The Polish State Adrift

, by Anna Drettakis

The Polish State Adrift
Polish Flag Piqsels

This article is part of our feature investigating challenges to democracy in Europe. From 22nd-4th April, we are digging into the most troublesome threats to citizens’ freedoms and participation in democratic society across our continent – from data privacy to the right to protest, from constrained access to a free press to violence against women.

After the Constitutional Court banned abortions in cases of foetal abnormalities in October 2020, Polish people started massive strikes in the country. On Wednesday, February 27th, however, the ruling became a law, leading to new demonstrations.

Moreover, the Polish State has often been threatening the independence of courts and judges since 2016. Recently, it allowed the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court -for which independence and impartiality are not guaranteed- to make decisions that directly impact judges and the execution of their duties. The European Commission (EC) considered this as another violation of the EU law. That is why, at the end of January of this year, the EC went further in the infringement procedure to protect judicial independence of Polish judges.

These events show that women’s rights and the independence of judges are threatened by the current Law and Justice Party (PiS) Government. These two aspects are not the only ones in danger. The evolution of education says a lot about the ambitions of the government and the changes taking place in the country. We next look at the political process that resulted in these changes before analysing the evolution of economy, judicial, media, and education sectors.

An economic success story

Since the EU accession, Polish economy can be considered as a success story. In fact, the change in GDP per capita is one of the most remarkable in the EU as shown on the graph.

Change in GDP per capita

Before 2015

Before PiS won the 2015 elections, the country seemed to have successfully become a liberal democracy. Polish people felt the real change in comparison with the communist period. Poland survived the economic crisis of 2008, and is the only EU country that didn’t go through a recession, partly because different businesses decided to invest in Polish companies, and Polish people set up new companies contributing to the excellent economic growth and an expansion in international trade.

The everyday life of Polish citizens has been positively impacted by the EU accession and is getting better with the years. For instance, the average gross salaries increased as shown in the graph, and the country has developed road, transport, infrastructure, renovated cities and towns. Companies flourished and the overall Polish economy was in good shape.

Average and median total gross salaries in Poland from 2008 to 2018
Average and median total gross salaries in Poland from 2008 to 2018

What happened in 2015?

The Civic Platform party (PO), that ruled the country between 2007 and 2015 may have gotten too comfortable with its success and the PO politicians were so satisfied with the situation in Poland that they went to the 2015 elections, both presidential and parliamentary, with a sense of complacency. The then president, Bronislaw Komorowski (PO), had a lot of support among all Poles (over 60%) several months before the elections.

At the same time, the PiS party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczyński, was preparing to take back power after nine years of the centrist government. He and his party were politically active and ran a quiet and insidious campaign in specific places where they knew they could get new voters, i.e. not in big cities, neither among very well-educated people or among entrepreneurs. He targeted small towns and villages, rural areas and citizens from disadvantaged and less educated backgrounds, whereas the PO party did not directly target this part of the population, leaving the field open to the PiS. This is a parallel with Trump’s victory among rust belt, forgotten working class and rural America.

Kaczyński used communication through media that was very similar to propaganda, such as the use of populistic slogans like “Polska w ruinie” (“Poland in ruin”), and his campaign was composed of lies and blown-up affairs. Another key element of his campaign was the surprising cooperation with the Catholic Church that encouraged people to vote for his party. Kaczynski’s strategy was to play on frustration, poverty, unhappiness, religion and narrowly understood patriotism, as well as lack of political and economic knowledge, and critical thinking. Like Brexit and the election of Trump, while Kaczyński was campaigning, Civic Platform could not imagine that PiS might win since Poland was doing very well overall. However, PO did not anticipate the opposition’s victory and did not do enough to protect its majority. This led to PO failure at the 2015 election. When PiS started to rule the country, a wave of anti-democratic decisions were taken. The party made changes in the judiciary, and first of all, to the Constitutional Tribunal, took over the public media, appointed party members to lead state-owned companies, and recently a network of local newspapers including their websites have been taken over.

Independence and freedom are attacked in media and judicial sectors

The independence of all sectors is endangered by government decisions: legal, media, education, etc. There is a will to centralise power and reduce the influence of the opposition as much as possible.

Media control

Poland’s nationalist government took control of television, radio (that are financed by taxpayers and are meant to be neutral) and of most of the country’s regional newspapers. In 2015, PiS passed a law that gives government control over public broadcasting. PiS tried to sink independent print media such as Gazeta Wyborcza, Polityka and Newsweek Polska by restricting public advertising. Many right wing publications and state-controlled companies are supported by media through advertising and PiS even tightens its control of the Web.

Judicial reforms

The independence of judges has been challenged by government reforms since 2016. PiS Sejm (lower house of parliament) replaced the members of the National Council of the Judiciary, undermining the independence of the body charged with judicial appointments. It also put pressure on judges by creating a disciplinary chamber with the power to remove judges or reduce their salaries. The Law and Justice party (that’s the last straw!) makes everything to reduce the possibilities for the courts to balance and check legislative and executive powers. The courts are now full of PiS-friendly appointees, PiS imposed rules paralyze courts and PiS officials even refuse to publish court’s opinions. Recently, the Polish Minister of Justice decided to transfer independent prosecutors hundreds of kilometres away from their home, and judges have been punished for having criticised the government. Judges are often discouraged and even punished for criticising PiS decisions and referring to European Courts. To top it all, the government uses media and ads to discredit judges. It seems like within few year, the stability of the country have collapsed.

