THE WORLDPOST

America’s Crisis Of Democracy Looks Shockingly Like Poland’s

What’s happening in the era of Trump almost seems like déjà vu for this European country.

02/16/2017 11:44 EST | Updated 10/30/2017 16:41 EDT
Kacper Pempel / Reuters
A man holds a banner with Jaroslaw Kaczyński, leader of Poland's ruling PiS party, that reads "Stop Demoktaturze (a combination of the words democracy and dictatorship) of PiS."

WARSAW, Poland ― U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration and the subsequent deluge of shocking events that followed have set the tone for what to expect from the new leader and his administration. Many Americans are concerned that their country is going down an alarming and unprecedented path, as are many Europeans. And in at least one European country, the scene playing out in the U.S. may almost seem like déjà vu. 

In late 2015, Polish citizens took to the polls and ousted the center-right ruling party, Civic Platform. Civic Platform had been in power for nearly a decade by that point, and many Poles had become incensed by scandals that painted its politicians as out-of-touch elites. And although the country had experienced remarkable economic growth during its reign, a big portion of the population still felt that the GDP statistics didn’t tell the whole storyLike the Americans who found solace in Trump’s campaign speeches targeting “the forgotten ones,” many Poles felt that they, too, had been passed over in the country’s prosperity run.

Like the Americans who found solace in Trump’s campaign speeches targeting 'the forgotten ones,' many Poles felt that they, too, had been passed over in the country’s prosperity run.

In the almost decade of Civic Platform’s power, Poles had seen their friends and family members migrate away from Poland to Germany and the United Kingdom en masse. There, they were able to find the high-paying jobs that had become elusive for many in Poland. Although statistics showed growth, to many it felt like most of the available jobs were in low-paying service sector work ― much like the case for a number of workers in the American middle class.

The employment available was also mostly within foreign-owned companies. Ardent supporters of the right-wing Law and Justice party, also known as PiS, looked at globalization as a black cloud that had brought prosperity to few but caused others to flee, or simply left them behind.

Drain The Swamp

Like many populist leaders who have come before and after them, PiS politicians sought to ride the wave of globalization’s failures to power. They focused on elevating the voice of the “common man” and made clear that their goal was to oppose the status quo of the established government. 

Kacper Pempel / Reuters
Leader of the ruling party PiS Jaroslaw Kaczyński and other officials applaud after opposition party members leave the podium in parliament in Warsaw, Poland on Jan. 12, 2017.

When PiS ran against the ruling party, the outward appearance of its campaign was the opposite of Donald Trump’s. The party’s strategy was an attempt to appeal to moderate voters and so it presented itself as a party of positive, not radical change. But the impact was the same ― to make Poland great again. Both Trump’s and PiS’ campaign success stem from that fact that they were appealing to people who felt left out of the rewards of globalization. And a lot of the themes employed by Trump in his presidential bid appeared to be taken straight from the PiS campaign playbook, which much like Trump’s “drain the swamp” slogan, focused on the elimination of corruption and a redistribution of power to the population at large, including the disenfranchised. In other words, returning power to the people.

Seen through the prism of the PiS party leader’s rhetoric, Poland was ― like Trump’s America ― a “country in ruins” exploited by the corrupt elites. The campaign rhetoric noted that the country had been taken advantage of by foreign powers, its industry hollowed out and moribund, its interests sacrificed at the altar of multilateralism, its pride trampled on.

Much like Trump’s relentless scapegoating of Mexico and China for the loss of American jobs, Poland’s PiS had found its own target for vitriol in the previous ruling party, Rafal Trzaskowski, a prominent leader of that opposition Civic Platform party and a vocal critic of PiS, said in an interview with The WorldPost.

Seen through the prism of the PiS party leader’s rhetoric, Poland was ― like Trump’s America ― a 'country in ruins' exploited by the corrupt elites.

“They were absolutely convinced that we were selling off our interests, that we were German lap dogs, and that we were standing up from our knees,” he said.

If PiS took power, the party narrative went, the country would once again gain legitimacy and power on the world stage and start pulling its weight and standing up to foreign interest. It would at last dismantle the semi-mythical “układ, a group of corrupt elites who held the levers of power. In other words, it would “drain the swamp.” 

