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Americas Crisis Of Democracy Looks Shockingly Like Polands

WARSAW, Poland U.S. President Donald Trumps inauguration and the subsequent deluge of shocking events that followed have set the tone for what to expect from the new leader and his administration. Many Americans are concerned that their country is going down an alarming and unprecedented path, as are many Europeans. And in at least one European country, the scene playing out in the U.S. may almost seem like dj vu.

In late 2015, Polish citizens took to the polls and ousted the center-right ruling party, Civic Platform. Civic Platform had been in power for nearly a decade by that point, and many Poles had become incensed by scandals that painted its politicians as out-of-touch elites. And although the country had experienced remarkable economic growth during its reign, a big portion of the population still felt that the GDP statistics didnt tell the whole story.Like the Americans who found solace in Trumps campaign speeches targeting the forgotten ones, many Poles felt that they, too, had been passed over in the countrys prosperity run.

Like the Americans who found solace in Trumps campaign speeches targeting ‘the forgotten ones,’ many Poles felt that they, too, had been passed over in the countrys prosperity run.

In the almost decade of Civic Platforms power, Poles had seen their friends and family members migrate away from Poland to Germany and the United Kingdom en masse. There, they were able to find the high-paying jobs that had become elusive for many in Poland. Although statistics showed growth, to many it felt like most of the available jobs were in low-paying service sector work much like the case for a number of workers in the American middle class.

The employment available was also mostly within foreign-owned companies. Ardent supporters of the right-wing Law and Justice party, also known as PiS, looked at globalization as a black cloud that had brought prosperity to few but caused others to flee, or simply left them behind.

Drain The Swamp

Like many populist leaders who have come before and after them, PiS politicians sought to ride the wave of globalizations failures to power. They focused on elevating the voice of the common man and made clear that their goal was to oppose the status quo of the established government.

Kacper Pempel / Reuters
Leader of the ruling party PiS Jaroslaw Kaczyski and other officials applaud after opposition party members leave the podium in parliament in Warsaw, Poland on Jan. 12, 2017.

When PiS ran against the ruling party, the outward appearance of its campaignwas the opposite of Donald Trumps.The partys strategywas an attempt to appeal to moderate voters and so it presented itself as a party of positive, not radical change. But the impact was the same to make Poland great again. Both Trumps and PiS campaign success stem from that fact that they were appealing to people who felt left out of the rewards of globalization. And a lot of the themes employed by Trump in his presidential bid appeared to be taken straight from the PiS campaign playbook, which much like Trumps drain the swamp slogan, focused on the elimination of corruption and a redistribution of power to the population at large, including the disenfranchised. In other words, returning power to the people.

Seen through the prism of the PiS party leaders rhetoric, Poland was like Trumps America a country in ruinsexploited by the corrupt elites. The campaign rhetoric noted that the country had been taken advantage of by foreign powers, its industry hollowed out and moribund, its interests sacrificed at the altar of multilateralism, its pride trampled on.

Much like Trumps relentless scapegoating of Mexico and China for the loss of American jobs, Polands PiS had found its own target for vitriol in the previous ruling party, Rafal Trzaskowski, a prominent leader of that opposition Civic Platform party and a vocal critic of PiS, said in an interview with The WorldPost.

Seen through the prism of the PiS party leaders rhetoric, Poland was like Trumps America a ‘country in ruins’ exploited by the corrupt elites.

They were absolutely convinced that we were selling off our interests, that we were German lap dogs, and that we were standing up from our knees, he said.

If PiS took power, the party narrative went, the country would once again gain legitimacy and power on the world stageand start pulling its weight and standing up to foreign interest. It would at last dismantle the semi-mythical ukad,a group of corrupt elites who held the levers of power. In other words, it would drain the swamp.

Still, the campaign rhetoric was somewhat toned down. The more radical party figures like the party leader and now the de facto ruler of Poland, Jarosaw Kaczyski were hidden from public view. They were supplanted by images of its prime ministerial candidate meeting with everyday people. And as populist movements spread across Europe, the party enjoyed strong support from Polish youth, clenching it a majority in parliamentary elections.

