Polish President Andrzej Duda of the Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) won a narrow reelection, according to results announced Monday.
The victory is significant for PiS, which lost control of Poland’s upper house, the Senate, to the opposition in parliamentary elections last October (the party’s ruling coalition still narrowly controls the lower house, the Sejm). Voter turnout was more than 68 percent, the highest for a presidential poll in Poland in 25 years, indicating PiS maintains a mandate from Poland’s electorate.
Indeed, in the first round of the election on June 30, Duda demonstrated a 13-point edge over his opponent, Rafał Trzaskowski, the mayor of the country’s capital of Warsaw.
Mainstream Media Smears Duda
According to mainstream leftist media, only one narrative about the Polish presidential election news was worth exploring. “Polish president Duda narrowly wins reelection, enabling the continuation of a far-right agenda,” the Washington Post reported. PiS, the Post claims, “undermines democracy.”
“Duda ran a campaign especially notable for its anti-LGBT rhetoric,” the Post continued, smearing Duda’s party as bigots. “He proposed a constitutional amendment that would bar single-sex couples from adopting children and at one point suggested that efforts to advance gay rights were worse than communism.”
These same media outlets claim that this is only one manifestation of Duda’s totalitarian tendencies. For years, PiS has been seeking to “tighten its grip” on the country’s judiciary, according to CNN. Indeed, the EU in 2019 in a “Letter of Formal Notice,” accused Duda’s government of undermining “the judicial independence of Polish judges by not offering necessary guarantees to protect them from political control.” This included a 2018 government reform lowering the age of retirement for Supreme Court judges.
From anti-LGBT bigotry and attacks on judicial independence to anti-immigration rhetoric and “right-wing nationalism” — in the eyes of Western mainstream media, Duda and PiS are no less than a 21st-century manifestation of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Not even the handsome and charismatic Trzaskowski can curb the country’s descent toward devolutionary totalitarianism. Is this description an accurate representation of Polish politics in 2020?
Context Is Key
Any “anti-LGBT” rhetoric uttered by Duda and his political allies has to be understood in context of broader Polish political trends, says Polish journalist Filip Mazurczak. Pro-LGBT events across the country have often included the mocking of Catholicism’s sacred symbols, and Poland is about 93 percent Catholic. Although the gay pride parade in Warsaw is often well-attended, the same parades elicit crickets elsewhere. In the town of Zabrze, which has a population of 170,000, only one person attended the 2019 LGBT parade.
Law and Justice, in turn, has defended traditional Polish family and Christian values, sought to blunt attempts to scuttle optional religious classes in public schools, and terminated state subsidies for in-vitro fertilization. Such policies seem popular: In the 2019 parliamentary elections, about 60 percent of Poles voted for socially conservative parties. Let’s also not forget gay people didn’t get the power to adopt in the United Kingdom until 2002, while Florida was the last state to give this right in 2010. America was evenly divided on this topic as recently as 2003.
What about the alleged authoritarian intervention in the judiciary? Discussions of this typically fail to mention that the party in power prior to PiS, Civic Platform, in anticipation of its impending defeat, nominated five justices for positions on the Constitutional Court that were to become vacant after elections. This was a breach of a long-established practice of not nominating key positions directly before an election.
The Polish judiciary has historically wielded tremendous, unchecked authority largely free of government oversight, and there are no impeachment procedures for judges. “Judges recruit judges into the judiciary. Judges then elevate judges to higher positions in the judiciary. And judges are supposed to hold other judges accountable for their misdeeds,” noted economist Pawel Dobrowolski and journalist Matthew Tyrmand in 2018.
Moreover, many of these judges were connected to the Communist Party prior to 1989. Many argue that PiS’s judicial reforms would actually make Poland’s separation of powers more like America.
It’s true that Poland’s ruling party has sought to curb immigration from Muslim countries, but not from elsewhere in Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine. In 2016, Poland issued 586,000 first residence permits to nationals from non-EU countries. As Mazurczak observes, “Poland issued more such permits that year than did any other EU member-state except Britain — and more than Germany (505,000), which has more than double Poland’s population.” Poland has also been receptive to immigrants from the Philippines, another predominantly Catholic nation.
PiS Emulates Soft Socialism
On economics, PiS is not exactly a supporter of unfettered capitalism. “The party’s economic policies are closer to the democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren than to the laissez-faire approach of the GOP,” notes Mazurczak. PiS has also pledged to increase the minimum wage and has increased social spending since it came to power.
The “500 Plus” program, in which families receive about $125 per child each month, has been quite popular among Poles. The program has reduced child poverty and increased Poland’s fertility rate from 1.32 in 2015 to 1.48 in 2017. Granted, as statistician Lyman Stone has noted, this is fairly small potatoes (or placki ziemniaczane, as it were), but when nearby nations experience demographic collapse, Poland’s efforts are a rare and remarkable feat.
It’s the prominent opposition party, led by Trzaskowski, that is pro-business. It’s true that the Warsaw mayor is both more socially liberal and more pro-EU than Duda, but his Civic Platform party is best characterized as centrist, if not center-right. “There is no left in Poland. The ex-communists had about a 10-year run, and they ran the damn thing into the ground,” one Polish-American intellectual said recently.
Media Is Missing the Real Story
Nevertheless, if prominent Western “experts” on Polish politics are to be believed, this is a battle between the forces of authoritarianism and democracy, regress versus progress. Journalist Anne Applebaum, whose husband Radosław Sikorski held prominent positions in previous Civic Platform administrations, has authored innumerable op-eds accusing PiS of destroying democratic norms and promoting autocracy. Yet Civic Platform under Sikorski and his allies suffered several high-profile corruption scandals, which resulted in top leaders resigning.
All this is to say that a center-right party that favors deregulated markets and strong integration with the EU (Civic Platform) lost to a pro-life, pro-family, pro-social-safety-net party with some socialist leanings (PiS). That’s not exactly as earth-shattering as the scaremongering media would have us believe.
As a friend of mine who studies Polish politics told me, “Western elites cannot hear PiS’s arguments because they cannot comprehend anything other than ‘rights.’” In its current manifestation, “rights” talk reduces to paeans for the country’s anti-Catholic LGBT movement. Unfortunately, English-language media seems largely incapable of telling this story.