since the PiS first began consolidating their power. The media has, for the most part, been brought heel, particularly on state media where opposition politicians rarely appear and are usually portrayed in a negative light.
A favourite target of the state-controlled media is former prime minister and outgoing EU Council President Donald Tusk. When Tusk gave a speech at Warsaw University on the anniversary of the Polish constitution last May, the event was never mentioned on state television.
Once the media began towing the PiS line, the judicial system was their next target. Several Constitutional Court members were deemed unacceptable by the ruling party were forced to retire after the PiS reduced the maximum age requirements for sitting judges. The move was partially checked by Brussels following a preliminary injunction by the EU Supreme Court. This allowed some judges to be later reinstated, but then the courts and the judges’ associations were then targeted by the PiS.
“The government wants to exercise power over the entire judicial system,” said Darius Mazur of the judges’ association, Themis. Poland’s National Justice Council, which is responsible for the nomination of judges, was gradually put under the control of the government with even the disciplinary proceedings that were once carried out autonomously by the judges now influenced by political motivation.
The Justice Ministry has stuck to its defence of the judicial reforms with the Vice-Minister of Justice Lukasz Piebak saying, “The people’s trust in the judiciary was very low in the past, The proceedings took too long and they were not objective.“
For Piebak, it is incomprehensible that the EU started proceedings against Poland under Article 7 of the EU Treaty because of the reform of the judiciary. The case has not led to a result and
Brussels has already said that it has ruled out the possibility of any harsh punishment and would not revoke Poland’s voting rights in the same way that it has fort he PiS’ allies ideological allies in the Hungarian government. Brussels is looking into making lavish cuts tot he substantial subsidies that the EU provides to Poland on an annual basis. Since joining the EU in 2004, Poland has received at least €100 billion in aid from the European Union.
The modernisation of Poland is easily visible throughout the country. The motorway network and high-speed railway lines have been expanded. The country’s economy is the fastest-growing in the EU and unemployment is low. Many younger professionals that have been living and pursuing their careers abroad – particularly in the UK, where a particularly large number of Poles have settled since Poland joined the EU in 2004 – should be lured home by promises of tax exemptions and childcare benefits.
Poland’s farmers, who were previously among the most bitter opponents to joining the European Union, also benefitted from the accession process as the export of Polish food items increased rapidly. Despite the upward trends in the economy, several EU-observers have concluded that the EU is seen by most Poles as nothing more than a virtual ATM.
The former Vice-President of the European Parliament Zdzislaw Krasnodebski, disagrees, however, saying “Many companies from the EU, including in Germany and Austria, have benefited from our growth“, including in the food supply chain, construction companies, banks, and insurance firms.
The political divisions in Poland do, however, pose substantial risks for the country’s economic upswing. Violent acts such as the assassination of liberal Gdansk Mayor Pawel Adamowicz earlier in the year or attacks on people taking part in a LGBT pride parade in Lublin are on the rise.
“I have been threatened several times,” says Krakow’s Mayor Jacek Majchrowski, adding, “The fact that the judiciary is being controlled more and more politically is dangerous. That could scare foreign investors.”
In the nearby Socialist Realist district of Nowa Huta – a grim Communist-era showpiece of massive apartment blocs and industrial plants – the local steelworks, could be partially closed down. Majchrowski has warned “we will lose many skilled workers. They are needed here for other modernisation production projects.”