What Happens If You #DrainTheSwamp? Poland May Have the Answer

  • Kaczynski is a lesson for others on what might unfold
  • Latest battle is over who controls the highest court

Poland’s populists have been draining their swamp for a little more than a year. 

Swept to power on a similar wave of anger against urban and political elites as President-elect Donald Trump in the U.S., Poland’s Law & Justice party has been purging the state of what, in their view, is the self-serving elite that misruled Poland for most of the last 27 years.

In the process, the government in Warsaw has run roughshod over the constitution and weakened its democracy, according to critics such as the European Union. After a year marked by shocks at the ballot box, Poland offers a cautionary tale for other countries with populist revolts.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski

Photographer: Czarek Sokolowski/AP Images

The biggest prize awaits as the government gets the chance to secure control of the nation’s top court. The term of its president, Andrzej Rzeplinski, expires on Dec. 19. He’s preparing to go to jail.

“Already some prison directors have told me they’ll find me their best cell,” Rzeplinski said with gallows humor over breakfast in central Warsaw. “We are destroying everything.’’

Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his loyalists fiercely deny accusations they are dismantling Poland’s democracy. They say that they are building a strong state and returning the country to its true historical path and Catholic values on behalf of ordinary Poles the old liberal elites ignored.

Different Swamp

Poland’s “swamp’’ is, of course, different from the one Trump has pledged to drain in Washington, as are the country’s history and much younger institutions. Still, there is little doubt Kaczynski’s zeal to drive through change has put established checks and balances in his line of fire, an experience that risks repetition elsewhere.

That’s because coming to power on ambitious pledges to “take your country back” raises the stakes beyond the usual game of musical chairs between mainstream parties, said Ivan Krastev, who heads the Center for Liberal Studies, a Bulgarian think tank. It also makes democratic institutions easier to discredit as just another example of elite resistance to the will of the people, he said.

Read More: Poland’s Turn Toward Populism

So when a British court last month ruled unconstitutional the government’s plan to begin exiting from the European Union without parliamentary approval, the front page of the Daily Mail newspaper denounced the judges as “Enemies of the People.’’ The government is appealing the decision. In the U.S., Trump’s threats -- from breaking up media groups that opposed him to filling the Supreme Court with “real judges’’ -- have caused concern that there, too, the rule of law could be tested.

“We are seeing a crisis of democracy, not a crisis of European democracies or of new democracies,’’ said Krastev.

The Law & Justice party expanded from its eastern stronghold to win an unprecedented majority in parliament.

Only six years ago, Poland’s young political institutions had won plaudits for their resilience after the 2010 plane crash that killed then President Lech Kaczynski, Jaroslaw’s identical twin brother, near Smolensk, in Russia. Also on board were the head of Poland’s central bank, all of the nation’s armed service chiefs and dozens of other top Polish officials.

Kaczynski, 67, disputes the findings of separate Russian and Polish investigations that the crash was caused by pilot error in dense fog. He has opened a new inquiry, overseen by his defense minister, who has accused Russia of blowing the plane up.

Read More: The Man Who Really Runs Poland

Last month, officials started exhuming 83 of the 96 dead for re-examination. Kaczynski blames the last Polish government for concealing the truth, dividing the nation over the question of what happened. Three aides of former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, now EU president, face trial for their alleged negligence in organizing the trip.

Norman Davies, the British historian of Poland, says Kaczynski is using his brother’s tragedy to consolidate power and discredit opponents, as he seeks to rewrite Poland’s post-Communist history. “It is a bogus Poland,’’ said Davies. “They are using communist style methods and methodology to overthrow the liberal revolution of 1989.’’

Unholy Alliance

To Davies and much of the west, the political leaders who emerged from the Solidarity movement to run Poland in the 1990s were eastern Europe’s great success story. To Kaczynski and his party, they represent an unholy conspiracy of ex-communists and liberals that hijacked Poland’s revolution a quarter of a century ago, and must now be swept aside.

