Every new step Poland’s government takes puzzles the outside world. Poland benefits from billions of dollars in European Union subsidies, yet it vilifies Brussels, attacks democratic norms at home and threatens its standing in Europe.
A nation with few immigrants and refugees, it stokes xenophobia. A government fearing Russian revanchism and clinging to NATO’s collective defense commitments, it embraces a U.S. president who questions both.
Demagogues like Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen came up short in the Netherlands and France, but Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement leads the polls in Italy, while leaders like the Czech Republic’s Miloš Zeman and Hungary’s Viktor Orban echo Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and fawn over Vladimir Putin.
Poland, seen as the most successful model of transition from communist dictatorship to liberal democracy, has succumbed to this trend. However, Poland is unique because nationalist populist leaders have tapped into an illiberal current tied up with widespread fear of, and obsession with, Russia.
Despite benefitting from the EU, having few immigrants and refugees, and fearing Russia, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (also known by its Polish acronym, PiS) has built its brand with an anti-EU, anti-immigrant and explicitly anti-liberal platform.
It’s worth looking at the Polish case to understand the resurgence of nationalist populism globally because it illustrates how rapid economic growth and the consolidation of democratic institutions can mask widespread social discontent, which demagogues channel to attack the very institutions that deliver economic growth and democracy.
Poland’s brand of populist nationalism is well-known now, but its roots are not. PiS draws strength and inspiration from similar parties and movements currently surging worldwide, but its rise is a uniquely Polish one rooted in the former Solidarity opposition movement and the way Poland’s early post-communist governments dealt — or rather didn’t deal — with the communist past.
After a decade of resistance, Solidarity succeeded in ultimately bringing down communism in Eastern Europe by bridging one of the most salient divides in communist Poland, between the working class and the intelligentsia. Led by former Gdańsk shipyard worker and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Walęsa, the Solidarity movement’s vision was largely shaped by lawyers, intellectuals and student activists who in the late seventies formed the Committee for the Defense of Workers.
Solidarity also had two ideological faces: a liberal, democratic one and a nationalist, illiberal, religious one. Before 1989, both were anti-communist and anti-Soviet (read: anti-Russian) because Polish communist leaders were both authoritarian and anti-democratic, and seen as Kremlin puppets.
After ascending in 1989, these two ideological camps began to separate. Liberals doggedly pursued EU membership and rapid economic reform, which initially enjoyed broad support. The nationalist-populist wing of the movement resented the social dislocation resulting from “shock therapy,” was skeptical of the rapprochement with Germany, was uneasy about liberal norms such as individualism, and opposed issues such as LGBT rights and multiculturalism.
There were bouts of resistance to the conventional wisdom that EU membership was good for Poland, and that reforms would raise all boats. In the 1990 presidential election, a complete outsider previously unknown to most Poles ran a nationalist-populist campaign that defeated the liberal Solidarity prime minister in the first round, though ultimately losing to Wałęsa in the second round.
Like other transitions, Poland’s democratic transition was based on a pact between the former ruling communist elite and the opposition, who sat down at a “roundtable” together in 1989 to plot a way forward. Pacts can instigate change and uphold stability, but they involve compromises — critics would say deals with the devil.
With Poland, the former communists agreed to give up power, but in exchange for a power-sharing arrangement that later fell apart. Many think the deal included de facto amnesty for officials and operatives of the former regime, something that the nationalist camp of Solidarity (and some liberals) deeply resented.
Many PiS supporters believe there was never any serious accounting with the past and the experiment with democracy was a sham, led by deeply compromised liberals who allied with former communists, benefited from shady privatization deals and sold out Polish interests to foreigners.
Add to this religious conservatism (PiS draws strength from the Catholic Church), xenophobia and an appeal to marginalized Poles left out from the country’s remarkable economic growth over the last two decades, and you get the PiS phenomenon.
Paradoxically, what once united the Solidarity movement — Russian imperialism — now divides the two sides. Both sides are fearful of Russian aggression, yet Russia skillfully manipulates political cleavages inside the country to its advantage. It does this mostly on the right end of the political spectrum by cultivating precisely those nationalist-populist politicians who one would expect to be most anti-Russian.
The PiS phenomenon shares similarities with its American populist cousin. In U.S. politics, Trump came “from nowhere” because people weren't paying attention to Americans excluded from the benefits of globalization. In Poland, PiS came to power thanks to a “Trump demographic,” which hasn’t seen the benefits of the much-touted Polish economic “miracle.”
Much like evangelical support for Trump, conservative Catholics in Poland tend to support PiS. Pulling Poland away from the EU reflects the same sentiments that are pulling the U.S. away from its commitments to upholding the international order.
All this makes for political turmoil. Yet Poland has always been one of Europe’s most vibrant civil societies. That’s how Solidarity blossomed in the 1980s. The strength of its democratic institutions now depends on how energized that civil society will be to safeguard Solidarity’s most important legacy: the birth and consolidation of liberal democracy in Poland. The current Polish protest movement, which has brought tens of thousands into the street to rally against PiS policies, may be just that, if it is able to remain more unified than its Solidarity predecessor.
Mieczysław Boduszyński, Ph.D., is assistant professor of politics at Pomona College and research fellow at the Center for Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California. He was a foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State and a diplomat who served at the U.S. Embassies in Albania, Kosovo, Japan, Egypt, Libya and Iraq. He is author of “Regime Change in the Yugoslav Successor States.”
Michael Carpenter, Ph.D., is senior director of the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania. He previously served as deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Defense, foreign policy adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden and director for Russia at the National Security Council. He was a foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State and a diplomat who served at the U.S. Embassies in Poland, Slovenia and Barbados.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.