Driving Poland Apart

After losing parliamentary elections in 2011, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s Law and Justice party, declared that one day “we will have a Budapest in Warsaw” — using the illiberal turn by Hungary’s populist Prime Minister, Victor Orban, as a blueprint for a “moral revolution” for Poland.

And since the Law and Justice party’s success in the October elections, there have certainly been some worrying Orbanesque developments.

The new government has not shied away from open conflict with the Constitutional Tribunal, appointing new judges and ignoring rulings that declared large parts of new legislation introduced by the party unconstitutional. Planned changes would give the government more control over the media and, according to a newly proposed law, civil servants in leading positions in the public administration should be replaced by political appointees.

Law and Justice party supporters argue that the democratic majority should not be hindered from executing its power, and a comment during a heated parliamentary debate three weeks ago — that “the good of the people comes before the law” — was met by a standing ovation in the ranks of the ruling majority.

With the breathtaking tempo of Mr. Kaczynski’s power grab, the prospect of Budapest in Warsaw no longer seems quite so distant. But the parallels between Poland and Hungary should not be overstated. The real crisis in Poland is not that the country is uniting behind the nationalist right. It is that Polish society is cleaving between traditionalism and liberalism, with no end in sight.

Poland’s stunning economic success over the last decade has produced losers as well as winners. Reforms to strengthen the market economy were not accompanied by a state infrastructure that could ably support those left behind. Low wages and flexible labor contracts have strengthened Poland’s competitiveness and contributed to the overall success of the economy, but they have failed to meet the rising aspirations of Poles who these days compare their standard of life with that of Western Europe — not with the old Communist time.

It’s an unfavorable comparison: Despite high productivity growth in the last 10 years, average wages in Poland are among the lowest in the European Union. The average Finn or Briton earns around twice as much.

Meanwhile, necessary but unpopular pension reforms by the previous governing party, the center-right Civic Platform, were poorly communicated — and were followed by an eavesdropping scandal that revealed the arrogant and distant face of backroom politics.

Civic Platform’s refusal, or inability, to offer a vision for the country’s future beyond market reforms, stability and pride in Poland’s past achievements left a space to the right that the Law and Justice party skillfully exploited with generous social promises and a narrative of the need to raise the country from its ruins.

Liberals may have appeared complacent and out of touch, but nobody has contributed more to exacerbating these divisions than Mr. Kaczynski — whether through his narrative about the rottenness of Poland today and his vision of a morally sound Fourth Republic, or through his allusions that the airplane crash in Smolensk in 2010 in which his twin brother, President Lech Kaczynski, died might have been orchestrated and covered up by the Russians.

For Mr. Kaczynski and his supporters, attitudes about “Smolensk” became the measure of patriotism and belonging to the national community. Those who debunked the plot version as a myth did not deserve to be called “true Poles.”

So, while the crisis over the Constitutional Tribunal might be the next chapter in the process of driving the two Polands apart, it is not the whole story.

Social and political tensions are embedded in Poland’s much deeper moral and cultural divide. Just as the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb famously described the United States as “one nation, two cultures,” the Polish social psychologist Michal Bilewicz says Poland is composed of two tribes who adhere to different moral and value systems.

On one side are those representing conservative or Catholic values and stressing national pride and loyalty; on the other are those who highlight individual rights, embrace minorities and put universal justice before community solidarity. These two tribes have little in common. They hardly communicate, they often despise each other — and the language of the political debate on both sides is extremely polarized if not brutal.

Poland found a way to overcome this in the past. In 1989 a compromise between Communists and the opposition made a transition to democracy possible in Poland, and that ability to compromise became a source of national pride and international respect. But the space in which compromises can be forged has shrunk. The center of society has been poorly served by liberals and actively riven by national-conservatives like Mr. Kaczynski.

The current turmoil, provoked and consciously stirred by the Law and Justice party, will further poison the political culture in a society where the lack of social capital, polarization and refusal to compromise are the central obstacles for future development and modernization.

In a recent interview, Mr. Kaczynski called his critics “Poles of the worst sort” who have the “tradition of national treason” in their genes. This black-and-white dichotomy, in which adversaries do not talk but hate each other, undermines the foundations of a liberal-democratic community no less than attacks on its institutions.

Piotr Buras is the head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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