Still, the campaign rhetoric was somewhat toned down. The more radical party figures ― like the party leader and now the de facto ruler of Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński ― were hidden from public view. They were supplanted by images of its prime ministerial candidate meeting with everyday people. And as populist movements spread across Europe, the party enjoyed strong support from Polish youth, clenching it a majority in parliamentary elections

Consolidating Power

That semblance of normalcy and moderation was however very quickly abandoned once the election was over. The divisive Jaroslaw Kaczyński vowed in his party’s acceptance speech ― much like Trump’s words during his own victory speech ― to unify the country and become a leader for all citizens, instead of taking revenge on the new opposition. Yet that soon proved false. The new government under President Andrzej Duda and PiS party leader Kaczyński embarked on a blitzkrieg of wide ranging reforms, aimed at a total takeover of the state structures on an unprecedented scale ― even by Polish standards ― in which “to the victor go the spoils” has always been the name of the game.

Pawel Kopczynski / Reuters
The leader of PiS, then Poland's main opposition party, Jaroslaw Kaczyński after the exit poll results are announced in Warsaw, Poland on Oct. 25, 2015.

While Trump is reportedly considering defunding the public broadcasting corporation entirely and made moves seemingly aimed at “putting his stamp on Voice of America,” the public media in Poland ― never free of bias ― has been filled with fierce loyalists and changed to become heavily slanted towards PiS.  

The public prosecutors have been taken under the direct control of Zbigniew Ziobro, the sheriff-like justice minister. The boards of state-owned enterprises have been replaced with friends, family and loyal supporters of the party. Most worryingly, however, is that the first and most important victim of the takeover was the Constitutional Tribunal, a crucial piece of the checks and balance system. Its rulings were first disregarded, then the court was paralyzed and now brought under control of PiS-friendly appointees. Whether this example will be followed by Trump is still unknown, but some of the new U.S. administration’s actions and comments might point to a similar showdown.

“Kaczyński believes he can dismantle the constitution because he’s been given a mandate to do so,” said Lukasz Lipinski, the director for analysis at Polityka Insight, a Warsaw-based think tank, in an interview with The WorldPost. “That’s why they’ve had a conflict with the Constitutional Tribunal.”

'Kaczyński believes he can dismantle the constitution because he’s been given a mandate to do so.' Lukasz Lipinski, director for analysis at Polityka Insight

The situation in the U.S. is almost exactly the same, with President Trump venting his frustration almost daily via Twitter that the courts are standing in the way of change. Most notably, the courts and federal security agencies have refused to implement President Trump’s executive order banning people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. Trump has responded by expressing his disregard to rulings by a “so-called” judge. And just last Thursday, facing a second setback from the courts on his Muslim travel ban, he retorted on Twitter: “SEE YOU IN COURT.”

“Last time Jaroslaw was in power, he had problems with the Constitutional Tribunal. They stood in his way, so he decided to destroy it before they can start to do anything,” said Lipinksi, referring to the period from 2005-2007 when Kaczyński held power in Poland, but could not force through the laws he wanted. Kaczyński, much like Trump, aimed to delegitimize his opposition and vocally express concern with the system as a means to put forth his own agendas in government.

Unprecedented Polarization 

Kaczyński’s actions did not result in any sort of national reconciliation. Quite the opposite. They’ve created unprecedented polarization in the same vein as that which is now playing out in the U.S. Poland’s divide was also fueled by some of Kaczyński’s rhetoric, whose utterances about the “Poles of the worst sort,” though not directly aimed at the opponents of government, was nonetheless received as a clear swipe at them. Most recently, after the opposition occupied the Polish parliament’s main chamber in protest against planned media restrictions and the perceived mistreatment of its MPs, Kaczyński accused them outright of trying to stage a coup d’etat.

“The government is encroaching on our liberties, and that’s not just our view, that’s the view of NGOs and the constitutional court,” said Trzaskowski, the leader of Civic Platform party. “They’re destroying the civil service and undermining the foundations of our democracy because Kaczyński wants to revolutionize the country.”

In much the same way, Trump and Kaczyński have painted a very black and white portrait of every event, situation and decision. Those in support of them are always right, and those in opposition are always wrong. Or as Trump likes to say, winners and losers. The greatest, the best or the worst of the worst, the terrible.

