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EU Election Is Poland’s Referendum on Nationalism

Leonid Bershidsky

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In most of the European Union, this week’s European Parliament election is a low-energy affair. Not in Poland, where the May 26 vote could determine the country’s direction, and Eastern Europe’s, for years to come. 

The closely fought contest pits the ruling Law and Justice Party, the nationalist force known by its Polish abbreviation PiS, against five major anti-authoritarian parties and a number of smaller groups calling themselves the European Coalition.

“It’s a black-and-white situation,” said Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz, No. 3 on the Coalition’s list of candidates in Warsaw. “If the Coalition wins, Poland still has a chance to be a democratic country. If PiS wins, Poland will drift toward an eastern model of government. We can either take the Europe express or the Trans-Siberian railroad.”

This may sound like the kind of exaggeration one is likely to hear from a politician in the heat of a campaign’s final days. But the example of Hungary weighs heavily on the Polish moderate right, center-left and Greens, three factions that are normally disinclined to cooperate with each other but have joined forces for this month’s contest. There, nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban won his third consecutive election last year against a divided opposition, tightening his stranglehold on the courts, media and civic organizations. Even if Orban’s opponents manage to join forces by the next election in 2022, they may be too marginalized after 11 years of his propaganda and expanding enforcement machinery to be able to oust him.

Power and Scandal

In Poland, PiS only came to power in 2015, and it’s tried to build up control in one legislative period. Under the nationalist leadership of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, it put the judiciary under political control, turned public media into a propaganda machine PiS opponents says is reminiscent of Poland’s Communist past, enlisted the Polish Catholic Church to back its identity politics and boosted social benefits to appeal to poorer rural voters.

This race to Orbanize Poland has worked well enough that PiS can withstand scandals that would have brought down many a government in Europe. One involves the alleged entanglement of the supposedly ascetic Kaczynski in a real estate project funded by a loan from a bank nationalized by the PiS government. Another followed the revelation of lucrative land speculation involving Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (before he was appointed to the post) and the Catholic Church. Both were uncovered by reporting in the daily Gazeta Wyborcza; Kaczynski and Morawiecki have denied wrongdoing.

Separately, a crowdfunded documentary that exposed a coverup of pedophile clergy by the Catholic Church has implicated the one-time chaplain to Poland’s first post-Communist leader, Lech Walesa, and has even cast a shadow over the revered late Polish Pope John Paul II. The film hit YouTube days after Kaczynski told a crowd of PiS supporters, “He who raises his hand against the church and wants to destroy it, raises his hand against Poland.” After church figures expressed contrition, PiS had to look for a damage-control strategy, calling for harsher penalties for pedophiles.

But the scandals have failed to dent the ruling party’s standing in the polls; its support has been fluctuating between 35 and 40 percent in public opinion polls since February.

“Even with such a bombshell as the church film, we probably see two trends canceling each other out – the public indignation and Kaczynski’s effective use of the idea that the church is under attack,” said sociologist Jacek Kucharczyk, president of the Warsaw think tank Institute of Public Affairs. Kucharczyk said that churches, especially in small towns and rural areas, are an important under-the-radar propaganda channel for PiS.

Still, the scandals have put PiS on the defensive and created an opening for the European Coalition, whose leaders have made an uncharacteristic effort to stick together and stay on message.

Holding the Center

Gasiuk-Pihowicz, the Coalition EU Parliament candidate in Warsaw, illustrates the conflicting pressures. She was a top national legislator for the liberal Novoczesna (Modern) party, but when its leaders leaned against joining opposition alliances last year, she quit and started cooperating with the main opposition force, Civic Platform, the governing party before the PiS victory. “I like to think my action pushed the Modern Party to realize it belonged in the coalition,” Gasiuk-Pihowicz said.

Another center-left politician, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, also claimed credit for inspiring cooperation. Retired until recently after a career that included most of the top posts in Poland — foreign minister, justice minister, prime minister, parliament speaker — Cimoszewicz has stepped forward to run for a seat in the EU’s weak legislature. Now the Coalition’s No. 1 candidate in Warsaw, he described the stakes in an interview last week:

If the pro-European forces win this coming European election, it will convince them — and the voters, the Polish public — that it’s possible to defeat PiS in the parliamentary elections this fall. A broad coalition is needed for both elections, which is not really a tradition in Polish politics.

