Poland has previously been the most promising of new EU members. What made it change course in recent years?
When the citizens and leaders of Poland made the decision to leave the Soviet/Russian sphere of influence and to join "the West" in the late 80s and early 90s, "the West" looked much as it had during the 70 and 80s: a free trade and free travel union with subsidies for the poorer members.
But changes had already been set in place to transform the EU into an ever closer union. Those who read the treaties would have been intellectually aware of this, but the gut feeling wasn't there. This change accelerated with the Eurozone and the Schengen treaty. By the time Poland actually joined the EU in 2004, many changes were in place, but the benefits of EU membership were irresistible.
Like the Brits the Poles complain about this change, but their "Leave" option looks even worse than it does for the Brits. So they try to change the EU culture.
There isn't really an increase in Euroscepticism - what there is is an increase of scepticism for the way the EU is currently being run, and that's by no means unique to Poland, it's common across most of Europe (see the results of almost every election in Europe over the last few years).
Ordinary people across the continent (and further - see the US!) are getting more and more upset by increasing inequality, particularly with the perception that the 'elite' and their 'cronies' are getting richer, while normal people are getting poorer - especially those in rural and industrial areas, who don't tend to see the results of a lot of the investment that tends to be concentrated in the big cities. They are therefore voting for whoever they see to be the 'alternative' - the anti-establishment, different party/candidate, whoever that may be - often someone with less or no political experience such as last month's elections in Ukraine and Slovakia (and of course Trump, who, IMHO, only got in because he wasn't Clinton, who was very much seen as "yet more of the same")
These alternatives tend to be portrayed as 'far-right' or 'far-left' by the mass media - as several Poles have told me "the concepts of left and right don't really fit in Polish politics, we have Tories (PO) and small-c conservatives (PiS)"
PiS got in to power for three main reasons:
- disillusionment with PO and it's policies, which were seen to be only benefiting themselves, big multinational/foreign businesses and the metropolitan elites, and leaving the rest of the country behind.
- Several scandals involving key PO politicians (Amber Gold, Pensions)
- PiS policies promising better conditions for ordinary people - e.g. the 500+ child benefit programme. These policies seem to be working - Poland's growth last quarter was 4.5%, one of the highest in Europe.
The same Poles have also told me that there hasn't really been an increase in nationalism either - merely that they are, only now, freely able to express themselves. Bear in mind that for most of the past 300 years, Poland has been occupied by someone else, and the Germans, Russians, Austro-Hungarians and Soviets heavily repressed Polish identity, so they take their new-found national identity very seriously (rightly so IMHO - I don't see what's wrong with being proud of who you are).
I don't see the racism and xenophobia that the western media portray either - as a Brit married to a Pole, I've never been made to feel unwelcome there, and one of my wife's best friends is an American who has happily lived in Poland for decades - in a conservative rural area, not a cosmopolitan city. The impression I always get is that as long as you are prepared to respect the Polish culture and don't try to belittle them or repress them, then you will be made more than welcome.
It's part of the reaction against the global discontent with neoliberal globalisation spear-headed by the United States and which has been capitalised by the return of the fast (and loose talking) strong men such as Orban, Trump and Bolsanaro (and strong woman - Marine Le Pen). In particular, Poland, in common with Hungary, are not keen about the liberal social rights endorsed by the EU treaty. That of the free movement of people and the protection of asylum-seekers and refugees. Though, of course, they seem to be very quiet about the million Polish citizens who moved to Britain to seek a better life and better economic opportunities.
TL;DR: PiS is the first post war democratically elected party to have parliamentary majority without entering coalitions. PiS is nationalistic and populistic party, thus PiS uses public media to spread it's propaganda.
Proper timeline of current ruling party.
- 2001 - Party "Prawo i Sprawiedliwość" ("Law and Justice", but more accurately lawlesness and injustice if you ask me) is founded.
- 2005-2007 PiS is the largest party in parliament, but doesn't have majority without entering into coalition with other parties ("Samoobrona" - populistic farmer's party with platform based primarily on vengeance for Leszek Balcerowicz's decisions as minister of finance in 1989-1991 and "Liga Polskich Rodzin" - extreme right wing party, so deeply in bed with Church that when their chairman became minister of education, he planned to have Catholic religion as one of the secondary education final exams by 2010)
- 2005 - PiS candidate, Lech Kaczyński (twin brother of party chairman Jarosław Kaczyński), wins presidential elections
- 2007 - due to erosion of numbers of member of coalition parties and fracture in PiS itself, opposition passed a vote calling for snap election
- 2007-2015 - Main political opponent of PiS, PO becomes largest party for two consecutive terms, each time ruling as part of coalition
- 2010 - Lech Kaczyński and 90 other people (mostly politicians) die in plane crash in Smolensk. Jarosław (twin brother) from now on, will forever insist that Lech was assassinated by Putin.
