WHAT HAPPENS WHEN RIGHT WING POPULISTS WIN ELECTIONS
In Poland, a window on what happens when populists come to power
The Washington Post
December l8, 2016
WARSAW — The Law and Justice Party rode to power on a pledge to drain the swamp of Polish politics and roll back the legacy of the previous administration. One year later, its patriotic revolution, the party proclaims, has cleaned house and brought God and country back to Poland.
Opponents, however, see the birth of a neo-Dark Age — one that, as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to move into the White House, is a harbinger of the power of populism to upend a Western society. In merely a year, critics say, the nationalists have transformed Poland into a surreal and insular place — one where state-sponsored conspiracy theories and de facto propaganda distract the public as democracy erodes.
Cheered on by religious conservatives, the new government has defunded public assistance for in vitro fertilization treatments. To draft new sexual-education classes in schools, it tapped a contraceptives opponent who argues that condom use increases the risk of cancer in women. The government is proffering a law that critics say could soon be used to limit opposition protests.
Yet nothing has shocked liberals more than this: After a year in power, Law and Justice is still by far the most popular political party in Poland. It rides atop opinion polls at roughly 36 percent — more than double the popularity of the ousted Civic Platform party.
“The people support us,” boasted Adam Bielan, Law and Justice’s deputy speaker of the Senate
Trump is promising a tax code rework that could trigger a bonanza of cash rebates for Americans. In Poland, Law and Justice put cash in pockets in other ways, but always while merging social conservatism and nationalism with populist economics. The new government doled out money to families with children. They also slashed Poland’s retirement age — to as young as 60 for women and 65 for men.
Opponents call such actions the “buying” of support, moves that will only drive up Polish debt and masquerade a long-term power grab that could entrench Law and Justice for years.
But right now, for many Poles, nationalism has never felt so good.
“We are living in this post-truth environment where you can say and do anything and people don’t seem to care,” said Jacek Kucharczyk, president of the Warsaw-based Institute of Public Affairs.
Now they’re true believers
The road to Law and Justice country runs an hour outside cosmopolitan Warsaw, down a dirt path in the hamlet of Krupia Wolka. Once there, pass the front-yard playground of a cream-colored house and meet Pawel and Maria Wiechowski.
High school sweethearts, they married back in 1992. Two-and-a-half decades and 10 children later, they’re still deeply Catholic — and still struggling financially.
Maria, a therapist for autistic children, quit work when child-care costs exceeded what she earned. Pawel, a craftsman, makes intricate moldings for ceilings and walls. Their parents helped them buy their six-bedroom dream home in the country, so they’re mortgage-free. But he hasn’t had work in two months.
During dry spells before, the couple would mothball their 20-year-old VW van to save on gas, and the kids would walk to school. But in the era of Law and Justice, there’s no need. The new government program for families is the Wiechowskis’ life raft; it offers them a monthly cash payout worth nearly $1,000.
“Right now, that’s 100 percent of our income,” Pawel said. “Some people criticize the child benefit and say it’s a government handout. It’s not. It is support for traditional families.”
Pawel voted for Law and Justice last year as “the lesser of two evils.” But now he’s a true believer.
“In the United States, you had the same choice, picking the lesser of two evils,” he said. “I wasn’t sure a year ago either, but now I see how right we were.”
Are they concerned about allegations the new government is distracting the public as it chips away at Polish democracy?
“No,” she said. “I think they’re just cleaning house.”
‘Where is all this going?’
On a frigid recent evening in Warsaw, Monika Mizolebska, a museum researcher, stoically marched with thousands of other Poles to protest the new government. This is the street opposition — the people terrified by what they see unfolding in Poland.
Already, the new government has taken steps to limit the power of the constitutional court, chipping away, critics say, at checks and balances. A new draft law would also allow government-appointed governors the right to decide on future permits for demonstrations.
“I’m here marching because it may be the last time we’re allowed to,” she said. “I don’t think many of us really understand what’s happening in Poland.”
The mother of a 13-year-old daughter, Mizolebska said she is deeply concerned about what sees as an attack on women’s reproductive rights. A near-total abortion ban — women and doctors faced up to five years in jail — was defeated in October after a massive street protest. But she fears it may yet come back.
“The government wants women to be mothers, to be housewives, but my daughter wants to be a writer, maybe a journalist,” she said. “But what chance does she have here? In these conditions?”
She is also concerned about a new proposed school curriculum the Polish Academy of Sciences says will marginalize evolution theory by reducing its prominence in some grades. Sciences more generally would receive less time, in favor of more hours for Polish history.
“I can’t believe it’s 2016 and we’re still talking about whether to teach evolution,” she said, shaking her head. “Where is all this going? I’m afraid.”