The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Poland, a window on what happens when populists come to power

Members of Poland’s opposition parties protest Dec. 16 for media freedom in the country’s Parliament. (Marcin Obara/European Pressphoto Agency)

The Law and Justice Party rode to power on a pledge to drain the swamp of Polish politics and roll back the legacy of the previous administration. One year later, its patriotic revolution, the party proclaims, has cleaned house and brought God and country back to Poland.

Opponents, however, see the birth of a neo-Dark Age — one that, as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to move into the White House, is a harbinger of the power of populism to upend a Western society. In merely a year, critics say, the nationalists have transformed Poland into a surreal and insular place — one where state-sponsored conspiracy theories and de facto propaganda distract the public as democracy erodes.

The global wave of populism that turned 2016 upside down

In the land of Law and Justice, anti-intellectualism is king. Polish scientists are aghast at proposed curriculum changes in a new education bill that would downplay evolution theory and climate change and add hours for “patriotic” history lessons. In a Facebook chat, a top equal rights official mused that Polish hotels should not be forced to provide service to black or gay customers. After the official stepped down for unrelated reasons, his successor rejected an international convention to combat violence against women because it appeared to argue against traditional gender roles.

Over the weekend, Warsaw convulsed in street protests amid allegations that the Law and Justice party had illegally forced through a budget bill even as it sought to restrict media access to Parliament.

Cheered on by religious conservatives, the new government has defunded public assistance for in vitro fertilization treatments. To draft new sexual-education classes in schools, it tapped a contraceptives opponent who argues that condom use increases the risk of cancer in women. The government is proffering a law that critics say could soon be used to limit opposition protests.

‘Her story is my story’: How a harsh abortion ban has reignited feminism in Poland

Yet nothing has shocked liberals more than this: After a year in power, Law and Justice is still by far the most popular political party in Poland. It rides atop opinion polls at roughly 36 percent — more than double the popularity of the ousted Civic Platform party.

“The people support us,” boasted Adam Bielan, Law and Justice’s deputy speaker of the Senate.

Trump is promising a tax code rework that could trigger a bonanza of cash rebates for Americans. In Poland, Law and Justice put cash in pockets in other ways, but always while merging social conservatism and nationalism with populist economics. The new government doled out money to families with children. They also slashed Poland’s retirement age — to as young as 60 for women and 65 for men.

Opponents call such actions the “buying” of support, moves that will only drive up Polish debt and masquerade a long-term power grab that could entrench Law and Justice for years.

But right now, for many Poles, nationalism has never felt so good.

“We are living in this post-truth environment where you can say and do anything and people don’t seem to care,” said Jacek Kucharczyk, president of the Warsaw-based Institute of Public Affairs.

Now they’re true believers

The road to Law and Justice country runs an hour outside cosmopolitan Warsaw, down a dirt path in the hamlet of Krupia Wolka. Once there, pass the front-yard playground of a cream-colored house and meet Pawel and Maria Wiechowski.

High school sweethearts, they married back in 1992. Two-and-a-half decades and 10 children later, they’re still deeply Catholic — and still struggling financially.

Maria, a therapist for autistic children, quit work when child-care costs exceeded what she earned. Pawel, a craftsman, makes intricate moldings for ceilings and walls. Their parents helped them buy their six-bedroom dream home in the country, so they’re mortgage-free. But he hasn’t had work in two months.

During dry spells before, the couple would mothball their 20-year-old VW van to save on gas, and the kids would walk to school. But in the era of Law and Justice, there’s no need. The new government program for families is the Wiechowskis’ life raft; it offers them a monthly cash payout worth nearly $1,000.

“Right now, that’s 100 percent of our income,” Pawel said. “Some people criticize the child benefit and say it’s a government handout. It’s not. It is support for traditional families.”

Pawel voted for Law and Justice last year as “the lesser of two evils.” But now he’s a true believer.

“In the United States, you had the same choice, picking the lesser of two evils,” he said. “I wasn’t sure a year ago either, but now I see how right we were.”

Embracing the new government, to some measure, also means buying into the disturbing worldview it sells: You can only trust a Pole — even then, only some.

And the party’s views have never been more effectively disseminated. The national broadcaster in Poland would often tilt toward the party in power. But following its victory, Law and Justice launched an unprecedented purge of journalists at the channel, turning it into what opponents describe as a propaganda machine where conspiracy theories flourish. It recently ran a piece on the health risks of child vaccinations.

Conservative Catholic radio and television, meanwhile, is abuzz with the reopening of an investigation into the 2010 plane crash that killed then-President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and 94 others. The crash was blamed on human error at the time. But Jaroslaw Kaczynski — the late president's twin brother and Law and Justice's powerful party chief — appears certain it was a coverup.

Was it? “We are considering the possibility,” Pawel said with a nod.

The new government is also skeptical of the Paris climate change agreement to cut carbon emissions and has pulled support for Polish wind and solar farms. At the same time, it is pumping more money into coal.

“Who really knows what is causing global warming?” Pawel said. “And Poland needs the coal industry.”

Maria was always more concerned with the spread of liberal values, which Law and Justice has, she said, rightly nipped in the bud. There is no more talk in Poland, for instance, of offering any legal rights to same-sex couples. Earlier this year, the office of a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group in Warsaw was badly vandalized. Police never caught the perpetrators.

“Homosexuality was quiet before, then they tried to normalize it,” she said. “You don’t see that happening now.”

Are they concerned about allegations the new government is distracting the public as it chips away at Polish democracy?

“No,” she said. “I think they’re just cleaning house.”

‘Where is all this going?’

On a frigid recent evening in Warsaw, Monika Mizolebska, a museum researcher, stoically marched with thousands of other Poles to protest the new government. This is the street opposition — the people terrified by what they see unfolding in Poland.

Already, the new government has taken steps to limit the power of the constitutional court, chipping away, critics say, at checks and balances. A new draft law would also allow government-appointed governors the right to decide on future permits for demonstrations.

“I’m here marching because it may be the last time we’re allowed to,” she said. “I don’t think many of us really understand what’s happening in Poland.”

The mother of a 13-year-old daughter, Mizolebska said she is deeply concerned about what sees as an attack on women's reproductive rights. A near-total abortion ban — women and doctors faced up to five years in jail — was defeated in October after a massive street protest. But she fears it may yet come back.

“The government wants women to be mothers, to be housewives, but my daughter wants to be a writer, maybe a journalist,” she said. “But what chance does she have here? In these conditions?”

She is also concerned about a new proposed school curriculum the Polish Academy of Sciences says will marginalize evolution theory by reducing its prominence in some grades. Sciences more generally would receive less time, in favor of more hours for Polish history.

“I can’t believe it’s 2016 and we’re still talking about whether to teach evolution,” she said, shaking her head. “Where is all this going? I’m afraid.”

Ewa Galica in Warsaw contributed to this report.

Read more

New report rekindles questions about 2010 plane crash that killed Polish leader

In Germany, the language of Nazism is no longer buried in the past

Using similar tactics, Austrian nationalists hope for a ‘Trump bump’

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news