In America, it is still early on in the presidency to tell what this will mean for Trump, his party and his administration. But this type of rhetoric in Poland has led to a total breakdown in communication between the parties, said Trzaskowski. “There simply is no positive communication anymore. There is a wall between us.”

Attacking The Media

Nowhere, however, is the division more pronounced than in the media. As in America, the private media in Poland is divided between the established liberal outlets and the somewhat less renowned conservative media. The divide between them has always been significant. However, since the new PiS government entered power, they have converted into two warring camps, with an ever-shrinking no man’s land between them.

As in America, the private media in Poland is divided between the established liberal outlets and the somewhat less renowned conservative media.

The right-wing outlets have become what some are characterizing as apologists for the government. On the other end, the liberal mainstream media outlets, many of which had been known to describe PiS as having fascistic tendencies and openly sided with the previous government, are now staunchly anti-government.   

The ruling party, not unlike Trump, does its part to fuel this war. PiS politicians, like Ryszard Terlecki, head of the party’s parliamentary caucus, who said that media criticism of the administration’s changes must “be stopped,” and Elżbieta Kruk, PiS politician and a member of the National Media Council, the new media regulatory body, have characterized the Polish mainstream media not just as negatively skewed to the point of bias ― think Trump’s “fake news” ― but have gone a step further to imply that they represent foreign ― mostly German ― interests and do the bidding of their foreign owners.  

The government has chosen to tackle this backlash from liberal slanted media, and become actively involved in state-owned media outlets. The result has been an almost Trump-like response to the “liberal” media, with one of the government media’s most famous shows, “Wiadomości,” now spending much of its airtime lambasting the liberal press and especially the “reviled” Gazeta Wyborcza daily, one of the more famous liberal papers in the country  ― mirroring Trump’s consistent references to The New York Times and other U.S. outlets as “failing,” or “fake news.”

Lucas Jackson / Reuters
Then-U.S. President-elect Donald Trump calls CNN "fake news" after an argument with the outlet's reporter during a press conference at Trump Tower in New York on Jan. 11, 2017.

The pro-government slant in Poland is so pronounced today that even some PiS supporters have voiced their concerns. Krzysztof Czabański, deputy minister of culture responsible for overseeing public media, said in a recent interview with private-owned Radio Zet that the media make mistakes. Pressed further, he could not cite any examples of negative coverage of the government’s actions, explaining that “apparently it didn’t deserve that much criticism.” Similar statements have been made by Trump and his surrogates when referring to the U.S. media. Trump’s top adviser, Kellyanne Conway, has appeared on talk shows and news broadcasts criticizing what she deems a misappropriation of coverage focused on the mistakes of the government, rather than successes. But when pressed further, she tends to come up short, too. 

Record Protests

Beyond just tensions with the media, the criticism from both governments speaks to a larger issue of the sensitivity of both administrations, which might’ve made the first days of the new U.S. administration feel familiar to the Polish audience, particularly in regard to the mass demonstrations.

The record-breaking protests that took over cities across America were eerily similar to those that have become a recurring theme in Poland since PiS took power. As in the U.S., women also took to the streets in a massive protest over abortion rights. That protest in Poland, much like the women’s rights march in the U.S. and the Trump administration’s reaction to it, was downplayed by the government as not “a big deal.”

The record-breaking protests that took over cities across America were eerily similar to those that have become a recurring theme in Poland since PiS took power.

Some media outlets in both countries, and in Russia, also float similar theories about who is behind these somewhat parallel protests: George Soros, the infamous billionaire and philanthropist. Much like in other illiberal democracies, like Hungary, Russia and now also Macedonia, in Poland, too, he has become the nefarious symbol of world finance for whom, according to one Polish official, “Poland had been a paradise.”

For some on the right, Soros’ alleged involvement in political dissidence in both the U.S. and Poland comes from speculation that he may be funding social movements in both nations. In Poland, that speculation lies mainly in a political movement known as The Committee for the Defense of Democracy (Komitet Obrony Demokracji), or KOD. The group is most well known for its involvement in anti-government protests, particularly aimed at governmental changes made by PiS. The fears are parroting those of generally pro-Trump slanting outlets in the U.S., such as Breitbart News, some of whose articles have suggested that Soros has similar involvement in U.S. protest movements.

