OPINION | Through the veils of religion, ultra nationalism and increasing tribal societal divides, Poland faces critical choices.
It was not long ago that the world described Poland as an economic and political success story. Poland proved to the West that nations could emerge from under the mantle of decades-long totalitarian rule by Moscow in under a generation. Today the world is looking upon Poland again, but this time with apprehension. As the nation enters its 2019 Parliamentary election campaign cycle, it appears clear that Poland is destined to continue its trajectory into the surging “nationalist international” – to borrow a Varoufakian locution – bloc of European countries.
In recent years the fringes of the European right-wing movements have surged in popularity, growing influential and stronger with each political cycle. A growing number of European nations have elected nationalist parties and leaders to create their governments. Many of these democracies have an inadequate democratic foundation to protect them from authoritarian political operators. Hungary, the Czech Republic, Croatia and Slovakia are just a few of the nations that have nationalist, authoritarian leaders heading up their governments.
It is not just nations with a weak democratic foundation that are increasingly leaning towards the nationalistic political spectrum. On December 18th 2017, the Kurz-coalition formed the new Austrian government. Then 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, leader of the conservative Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP), became chancellor. The radical right Freedom Party of Austria, also known as Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ), also returned to power. The FPÖ’s long-term leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, became Austria’s vice-chancellor. The coalition was elected with the promise of restricting immigration and integration.
In Sweden’s 2018 September national election the Swedish Democrats, viewed as extremists, also tapped into immigration fears and became the third largest party in the country. The party was able to prevent the formation of a new government for 128 days. Meanwhile in France, arguably the birthplace of the West’s present-day democratic value system, the Russian supported far-right politician Marine Le Pen – who ran on a campaign platform aimed at capitalizing on the rising isolationistic and Islamaphobic tendencies in France – came in second winning the highest share ever given to her party.
Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?
Poland remains a conservative nation with a staunch Roman Catholic tradition and a culturally conservative society. In fact, while Christianity was largely on the retreat in Europe throughout the 1900s, the percentage of Abrahamic-religious adherers in Poland barely changed. Census polls in the country have continuously reported numbers in the high 80s or low 90s. The latest such polling, conducted by Poland’s Central Statistical Office (GUS), indicated that 87.5 per cent of Poles identify as Roman Catholics.
Even the Soviet Union, which considered religion not just a competitor to the state but also a threat, was unable to budge Poland’s Christian leanings. The Roman Catholic Church was not only culturally dominant but carried immense political influence, which was further cemented by the 1978 election of a Polish-born priest as the 264th Bishop of Rome. Karol Józef Wojtyła became known as Pope John Paul II. The new pope had a long history as an outspoken critic of communism, of Poland being part of the Soviet Union, and of unions having masters in Moscow.
With the Roman Catholic church being led by a pope overtly critical of the communist regime in Warsaw and its puppet masters in Moscow, the various pro-democracy and so-called solidarity movements in Poland surged. Backed by the Vatican, which is known to operate a premier human intelligence (HUMINT) network, John Paul II directed engagement with demonstrators on a grassroots level to show the world the inhumanity of Soviet rule. This was especially the case when Moscow resorted to violence to quell protests. Often times Roman Catholic priests would spearhead demonstrations, the idea being that their presence would shield demonstrators from the worst. Often times, these priests would stand on the frontline of the crowds and be the first to be struck down.
In early 1980, John Paul II announced that he would carry out a pilgrimage to Warsaw amidst a series of late 1979 and early 1980 protests and the violent response from the Russian-Polish militaries. This pilgrimage allegedly pushed the conflict to the edge. America’s CIA, along with Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Pope’s longtime private secretary, would later accuse KGB director Yuri Andropov of instructing “the wet jobs” (i.e., black ops department within the Bulgarian State Security) to find a solution to this priest and his meddling. Andropov was apparently convinced that John Paul II was a direct threat to the state that had to be dealt with:
“The Pope is our enemy…. Due to his uncommon skills and great sense of humor he is dangerous, because he charms everyone, especially journalists …. Because of the activities of the Church in Poland our activities designed to atheize the youth not only cannot diminish but must intensely develop…. In this respect all means are allowed and we cannot afford sentiments.”
Andropov’s request to deal with the Pope was allegedly adhered to at 17:17 on Wednesday, May 13th 1981. Minutes earlier, Pope John Paul II had entered St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City, in an open-top, white Fiat SUV, commonly referred to as the “Popemobile”. The Pope’s presence was expected. He appeared in St. Peter’s Square weekly to give a speech and meet believers. Four rounds fired from a 9mm Browning Hi-Power semi-automatic pistol rang out. John Paul II clutched his chest and slumped into the arms of Cardinal Dziwisz who was sitting next to him in the vehicle. A bright red stain slowly ran across the Pope’s white cassock robe.
