Poland’s Crisis – And That Of The West

Stephen Baskerville Professor, Patrick Henry College
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The attack on Poland by Western liberals has been vitriolic and relentless and has now reached the dimensions of the absurd. When highbrow journals like Foreign Policy, the New York Review of Books can compare Poland’s free and democratic election of last October to a return to “communism” they treat their highly educated readers like political and historical illiterates.

Why the politicians and media of the West should be so fiercely agitated about the democratically enacted policies of a democratic country is a question that may reveal more about the trajectory of the West than it does about Poland. Poland is, after all, the country that did more than any other in the Soviet bloc to bring down communism. Some might see this as conferring a certain moral authority on Poland, along with the Catholic Church, an institution that was critical to the fall of communism and one the Western media seems determined to silence altogether. The left-dominated media and West attack all efforts to dismantle the remnants of communism and push for a return to Soviet-era laws, especially those pertaining to the family.

And the crisis in Poland is indeed entering a new phase. As the Polish government proposes to introduce a comprehensive ban on abortion, it reveals what has been at the heart of the dispute all along: not “democracy” or the “rule of law” or even judicial power – and it is not foremost about the power of the European Union – though all of these are at stake in ways quite different than portrayed in the Western media. The real difference is ideological: the social conservatism that still separates East from West and manifests itself most importantly over matters of religion and sexuality. Poland, like most of Central and Eastern Europe – including Hungary, Romania, the Balkans, most of Ukraine, Belarus, and in some ways Russia – still views itself as a Christian country that values traditional sexual morality, whereas the Western nations have embraced a militant secularism whose inevitable corollary is radical sexual experimentation.

As Matthew Tyrmand writes, last October’s election gave Poland’s Law and Justice Party “an unprecedentedly overwhelming mandate to reform the post-communist complexes that have run roughshod over rule of law for over two decades.”  

The EU apparatchiks are indignant that once again democracy has played out in a sovereign state and the outcome delivered is a stinging rebuke of their undesired policies in tandem with their philosophy of centralizing power away from constituent nation states. Skepticism of their machinations remains higher than ever in Central European nations which remember clearly what having their sovereignty abrogated feels like.

In a series of reports in Breitbart.com, Tyrmand describes how the previous government presided over a regime of “brazen domestic corruption” that was the legacy of the communist patronage machine. The Civic Platform party was largely a lapdog of the European Union, which rewarded its leader Donald Tusk with a cushy position as president of the European Council. This combination is no accident. The EU practices a system of political patronage that fills the void left by the old Soviet nomenklatura:

The transition was engineered by those who benefited materially from the totalitarian system that predated 1989 and more recently by those who ceded Polish sovereignty to Brussels in exchange for personal benefit doled out by the EU. This came in the form of “development funds” which were ripe for pilfering, and elaborate kickback schemes given to the Polish political elite, such as offices with large staffs and budgets in the European capitals for the plutocrats and their circle.

Tyrmand’s characterization of the EU’s reaction as a “rampage of attempted censures of the new government” is hardly an exaggeration. Until now the controversy has centered mostly on the judiciary, as well as on the control of the state-run media.  But now we can see that these are mostly procedural battles.  

Poland is the first country to take decisive measures again one of the most menacing trends for democracy: the global aggrandizement of political power in the judiciary. It is very clear that this has been playing out in Poland similarly to elsewhere. “This illegal packing of the judiciary [by the previous government] was the real constitutional crisis,” writes Tyrmand. “At no point did the Eurocrats in Brussels say a word about these actions nor did any of the Western press outlets.”

Last September, the Court “upheld the ‘constitutionality’ of a law that said criticizing public officials, even privately, was an act of hate speech and punishable by incarceration,” Tyrmand adds. “By upholding the protection of the political class from criticism the court again proved where their priorities lay.” More seriously, “critics of the government were routinely threatened with defamation suits … and other civil liberties modern democracies take for granted were routinely abrogated.”

This trend of judicial empowerment emanates, incidentally, not from Poland or Hungary or elsewhere in Central Europe, but from the U.S. and the Anglophone West – where a politicized judiciary has reached extreme dimensions. A country where courts can jail legally unimpeachable citizens without trial and where social policy questions as momentous as same-sex marriage are legislated nation-wide by judicial fiat from its supreme court is a country that needs to get its own judiciary under control and sort out its own commitment to democracy. Yet the same U.S. senators whose constitutional role is to oversee and control the courts and the rest of the U.S. government seem more concerned to exercise oversight of other people’s governments, like that of Poland.

Legislation is a blunt instrument for effecting constitutional reform, and some of the current government’s measures are questionable. But if Poland initiates a global discussion on judicial aggrandizement, it will have shown more courage than any other democracy. Here the pundits who should be raising the larger and deeper issues and helping us to think “outside the box” have been silent in their zeal to excoriate Poland.

Likewise, the PiS government has sought to control appointments to the state-run media. Of course the state-run media is a political lapdog in every democracy. It certainly was in Poland during the previous government of the Civic Platform party.

