The victory of the incumbent, Andrzej Duda, in Poland’s presidential poll on 12 July 2020 confirms the continuing electoral hold of the conservative-nationalist Law and Justice Party (pis). ‘A blow to liberal hopes’, announced the Economist, as Duda saw off his challenger, the Civic Platform (po)’s Rafał Trzaskowski, a neoliberal ‘modernizer’ and currently mayor of Warsaw, by 51 to 49 per cent in the second round.footnote1 The Economist’s hope had been that a po president would be able to veto pis legislation; but despite a historically high turnout of 68 per cent, the West’s preferred party was still too tarnished and the hegemony of the pis, backed by the public broadcaster tvp, too strong. Indeed, since the pis landslide in 2015, followed by its further win in the 2019 parliamentary elections, Western liberals observing the country give the impression of staring into a distorting mirror: reflected back at them is a dystopian vision of the capitalist democracy they once laboured to create. These Cold War veterans had romanticized the Polish case, adopting Solidarność’s symbols as their own. Freed from the Communist yoke, the country would emerge as a beacon of economic liberalism, political democracy and Church-led social stability. Nowadays, Poland’s former friends look on in despair, searching for answers as to what has gone wrong.

Two of Poland’s closest intellectual allies, the Guardian’s Timothy Garton Ash and Anne Applebaum of the Atlantic, may serve as examples. In 2011, Garton Ash had congratulated the country for ‘getting to grips with being normal at last’ under the pro-business Civic Platform government of Donald Tusk. A few years later, after Civic Platform had gone down to ignominious defeat in the 2015 elections amid a welter of corruption allegations, while Tusk was helicoptered off to head the European Council, Garton Ash declared himself shocked to see ‘how far the pillars of liberal, pluralist democracy in Poland have been battered and shaken.’ Resorting, apophatically, to the hoariest central-European stereotypes, he now chastized the 2017 pro-choice demonstrators: ‘I won’t go so far as the old quip that the Germans can make any system work and the Poles can destroy any system, but certainly we see a contrast between a German strength in making the state work and the Polish forte of society organizing itself against the state.’ The noxious populists of pis were infiltrating their people into the offices of state. Only a countervailing infusion of young Polish liberals into state institutions could ‘strengthen the immune system of a still alarmingly fragile democracy.’footnote2

Likewise, Applebaum mourns the ‘heady optimism’ of the early millennium when she and her high-flying husband, Radosław Sikorski, thought as one with their elite circles of Polish and Atlanticist friends. She recalls a 1999 New Year’s Eve party at their ‘small manor house’ between Poznan and Gdańsk, with journalists, diplomats, government ministers, ‘friends who flew over from New York’—anti-Communists, conservatives, classical liberals, free-market liberals, Thatcherites. ‘It felt as if we were all on the same team’, believing in ‘a Poland that was a member of nato and on its way to joining the European Union’; that was what ‘being on the right’ meant. Today, the Polish right is deeply divided and Applebaum is no longer on speaking terms with half her guests, now backers of the ‘nativist’, ‘xenophobic’, ‘paranoid’, ‘authoritarian’ pis, its discourse equally hostile towards Germany, Russia and the eu. What has caused the transformation? Like Garton Ash, Applebaum avoids any element of self-criticism—her husband resigned in disgrace as Polish Foreign Minister during the 2014 ‘Waitergate’ scandal at a swanky Warsaw restaurant, when he and the Interior Minister were caught comparing us–Polish relations to oral sex, over a $500 dinner of baby lobsters and Cuban cigars, on the taxpayer’s złoty; Sikorski still stands as a symbol of the corrupt and out-of-touch po elite. Instead, Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy offers weightless musings on the authoritarian personality, the trahison des clercs, the genealogy of one-party systems and decline into cultural conservatism of the Polish Church, once ‘an apolitical symbol of national unity’.footnote3

Poland’s liberal friends warn that a groundswell of authoritarian populism has arisen in the East, consolidating power in Budapest and Warsaw. Liberal thinkers in Poland propound similar ideas. Sławomir Sierakowski of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw argues that authoritarianism is both stronger and different in Central and Eastern Europe, due to a lack of post-materialist values and ‘a fundamental legacy from their Communist past: the absence of the concept of a loyal opposition’.footnote4 Such reasoning assumes that conservative authoritarianism is an external threat to the West, reversing the liberal-democratic transformation that had been exported eastward after 1990. To the extent that the conservative-nationalist pis and its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczyński, capitalizing on the sleaze and inequalities of the po’s two terms in power, have mobilized ‘good Christian Poles’ against the country’s corrupt political caste, seen as linked to the more powerful international elites in Brussels, Berlin and Moscow, the pis project is aptly described by contemporary usages of the term ‘populist’, meaning any political movement that challenges the liberal consensus.footnote5

