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. EU President Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, warned that the country was moving “backwards and eastwards.” Is eastern Europe’s biggest economy risking the democratic order it has built since escaping communism?

The Situation

Poland’s election on Oct. 13 is the biggest test of the Law & Justice Party’s durability. It has increased its popularity by reducing the tax burden on the poor and providing bigger subsidies for raising children. In a second term, the party vows to complete judicial reforms, nearly double the minimum wage, “re-Polonize” the media and possibly change the constitution. It has already revamped the constitutional court, restricted demonstrations and tried to tighten one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws. 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 considering tying future funds to rule-of-law standards. 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 is seeking 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, backed by welfare subsidies. 

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The Background

Polish history has been defined by division, usually provoked by the powers that lie to the east and west. There were three partitions in the 18th century, and a fourth with World War II. As the Nazis were pushed out by the Russians, destroying Warsaw in their wake, Poland fell to the communists. The Solidarity trade union movement toppled the regime in 1989.  Poland’s rehabilitation began and free-market capitalism took hold. The EU began to pour money into the country when it joined in 2004, building roads and schools as part of a 20-year, 229 billion-euro ($250 billion) aid package. What’s lingered is a legacy of mistrust and conspiracy theories not uncommon in post-communist Europe. Two decades of uninterrupted economic growth have brought Poland’s per-capita output to about two-thirds of the EU average, even as unemployment only dropped into single digits in 2015. At least 2.5 million Poles left the country over the past decade, 6 percent of a population of 39 million. Poland’s eastern provinces, which are some of the EU’s poorest areas, are hotbeds of support for Law & Justice, which in 2015 won the country’s first parliamentary majority since Poland became a democracy in 1989.

The Argument

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Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Law & Justice leader and the man who pulls the strings in Poland, says the government upholds the rule of law and that history shows Poland suffers when outsiders interfere in its politics. He says EU leaders in Brussels should focus on their own problems, such as the U.K.’s decision to leave the bloc. That’s prompting comparisons with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s challenge to the European mainstream. The government has replaced much of Poland’s establishment since it came to power, justifying the moves with the same “drain the swamp” appeal used by U.S. President Donald Trump. Foreign banks and retailers have also been criticized for not sharing enough of their profit. Critics say Poland’s leaders have eroded civil liberties, turned the media into a party mouthpiece and transformed state companies into political machines. 

To contact the writers of this QuickTake: Wojciech Moskwa in Warsaw at wmoskwa@bloomberg.netRodney Jefferson in Edinburgh at r.jefferson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake: Leah Harrison at lharrison@bloomberg.net

First published Feb. 2, 2016

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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