The 61-year-old was critically wounded. Two of the rounds had been lodged in his lower intestines, one round having passed through his right arm and another one having struck his left hand. Two nearby bystanders were hit by the through-and-through rounds.
John Paul II would survive to serve for another 24 years. His would-be-assailant was quickly identified as Turkish national Mehmet Ali Ağca. In the aftermath, Ağca would testify that the attempt had been orchestrated by the Bulgarian intelligence agency, at the behest of the KGB. Ağca claimed that the operation had been commanded by Zilo Vassilev, the Bulgarian military attaché in Italy.
As one might expect, Moscow quickly and continuously denied the veracity of the allegations. This denial has lived on into present day. In 2006, an Italian parliamentary investigation commission would state that it had evidence the KGB was behind the plot and that Ağca did not act alone.
The news and images of the Pope being gunned down would set off a domino effect in Poland, and against communism throughout Eastern Europe. While Moscow might have seen Polish Roman Catholicism as a problem, never budging on what a menace the meddlesome priest was, leaders in Warsaw were more in tune with the local atmosphere and opted to embrace the Church. Former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev once said that the collapse of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II.
The Soviet and communist rule over Poland ended in 1989, but the influence of Catholicism never did. Today, many Poles believe that they have the Catholic Church to thank for the fall of the Soviet Union, and that Poland was spared the relative worst of Soviet rule.
After decades of only glimpsing Western plenty through slits in the Iron Curtain, the brave new world of blue jeans, Coca Cola, and decent cars was Eastern Europe’s for the taking. Out with the old communist stagnation, and in with Western democracy, investment and technology. To say hopes were high would be an understatement.
Reality would quickly rear its ugly head.
For awhile, the European Union played the saviour. It provided cheap credit and free movement for Polish labour, along with promises of democracy and the rule of law for the countries of Eastern Europe.
But the credit dried up, cheap Eastern European labour was forced to compete with even cheaper Middle Eastern labour, and, courtesy of the Euro, no one could devalue their currency to bring labour costs down. The dreams of an economically vibrant Eastern Europe died in the teeth of the Asian Tiger economies. Massive imports of cheap Asian manufactured goods rendered Eastern Europe’s cheap labour pool redundant. The shipyard in Gdansk, where striking workers formed the backbone of the Solidarity Movements, along with Poland’s steel industry have yet to see a return of heavy industry jobs.
“To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem.”
– Douglas Adams, Author, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Politics is a Meat Market
The ongoing European right-wing and nationalist political trend is mostly a populist reaction. This reaction is, essentially, founded upon a growing sense of loss of national and regional identity, combined with the perception of worsening financial conditions, amid a backdrop of increased immigration to the European Union.
In the relatively progressive Europe that emerged post-Cold War, voters often found that little time or mind was spent by their elected officials tackling these concerns. With the recent turbulence in the Middle East sending refugees across Europe’s open borders, many voters struggled to find a representative voice independent of the far removed governing apparatus in Brussels that is perceived as pro-immigration. These often emotionally charged convictions were easily tapped for political gain.
In Poland, this political market share of voters is covered by the national-conservative Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS)) which is headed by its founder and former Polish Prime Minister, Jarosław Kaczyński. PiS formed the current Polish government in August 2014, with Andrzej Duda becoming the 6th President of Poland. In December 2017, the party further cemented its control of the political landscape when the PiS-politician Mateusz Morawiecki became the 17th Prime Minister of Poland. PiS efforts to increase government control over the judiciary and the public media prompted organizations, such as Freedom House, to call PiS “a political movement devoted to overturning Poland’s existing constitutional order and the democratic principles that underpin it.” PiS has also been accused of tacitly encouraging fascist and anti-Semitic groups.
To counterbalance the PiS dominance and respond to the political market trends, a new social-democratic, pro-European and secular party was announced in February 2019. This new party is called the Spring Party, or Wiosna Party. While opinion polls show that the party has already become the third largest in the run-up to autumn elections, it remains to be seen if the party will have a noticeable impact on the political course laid by its leading competitor, the PiS party.
While Wiosna’s advances raise hope amongst European observers, it is not the first time that a Polish liberal socialist party has made political advances, only to falter at the proverbial finish line. In 2011, a coalition of liberal left-leaning parties headed by the Palikot’s Movement, an anti-clerical and liberal party, gained 10 per cent of the votes and 40 seats in the Sejm, the Polish parliament, in the national election. This made the movement the third largest political entity on the Polish scene at the time.
However, almost immediately after the election, the coalition crumbled due to infighting. By the 2014 election coalition members crumbled one by one, falling under the electoral threshold. Today the Palikot’s Movement is known as the Your Movement (Twój Ruch, also translated as Your Move or TR), which holds no seats in the Sejm and has little influence on political developments.
