Angry Majority Poland after a Year of Populist Rule

The national-conservative Law and Justice party has been in power in Poland for a year. Its anti-EU message has resonated in the country even though leaving the bloc isn't really an option. State control, meanwhile, is expanding.


By Ralf Hoppe and

In downtown Warsaw, on that part of Marszalkowska Street that hasn't yet become flashy and expensive, there is a narrow and inconspicuous building. It is the home of Poland's resistance movement. Piotr, an attorney who serves as the treasurer, is sitting at the window inside a small apartment on the third floor, facing his colleague Anna. Both have been here since early in the morning, typing away on their laptops. Thousands of things must be taken care of ahead of an approaching demonstration and they also have to quickly send a delegation to Suwalki, where five activists are facing charges, to talk to the public prosecutor.

"It would be best for Mateusz to do it," says Anna, hoping that he will stop by soon. Mateusz Kijowski is often their first choice for all kinds of gatherings. Piotr puts on a kettle for tea.

The office is the headquarters of KOD, or Komitet Obrony Demokracji, the largest protest movement Poland has seen since the Solidarnosc trade union in the 1980s. Kijowski is the founder, strategist and face of the movement, a lanky, relaxed-looking man. He is the most important adversary of the national conservative government of the Law and Justice (PiS) party and its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Some 8,000 people are part of the KOD, from Gdansk in the north to the Carpathian Mountains in the south, and they include lawyers, teachers and business professionals. "Resistance is a civic duty," says Kijowski, adding that he is wary of his political rival. "Kaczynski is obsessed with power," says Kijowski. "He wants to control people. That's his obsession. So what is at stake here is democracy, our freedom and European values."

Kijowski, 47, is an amiable man. With his gray hair pulled back in a ponytail and two silver rings in his left ear, he could just as well be a performance artist or a music teacher. He was running an IT firm until a year ago, but now work is on hold there so that he can devote all of his energy to politics. He says he is tired.

But this isn't the time to rest, he adds. "Poland was excluded from Europe for so long, and it took us decades to get to where we are today," says Kijowski. "All of that is now on the line because of this one man, Kaczynski."

Fatigued Polish Society

The conservative party leader is considered highly intelligent and well educated, but he is also a polarizing figure. Kaczynski may not have the Las Vegas touch of a man like Donald Trump, nor does he possess the rhetorical skills of Dutch politician Geert Wilders or the common touch of British pub politician Nigel Farage. Nevertheless, very similar sentiments have made Kaczynski's success possible.

Consistent with the right-wing populist worldview, he promises to protect a fatigued Polish society from globalization. He also promises revenge - revenge against the arrogant elites. One year ago, such sentiments led the Law and Justice Party to a triumphant victory when it secured the absolute majority in the Polish parliament. In public opinion surveys, the PiS still maintains a strong advantage over the opposition.

The country's public television and radio network, along with a number of partially state-owned enterprises, were forced to strictly adhere to the party line. Museums, theaters and film producers will now only receive government subsidies if they produce "national content." In a dangerous move, the PiS has also targeted the constitutional court, essentially neutralizing it.

Foreign investors are viewed with suspicion and the government intends to introduce special taxes for foreign-dominated sectors, like banking and supermarkets. When the European Commission introduced proceedings against the government in summer, Warsaw responded angrily by accusing the EU of meddling. The atmosphere between Warsaw, on the one hand, and Brussels, Paris and Berlin, on the other, is icier than it has been in a long time.

Kaczynski is fond of insisting that he is pursuing a "cultural counterrevolution." The EU is undermining precious Polish traditions and the country's culture, he says, and he accuses "liberals" of doing harm to the sacred fatherland. And then there are all those unpleasant types who dominate the street scene in big cities, people who the PiS summarily dismisses as vegetarians, bicycle riders and beneficiaries of globalization, people who want to introduce gay marriage and who would bring scores of Muslim refugees into the country if they had their way.

From Sullen Minority to Angry Majority

Kaczynski has skillfully leveraged such clichés to assemble a heterogeneous movement of outrage. But what really motivates Kaczynski and his PiS supporters? Why is Poland, a country that has benefited from globalization and EU membership to a greater degree than most, listening.

The economy has grown by almost 27 percent in the last nine years, partly as a result of the estimated €60 billion ($64 billion) Poland has received in structural aid from Brussels since it joined the EU in 2004. But many people in the country have not benefited from those blessings, and today almost one in eight Poles of working age still earns only about 1300 zloty a month, or roughly €290. Over the years, a sullen minority has turned into an angry majority.

Yet the success of the PiS is actually a middle-class phenomenon, say election researchers and sociologists. They note that the PiS can count on the votes of the disadvantaged, such as those from impoverished industrial regions. But these people were ultimately not the key to the PiS majority. The middle class helped put Kaczynski in power - people like white-collar workers, store owners and craftsmen, especially those living far from major cities.

To understand the PiS phenomenon, it is worth taking a trip to provincial Poland, to a small city called Nowy Scz, where the PiS achieved its largest urban result in the 2015 election, receiving 60.5 percent of votes cast.

Nowy Sacz, with a population of 82,000, is part of a self-sufficient world, a model for the new Poland of Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The city's median strips are mowed and the facades of prewar buildings in the pedestrian zone are freshly painted.

It isn't difficult for Nowy Sacz to appear well-tended and charming, because it's an affluent city. There are probably more millionaires per capita here than anywhere else in the country. There are many rags-to-riches accounts of millionaires who started out in their garages and now run large companies. One of them is Ryszard Florek, who founded Europe's largest window manufacturer. And there are Marian and Józef Koral, whose company makes ice cream. Unemployment is at 6 percent in Nowy Sacz, economic growth is robust and Patryk Wicher couldn't be happier.

More Polish

Wicher teaches marketing at the university in Nowy Sacz, is a member of the city council and has been a PiS supporter right from the start. As he takes us on a tour of the neo-Baroque city hall, he says that he is very satisfied with the new direction in Warsaw.

Wicher agrees with the PiS that the EU should stay out of Polish politics. He says that Brussels should relinquish rights and that national competencies should be expanded. Poland does not want to become more European -- in fact, he says, Europe should become more Polish.

Kaczynski's administration is also unwilling to honor a commitment by the previous government to accept at least a few thousand refugees. And Wicher agrees with that, too. Migrants should be helped, says Wicher, just not in Poland. "The objective of aid should be to stabilize their countries of origin. Refugees should be housed in transit centers in countries that are linguistically and culturally similar to their own."

He goes on to provide further insight into his worldview, his belief, for instance, that the EU should not stick its nose into everything. Repeating a PiS campaign slogan, he adds that Poles should stop crawling around on their knees in front of others.

Nowy Sacz is a model of the small, manageable world many Poles yearn for: Polish nationalist and safe from the impositions of globalization, but otherwise Western and deeply subsidized by the EU.

PiS promised its voters something of a sociopolitical filter, saying that it wants to preserve Poland as an intact and uncomplicated Eden. At the same time, however, Poles should be able to travel abroad, and the country should, of course, continue to receive subsidies. Kaczynski promised all of that.

Wicher joined the PiS because he admired its founders, twin brothers Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The Kaczynskis were involved in the Solidarnosc movement, but only on the fringes. They were too radical with their repeated and angry demands for a harsh reckoning with the communists.


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grzegorz_s¿oka 12/08/2016
1. another Spiegel thinker...
Yet another article by Der Spiegel which proves its journalists have ceased to even try to understand the realities of the world. Instead they try to feed their readers with some ideological constructs of their own. If there are no arguments why not using "populist", "faschist", "xenophobic"? And by the way, mr Kijowski is very far from being that popular amongst the Poles as you imply. I am sorry for the German readers, for if it is only der Spiegel where they get their information from, I fear for their future...
pwells1066 12/08/2016
2. A lot to ponder
A well written piece and mercifully lacking the sense of hysteria that writers so often show when reporting on how a European nation shows signs of dissatisfaction with the unelected rulers and bureaucrats of Brussels. I can relate to much of what is said and, for a nation in receipt of money more money out of Brussels than it pays in, those Poles who want to stay in the EU present a balanced case. On the other hand I can identify with much of the case of those who want to get out. The present structures of the EU are simply not appropriate for 28 disparate nation states each with different historical failures and sucesses. The EU in its present form is a solution to one historical problem and seems incapable of even understanding that its one solution is inadequate for most problems and irrelevant to the future. Its solution of centralised, standardisedised, homogenised control is the very thing that is also driving globalisation. Brussels in its present form is part of the problem not a solution and this is why nation states are now trying to find solutions outside of the Brussels regime.
adam_jablonski 12/08/2016
The new Polish government had won a sweeping election victory against the PO which led the country for 7 years. The new government won the first majority government since the fall of communism which gave birth to growing freedom in Poland. The problem all stems from the fact that those that were in charge during the communist era in Poland remained to this day, and now they realize the new ruling party is doing the long overdue housecleaning and they are not one bit happy they are going to loose their entitlements and positions of power. Since the election the new ruling party of PIS support has remained strong while the opposition PO are at the bottom of the polls. Those protesting in the streets are not ordinary people, they are organized by the opposition who were corrupt, entitled ex soviet collaborators and sympathizers or just plain crooks now out in the street scared that they are going to be made to account for their crimes and scandals. They are in the streets demanding the Institute of National Remembrance be dismantled because the new government had declared they were going to declassify the communist era files that will finally show the truth about these people. They are in the streets because they dont accept a democratic electing in which they are not elected to rule. They are in the streets screaming yet they have nothing real to say. They are in the streets because they are a disgrace.
afrikaneer 12/09/2016
4. We Have Seen This Picture Before.
I knew a team of Polish miners who were drilling a vertical shaft of oval shape in a hydroelectric power dam project, we used to share the weekend drinking vodka.They had an easy smile, friendly, but determined; they finished the shaft on time and with precision. Later on, I was not surprised with the rise and success of The Solidarity movement, and the subsequent claudication of the General Jaruzelski government. Before that, Solidarity was declared illegal, but it continued underground; Polish people are all too familiar with underground activism and resistance movements. The KOD demands for democracy and freedom may not be the same as the economic demands of the Solidarity movement (1988), but what it is the same is the courage and determination in the hearts of Polish people. When I finally saw the finished shaft I could not believe anyone could do such a perfect, difficult and dangerous work. I know KOD supporters have the same determination as the team of miners I used to befriend, and I know KOD won't stop until the claudication of another populist messenger (PIS party boss-Jaroslow Kaczynski) who has no scrupulous mixing religion and nationalism to attain his skewed political vision. The KOD crowds are only increasing and Mr. Kaczynski next move may be to declare the KOD illegal, but we have seen this picture before. It is a pity that a large number of younger Polish people wish to forget Poland history, the indomitable spirit of men and women who fought in adverse conditions for a free and democratic Poland.
turnipseed 12/10/2016
5. The Poles
Where is Pan Dmowski when his countrymen need him so badly!
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