The Polish center-left doesn’t bring many votes to the European Coalition; forces from that part of the political spectrum failed to get into parliament in 2015, ultimately helping PiS win its majority. Cimoszewicz, however, remembers working to put together a broad leftist coalition in 1991, and he participated in resolving many European crises since putting his signature on Poland’s EU accession treaty. “I talked some leaders into sitting down and discussing the alliance,” he said. “But once I did this, I had to run, too.”

Talking to European Coalition candidates, one gets the sense that the only thing that unites them is the desire to reverse the PiS takeover of the Constitutional Tribunal, the prosecutor’s offices and the process of judicial appointments. There also is consensus on the public media; Cimoszewicz proposes abolishing them in the current form and then rebuilding them from scratch. “I pay a tax for public TV and radio, but I haven’t turned them on in four years,” he said. “In effect, I’m paying for propaganda against myself.”

QuicktakeQ&A: Poland’s Battles With the EU

PiS portrays the opposition as a giant undo button with no positive agenda. That’s not strictly accurate. The EU, thanks in large part to European Council President Donald Tusk, who served as Polish prime minister before the PiS victory, has taken a harsh stance on the nationalists’ justice reforms. Poland stands to lose 23 percent of its EU funding, or about 19.2 billion euros ($21.4), between 2021 and 2027. The PiS government has loudly protested this, but European Coalition leaders aren’t far from the truth when they say they’re the only force that can get the money back and use it, for example, to fix Poland’s dysfunctional health-care system.

The Coalition uses the potential loss of EU funds to counter the PiS government’s social-benefit expansion. It’s widely known and appreciated in Poland that EU funds have built roads and helped keep Polish farmers competitive.

Another item on the Coalition’s agenda is getting back Poland’s seat at the European decision-making table and rebuilding its cooperation with France and Germany, a format PiS unceremoniously dropped as it stressed Polish national pride over alliances with key EU nations. This, however, is a tough sell to nationalist voters, who have no affection for the Germans in particular. On the issue of Poland’s global importance, the watchers of PiS-controlled public TV and the Coalition’s more discerning big-city audience live in separate universes.

In any case, the opposition does have a common agenda beyond undoing the PiS power grab, and that agenda involves European issues of direct interest to Poles. This makes the European election such a tight race with a relatively high predicted turnout, even as high as 50 percent, compared with less than 24 percent in 2014.

Inflection Point

While PiS and the European Coalition are about even in the polls, there’s a good chance that anti-nationalist forces will prevail this week. Wiosna (Spring), the leftist-liberal party of the openly gay former mayor of Slupsk, Robert Biedron, is expected to get up to 10 percent of the vote. Together, the European Coalition and Wiosna are  likely to get more of Poland’s 51 European Parliament seats than PiS and smaller parties to its right. Though Biedron, a charismatic figure vying for the leftist anti-establishment vote, has resisted joining forces with the centrists, Coalition leaders hope the election result will drive him toward them. “He may not want to go alone and be responsible for letting PiS rule for another term,” Cimoszewicz says.

If the anti-nationalist forces can claim victory, they’ll have momentum going into the campaign for the national parliamentary election this fall. But if they lose — for example, because of a late surge by the extreme-right Confederation, a force that attacks PiS from the right with often anti-Semitic slogans — the disparate forces’ unity could shatter and the Orban scenario for Poland would become more likely.

While hope is still alive, European Coalition leaders say that Poland shouldn’t be susceptible to Orban-style authoritarianism. Kaczynski, according to former Digitization Minister Andrzej Halicki, has moved too fast and too aggressively, which makes the system he’s been building in Poland easier to dismantle than Orban’s. Besides, Poles have a rich history of resisting authoritarianism.

“In Communist times, Hungary was more liberal, closer to Vienna,” said Halicki, who was a radical student activist in the final years of Communism, traveling illegally to neighboring countries to help local dissidents bring down their pro-Soviet regimes. “We’re different in that we had a whole underground society. Our soul and our history make propaganda counterproductive.”

If Halicki is right, Poland shouldn’t succumb entirely to nationalist illiberalism, even after another four years of PiS rule, especially if the governing party loses EU funding and starts surrendering economic momentum. It makes sense, however, for the Polish opposition to fight every battle as if it were the last — and, above all, to stick together. If it can win next week and later this year, Europe’s recently deepened east-west divide may start healing. With nationalists also losing ground in Slovakia, Orban can hardly remain the region’s leading voice if Poland, too, defects from his way of thinking.

(Corrects spelling of Cimoszewicz throughout.)

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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