“Of all the arts, the most important for us is the cinema,” Vladimir Lenin supposedly said. It’s not often that his words feel apt in Poland, a post-Communist country once traumatized by Soviet propaganda. But in recent weeks, as the country has been convulsed by controversy centered on a film, Lenin’s declaration has acquired a surprising resonance.
“Green Border,” by the Oscar-nominated director Agnieszka Holland, tells the story of the tragedy of migrants and those helping them at the Polish-Belarusian border. Awarded the special jury prize at the Venice Film Festival, it is refined, thought-provoking and full of nuance — exactly the opposite of politics in Poland today.
The ruling Law and Justice party, threatened by Ms. Holland’s humanitarian approach, has gone on the attack. Government officials called the film “anti-Polish” and the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, labeled it “a collection of blatant lies.” The justice minister even went so far as to compare the film to Nazi propaganda.
The government is jumpy for a reason: On Sunday, Poland goes to the polls. The stakes are high. After eight years of rule by the Law and Justice party, in which the right-wing government has remade the country’s institutions in its image, the election is perhaps the most important since the democratic breakthrough in 1989.
Given the country’s geopolitical significance, much expanded since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the vote will be closely watched across Europe. Yet for Poland itself, mired in nationalist sentiment and populist reason, the outlook is bleak. Even if the opposition coalition triumphs, there will be no easy salvation.
First and foremost, the campaign has not been fair. As in Hungary and Turkey, where autocratic governments recently won re-election, the odds have been heavily stacked in favor of the incumbents. There are, in practice, two kinds of populism: one in opposition and another in power. The former participates in the democratic game as one of many players. The latter changes the rules of the game to become the only player in town.
In Poland, the process is in full swing. State media has been churning out propaganda, presenting a glowing depiction of the government while spurning the opposition. In the run-up to the election, the administration has treated core voters to increased benefits and gerrymandered the electoral map, through the creation of new districts in government-supporting rural areas. Even the police and the military have appeared in campaign materials. Another victory for the ruling party is the order of the day.
The cherry on the cake comes in the form of a referendum, also to be held on Sunday. Composed of four vaguely worded questions — one asks “Do you support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa?,” another whether voters back “the sale of state assets to foreign entities” — the referendum sets the terms of debate, feeding into government talking points. Never mind that nobody is planning to carry out the policies asked about. What matters is cultivating a sense of grievance.
Crucially, it also unlocks money. For all Law and Justice’s advantages, there are limits on campaign spending — but not for referendums. By holding one, Law and Justice has vastly expanded its access to funds. By the end of September, the party had already spent about four million Polish zloty, around $940,000, on internet campaigning; the biggest political group in the opposition, the Civic Coalition, had spent only about a quarter of that amount. In this unequal environment, opposition victory will be hard to come by.
But the battle is not over. The opposition has run a charged campaign, culminating in a major march in Warsaw, where hundreds of thousands protested against the government. Days before voting, the race is too close to call. Two scenarios are possible.
The first would be a government led by Law and Justice. That would mean deepening the systemic dismantling of Polish democracy: strengthening the executive at the cost of the judiciary, attacking independent media, imposing on the school system, and undermining the rights of minorities, especially women and the L.G.B.T.Q. community.
But Law and Justice wouldn’t have things all its own way. It would most likely have to share power with the extreme right-wing Konfederacja, which has been spreading anti-vaccination, anti-minority and anti-Ukrainian sentiment. To judge from recent weeks — during which the administration, eyes on the election, threatened to withhold assistance to Ukraine — a government of this stripe would drastically worsen relations with Ukraine and the European Union.
A second scenario is still possible, too: victory by the democratic opposition. In this case, Poland would have a colorful government, led by the Civic Coalition in compact with smaller parties, that would focus on restoring the independence of the judicial system and opening Poland back up to the West. Diplomatic support for Ukraine would be at the forefront, as would engaging with allies over the country’s future and that of Europe. Not everything would change. The country’s harsh migration policies would most likely remain in place and controls at the border with Belarus retained, albeit without pushbacks.
But even if the opposition wins and the government quietly cedes power — far from a given — Poland would not simply be returned to political health. A deeply entrenched populist system, a president loyal to the Law and Justice party, a puppet Constitutional Tribunal and Supreme Court — these are just a few of the problems a new government would face. That’s before we get to the opposition itself, whose members, spanning the political spectrum from right to left, are by no means in agreement. Either way, the emotive languages of nationalism and sovereignty won’t be going anywhere. They remain too pervasive and deeply felt throughout Polish society.
Such dominance of emotion is curious. In the past three decades, Poland has become immeasurably richer; economic success can be seen across the country. And yet, looking at its febrile politics, the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer come to mind: “Man was a pauper when it came to reason, but a millionaire when it came to emotions.” It will surely come as no surprise to learn that Singer was writing about the youthful years he spent in Poland.
Jaroslaw Kuisz is the editor in chief of the Polish weekly Kultura Liberalna and the author of “The New Politics of Poland.” Karolina Wigura (@KarolinaWigura) is a board member of the Kultura Liberalna Foundation in Warsaw and an author of “A Polish Atheist Versus a Polish Catholic.” Both are senior fellows at the Center for Liberal Modernity in Berlin.
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