The PiS is simply playing a game of political patronage that it did not create, as every government must do so long as a state media exists. “Cleaning house at the public broadcaster is common after a change in government in Poland,” according the Columbia Journalism Review, quoting Anna Słojewska, a longtime Brussels correspondent with Polish daily Rzeczpospolita. “It wasn’t like the public media was very objective under the previous government,” Słojewska says with understatement, “– it wasn’t.” Poland’s previous government “also fired people who were more right-wing,” she says, “and nobody here [in Brussels] said anything.” Tyrmand puts the matter more forcefully. The National Broadcasting Council:

had been dominated by an entrenched (thanks to lengthy statutory terms) cabal of hyper-politicised leftists connected to SLD (Democratic Left Alliance) which was the most connected remnant of the legacy communist party predating the 1989 transition. The propagandising and outright corruption of this body led to a public media that functioned as an overt water carrier for post-Communist incumbents with ties to pre-transition practices.

PiS, looking to break the stranglehold of a public media that was hostile to reform and consistently spun narratives rather than follow their mandate of maintaining a free and independent media, easily passed this reform. This was widely supported by the citizenry on the ground who observed during the last 8 years (two terms of PO) a public media that would not report on PO scandals no matter how egregious. And when they did it was to spin the scandal and help facilitate the cover up.

According to Tyrmand and others, the PO government “kept journalists and citizens under surveillance as a routine practice”:

  • Independent journalists were repeatedly harassed by the security agencies.
  • Independent journalists were dismissed from their posts.
  • In 2014, two journalists were arrested for covering alleged electoral fraud.

Of course it might be better if the government simply abolished the state media. But no debate on this option is raised by the media pundits themselves. In the age of the internet and myriad sources of information, no justification remains for any democracy to have a state-run media in the first place. The original rationalization, to apportion limited band space in the broadcast media, no longer exists. Any state run media is an invitation to politicization and will always become a propaganda machine. But since many journalists and academics are sympathetic to the views of the state media and have a vested interested in promoting policies that increase government power and their own importance, they refuse to open this can of worms.  

And yet in the end all of this is largely procedural; it involves control over the machinery of policy rather than differences over its substance. Underlying it all are differences in cultural values between the East and West of Europe – the same ones that increasingly polarize the West itself and set it at variance with rest of the world: differences of religion and sexuality. “Single-sex marriage, abortion, gender ideology – these are red lines for us,” an advisor to President Duda tells Politico. Excepting Western Europe and North America, they are red lines for most of the world. East-Central Europe is the closest culture resisting the radical innovations.

This is seen in the proposal for a new law on abortion, the first substantive policy change of the new government. Contrary to leftist and foreign voices claiming that the government is a “threat to democracy,” the proposed legislation requires 100,000 signatures (a figure that could be achieved in multiples) collected from the grassroots by numerous volunteers, making it a genuinely popular citizens’ campaign. As Natalia Dueholm writes in LifeSiteNews, “This is simply the purest form of democracy in action.”

The media instead publicizes the much smaller numbers in externally-funded street protests by the vocal and ideological, along with other “salami tactics” to intimidate a population that shares little of their agenda, like the orchestrated campaigns to disrupt religious services. Dueholm points out that opposition parties use quasi-bolshevik methods like iron party discipline to quell internal opposition:  

…former Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz of the Civic Platform enforced party discipline on the issue, forcing all the party’s MPs to vote against the attempt to change the abortion law. The politicians from Civic Platform repeatedly showed no support for the freedom of conscience, not even for its own people.

Yet despite lavish media attention to strident anti-government marches, the popularity of the PiS government continues to be solid and even increase, and that of Civic Platform to decline, though this fact is generally buried by the mainstream media.

Perhaps most disturbing is the response of a Western elite that seems stunningly de-sensitized to Poland’s history – a history lacking in any tyranny over anyone, excepting collaborators with external hegemons, of which the EU might be seen as the latest. All these issues are internal Polish affairs and matters on which reasonable people disagree in many countries. But the European Union and United States brand Poland – a country that has, perhaps more than any other, proven its commitment to freedom with the blood of its citizens – as a “threat to democracy.” Worse, their disdain for Poland’s sovereignty and willingness to marshal what Politico advocates as “international help” is disturbingly reminiscent of the “fraternal assistance” invoked by the Soviet Union in its 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. A country that has also experienced more than enough German involvement in its internal politics in the form of occupying armies does not respond well to the German-dominated EU lecturing its citizens on the “rule of law” and German media launching acerbic propaganda wars. Again, Dueholm:

The bad press mostly originated from the German media and German politicians such as Martin Schultz, current president of the European Parliament. Other German politicians have threatened Poland with economic sanctions. The pressure and intimidation did not sit well with many Law and Justice politicians whose grandparents were killed by the Germans during World War II.

Coming at a time when even Western nations like Britain and the U.S. are showing insecurity about their sovereignty, one might have thought there is a message for the EU in this. Tyrmand’s conclusion might characterize others in East-Central Europe (and perhaps some of the West). “The people have finally purged, through democratic elections, the post-communist machine that was never held to account or reformed after 1989,” he writes. “After 26 years of … self-interested and fraudulent behavior, and a spoils-system … the people emphatically said ‘No more!’”

Stephen Baskerville is professor of government at Patrick Henry College, where he directs the program in International Politics and Policy. During the 2015-2016 academic year, he is a visiting professor at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow.