What’s wrong with Poland?

By Jakub Biernacki

If the European Union was able to materialise, in the context of this article, it would most likely take a form of Julius Caesar screaming “Et tu, Brute, contra me” to the personification of Poland standing in front of the dictator. Of course, these supranational Ides of March would certainly be a joint project of countries such as the United Kingdom, Greece etc. Yet, the betrayal of the former would be the most painful.

A point of order – the European Union is in crisis. Lack of confidence and public resilience, undermining of European solidarity, inflowing refugees, upcoming British referendum – all of these plagues determine a picture of nowadays Europe. Europe in desperate need of inspiration.

From that point of view, European politicians may go into rhapsodies over Polish economic growth or condemn Polish expansion on Western labor markets but they cannot argue with one  point – in some ways – Poland was that aforementioned inspiration. With its avoidance of financial crisis and extraordinary pro-European approach of its government, Poland was aspiring to be this talented offspring who plays the piano, wins golden medals on yachting races, studies at Harvard, with parents being so proud of him. That was Poland for the last couple of years – a top of the European class.

Yet, last year in October people decided to change it. With a surprising outcome of the elections Polish citizens not only replaced the Civic Platform, the party that ruled for eight consecutive years, but also gave the Law and Justice, the biggest opposition of that period, enough votes to form a majority government. With that division of votes and with president Andrzej Duda from Law and Justice, chosen for a five years term just a few months before, the formation gained, to quote Emperor Palpatine, “unlimited power”.

Of course, one may say that this is not the unlimited power if a party doesn’t have two-thirds of all seats and, therefore, cannot change a constitution.  Well, this is the point where the reality begins to look like a “House of Cards” script.

Poles.

It is naturally not the aim of this article to explain how in a few easy steps new leaders of Polish democracy were able to paralyse the Constitutional Tribunal – the institution responsible for resolving disputes on the constitutionality of the governmental activities and the enacted legislation. Trust me, things seem “slightly” odd when one day you learn about the principles of constitutional courts on Comparative Government course (law student here) and another day you turn on TV and watch your government showing a system-wide middle finger to all these principles.

It is not even the aim of this article to point out that the new government took over the public media and immediately fired the management and the most popular presenters who, however, had openly criticised the party when it was in opposition. I will not make further comments about the new Minister of National Defence who without hesitation calls a crash of the governmental aircraft and the death of Polish president in 2010 an assassination. Instead, the aim of this article is to answer the question that many Europeans ask themselves since the October’s elections – what is wrong with Poland?

“The right to vote should be considered sacred in our democracy”, said Charles B. Rangel. Although most of us may consider American worship of democracy as somewhat insane, none of us will argue with the fact that democracy  is a foundation of the Western civilisation in general. None of us will even argue that it would be fair to take away a voting right from a healthy and  sound participant of society whatever his beliefs are. Yet, when I realised that for some of the people their vote for a certain party is determined by its number on a ballot, I started wondering whether our  franchise right is indeed so sacred.

Poland is a country where members of the parliament proposed the introduction of circular ballots so that people do not vote for a person on top of the list. I live in a country where once my peers finally reach a page of their chosen party, they primarily search for a funny or famous last name to check. In my country, people complain about the EU officials who make decisions in Brussels but when it comes to elections, only one-fourth of us actually takes the trouble to cast a vote. It’s slightly better when we elect a president – a usual turnout of fifty percent. Yet I doubt whether this is a proper attendance for a nation with such a lot of blood spilt for its freedom.

After all, I want to believe that Poland is just a young democracy and we, as a nation, simply have to learn how to vote. Well, maybe next four years will be like this breakthrough and earthshattering lesson for Poland in terms of the voting habits.

Of course, the Law and Justice did not win by accident. They formed a majority government which means that people at least wanted them to rule.  For most of the Western politicians this  is a mystery – how is it possible that the government that brought Poland through the worldwide financial crisis with the astonishing, given the circumstances, GDP growth, with its Prime Minister voted the new President of the European Council, was rejected by the citizens?

There are two answers to this question. First of all, throughout these eight years, the pile of sins accumulated and the Civic Platform could not rely on the social credit that they had been given in the previous years. With numerous scandals in the last few years, they lost all of their marvellous PR and became just another party in the system.

However, they would not lose in suffering if it was not for the second factor – Poles themselves. It is no secret that our most irritating national flaw is complaining. And this is probably the same flaw that caused an about-turn in Polish politics. We always seek a better life, we aspire to the title of a Western European country and we want to have an adequate standard of living. The problem is that most of us want that standard right now. This is why so many people from Poland try their luck in the United Kingdom, Germany or in the Netherlands. And this is exactly the same reason why a few months ago half of us took those ballots, threw them into the boxes and changed Poland.

So, what is actually wrong with Poland? Why do we make decisions like that? I think that if we consider all of the arguments that I brought but also many others that I did not outline, there is one correct answer. Despite all of our national and historical experience, we are still learning how to be a well-functioning European democracy. We are certainly close but still a few steps behind.

The question remains – can Europe do anything about it? Probably yes. It certainly cannot overthrow a government that was chosen in democratic elections. Yet, there is an entity that could do that. It’s the Polish nation. Because, if history taught us something, it is that in the worst moments Poles can take matters into their own hands. As for the EU, it should be like the Eye of Sauron looking at the Mount Doom. We do not want any small hobbits to throw something into the mountain and destroy the whole land, do we? The next few years may be hard in terms of relations between Poland and the European Union but after all, what does not kill you makes you stronger.

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