- 2015-today(2019) - PiS becomes first post iron-curtain party to win elections with majority, without need for coalitions, this results with PiS basically doing whatever they want, breaking rules and laws about separation of powers and subverting judiciary (because they own executive and legislative).
As of today, PiS owns public media and runs them in maximally biased way possible.
The reasons why PiS won in 2015 are multiple. In no particular order:
- Consolidation of power in party - Smolensk plane crash killed off most of notable party personalities that could threaten leadership, giving Jarosław Kaczyński room to become sole, iron-fisted chairman of the party.
- Split on opposing side - PiS is the only conservative party that counts and is under strong leadership, meanwhile PO had both internal competition and to make matters worse for them, 6 months before 2015 elections, Ryszard Petru founded new party "Nowoczesna", vying for similar "slot" as PO.
- Disillusionment with PO's economical liberalism - PO internal policies run along the lines of economical liberalism, which "improves" "economy" at the cost of working people, you can't put GDP in the pot, to paraphrase Polish saying, "good economical indicators" are not something you can actually eat, unless GDP translates to liveable wages, it's useless. And there was strong perception that during PO that exactly happened: working class kept getting increasingly shorter side of the stick in favour or Reaganomic's inspired breaks for rich people and large companies (reminder: Reaganomics/supply-side-economics/however-it's-rebranded-now don't work, or rater work excellently at making rich richer and poor poorer instead of stated goal of creating more jobs). Was this perception correct? Perhaps. Crisis caused by USA's banks hit Poland in 2009 causing slowdown in wage increases, however, wages slowed down even more in 2012, soon after PO's second term started. Was this deliberate by PO or caused by economy? I don't know and voters didn't care.
- Church - PiS is the only party which counts and has support of Catholic Church (yes, it's unconstitutional, there's ostensible separation of church and state, in practice priests have a lot of influence)
- economic exodus - As of right now, there's apparently 2.5 million economic expatriates as compared to 38 million population of Poland, people moving to Germany or UK in search of better paying jobs and more western life (disposable income in Germany is higher than average wage in Poland, go figure) are more likely to be from non-conservative voting base, when outside. What happens next? Voting while away is bothersome, furthermore there might be split into 1) those who would rather stay there and seek permanent residence taking more interest in politics of their new country of residence and 2) those who after exposure to other cultures and ethnicities become xenophobic prompting them to radicalise and come back to "only sane place".
- ageing population - same as in entire developed world: average lifespan increases, births are at or below replacement leading to ageing population, old people tend to become more religious and those tend to become more conservative.
- successful black propaganda - PiS managed to successfully brand themselves to their voters as "anti communist", despite housing multiple people who were infamous politicians and prosecutors before 1988. They also managed to successfully smear Lech Wałęsa, person instrumental in fall of communism. This means that they managed to fabricate narrative of "us the true patriots versus them the dirty commie collaborators" despite, if anything, reverse being true (PiS has much larger fraction of open and covert collaborators than other parties, mostly pretending to never have been to boot, PiS members who were in opposition to communist rule mostly were unimportant back in the day, fun fact: when communists arrested opposition activists in 1981, Jarosław Kaczyński wasn't arrested. Irrelevant person or double agent? We don't know).
And some personal speculation, if I may: - Russian influence? - Number of "patriots" quoting RT.com in arguments is staggering. For people who ostensibly hate Russia (because USSR and commies), they sure seem to love Putin's personal propaganda machine.
Now, what about actual nationalism? Well, IMO that's really simple. PiS feeds on nationalism, so of course they do everything in their power, since they are in power, they can do a lot (reminder: this is a first post-war democratically elected party to have majority without entering coalitions) to trump up nationalistic sentiment. Euroscepticism is something different in this context, as far as I know PiS doesn't actually want Poland to leave EU, benefits of staying in are too obvious, thus they need to walk the tightrope of "us vs them" rhetoric. They need someone to trump up nationalism, EU and especially migrant crisis being obvious "them"s, because nothing gets people to put away differences like external enemies do, but without being too strong about it. That leads more to rhetoric of "different EU" than one of leaving EU.