Read More: Dismantling One Polish Elite and Building Another

Within months of winning power in October 2015, the government replaced more than 300 executives at state-run companies, records gathered by the Nowoczesna opposition party show. About 1,600 officials at state institutions were also uprooted, while the new candidates for the civil service no longer have to face the usual competitive hiring process.

About 130 journalists were fired from or left Poland’s public broadcasters, which were placed under direct government control. So was the prosecutor’s office.

In January, Standard & Poor’s downgraded Poland’s credit rating, citing concern that “Poland’s system of institutional checks and balances has been eroded significantly,’’ specifically the constitutional court, media and civil service. While the government dismissed the downgrade as politicized, Poland’s currency, stocks and bonds sank. The zloty weakened 6 percent against the dollar this year, more than any of its peers except the Turkish lira.

A former child actor and prime minister for a short stint a decade ago, Kaczynski now likes to stay in the background. He never married, lives alone since his mother died and runs Poland from the party headquarters in a shabby Warsaw office building. He didn’t respond to requests to be interviewed. 

The government instead is led by his handpicked prime minister, Beata Sydlo, and president, Andrzej Duda. Supporters say the picture often painted outside Poland of saintly liberals being replaced by authoritarian populists is grossly unfair.

“What’s hard for people in the West to understand is that they think because Poland had a strong economy it was like France or Germany,” said Igor Janke, a former journalist who now heads a non-profit lobby called Liberty. “It wasn’t. We inherited institutions and people from the communist era. We didn’t start from scratch.’’

Solidarity Spat

The current conflict goes back to when the twin brothers were members of the Solidarity movement, said Elzbieta Jakubiak, who served former President Lech Kaczynski as his cabinet head, and Jaroslaw as sports minister. They opposed compromises that more prominent leaders, such as Lech Walesa, made with the former Communist regime to achieve a bloodless transition to democracy.

Not only did the Kaczynski brothers disagree with leaving communists unpunished and often in positions of wealth and power, but also with the 1997 constitution, which Jakubiak described as a compromise between “the Solidarity elite and the ex-Communist elite.”

In many ways, the battle around Poland’s highest court, the Constitutional Tribunal, is “the third round” of this fight over which elite should run Poland, Jakubiak said. It’s also a case study in collateral damage from a struggle for political power.

Shortly before last year’s election, the former Civic Platform government cast the first stone. It replaced five judges on the 15-member tribunal, including two it had no right to appoint because their terms hadn’t yet expired. Law & Justice deputies said the attempt to stack the court proved that Civic Platform intended to use its friends to prevent the new government from delivering change.

No Surrender

Once elected, Law & Justice escalated the fight. It overturned all five new appointments and installed its own people. When the court resisted, the Law & Justice-controlled parliament adopted a series of laws that would make it more difficult for the court to block unconstitutional legislation.

The party’s goal, said Rzeplinski, the tribunal’s outgoing president, is to turn the court into a “private council” for the executive, rather than an independent check on its power.

Rzeplinski has prevented some of the changes of personnel and procedure from taking effect, making him a hero to liberals. To supporters of the government, which has ignored the court’s rulings, he is the swamp monster-in-chief. In July, prosecutors started a criminal investigation into whether Rzeplinski broke the law by blocking Law & Justice’s three extra appointments -- ruled unconstitutional by the court -- from working.

Stanislaw Piotrowicz, the legislator spearheading the party’s legal battle with the tribunal, said Rzeplinski was no longer impartial and had disqualified himself by “being involved in political actions.” He added that a criminal investigation was justified.

Over the breakfast in Warsaw, Rzeplinski lamented that in recent years his court had finally become accepted as an equal in Europe, only for that progress to unravel in a matter of months. Now the anti-elite discourse that drives Law & Justice has moved westward, to the U.K. and the U.S.

“Right now we are all much wiser,’’ said Rzeplinski. “We know much more is possible than before.”

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