Solidarity founder Walesa fears for Poland – and Europe’s ‘flawed’ democracies



Almost four decades have passed since Lech Walesa faced down the communist regime at the Gdansk shipyard, and he says his fears of a backlash are now a reality in the new Poland, notes Wojciech Moskwa. His homeland secured membership in the European Union and NATO and the economy boomed. Yet it now stands accused of ditching the West’s democratic values, is at risk of unprecedented EU sanctions and its government is rewriting the history books, he writes for Bloomberg.

“I told the shipyard workers when the strike ended: ‘Today you carry me on your shoulders, tomorrow you’ll throw rocks at me,’” Walesa said in an interview in the Baltic port on the eve of Thursday’s anniversary of the 1980 Solidarity accords he signed. “I knew economic reforms would be difficult and dangerous, that building democracy would be risky and that things can happen. Well, they’re happening.”

Populist defiance of EU

“It’s clear that Poland is headed for political conflict as the ruling party has a very radical program that seeks to change most spheres of public life,” said Antoni Dudek, a political scientist at Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw. “The anniversary of the Solidarity accords is just another setting for political strife, as history — especially the latest chapters — is used as a tool to discredit political opponents.”

Warsaw’s populist defiance of the EU and its democratic norms violates the EU ethos in two ways, says analyst Elizabeth Pond:

  • First, the manifest vulnerability of Poland’s infant democratic institutions to political expropriation mocks the old conviction that the EU’s quiet allure would naturally persuade even Central Europeans with no democratic history to embrace democracy. And the government’s denunciations of the EU for meddling in Poland’s internal affairs flouts the EU’s innovative trade-off of “pooling” small states’ sovereignty to buy a more powerful global voice (and get vastly richer in the process).
  • Second, the PiS’s periodic demonizing of the EU and Germany belies EU faith in constant progress toward the mandated “ever closer union” that should make future wars on the continent unthinkable. Last spring, the weekly Wprost portrayed Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on its cover in Nazi-style uniforms, in a pastiche of an iconic photo of Hitler and Mussolini (above), with the caption “They want to control Poland again.” And in August, Mr. Kaczynski again demanded reparations from Berlin for World War II damage; one pro-PiS weekly suggested a sum of $6 trillion.

We are witnessing the emergence of constitutional authoritarianism, not authoritarian constitutionalism, argues Konrad Lachmayer, a professor of Public Law, European Law and Foundations of Law at Vienna’s Sigmund Freud University.  Authoritarian constitutionalism is misleading because it creates the possibility for constitutionalism to be understood as authoritarian, he contends:

It is at this point, that the term authoritarian constitutionalism becomes politically dangerous. It enables authoritarian governments to claim that their approach of authoritarian constitutionalism is at least an approach of constitutionalism. This issue has become even more important, because nowadays terminology and concepts are rhetorically used to address the opposite of their real meaning (in a 21st century version of Orwell´s Newspeak).

“Hungary and Poland can no longer be considered liberal democracies. In both countries, the authoritarian institutional system has been established, giving largely unrestricted political power to the ruling party,” says Bulent Gokay, a Professor of International Relations at Keele University. “While they are still not dictatorships, the potential for authoritarian rule increases considerably with every new legislation expanding the power of the government,” he writes for Social Europe.

Populists across the political spectrum are demanding justice for people left behind by globalization and the structural forces of inequality it has generated, argues John Shattuck, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a senior fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Finding common ground among these populist movements is essential if liberal democracy is to survive. With their support, democratic governance could create a roadmap for reducing the regressive forces of inequality. Illiberal governance and authoritarian rule, on the other hand, will lead only to a dead end,” he writes for The American Prospect.

While populists face certain constraints in exercising power, on the other hand……

“The thought that populists in power are bound to fail may be comforting, but it’s an illusion,” says Jan-Werner Mueller, a professor of politics at Princeton University. “Populist governments have no problem blaming all of their failures on the elites,” he tells Haaretz:

Populist leaders continue to behave like victims even after they win. Hugo Chavez would always point to the dark machinations of the opposition. Erdogan continued to present himself as the street fighter from Istanbul’s tough neighborhood who confronts the establishment, long after he had started concentrating all political, economic and cultural power in his hands. When populists are in power, they continue to increase polarization among the public – there is never a dearth of enemies.

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