In Defence of Poland’s Ruling Party

Why are so many in Brussels and the United States intent on making Poles the bad guys of Europe?

Extremist parties have made inroads in Greece, Austria and Germany. The most popular party in Italy is led by a far-right immigrant-basher. In the U.K., the opposition party is led by an anti-Semitic, hard-line Marxist. There is worrying authoritarianism in Hungary, and anti-Semitism is on the rise across the bloc.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the “liberal left” is attempting to substitute identity politics for democratic process and to impose censorship (in the name of anti-discrimination). But everyone seems to have an obsession with Poland. Why?

Poland is far too often portrayed as a country without due process, without democracy or free speech, and without a free press. It’s described as suffering under censorship, corruption and nepotism, under the yoke of a far-right government.

None of this is true.

For the first time since 1989, the forgotten poor in the countryside feel that they are better off and that they are safe.

No one in Poland is in jail for political reasons; protesters are free to demonstrate in the streets like everywhere else in the EU; there is due process and equality before the law; universities are independent, as are the courts, and neither they nor any other democratic institutions come under political pressure more than they do anywhere else — indeed probably less so.

Nor is there any censorship in Poland; indeed, a great majority of the media is virulently anti-government. But none of this seems to make a blind bit of difference to the European commentariat, which regularly compares Poland to Turkey or Hungary or even Nazi Germany.

The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) is not particularly right-wing. Its economic approach is essentially socialist; it likes big government and a generous welfare state. And its policies are paying off — especially for the marginalized.

Since PiS took power in 2015, unemployment has dropped sharply, as has the deficit. For the first time since 1989, the forgotten poor in the countryside feel that they are better off and that they are safe. Trust in police is high, as is support for the government.

If some conservative Polish intellectuals are, theoretically, prepared to throw the baby (of liberalism) out with the bathwater (of identity politics and all the rest), their view is not the one promoted by those in government, whose vision is no more illiberal than elsewhere in Europe.

Yes, Catholics in Poland — much like religiously motivated groups in the U.S. — have sought to institute a total ban on abortion; but so far they have not succeeded. Some have sought to allow pharmacists the freedom to refuse to sell contraceptives; but there, too, they have failed.

Polish courts, like those in the U.S., have had to grapple with bakers and printers refusing to bake cakes or print posters for the LGBT community, and their rulings have been just as varied. The question of “religious freedom” is just as hotly debated in Poland as it is in the U.S.

I might (and do) think discrimination in the name of religious freedoms deeply misguided, but the same debate is going on in the U.S., sometimes with similarly mind-boggling rulings. And while I often find myself in sharp disagreement with friends on the “right,” we can have a rational discussion without flinging around Nazi and fascist epithets.

Is anti-Semitism on the rise in Poland? Not really. Is there as much of it as in France or Holland, say? Hardly. Is it equally murderous and virulent? Not remotely. But still everyone is in fits about Poland. There is no boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in Poland.

So why all the alarmism about Poland? In part, it’s because Warsaw continues to resist attempts at EU bullying and insists on maintaining control over issues of national sovereignty such as migration and border management. This is frowned upon by those who have vested interests in maintaining a European kleptocracy of elites.

Poles are sick of being branded as unenlightened, primitive, bigoted, nationalistic, anti-Semitic, right-wing extremists just because they don’t think patriotism is a dirty word.

But the country is also something of a test case: Is it possible to have a (fairly) liberal democracy without pandering to identity politics and all the rest of it? So far, the answer is yes.

Poles are sick of being branded as unenlightened, primitive, bigoted, nationalistic, anti-Semitic, right-wing extremists just because they don’t think patriotism is a dirty word. They do not like having the “liberal” agenda currently in vogue foisted on them, their narrative usurped, their sovereignty made light of. So they fight back. And this, too, is frowned upon.

Poland, for all its faults and mistakes, is grappling with important questions. How do you foster patriotism without facing charges of nationalist xenophobia? How can you reconcile liberal democracy with historic traditions and values? How can you strike a balance between equal rights and religious freedom?

Poland is hardly the only country struggling to find a balance. But right now, it looks as if it may have the best chance of succeeding.

Agnieszka Kolakowska is a Polish writer and translator based in Paris.