Consolidating Power

That semblance of normalcy and moderation was however very quickly abandoned once the election was over. The divisive Jaroslaw Kaczyski vowed in his partys acceptance speech much like Trumps words during his own victory speech to unify the country and become a leader for all citizens, instead of taking revenge on the new opposition. Yet that soon proved false.The new government under President Andrzej Duda and PiS party leader Kaczyski embarked on a blitzkrieg of wide ranging reforms, aimed at a total takeover of the state structures on an unprecedented scale even by Polish standards in which to the victor go the spoils has always been the name of the game.

Pawel Kopczynski / Reuters
The leader of PiS, then Poland’s main opposition party, Jaroslaw Kaczyski after the exit poll results are announced in Warsaw, Poland on Oct. 25, 2015.

While Trump is reportedly considering defunding the public broadcasting corporation entirely and made moves seemingly aimed at putting his stamp on Voice of America, the public media in Poland never free of bias has been filled with fierce loyalists and changed to become heavily slanted towardsPiS.

The public prosecutors have been taken under the direct control of Zbigniew Ziobro, the sheriff-like justice minister.The boards of state-owned enterprises have been replaced with friends, family and loyal supporters of the party. Most worryingly, however, is that the first and most important victim of the takeover was the Constitutional Tribunal, a crucial piece of the checks and balance system. Its rulings were first disregarded, then the court was paralyzed and now brought under control of PiS-friendly appointees. Whether this example will be followed by Trump is still unknown, but some of the new U.S. administrations actions and comments might point to a similar showdown.

Kaczyski believes he can dismantle the constitution because hes been given a mandate to do so, said Lukasz Lipinski, the director for analysis at Polityka Insight, a Warsaw-based think tank, in an interview with The WorldPost. Thats why theyve had a conflict with the Constitutional Tribunal.

‘Kaczyski believes he can dismantle the constitution because hes been given a mandate to do so.’ Lukasz Lipinski, director for analysis at Polityka Insight

The situation in the U.S. is almost exactly the same, with President Trump venting his frustration almost daily via Twitter that the courts are standing in the way of change. Most notably, the courts and federal security agencieshave refused to implement President Trumps executive order banning people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. Trump has responded by expressing his disregard to rulings by a so-called judge. And just last Thursday, facing a second setback from the courts on his Muslim travel ban, he retorted on Twitter: SEE YOU IN COURT.

Last time Jaroslaw was in power, he had problems with the Constitutional Tribunal. They stood in his way, so he decided to destroy it before they can start to do anything, said Lipinksi, referring to the period from 2005-2007 when Kaczyski held power in Poland, but could not force through the laws he wanted. Kaczyski, much like Trump, aimed to delegitimize his opposition and vocally express concern with the system as a means to put forth his own agendas in government.

Unprecedented Polarization

Kaczyskis actions did not result in any sort of national reconciliation. Quite the opposite. Theyve created unprecedented polarization in the same vein as that which is now playing out in the U.S. Polands divide was also fueled by some of Kaczyskis rhetoric, whose utterances about the Poles of the worst sort, though not directly aimed at the opponents of government, was nonetheless received as a clear swipe at them. Most recently, after the opposition occupied the Polish parliaments main chamber in protest against planned media restrictions and the perceived mistreatment of its MPs, Kaczyski accused them outright of trying to stage a coup detat.

The government is encroaching on our liberties, and thats not just our view, thats the view of NGOs and the constitutional court, said Trzaskowski, the leader of Civic Platform party. Theyre destroying the civil service and undermining the foundations of our democracy because Kaczyski wants to revolutionize the country.

In much the same way, Trump and Kaczyski have painted a very black and white portrait of every event, situation and decision. Those in support of them are always right, and those in opposition are always wrong. Or as Trump likes to say, winners and losers. The greatest, the best or the worst of the worst, the terrible.

