A Law and Justice victory in Poland could be good news for Putin
The next Polish government looks like being anti-liberal and anti-EU. And despite frosty relations with Russia, such a stance may work in Moscow’s favour
Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Poland’s Law and Justice party, PiS, at a campaign meeting in Warsaw last weekend.
Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Poland’s Law and Justice party, PiS, at a campaign meeting in Warsaw last weekend. Photograph: Alik Kęplicz/AP
Saturday 24 October 2015 07.00 EDT Last modified on Sunday 25 October 2015 16.31 EDT
Poland’s Law and Justice, a rightwing eurosceptic party, is likely to oust the ruling pro-EU Civic Platform in parliamentary elections scheduled this Sunday, further evidence that anti-liberal, anti-EU and anti-immigrant movements are gaining momentum in Europe.
Polish elections 2015: a guide to the parties, polls and electoral system
Like Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, France’s Marine Le Pen and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, the Law and Justice leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, a former prime minister, has a track record of inciting xenophobia, sees the EU as a threat to national identity and wears his scorn for “political correctness” with pride.
Kaczyński has claimed that Muslim immigrants have “imposed Sharia law in parts of Sweden”, “occupy churches in Italy only to treat them like toilets” and “engage in constant trouble-making” in France, Germany and the UK. He has warned that migrants currently arriving in Europe could cause “epidemics” as they may have “various parasites and protozoa, which don’t affect their organisms, but which could be dangerous here”. Some of his critics have drawn parallels between these comments and Nazi propaganda, which portrayed Jews as carriers of lice and typhus. But Kaczyński brushes off the accusations as “political correctness”.
The Law and Justice leader’s great idol is Viktor Orbán, whose authoritarian tendencies and nationalist rhetoric have drawn strong condemnation in western Europe. After losing parliamentary elections in 2011, Kaczyński vowed: “One day, we will have a Budapest in Warsaw.” Today, the party says if it wins power it will ensure children receive “more patriotic upbringing” in schools and the role of public media will be to “build national identity”. Some fear Law and Justice wants to stifle media freedom and limit the judiciary’s independence. Adam Michnik, editor-in-chief of Poland’s largest broadsheet, Gazeta Wyborcza, and one of the country’s most respected journalists, has said he worries about a “Putin-style state” if Kaczyński’s party wins.
Aware of the fear many Poles harbour of him wielding such power, the wily 66-year-old Kaczyński has made a mild-mannered MP, Beata Szydło, his party’s prime ministerial candidate. However, few in Poland doubt who would really be in charge should Law and Justice take power. Some suggest Szydło is just a campaign tactic and will be told to step down for the party leader after a brief stint in office. Kaczyński founded Law and Justice in 2001 and has maintained an iron grip on the party ever since. On one occasion, when Szydło was asked her opinion about a controversial statement Kaczyński had made, she replied: “The chairman is always right.”
But aside from fears of a heavy-handed Law and Justice on the domestic front, what could be the consequences of the party’s victory for the rest of Europe? David Cameron’s negotiations prior to the UK referendum on EU membership will likely be high on the European agenda in the coming months. In the European parliament, Law and Justice MEPs sit with David Cameron’s Tories in the eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists group. “No further integration and no more powers for Brussels. This is where Law and Justice and the Tories agree,” said Małgorzata Bonikowska, head of the Centre for International Relations.
However, regarding freedom of movement within the EU, Cameron cannot expect anything different from the current Polish government’s position. “Any kind of restriction on the free movement of people targeted at citizens from our region is unacceptable and non-negotiable,” said Witold Waszczykowski, a Law and Justice MP tipped as potential foreign minister by Kaczyński. No surprise there. The opposition party engages in constant chest-thumping about how uncompromising it is when fighting for Polish interests. Considering Polish citizens would likely be adversely affected by any freedom-of-movement restrictions, Law and Justice can hardly be expected to take a softer stance on this issue than the current government.
A Law and Justice victory would result in a Poland that is less oriented towards western Europe than under the current government. “Civic Platform considers Poland part of a western team facing global challenges together. Meanwhile, Law and Justice want to focus on ties within the [central and eastern European] region; after that come ties with western Europe. The US and Russia matter, but as for the rest of the world, they’re not really interested,” said Bonikowska.
Fear and xenophobia poison Polish polls
Meanwhile, though Polish-German relations are currently at a historic high, they may not stay that way for long. Bonikowska says Law and Justice would pursue a “more assertive policy towards Berlin”. The party intends to push Germany hard for it to agree to a permanent Nato base in Poland, something Berlin has consistently opposed for fear of provoking Russia, which received assurances in 1997 there would be no Nato military bases in eastern Europe. Waszczykowski says those assurances were given to “Yeltsin’s Russia, which was relatively weak and cooperative with the west. Today’s Russia is aggressive and imperialistic, there’s no reason we should respect that agreement.” He insists, though, that his party does not intend to escalate existing tensions with Moscow.
But there is a personal element at play as well. In 2010, Lech Kaczyński, then president of Poland and Jarosław’s twin brother, died in a plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, along with 95 other people, including many prominent Law and Justice politicians. At one point, Kaczyński said he believed his brother had been assassinated and vowed not to rest till he got to the bottom of the matter. Five years later, Russia has yet to return the plane wreckage to Poland, coming up with one excuse after another. It is quite difficult to imagine this issue not casting a long shadow over Polish-Russian relations under a Law and Justice government.
Yet paradoxically a Law and Justice victory in Poland could be good news for Vladimir Putin. It would mean a strengthening of the forces that seek to weaken the EU and an ever more divided Europe. It would also mean an unfortunate triumph for those forces who believe that a more nationalistic, xenophobic and anti-liberal Europe is the way forward.