Education reforms: before and an after 2015/2016

As the well-known Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed in its 2018 publication, Polish 15-year-old students are among the best EU performers in basic skills as shown on the graph.

These very good results are seen to be related to the education system reforms that were started in 1999. They focused on key competences and on levelling out education inequalities through extending the general education period and setting up lower secondary schools (gimnazja). The 2015 elections changed the political hue of the government with the current right-wing party PiS taking power.

Before the 2016 PiS reforms, lower secondary school provided comprehensive and competence-based education, and pupils from rural areas were able to attend bigger and better equipped schools in towns and cities. This allowed pupils from different backgrounds to study together and facilitated their integration, raising up students’ general performance. Additionally, the system tried to increase the rate of higher education students.

Since 2016, the current government has been more focused on vocational education and training, and the system looks more and more like what was in place before the 2000’s. It seems a step backwards has been made with respect to the improvements of the last decade. Additionally, the mandatory school age has been delayed by a year (from 6 to 7), reversing the reforms introduced in 2009, compulsory education is shorter and channelling to vocational secondary schools takes place earlier.

In 2015/2016, despite the warnings of the public consultations, the negative opinion of experts and parents, the point of view of independent associations and online petitions, the PiS government decided to implement its school reform excessively fast. The reform resulted in the two sets of curricula taught in primary and upper secondary schools in parallel. It was extremely difficult for teachers to deal with these two different curricula that also contained many inconsistencies, also between core curricula. Pupils were also negatively impacted. In 2019, when lower-secondary schools were phased out, students finishing the 8-grade primary school and those finishing lower secondary school entered upper secondary at the same time. Thus, a double cohort of students were competing and a large part of them could not go to the school of their choice. Pupils were frustrated and high schools had to do more preparation to be able to accept twice the usual number of pupils.

Experts found the reforms very costly while the expected outputs are unclear and uncertain. By weakening general education, changing curricula, and focusing mostly on VET, the government might want to prevent the possible criticisms and undermine independent thinking of the next generations. The more educated people are, the more they will question the government’s decisions and PiS wants to silence opposition and avoid protests.

Moreover, the new Minister of Education and Science Przemysław Czarnek is known for being homophobic and misogynist, and he plans further changes to the school curricula to include more Catholic religion-based content. In opposition to gender studies, he proposed developing a new scientific discipline: family studies. A petition calls for a boycott of this politician.

Finally, the results mentioned in the table above corresponds to PISA 2018 and do not reflect the consequences of the most recent school reorganisation launched in 2017 by PiS. The consequences of the reorganisation and its impact on students’ basic skills will be reflected in the next PISA study that will be published in 2022.

Poland and the EU

According to the survey conducted by the Public Opinion Research Centre in March 2014, the Polish presence in the European Union was supported by 89% of Poles, while 7% opposed Poland’s EU membership. Another survey published in 2019 and conducted by The Pew Research Centre in ten different EU countries showed that 72% of Polish respondents have a favourable view of the EU compared to 63% regarding Germans and Dutch.

Polish people have a good opinion of the EU even though the Polish government does not have a good relationship with the EU authorities, as the EU budget veto can show, and despite strong anti-EU propaganda lead in the public media – both EU and Polish flags are held together at the pro-democracy and anti-government street protests.

This kind of authoritarian drift could lead to the worst scenarios in history. The first role of the EU is to prevent those scenarios from happening – this was the reason why the EU was created. On one hand, the EU needs to take symbolic and powerful actions. For example, the US Government refused to cede its TV channel to the Polish government without hesitating. It should not be possible to let a country progressively dismantle the democratic pillars of justice, freedom of speech, independence of media and neutrality of education. On the other hand, the EU cannot be held accountable for what is happening nationally and cannot solve every big national issue that occurs. Societies must also develop and change the game, through campaigns, demonstrations and elections. All this, however, takes time and effort, while the PiS party resembles a bulldozer crashing the social tissue and all the achievements of the 30-year-old democracy very methodically and systematically.

Lack of EU knowledge among citizens, and Euroscepticism is related to a lack of high visibility in the national relay of the EU work in Member States’ media and education. The EU should be more accessible, closer to its citizens and understood by all Europeans, not only by a specific social class that is very well educated and has an international social capital. For instance, the local levels such as regions and cities should be more invested by the EU communication bodies. The fact that the majority of people don’t know about the EU achievements is convenient for States like Poland and Hungary: the EU is the perfect scapegoat.

Europeans should never take democracy and freedom for granted; an entire State can switch to an autocracy in a very short period of time and this danger concerns every Member State. Democracy is a treasure and both the people and politicians must protect it and keep on fighting to preserve it.

Nevertheless, there is hope for Polish democracy. Older and young people are protesting despite the police being more and more violent. Polish people do not accept the violation of the Polish Constitution and changes to the judiciary, the abortion ban, the propaganda against LGBTQIA+ people or the homophobic minister of education and science. Some independent media and Independent Judge associations continue fighting against limiting their independence and against the State propaganda. Recently, the independent judges association ‘Iustitia’ has been proposed for the Peace Nobel Prize 2020. The opposition parties are forming a coalition to prepare for the next elections, pleading also for separating the State from the Church.

Will the current government survive the next elections?

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