In Poland’s presidential election, Andrzej Duda, the incumbent with strong ties to the Law and Justice (PiS) party, secured his re-election by a tiny majority of just 1.2% over his liberal rival, Rafał Trzaskowski.
Duda’s campaign was an example of a very divisive, culture-war type politics, which amplified existing social divides and created new ones. Duda deliberately brought out the ugliest aspects of nationalism, relying on common hatred of ‘the other’ as a means to the mobilization of support.
In the height of his grotesque displays of hate speech, Andrzej Duda dehumanized the LGBT+ community by declaring the acronym an “ideology worse than Communism”. The rhetoric used in his campaign is one that in Western Europe is reserved only to minor far-right, extremist groups with no real political traction.
But in Poland, PiS has managed to make significant political gains by this angry form of politics, successfully appealing to people’s feelings of fear and anger.
Duda’s victory gives PiS free rain to continue, and finalize its undemocratic agenda. PiS has already made clear its plans to broaden state control of the media, complete the efforts to end judicial independence, and dismantle the remainder of independent state institutions. It will be three years before the next parliamentary elections, in which time Poland may seize to be a democracy.
Further, this election exposed a deeper social dynamic that Poland has struggled with historically. Namely, the lack of cohesion in understanding and interpretation of Poland’s historical identity, which forms the very foundations of national unity. Despite the country’s high ethnic hegemony, who gets to be Polish and who doesn’t, remains unusually contested.
Poland: A Nation State
On the nation, John Stuard Mill writes,
“Sometimes it is the effect of identity of race and descent. Community of language and community of religion greatly contribute to it. Geographical limits are one of its causes. But the strongest of all is identity of political antecedents; the possession of a national history, and consequent community of recollections; collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents in the past.”
He also famously claims that
“it is, in general, a necessary condition of free institutions that the boundaries of governments should coincide in the main with those of nationalities”.
Meaning, that democratic institutions are most effective when the society over which they govern believes itself to be a collective social and political entity. In PiS’s political rhetoric, opponents are anti-Polish, German sympathizers, foreigners, excluded from the nation.
Mill’s premise would suggest that Poland’s struggles to uphold democracy may be the outcome of its battle to agree on the characteristics of its nation, mainly its collective, real or perceived, historical antecedence.
Having been divided and occupied by Prussia, Austria and Russia for over a hundred years, the people living on what is now the legal territory of Poland, have different collective memories of the “pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidences in the past”.
The presidential battle had viscerally exposed the weakness of unity of the Polish nation, which PiS successfully exploited in its quest to power.
The trend of knife-edge elections in recent years is by no means exclusive to Poland. Nor is the structure of the argument used in Duda’s campaign – the promise to act as a protector from the threatening identity outsider, resulting in scapegoating of minority groups.
Poland’s election had been more about identity and less about competition over competencies to govern. When electoral debates revolve around questions relating to the size of the state, as they have primarily tended to do so in Europe and America, then post-electoral social cohesion is not too difficult to achieve.
Regardless of whether the traditional ‘right’ or ‘left’ side wins, there is space for the argument, and therefore democratic politics, to continue.
However, when elections are won based on identity – on who is Polish and who isn’t – then, when the election is over the feelings don’t die down, creating a much more profound challenge for democracy.
By claiming the legitimacy to define the characteristics of the nation and its members, the PiS government fosters an environment in which opponents can be excluded from democratic institutions and politics altogether.
Exclusion is the essence of the PiS politics. It is politics that tends towards silencing anyone who represents a different world view by portraying them as traitors, acting against national interests. It is a way of conduct more similar to that of street gangs than democratic political parties.
PiS’s political agenda will now advance as a result of Duda’s victory. The government has both the tool and intentions to take over independent television and press and to harass political opponents. Even business owners can feel afraid of state retaliation for ordinary activities, such as advertising in free media newspapers.
PiS politics is a vengeful type of politics. One should not underestimate the tools that a determined government can use to hijack the system if it wishes to do so. The undemocratic use of state apparatus gives the PiS government tremendous power, one that will dwindle the abilities of the opposition despite its impressive 48,97% vote share in the Presidential election.
It is uncertain today whether Poland will remain a democracy in the long-run, or whether its ‘Europeanization’ attempt will come to a halt. The 2004 EU enlargement policy was one based on optimism, a symbolic end of the Soviet era. The effects of accepting post-communist countries into the European Union were never certain, but the hopes were high.
Perhaps the result of Poland’s presidential election should be viewed as an indicator of Poland’s democratic immaturity compared to Western EU Member States. Immaturity that had once appeared insignificant, but now poses a severe threat to EU cohesion and strength. How the EU will act now towards Warsaw will shape the future of the EU itself.
People under the age of 25 overwhelmingly voted for the pro-European Rafal Trzaskowski, many of them first-time voters. These same voters would have lived the majority of their lives as Polish-EU citizens and should be able to expect their rights to be adequately protected by the EU against a government they did not choose.
Perhaps the most significant structural weakness of the EU is the lack of European nationalism and a more direct relationship with its citizens. Poland’s case could provide an environment in which the EU can step in, bypassing the Polish state and reach directly to its citizens, many of whom are feeling vulnerable and unprotected now.
The presidential hopeful Rafal Trzaskowski, despite coming short of victory, had, nonetheless, managed to unite and rally the opposition, gaining great electoral support of over 10 million votes.
He also highlighted the importance and effectiveness of politics conducted at a local level by town and city mayors, among whom support for PiS minimal. Being the current Mayor of Warsaw, his words were not without merit.
The strong anti-PiS feelings among local government actors could be an opportunity for the EU to make itself present on the local level, and began to foster more direct relationships with its citizens. Poland is expecting to run on large EU donations, but it would go against EU values to subsidize the xenophobic and homophobic PiS government.
On the other hand, it cannot abandon the many Polish-EU citizens whose rights are under threat. Bypassing central government in the allocation of EU funding could prove the most effective tool available to the EU, perhaps paving the way for future European federalism.