In America, it is still early on in the presidency to tell what this will mean for Trump, his party and his administration. But this type of rhetoric in Poland has led to a total breakdown in communication between the parties, said Trzaskowski. There simply is no positive communication anymore. There is a wall between us.

Attacking The Media

Nowhere, however, is the division more pronounced than in the media. As in America, the private media in Poland is divided between the established liberal outlets and the somewhat less renowned conservative media. The divide between them has always been significant. However, since the new PiS government entered power, they have converted into two warring camps, with an ever-shrinking no mans land between them.

As in America, the private media in Poland is divided between the established liberal outlets and the somewhat less renowned conservative media.

The right-wing outletshave become what some are characterizing as apologists for the government. On the other end, the liberal mainstream media outlets, many of which had been known to describe PiS as having fascistic tendenciesandopenly sided with the previous government, are now staunchly anti-government.

The ruling party, not unlike Trump, does its part to fuel this war. PiS politicians, like Ryszard Terlecki, head of the partys parliamentary caucus, who said that media criticism of the administrations changes must be stopped, and Elbieta Kruk, PiS politician and a member of the National Media Council, the new media regulatory body, have characterized the Polish mainstream media not just as negatively skewed to the point of bias think Trumps fake news but have gone a step further to imply that they represent foreign mostly German interests and do the bidding of their foreign owners.

The government has chosen to tackle this backlash from liberal slanted media, and become actively involved in state-owned media outlets. The result has been an almost Trump-like response to the liberal media, with one of the government medias most famous shows, Wiadomoci, now spending much of its airtime lambasting the liberal press and especially the reviledGazeta Wyborcza daily, one of the more famous liberal papers in the country mirroring Trumps consistent references to The New York Times and other U.S. outlets as failing, or fake news.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters
Then-U.S. President-elect Donald Trump calls CNN “fake news” after an argument with the outlet’s reporter during a press conference at Trump Tower in New York on Jan. 11, 2017.

The pro-government slant in Poland is so pronounced today that even some PiS supporters have voiced their concerns. Krzysztof Czabaski, deputy minister of culture responsible for overseeing public media, said in a recent interview with private-owned Radio Zet that the media make mistakes. Pressed further, he could not cite any examples of negative coverage of the governments actions, explaining that apparently it didnt deserve that much criticism. Similar statements have been made by Trump and his surrogates when referring to the U.S. media. Trumps top adviser, Kellyanne Conway, has appeared on talk shows and news broadcasts criticizing what she deems a misappropriation of coverage focused on the mistakes of the government, rather than successes. But when pressed further, she tends to come up short, too.

Record Protests

Beyond just tensions with the media, the criticism from both governments speaks to a larger issue of the sensitivity of both administrations, whichmightve made the first days of the new U.S. administration feel familiar to the Polish audience, particularly in regard to the mass demonstrations.

The record-breaking protests that took over cities across America were eerily similar to those that have become a recurring theme in Poland since PiS took power. As in the U.S., women also took to the streets in a massive protest over abortion rights. That protest in Poland, much like the womens rights march in the U.S. and the Trump administrations reaction to it, was downplayed by the government as not a big deal.

The record-breaking protests that took over cities across America were eerily similar to those that have become a recurring theme in Poland since PiS took power.

Some media outlets in both countries, and in Russia, also float similar theories about who is behind these somewhat parallel protests: George Soros, the infamous billionaire and philanthropist. Much like in other illiberal democracies, like Hungary, Russia and now also Macedonia, in Poland, too, he has become the nefarious symbol of world finance for whom, according to one Polish official, Poland had been a paradise.

For some on the right, Soros alleged involvement in political dissidence in both the U.S. and Poland comes from speculation that he may be funding social movements in both nations. In Poland, that speculation lies mainly in a political movement known as The Committee for the Defense of Democracy (Komitet Obrony Demokracji), or KOD. The group is most well known for its involvement in anti-government protests, particularly aimed at governmental changes made by PiS. The fears are parroting those of generally pro-Trump slanting outlets in the U.S., such as Breitbart News, some of whose articles have suggested that Soros has similar involvement in U.S. protest movements.

