Poland 2021: What Will Emerge from the Ruins?

Grzegorz Żukowski || CC

In December 2019, it seemed that 2020 would be the key year for Poland, and that the events of the next year, 2021, would be a simple consequence of the last important political verdict of a closed election cycle – the election of the President of Poland.

While the election of an opposition politician to this office was supposed to give some hope that the veto would block the further process of transforming the Polish system toward authoritarianism, the possible re-election of the seating president, Andrzej Duda, was viewed as the doom of Polish liberal democracy and a symbol of the opening of a three-year period full of freedom in building a new regime for the Law and Justice’s (PiS) government system.

But before this last element of the PiS state could be consolidated with a new term, what Americans call the “wild card” happened – an unexpected and unforeseeable factor that had changed the equation, disrupting the intricate plan that could no longer be implemented fully.

The necessity to improvise arose, and as a result, mistakes multiplied. The COVID-19 pandemic put into question the possibility of the PiS party achieving its goal of Andrzej authoritarian deconstruction of Polish statehood. Even despite the fairly smooth reinstallation of Duda as president.

The year 2021 suddenly does not appear to be a gloomy time for the implementation of a clearly defined plan, but gloomy indeed for citizens, by taking their freedoms away. It presents itself as a game whose political outcome is not a foregone conclusion. An extremely interesting time.

Regardless of how the Polish government’s fight against the pandemic and its consequences continues, the coronavirus has seriously damaged the image of this government. Strong-arm supporters are losing faith in its strength, as PiS has lost its way and changes its mind about the restrictions all the time.

At times the Law and Justice government gives in to pressure from the media and society to flex its muscles menacingly, which causes more and more pity and less and less fear. The supporters of professionalism and efficiency are losing faith, because it is now clear that the results of the struggle with the virus, expressed (in partially hidden) numbers, are among the worst on the continent, and even in the world.

The government’s responses to events are late, and it often makes decisions weeks after receiving recommendations from experts, sometimes even after deeming the same measures as unnecessary before.

PiS has been surprising us all with its soft, weak, ill-prepared, chaotic, labile, and unpredictable behavior driven by suspicions of self-interest. These characteristics are typically associated by the party supporters with the opposition.

The position of the PiS party in polls has weakened, and thus the year 2021 shall bring an answer to the key question: is this just a “bump” in the road, or the beginning of a typical for Poland, unstoppable erosion of support for the ruling team? Just like what we observed in 2000-01 in relation to the Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) coalition, in 2003-05 in relation to the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) party, in 2014-15 in relation to the Civic Platform (PO) party, and the acceleration of which in relation to his own party was blocked by Jarosław Kaczyński, the current deputy prime minister, back in 2007, conducted by means of holding the parliamentary election two years before the due date and handing over power.

In addition to the image-related catastrophe in the fight against the coronavirus, there are a multitude of other political crises that deprive the PiS party of opportunities in various sectors of the electoral relations with the European Union (EU) from many inhabitants of smaller centers in the so-called “poviat Poland”, outside of large cities.

If January and February confirm the start of the process of erosion of support for PiS, two phenomena will change the course of further events.

First, PiS will lose its informal legitimacy for taking further steps in the field of systemic transformation. The more controversial measures it wants to implement, the more this legitimacy will be called into question.

More and more time has passed since the renewal of the mandate of the PiS majority in autumn 2019, and the party’s term of office is about to reach its halfway point. If the polls unanimously showed a fall in support for the party in power well below 30%, the thesis about the loss of the mandate for a profound transformation of Polish reality would become legitimate.

The pressure for PiS to only administer and focus solely on the recovery of the economy after the pandemic, while abandoning the political and ideological goals – as strongly antagonizing – will be powerful.

The second key phenomenon will be the reaction of PiS to the loss of support. Will the ruling party decide to hold early elections (as it happened in 2007) in order to minimize losses and give up only part of power?

Such a scenario would, de facto, result in handing over power to the opposition while retaining such tools as the presidential veto and holding the keys to indicating nominees in the judiciary and the prosecutor’s office. We would then move to the stage of an open war between various institutions of the Polish state.

In view of the long-established dualism of legal orders, institutional disintegration of the state would then be difficult to avoid. PiS would indicate anarchy as the only alternative to its own authoritarianism.

Instead, PiS could choose continuation, counting on the fact that by 2023 citizens will appreciate the economic recovery (financed by the EU), and that the final balance sheet of the pandemic – economic, restrictions-related, and moral – will no longer be viewed as a fiasco after some time passes.

The ruling party could use for its own benefit a narrative that it will have sacrificed everything – including its own dreams of the transformation of the Polish political system – for the sake of saving the lives of seniors, “our venerable parents and grandparents”, claiming that we will have gone through it together, we managed to survive, and we should jointly avoid mutual accusations of what went wrong.

After all, it will have been the worst catastrophe since the war…

This scenario would mean that PiS would retain power, but it would be too afraid to implement most of the aggressive elements of the systemic transformation, although some actions (as the recent takeover of the Polska Press or disciplinary procedures against independent judges) would be taken.

Conflicts within the ruling camp would also arise, both in terms of the direction and extent of the actions, and those purely related to the party’s ambition and to its financial interests.

The right wing could cease to be united already in 2021. Above all, the fear exiting among some regime figures of the legal consequences of the impending loss of power would grow in strength. There would be “betrayals” on the part of those who are afraid of such a turn of events and who would then start looking for opportunities to buy themselves into the favors of the opposition leaders.

These cases would inevitably be accompanied by leaking sensitive secrets of the ruling camp. It would be thus a self-propelling mechanism of erosion and ultimate demise of the Law and Justice.

Another scenario might mean that the PiS leaders would go to a head-on collision with the rest of Poland. Therefore, in 2021, we may face an attempt to immediately shut down the authoritarian system, one element of which will be the exclusion of the option of losing power by means of an election.

Then, we would probably bear witness to some more dramatic scenes on Polish streets, brutal self-defense actions on the part of the authorities, political arrests of protest leaders as well as opposition party leaders, fake trials, but also an internal consolidation of the ruling camp. With such a turn of events, the year 2021 would be a repetition of the year 1926 in the history of Poland.

Three external factors will be important to the ruling camp in the course of events and strategic decisions of PiS. The first is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic, as a possible high third wave and collapse of the health care system, with many thousands of victims, would render any political discussion meaningless.

The second one is the extent and durability of the protests in the new year. If they start to lose on strength (so far, however, nothing shows that), or if they are prevented by the third wave of the pandemic, the likelihood of the second scenario with inertial erosion, drifting, and internal decay of the PiS camp will increase.

In the event of a further strong attack on the government, paradoxically, the probability of the first scenario (the capitulation of PiS and early elections with the hope of maintaining the veto power) and the third scenario (a head-on collision) increases.

After all, the third factor is the reaction from abroad to the actions of PiS: on the one hand, the question is to what extent the EU procedures, which seem to be working rather slowly, will be able to put PiS financially against the wall (it seems that this will happen no sooner than in 2022); and on the other hand, how much interest in the events on the Vistula River will be taken by the White House and the new administration of Joe Biden.

Will President Biden refer to the achievements of Kennedy and Reagan and fight for democracy in Central Europe? Will he perhaps consider stopping authoritarianism in a country like Poland as an important element of the strategy of putting a halt to the weakening of democracy in the entire Western world and as a condition for preventing similar phenomena in countries such as France, the Netherlands, or Germany, and finally also at home, in the context of Donald Trump likely re-entering the presidential race in 2024?

It may turn out that the potential suppression of populism in Warsaw and Budapest will be recognized by the Democratic Party strategists as an important propaganda and a symbolic success before the second battle between Biden and Trump in three years.

The year 2021 brings a record number of unknown aspects for Poland. Even though there are no elections to be held this year, it will be an extremely important year. Because – as it seems – we will have to vote in the next twelve months.

Not in a polling station, but on the streets. Not with a ballot, but with a banner, a megaphone, a burning tire, and maybe something else.

The article was originally published in Polish at: https://liberte.pl/2021-co-wyloni-sie-ze-zgliszcz/

Translated by Ola Łabendowicz

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