The predominant approach, as developed by Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde, treats populism as a ‘thin’ moralistic ideology, according to which the central political divide is that between a ‘pure people’ and ‘corrupt elite’. Populist opposition to globalization, or to the useu liberal consensus, also raises the problem theorized by Fareed Zakaria in the 1990s, with reference to Bosnia, Pakistan and the Philippines: that democracy and liberalism are not the same thing: ‘democracy is flourishing; constitutional liberalism is not’, Zakaria warned. Popularly elected governments might ignore the constitutional limits on power and diminish the independent institutions of the state, fostering ‘illiberal democracies’.footnote6 Applied to the Polish case, such an interpretation reveals some real and important features of pis rule. However, it also rests upon two presuppositions which need to be tested. First, that the political order accompanying the return to capitalism in Poland after 1989 itself operated upon liberal-democratic principles. Second, that pis rule is a regime of pure regression—and thus a rupture, not to say an aberration, from post-transition Polish politics. What follows will briefly examine each in turn.

The origins of Poland’s reintegration into international capital markets can be traced to the mid-1970s, when the Gierek government began taking cheap ‘petro-dollar’ loans from Western banks. By the end of the decade, these creditors were pressing Warsaw to expand exports and reduce subsidies on consumer goods—a contributing factor to the mass Solidarność strikes of 1980. The transition to capitalism in Poland can be dated to the crushing of the trade-union movement by martial law under Gen. Jaruzelski in 1981; henceforth, consumer prices rose and real wages fell. By the mid-80s, with a green light from Moscow given by Gorbachev’s perestroika, the ruling Polish United Workers’ Party was actively preparing for a transition, implementing a series of market reforms and taking the country into the World Bank and imf. The 1989 Round Table talks, negotiating the transfer of political power between the Jaruzelski regime and the Solidarność opposition, initially agreed on a ‘social-market economy’. Yet when a young Jerzy Sachs arrived in Warsaw in April 1989, the blueprint for liberal-economic shock therapy in his briefcase, he was wholeheartedly welcomed by the former left-wing Solidarność intellectuals as well as the modernizing nomenklatura. In December 1989, without any real debate or public consultation, Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz rammed a package of sixteen bills through the largely appointed Sejm—this was nearly two years before the first full parliamentary election—paving the way for the privatization of state-owned enterprises and elimination of price controls and subsidies. Poland’s large working class bore the brunt of a huge surge in unemployment, poverty and inequality.footnote7In contrast to Russia and Ukraine, the advent of capitalism in Poland did not involve a transfer of public wealth to a homegrown oligarchy. Instead, huge swathes of the productive and financial sectors were transferred to foreign capital.footnote8 Balcerowicz pushed through rapid sales of assets, in some instances for as little as 10 per cent of estimated value. By the end of the 1990s, foreign capital controlled 35 per cent of Poland’s industrial stock, 70 per cent of its banking assets and 80 per cent of its print media.footnote9 The transfer of ownership through successive privatization programmes took place through the courts and state bureaucracies, shielded from public view. This was especially fraught in the case of property privatizations: incoherent laws left it up to the courts to rule on the forcible removal of tenants from their homes and the transfer of public spaces and buildings to private investors.footnote10 A major beneficiary of this process was the Church, awarded generous subsidies and grants of land that enabled it to build an extensive network of Catholic schools, universities and media outlets, becoming once again the largest private landowner in the country. Religious instruction was restored in schools without consulting parliament and abortion was criminalized, ignoring a petition signed by 1.5 million citizens demanding a referendum on the issue. In 1993 the Church’s privileges were written into law via a Concordat with the Vatican, signed by the outgoing Suchocka administration without parliamentary scrutiny, and not ratified by the Sejm until 1998. The Church—an intrinsically secretive and authoritarian institution—thereby amassed huge wealth and political clout in the newly capitalist Poland.

In other words, most of the major strategic decisions concerning the country’s post-communist course were taken without any real democratic consultation or mandate. The political order that oversaw the installation of economic liberalism in Poland was itself a form of non-accountable authoritarianism, though supported by liberal democrats in Poland and the West. It can be described as a type of ‘undemocratic liberalism’, under which non-elected authorities—including the imf and European Commission, but also domestic players in the Central Bank and Finance Ministry—ensured that the range of issues available for democratic decision-making was sharply restricted, and responsibility for the most important political choices was handed over to financial institutions and other ‘independent’ authorities.