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Is It Too Late for Poland to Turn Back to Democracy? We’ll Find Out Sunday

The new cold war is not between countries but within them—between two organizing principles that cannot possibly get along. On one side are liberal democrats—covering the broad range from presidents Joe Biden and Barack Obama to senators like the deceased John McCain and the retiring Mitt Romney—and on the other are populist autocrats whose dream is turning real democracies into fake ones, generally for personal benefit.

Former President Donald Trump has his equivalents all around the world—from Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey to Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to Viktor Orban in Hungary. But a place of honor is reserved for Jaroslaw Kaczynski (ka-CHIN-ski), who should be uppermost in our minds at the moment.

That’s because his ruling Law and Justice Party, a founding member of the global democracy wrecking crew, is up for reelection on Oct. 15. And if the party should fail to get a majority in the Sejm, Poland’s powerful lower house of parliament, it would be an important victory for the forces of progress on Earth.

It should never have been this hard. I remember, as a young foreign correspondent, running all over the former Communist world in the years that following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. So spectacular was the failure of communism that there seemed to be no discussion at the time that the Western model would prevail. This idea was encapsulated in Francis Fukuyama’s famous “End of History” theory.

The capitalism part of the Western model was indeed adopted widely, though in problematic ways; currency collapses and corrupt privatizations in many places created bitterness that undermined the second part: liberal democracy. Populists selling snake oil, tribalism, and nostalgic national mythologies arose.

And that is where we meet Kaczynski, who founded Law and Justice (known by the Polish acronym PiS) 22 years ago with his twin brother Lech (killed in a plane crash in 2010). Much like the invention of the National Peasant Party in Romania—a country I called home for some years—the creation of PiS was a play for the salt of the earth, pointing their disdain against “elites.” Years later, the American Republicans would try the same agitations.

So, my feeling is that Kaczynski has never fully received the credit for his stellar accomplishments in derailing Polish democracy, even within his own camp.

Within this circle, Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s iron grip was often held up as the gold standard of repression. This was never quite right. For one thing, Russia’s democracy was weak when Putin took over in 2000, and he made quick work of the wobbly legacy of suddenly retired President Boris Yeltsin. But even more important, he overplayed his hand and turned the country into that most inelegant of actors, the one-man police state.

The fake-democracy trick involves avoiding total dictatorship, and maintaining some version of plausible deniability with elections that are not really rigged but are also not fair, because the authoritarian ruler controls the courts and the media.

And here, Orban is the oracle, receiving pilgrimages and regular homage from the likes of Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson. It is certainly not underserved: Orban has achieved much.

Serving as Hungary’s prime minister since 2010, he has passed a series of controversial laws and constitutional amendments that weakened the judiciary, imposed restrictions on media freedom, and altered the electoral system to benefit his Fidesz party, which he has turned into a fiefdom.

He also managed to effectively shut down a university founded by George Soros (the Central European University) and played a big role in turning the American-Hungarian billionaire-philanthropist into a lightning rod for the global populist cabal; there is antisemitism there, which is probably a feature and not a bug.

But while Orban certainly deserves our respect, for my money the real star of fake-democracy is Kaczyinski. He looks more like an accountant than someone from a factory or a farm, and he courts the limelight less than Orban, to a perhaps bizarre degree. In addition to chairing Law and Justice, he is merely—and misleadingly—a junior deputy prime minister.

But make no mistake: he has accomplished no less than Orban—following the same playbook in weakening the courts, cowing the media so that key outlets slavishly support him, and fiddling the rules. And he has done so in Poland, a country four times bigger than Hungary with 40 million people, a NATO membership card and critical borders with Germany, Ukraine, and Russia.

Poland is the most important country of the former Warsaw Pact, a fast-growing economy that despite the democratic backsliding is marching toward a Western standard of living. It is a country that might even spread its populism to other places, such as Romania, which has the second-largest population in the region.

If your goal is to unsettle not just your own country but others as well, Kaczynski must be awarded extra credit fake-democracy points.

As in other countries, Law and Justice has played cleverly on the economic jealousies and cultural disparities between the educated and the rest. As everywhere, there is a divide between urbanites in cities like Warsaw, Krakow, and Wroclaw, and the countryside, which is far more traditional and religious, and where opposition to gay rights and abortion, for example, run high.

And it has also benefitted from the standard inability of the liberal side to avoid unwise splits; because of the 5 percent threshold needed to win seats in the Sejm, opposition votes have gone down the drain in past elections.

Right now, Law and Justice is retaining a small lead in the polls over Civic Platform, the main liberal party. But it is well short of a majority and there are a variety of other parties, which confuse the picture. The splits are understandable, because CP is not a purely social democratic party but rather more capitalistic—but right now fractures are not helpful. What is helpful is the return of party leader Donald Tusk, who had wandered off to Brussels for a while for senior positions in the European Union.

As previously explored on these pages, there is something about societies that leads to splits right down the middle, almost regardless of the choices at hand. There are some arguments for Law and Justice: the economy is humming along and many Poles really are very socially conservative.

And unlike Hungary’s Orban, who has been a major skeptic of Western assistance to Ukraine, Poland under Law and Justice has been an ally of the West in that arena. That will make it hard for Biden to interfere too much in the election.

But they are on the wrong side of history in every other significant way, and they will lead the country into a brick wall—just like Netanyahu in Israel, should his overhaul efforts prevail, and just like Erdogan in Turkey.

For Civic Platform to win, they need to move a few percentage points more from the center, away from splinter parties and away from the apathy that bedevils the liberal side all over the world.

They need to make people see a few steps ahead, toward the nightmare dystopia that the populist right is trying to establish. Because there is no way to compromise with the forces that would use the tools of democracy and freedom to undermine both. Some principles are not negotiable.

There is no way of knowing what will happen. In Turkey, a few months ago, a similar effort to unseat Erdogan fell short. But there is at least a hope that by this time next week Polish votes will have delivered the message that there is a way back from fake democracy.

Dan Perry is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. He is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press. Follow him at danperry.substack.com.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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