Gallo Images via Getty Images
Hundreds of women with umbrellas participate in a nationwide women's strike on Oct. 24, 2016 in the city center of Warsaw, Poland.

This fear also extends to Polish media outlets, such as state broadcaster TVP1’s show, “Wiadomości,” which quoted a lecturer at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków who alleged that Soros has paid “professional protesters” to stage the massive anti-Trump demonstrations near inauguration weekend. This line of reasoning, often employed by Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and the former executive chair of Breitbart News, is a standard feature among the new ruling elite in Poland. In fact, Kaczyński often points to shadowy foreign influences such as Soros and his ideals as being the real source of the country’s credibility problem abroad.

Supporting Trump

It is therefore not entirely surprising that Trump’s victory was greeted with considerable elation among some of Poland’s new ruling class and the government-friendly media. For them it was a triumph over the common adversary ― the global elites ― and the parallels between the two governments means the Polish ruling party feels a sort of kinship with the U.S. president. 

One of the most enthusiastic supporters of the new U.S. leader is said to be President Andrzej Duda. 

“He was really impressed by Trump’s inaugural speech,” a source close to Duda and Kaczyński who asked to remain unnamed, told The WorldPost. “He seems to be genuinely fascinated by the man, which raised some eyebrows in the presidential palace, given Trump’s connection to Russia,” he added.

But Duda is not the only government figure who sympathizes with the struggle of the new U.S. administration.

'Donald Trump is being attacked … Our government is also attacked by liberal elites, who previously reigned over Poland and over the U.S.' Mariusz Błaszczak, Poland’s Minister of Internal Affairs

“Donald Trump is being attacked … Our government is also attacked by liberal elites, who previously reigned over Poland and over the U.S.,” said Mariusz Błaszczak, Poland’s minister of internal affairs, in an interview with TVP INFO, a state TV program.

He and others have noted the similarities between the two political forces: the concern over the “common people,” the anti-immigrant stance and the audacity to go against political correctness. In fact, months before Trump ordered the ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, causing turmoil at U.S. airports, Błaszczak did something similar, though on a decidedly smaller scale ― he prevented Chechen asylum seekers from entering the country, reportedly stranding them at the Polish-Belarusian border.

PiS’ rhetoric on immigration was not far from Trump’s, either. Just as Trump infamously accused Mexican immigrants of bringing crime, drugs and of being rapists, Kaczyński said that Muslim refugees are bringing in “parasites and protozoa.” Indeed, as a recent Chatham House poll showed, a Trump-like ban on immigration from majority Muslim countries would be overwhelmingly popular in Poland.   

Some of the similarities are so striking that Deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki even jokingly suggested Trump must have borrowed parts from his party’s platform.

Kacper Pempel / Reuters
A woman holds a placard saying "Trump Away!" as people gather to protest against U.S. President Donald Trump in front of the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, Poland on Jan. 20, 2017.

Many Poles, however, including some PiS supporters we spoke to, are alarmed by Trump’s foreign policy utterances that have undermined NATO, the European Union and called for reaching a “deal” with Russia. Such policies, if implemented, would go directly against vital Polish security interests, Michał Baranowski, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw bureau, said.

“Trump’s thinking represents a completely new approach to collective security and the system of alliances that have been the cornerstone of our security system. He sees from a purely short-term, transactional standpoint,” he told Wirtualna Polska, a Polish news site. “From a Polish perspective, it’s a decidedly bad idea.”  

Polish officials, however, have largely ignored that part of Trump’s message. After all, they gained a powerful ally, who even if he won’t protect the country against Russia’s imperial ambitions, is more likely to aid in the ideological struggle that both governments seem to have embarked on in their respective nations.

It remains to be seen how this plays out for Poland, but some are not terribly optimistic.

“The next year will be very difficult, and they can do lots of things, like jailing the opposition on made-up charges of corruption or overreaching their competencies,” Lipinski told The WorldPost. “I don’t have an honest answer on Polish democracy being crushed, but I can see it going either way.”

This was produced by The WorldPost, which is published by the Berggruen Institute.

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