The Wiosna Party is headed by Robert Biedroń, a former member of the Palikot Movement and the first openly gay member of the lower house of the Sejm. While this fact alone helps to differentiate Biedroń from his competitors, it is also likely to be a significant contributing factor to why his party will not gain the favour of many undecided voters. In the political landscape of Poland, the number of voters willing to side with a secular pro-European party is likely to be a relatively small and finite number.
The second largest party, the Civic Platform or Platforma Obywatelska (PO) is also struggling. The PO is a liberal-conservative coalition that has formed a government on two occasions, in 2007 and 2011. By 2011 the party had to share its voters with the Palikot Movement, which also targeted the urban-centric voter. This, in turn, led to a 15.09% loss in voters in the 2015 election, the majority of which went to the PiS, making it the majority party. The PO has yet to recover from this election loss and is primarily seen as having been unable to formulate a coherent political strategy or candidate to combat the situation.
Incommunicado ad Clerum
But, what about the all-powerful Catholic Church? What does it say about the current trends in the electoral brawl?
The Vatican clergy is largely maintaining radio silence. Pope Francis, the current Pope, is busy playing defense over sexual abuse scandals. After riding high in the late 1980s, Catholicism, and the Vatican along with it, have not fared well.
To the degree that the Catholic Church is playing any role in the upcoming Polish elections, it seems focused on distancing itself from one of its own priests who has broken rank; a priest that has for years faced accusations of propagating anti-Semitism and xenophobia through a “media empire“.
While the Catholic Church has often been an intricate part of the political scene, it has rarely placed itself inside the scene itself, instead favouring an éminence grise approach. Father Tadeusz Rydzyk broke with that tradition. Rydzyk operates a small but powerful conservative radio station. He does this not on the behalf of the church, but on his own accord. The radio station, Radio Maryja, which refers to the Virgin Mary, has continuously been used to offer a voice for the individual local priest who supports “Law and Justice” (PiS). In 1998, the New York Times dubbed the station “hate radio” and reported that as the 4th largest radio station in Poland, its 5 million listeners helped at least 18 members of Parliament win because the station had endorsed them.
Rydzyk also founded, in 1998, a nationalist newspaper Nasz Dziennik (“Our Daily”) and the television station Trwam (“I Persist”) in 2003, through his Lux Veritatis Foundation.
In 2018 Rydzyk reportedly created a new party, the “True Europe” Party (“True Europe Movement”), which is running to the right of the PiS. The motivation behind the creation of what was dubbed the “Rydzyk party” remains in debate, leading to threats of prosecution and demands to retract such claims by Radio Maryja.
A recent poll for the 2019 Parliamentary election shows the party holding at only 1%, with PiS leading at 37%.
A Time to Decide
When an economy is perceived as deteriorating, fueled by protests and even riots, voters often look towards authoritarian rule to resolve the immediate problem. This is when the average voter turns to nationalistic, right-wing fringe parties. While true in Poland, the opposing spectrum is now viewed as too liberal to be voted on even during the good times. Even the PO’s liberal-conservative coalition is regarded by the conservative voter spectrum as too liberal right now. And the divide is only growing larger.
The perception within progressive and liberal circles is that PiS is drawing the country deeper and deeper away from the West, towards nationalistic and authoritarian rule, all with the backing of the rural ochlocracy. At the same time, Warsaw is growing and the economy is booming, and many companies are opting for Poland to set up their East-facing operations.
With PiS and PO both being led by old-school politicians that date back to the era of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, many urban and young voters are clinging to the hope that the Wiosna / Spring Party will redraw the political landscape.
Such a rebalancing is unlikely.
In 2019, Poland will face two crucial choices which will dictate its future.
First is the upcoming Parliamentary election. This is immediately followed by the lower houses election. It is likely that the outcome of these two decisions will all favour the PiS. If the PiS does well in these elections, a Polish movement to leave the European Union, commonly referred to as POLEXIT, will likely emerge. The outcome of these elections will likely shape and determine the political landscape for the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election.
John Sjoholm, Lima Charlie News
[Anthony A. LoPresti and Diego Lynch contributed to this story]
[CORRECTION: Feb. 25, 2019 – The sentence referring to Marine Le Pen as “nearly elected in 2017” was corrected to “came in second winning the highest share ever given to her party.” – Editors]
John Sjoholm is Lima Charlie’s Middle East Bureau Chief and founder of the consulting organization Erudite Group. He is a seasoned Middle East connoisseur, with a past in the Swedish Army’s Special Forces branch and the Security Contracting industry. He studied religion and languages in Sana’a, Yemen, and Cairo, Egypt. He lived and operated extensively in the Middle East between 2005-2012 as part of regional stabilizing projects, and currently resides in Lebanon. Follow John on Twitter @JohnSjoholmLC
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