A little over two months into its term, the new Polish government is being portrayed in the Western media as mere goose-steps away from outright dictatorship. Commentators fret over the “Orbanization” of the country while its de facto leader is compared to America’s own populist demagogue, Donald Trump. Though comparisons to Hungary are natural, it is important not to conflate the two countries and their trajectories. Western capitals must resist the temptation to throw out the baby with the bathwater by overreacting to every perceived slight out of Warsaw.
The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has certainly taken troubling steps since coming to power after parliamentary elections last November. Its leader Jarosław Kaczyński has long been a master of harnessing populist discontent, which propelled him to his first stint in power in 2006-2007. In 2010, his twin brother—and President of Poland—died in an air disaster, which he blames on Russian malice. His calls for the refashioning of the current (third) Polish Republic into a new “Fourth Polish Republic” put foreign leaders and domestic liberals on edge. Kaczyński’s rise to power, however, owes itself more to the political ineptitude of his predecessors than to the popularity of his more radical views.
The previous government began 2015 leading opinion polls, but Kaczyński was able to seize the opportunities provided by government missteps. Perceived inequality, in spite of widespread increases in the standard of living, fomented general discontent. This was exacerbated by the release of secret recordings of ministers frankly discussing political horse-trading, eroding the respectability of the government. An abortive standoff with the powerful coal miner unions galvanized economic protectionist sentiments, which Kaczyński masterfully folded into his populist nativism.
Kaczyński’s deftest move was to take himself out of consideration for the top post of Prime Minister. By nominating controllable puppets for President and Prime Minister, Kaczyński circumvented his personal unpopularity. While government was further weakened by splintering, Kaczyński was granted a gift in the form of the refugee crisis. A homogeneous country with a checkered history of forced migrations, he was able to tap into a surging nativist current prevalent across the continent.
Even with all these factors in his favor, Kaczyński was only able to secure 37% of the vote--though in the fractured political field this was enough to secure a bare majority. His previous time at the helm was through an unstable coalition government which collapsed in scandal. Now he presides over the first majority-government in Poland’s post-communist history. Unsurprisingly, he has moved quickly to burn through any goodwill on the part of the Polish electorate and its Western partners.
The recent controversies involving the Polish constitutional court and national broadcasters are emblematic of the sort of petty personal feuds which have marked every political transition since 1991. The previous government also moved to similarly cleanse government of high-ranking appointees following its election—though the vigor with which Kaczyński has moved to fill posts with his lackeys is certainly unnerving. With an unprecedented majority in the parliament his actions predictably draw comparisons with those of Brussels’ favorite bad boy Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán--nonetheless the situations are markedly different.
Orbán took power on the back of an absolute majority of votes and supermajority in the parliament. Kaczyński’s position is fundamentally weaker on all fronts, not least because he holds no actual government post. His party lacks both the popular mandate and parliamentary seats for a unilateral overhaul of the constitutional framework. Polish political parties are prone to fracture and personal conflicts, and though he believes he controls his puppets, it is not inconceivable that the trappings of power will instill a desire for the real thing in either the Prime Minister or President.
The PiS is less united than its opponents fear. In addition to the de facto triumvirate creating potential rift points in the party, it is an ideologically heterogeneous beast. Though it is certainly a party of the right, the “far-right” appellation applied by Western media inaccurately describes a coalition between nativist populists, religious conservatives, and NATO enthusiasts. Now that the party has to set its sights on actually governing, odds increase dramatically that the party will come to internal blows over policy. Kaczyński’s micromanaging of the party will, as in the past, cause party members to chafe and wonder whether or not it might be better to jump ship.
Changes in government are inevitable, and beneficial, in an effective democracy. Poland’s democracy, like its economy and its civil institutions, is among the strongest on Europe’s eastern frontier. Though Kaczyński’s actions merit close monitoring, Poland has earned the right to change governments without perpetual cries of “dictatorship!” from its partners. Doing otherwise risks giving ammunition to hardline tendencies within the ruling party and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Kaczyński has forgotten the lessons of the last time he overstepped his bounds and his government collapsed, the Polish political system has proven more than adequate at bringing stints in power to an early demise.
*The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not represent those of The Political Analysis.