The mutiny of the lemmings

In last month’s parliamentary elections in Poland, the right-wing Law and Justice Party won a clear majority. With the opposition abated, they are now setting their sights on rewriting the constitution and dramatically changing the Polish political system. But will they succeed?


This article was written for Visegrad Revue

When Visegrad Revue asked me to write about the outcome of the Polish parliamentary election, I found it to be a difficult task. Victorious Law and Justice has been well known for being unpredictable. I proposed three scenarios, trying to be as broad as possible, but only weeks later I realised, that none of my predictions comes even close to the reality, as Jarosław Kaczyński had a cunning plan rolled up in his sleeve all along.

To understand current situation in Poland, one has to go back as far as to Round Table negotiations in 1989. For some, it was a triumph of self limiting-revolution: a peaceful transition of power. But a sense of injustice was growing amongst the people, who were left behind by their country that was changing at extremely swift pace. The voices emerged, that the Round Table was actually a deal between Solidarity elites and communist to share power between themselves, leaving everyone else out. This legend was then strengthened when in 1992 government of Jan Olszewski fell as a result of the clash regarding lustration and decommunisation. “The only true-anticommunist prime minister overthrown by communist teamed with traitors” – this was just what was needed for the founding myth.

From then on, this parallel narration smouldered at the edge of the mainstream political life. But it was Jarosław Kaczyński, who brought it to the new level and reforged into complete parallel universe. With a help of Catholic Radio Maryja and some right wing papers they managed to build a self-sustainable media ecosystem that claims to be “the only, true, Polish journalism”, as in opposite to “regime” or “foreign-funded” mainstream media outlets who “lie to support the establishment”. There whole system was build around this idea: a private University was created in Toruń, providing journalists to those media. Right wing historians published books that aimed to “show the truth” and diminish such legendary personas like Lech Wałęsa. The narration of the Church, that sees European Union as a threat to “true Polish values”, portrayed Polish political class as a traitors, who after collapse of the Soviet Union turned to new principal – Germany ruled EU. The fact that not all Poles benefited from the economical reforms is blamed onto former security agents, who allegedly infiltrated businesses and syphon money out of it. Many right wing Poles finds this narration convincing and willingly remain in this bubble, refusing to accept anything that comes from the outside. They look down at the other parts of the society, calling them “lemmings”, as allegedly those little rodents are unable to think for themselves and they just follow the flock to their own destruction.

In 2005 when the coalition led by Law and Justice managed to get power, they hoped that they will be able to “get rid of the system”. But internal conflicts have torn it apart. Jarosław Kaczyński, unable to rule with his minority government, played va banque and called new elections in hope to gain single majority. Voters, fed up with very unpleasant style of his government, decided otherwise. For right wing narration it was the proof that “system” is afraid of Jarosław Kaczyński and elections were rigged. When few years later his twin brother, president Lech Kaczyński died in a Smoleńsk plane crash, they needed no further proof: the system will do everything to protect itself, they even went as far as to assassinate the president!

Today, two Polands exist: on the surface, there is a modern and progressing country, an Eastern European success story. It is the country, that enjoys the best time ever in it’s history. And then, there is another Poland, inside this right wing bubble, that believes that the fight for freedom has never ended and it’s just that enemies display different flags today. This bubble swallowed about 20% of the society, but it seems that it is as big as it can get. Therefore to get back to power, Jarosław Kaczyński had to feint the enemy. This is why their whole campaign was about convincing people, that the old, truculent and vindictive Law and Justice is a song of the past. Poles were instead provided with the modern and sleek product, new generation of politicians: president Andrzej Duda and Beata Szydło promising widely expected social reforms. This plan was a success and Szydło became a prime minister in the Law and Justice government. On the next day masks have dropped and Szydło and Duda turned out to be just puppets in Kaczyński’s hands. The true aim became unchanged: to completely dismantle post-1989 order, punish the traitors and then start all over again. Since their majority did not allows for changing constitution, they attempted a cunning plan of dismantling the state institutions in order to remove all obstacles, and to revert or modify to their liking nearly all reforms introduced by the previous government. Kaczyński knows that some changes might be met with strong opposition, so he acted quickly to secure his position.

But his blitzkrieg faced stronger resistance than expected. Last Saturday vast number of Poles took the streets in order to express their opposition to the attempts of hijack the Constitutional Tribunal. To counterbalance it, on Sunday tens of thousands of Law and Justice followers were bussed into Warsaw to take part in pro-government rally. Kaczyński in strong words tries to paint the opposition as “worst sort of Poles”, “traitors” and “beneficent of the old system, desperately trying to defend their privileged position”. He claims that he has a mandate from the nation to carry on with his changes. But the numbers are remorseless: he got hold of power only thanks to low turnout and proportional electoral system: in the absolute numbers less than one in five Poles voted for Law and Justice.

The ancient Polish legend tells about Popiel, an unjust usurper prince who, as a punishment for his deeds, was eaten by mice. If the anger of “lemmings” prevail, another ruler of Poland might fell victim to the rodents.