WARSAW — To his supporters, he is the mastermind of a ballot-box revolution that thrust the Polish right wing back into power after eight years of centrist rule. To his enemies, he is a Eurosceptic populist, eviscerating Poland’s democratic institutions in the pursuit of power and revenge.
But in the four frenzied months since his conservative Law and Justice Party won the first single-party parliamentary majority in post-Communist Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, 66, has set a single, consistent message for his flock: Ignore the critics.
“A weak Poland is comfortable for different powers in Europe and outside Europe,” Kaczynski told a ballroom packed with Poland’s right-wing elite last week as he accepted an award for Man of the Year, his second in less than a week, from a pro-government magazine. Later, he added, “The way we have been attacked, the rhetoric has resembled that of Stalin.”
The breakneck speed of political change in Poland, long considered the flagship of successful post-Soviet integration into Europe’s economic and political system, has produced shock waves at home and in Brussels.
Kaczynski, a veteran politician, co-founded Law and Justice with his identical twin, Lech, the former president killed in an air crash in 2010. Law and Justice won voters with appeals to traditional Catholic values and economic support, including a pledge to send 500 zlotys, about $125, each month to families with at least two children.
To bolster its power in Parliament, the government has packed judges onto Poland’s highest court and hindered its ability to strike down legislation. It has also replaced the leadership of the country’s broadcast media. New laws have increased political control over the prosecutor’s office and the powers of surveillance given to police.
Critics say Kaczynski is following his 2011 prediction of “a Budapest in Warsaw,” mimicking the consolidation of power and rejection of modern liberalism in neighboring Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
“They are destroying all of the security mechanisms normally built in the democratic system, the checks and balances,” said Mateusz Kijowski, founder of the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, which organized demonstrations that brought thousands of protesters onto the streets beginning in November. “Now we have one central point of power: Mr. Kaczynski.”
Law and Justice members say that the outrage is exaggerated. Kaczynski, who rarely gives interviews to foreign journalists, defended his record to The Washington Post in brief remarks, saying that the government’s actions were no worse than those of the previous party, Civil Platform.
“I have explained to our American friends that they shouldn’t be worried about Polish democracy,” Kaczynski said in response to a Post reporter’s question during the award ceremony in Warsaw.
The political shift in Poland has come at a critical moment for Europe, as extremist parties such as France’s National Front are gaining power in the face of an unprecedented refugee crisis and other pressures.
Poland’s new leadership, citing the terrorist attacks in Paris last November, has rejected an agreement to accept 4,500 migrants that was brokered under the previous government.
In December, Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, said that Poland’s actions had the “characteristics of a coup.” In January, the European Commission announced it would investigate whether new legislation on the Constitutional Tribunal and the media in Poland violate the European Union’s rule-of-law standards.
Officials in Law and Justice said they believed they could contain the conflict, adding that the need for unity in Europe would take precedence over disagreements about the political situation in Poland.
“Another crisis between Europe and Poland will weaken Europe at a crucial moment of the migration crisis, the Brexit and all the other real challenges,” said Krzysztof Szczerski, the president’s secretary of state and a member of Law and Justice, referring to the possible exit of Britain from the E.U.
“Europe cannot afford losing Poland,” he said. “I think this is the message that works.”
The vote that brought Law and Justice to power in October was largely driven by disaffection with the center-right Civil Platform, which was criticized as elitist and inert after eight years in power. Mysterious wiretaps also revealed party officials racking up large restaurant tabs.
“What is it called when you do the same thing over and over expecting different results?” said Rafal Andrzejewski, a Warsaw-based businessman who said he had voted for Civil Platform twice before the last elections. “Insanity, right?”
Kaczynski, whom one political analyst called “the most hated politician in Poland,” ceded the stage to younger, more moderate faces, as the party took advantage of the left’s collapse, winning 37.6 percent of the popular vote and a majority of seats in Parliament.
Asked why he had not chosen to run for national office himself, Kaczynski said simply: “I considered this gave us bigger chances to win.”
But Law and Justice’s victory has come with serious baggage, including a belief among some party members that the plane crash that killed Kaczynski’s brother near Smolensk, Russia, in 2010 was the result of a Russian plot and that Poland’s previous government bungled the investigation. Although a government-appointed committee in 2011 said that the plane crashed after descending too low in thick fog, the Polish Parliament opened a new probe into the crash last week.
The death of his brother is said to have had a profound effect on Kaczynski.
Ryszard Petru, the founder of a new liberal party named Nowoczesna, or Modern, which won 7.6 percent of the vote in the 2015 parliamentary elections, said that Kaczynski may be motivated by “revenge.”
“Everything is done to put into jail those people responsible for the plane crash in 2010 where Kaczynski’s twin brother died,” he said in an interview. “He also wants to change the way people perceive this accident.”
Petru also said Kaczynski views Hungary as a model for Poland. “He would like to make Poland a country that is Eurosceptic, very traditional, more closed, on the periphery of the European Union and Europe, self-confident, similar to Hungary.”
In a remarkable visit last month, Orban met with Kaczynski, officially only a member of Parliament, for six hours at the historic Niedzica Castle in southern Poland.
Asked if he was copying Orban’s political playbook, Kaczynski expressed support for Orban but said that Poland and Hungary are “different countries with different experiences.”
Signaling a tightening bond of shared defiance to Brussels in Central Europe, Orban three days later promised to veto sanctions if the European Commission chose to punish Poland’s new government.