Gallo Images via Getty Images
Hundreds of women with umbrellas participate in a nationwide women’s strike on Oct. 24, 2016 in the city center of Warsaw, Poland.

This fear also extends to Polish media outlets, such as state broadcaster TVP1s show, Wiadomoci, which quoted a lecturer at the Jagiellonian University in Krakw who alleged that Soros has paid professional protesters to stage the massive anti-Trump demonstrations near inauguration weekend. This line of reasoning, often employed by Steve Bannon, Trumps chief strategist and the former executive chair of Breitbart News, is a standard feature among the new ruling elite in Poland. In fact, Kaczyski often points toshadowy foreign influences such as Sorosand his idealsas being the real source of the countrys credibility problem abroad.

Supporting Trump

It is therefore not entirely surprising that Trumps victory was greeted with considerable elation among some of Polands new ruling class and the government-friendly media. For them it was a triumph over the common adversary the global elites and the parallels between the two governments means the Polish ruling party feels a sort of kinship with the U.S. president.

One of the most enthusiastic supporters of the new U.S. leader is said to be President Andrzej Duda.

He was really impressed by Trumps inaugural speech, a source close to Duda and Kaczyski who asked to remain unnamed, told The WorldPost. He seems to be genuinely fascinated by the man, which raised some eyebrows in the presidential palace, given Trumps connection to Russia, he added.

But Duda is not the only government figure who sympathizes with the struggle of the new U.S. administration.

‘Donald Trump is being attacked Our government is also attacked by liberal elites, who previously reigned over Poland and over the U.S.’ Mariusz Baszczak, Polands Minister of Internal Affairs

Donald Trump is being attacked Our government is also attacked by liberal elites, who previously reigned over Poland and over the U.S., said Mariusz Baszczak, Polands minister of internal affairs, in an interview with TVP INFO, a state TV program.

He and others have noted the similarities between the two political forces: the concern over the common people, the anti-immigrant stance and the audacity to go against political correctness. In fact, months before Trump ordered the ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, causing turmoil at U.S. airports, Baszczak did something similar, though on a decidedly smaller scalehe prevented Chechen asylum seekers from entering the country, reportedly stranding them at the Polish-Belarusian border.

PiS rhetoric on immigration was not far from Trumps, either. Just as Trump infamously accused Mexican immigrants of bringing crime, drugs and of being rapists, Kaczyski said that Muslim refugees are bringing in parasites and protozoa. Indeed, as a recent Chatham House poll showed, a Trump-like ban on immigration from majority Muslim countries would be overwhelmingly popular in Poland.

Some of the similarities are so striking that Deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki even jokingly suggested Trump must have borrowed parts from his partys platform.

Kacper Pempel / Reuters
A woman holds a placard saying “Trump Away!” as people gather to protest against U.S. President Donald Trump in front of the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, Poland on Jan. 20, 2017.

Many Poles, however, including some PiS supporters we spoke to,are alarmed by Trumps foreign policy utterances that have undermined NATO, the European Union and called for reaching a deal with Russia. Such policies, if implemented, would go directly against vital Polish security interests, Micha Baranowski, director of the German Marshall Funds Warsaw bureau, said.

Trumps thinking represents a completely new approach to collective security and the system of alliances that have been the cornerstone of our security system. He sees from a purely short-term, transactional standpoint,he told Wirtualna Polska, a Polish news site. From a Polish perspective, its a decidedly bad idea.

Polish officials, however, have largely ignored that part of Trumps message. After all, they gained a powerful ally, who even if he wont protect the country against Russias imperial ambitions, is more likely to aid in the ideological struggle that both governments seem to have embarked on in their respective nations.

It remains to be seen how this plays out for Poland, but some are not terribly optimistic.

The next year will be very difficult, and they can do lots of things, like jailing the opposition on made-up charges of corruption or overreaching their competencies, Lipinski told The WorldPost. I dont have an honest answer on Polish democracy being crushed, but I can see it going either way.

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