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Poland’s Populist Turn

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If Poland had a tumultuous 20th century, the 21st started off pretty well. Having just joined NATO, the country entered the European Union and cemented its transition to capitalism with unrivaled economic growth. Then a 2015 election unleashed a populist backlash, delivering unprecedented power to a party that promised a shakeup in the name of ordinary Poles. They were fed up with uneven wealth and tossed out what they saw as a self-serving elite that had misruled the country. The Law & Justice Party’s drive to control the courts and remove checks on its power sparked sporadic protests and criticism from the EU, which accuses Poland’s leaders of flouting the rule of law. Former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk warned in 2017 that the country was moving “backwards and eastwards.” Is eastern Europe’s biggest economy risking the democratic order it has built since escaping communism?

In October, there was a national outcry after a Constitutional Court ruling tightened what was already one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws. Women staged a strike and protesters flooded the streets in the biggest threat to the government since it came to power. The Law & Justice Party had won followers by reducing the tax burden on the poor and providing bigger subsidies for raising children. Winning a second term in 2019, it pushed through more judicial reforms after revamping the constitutional court, nearly doubled the minimum wage and exerted more control over the media. The EU, which gives more money to Poland than any other country on a net basis, has pursued a series of disciplinary measures against Poland for failing to adhere to democratic values; it’s talked of tying future funds to rule-of-law standards, though little has been done. Poland’s ruling party struck a nerve at home and abroad by calling for the country to assert its national identity, uphold Catholic values and control its borders. It’s also sought to rewrite history, turning Solidarity freedom fighter Lech Walesa into a communist collaborator, making it illegal to suggest that the Polish nation had a role in the Holocaust and backing the creation of “LGBT Free” zones. While it re-nationalized banks and power companies, the economy has remained robust, though the coronavirus pandemic created new challenges.