Poland, once again, has defied a European trend. Elsewhere in Europe, parties of the populist Left are on the rise. In Poland, they face extirpation. The Polish Left didn’t just fail to win office; it failed to win seats. The parties represented in the Sejm cover the rest of the spectrum: free-market, nationalist, conservative, Christian Democrat, liberal; but the socialists, who never properly reinvented themselves after the Jaruzelski dictatorship in the 1980s, have finally been obliterated.
Even more striking is that Poland has a single-party government for the first time since – well, since Jaruzelski. Poland has always had a fissiparous political tradition. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Sejm was a byword for chaos, because the “liberum veto” system allowed any MP to block a measure by objecting to it. After the democratic revolution in 1989, a similar disorderliness appeared to have set in, with parties forming and reforming kaleidoscopically.
Eventually, three more or less stable blocs emerged: the rump socialists; the free-market but Eurofanatical Civic Platform (the party of Donald Tusk, now President of the European Commission); and the winner of yesterday’s election, the conservative Law and Justice, led by Jarosław Kaczyński.
Most Western commentators were rooting for Civic Platform, which had governed since 2007. Poland, they pointed out, experienced impressive economic growth under Tusk – which is true, although there was equally impressive growth under the previous Law and Justice government.
Law and Justice are routinely portrayed in Western European newspapers as paranoid anti-German bigots, whose appeal rests on Catholicism and nostalgia. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any mainstream party in the EU that gets a more undeserved press.
After all, Law and Justice’s electoral achievement is extraordinary. In a part of the world where few parties come back from defeat, it recovered from its loss of office in 2007 to win both the presidential and parliamentary elections this year. It did so, moreover, after losing several of its leaders – including Jarosław Kaczyński’s twin brother, Lech, then President of the Republic – in the 2010 Smolensk air disaster. Yet, despite that recovery, a typical news report this morning spoke of its “introverted rhetoric” and tried to hint that it might somehow threaten civil freedoms.
Why does Law and Justice get such a hard time abroad? Three reasons. First, and most obviously, because it is Eurosceptic. However moderate and respectable a party is on other issues, criticising Brussels is – at least as far as The Economist and the FT are concerned – ipso facto proof of extremism. Never mind that, in opposing membership of the euro, Law and Justice has been utterly vindicated. Being right, in Europhile eyes, is no defence.
Second, because when David Cameron left the palaeo-federalist European People’s Party to found his own conservative bloc in the European Parliament, it became fashionable to throw mud at his allies. Truly bizarre things were written in an attempt to smear mainstream Centre-Right parties as extreme, jingoistic or even anti-Semitic. To give you an idea of quite how idiotic the press commentary of that time could be, the Guardian sent along a reporter to cover a speech by a Law and Justice MP at the 2009 Conservative Party Conference. Evidently disappointed at how reasonable he was, the journalist – Allegra Stratton, now BBC Newsnight’s political editor – wrote the following:
“Although the fringe event was carefully stage-managed – terse political lines trotted out and limited time for questions – there was one unfortunate mistake. The basement room in which delegates gathered to hear the controversial Tory allies was in Manchester’s Midland Hotel, a building Hitler is said to have liked so much that he would have made it his northern residence if he had invaded.”
Absurd as that now seems, a slight residue from that campaign has stuck in pundits’ memories. (After all, as Allegra might put it, Goebbels knew that the purpose of propaganda is not to convince with facts, but to create an unsettling impression.)
Third, Law and Justice suffer from having been genuine patriots during the Communist era. In Poland, as in other Warsaw Pact states, a measure of dissent was permitted. You could campaign for better prison conditions, or a relaxation of censorship, or even a wider choice of candidates at elections. But there were two things you absolutely couldn’t do: you couldn’t demand religious freedom; and you couldn’t oppose the occupation of your country by the Red Army.
If you kept to these rules, you might be allowed to travel and study abroad, even to pick up awards from Western human rights organisations. But the Kaczyński twins and their followers did not confine themselves to “controlled dissent”. They were genuine opponents of the dictatorship, and they paid the price, being blocked from non-menial occupations, having university places denied to their children. Western journalists are naturally drawn to those Polish politicians who speak good English, studied in the West and favour the political idioms that European politicians use. They therefore tended, at least in the early days, to gravitate to opponents of Law and Justice.
Perhaps the supreme example of this cultural bias was the furious reaction to Law and Justice’s lustration policy – that is, the requirement that people who had worked secretly for the Communists come clean. Such a policy was pursued very effectively in Germany and Italy after 1945, as well as in several post-Communist countries after 1990. Yet, when Poland sought to do the same thing, Western media wrote it up as a vindictive witch-hunt. Why? Because they were taking their cue from the Polish opposition, not all of whom had especially glorious records during the Communist era.
As far as I’m concerned, having a genuine record of resistance when your country is under Soviet domination is no bad thing. Neither is asserting your legitimate national interests vis-à-vis Russia and Germany. Nor is disregarding the politically correct vocabulary which is expected in Brussels these days. And nor, for that matter, is criticising the EU itself. Poles have spoken very clearly; the rest of Europe should listen.