Liberal Centrism Won’t Stop Poland’s Descent Into Authoritarianism

For decades, Poland was held up as a successful example of transition to liberal democracy. But faced with the country’s slide into right-wing authoritarianism, the pitfalls of centrist politics are plain to see.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Law and Justice ruling party, giving a speech during a final convention of elections campaign in Krakow, Poland, on October 11, 2023. (Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Since Poland’s Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) came to power in 2015, civil liberties and democratic standards have suffered a catastrophic decline. Key state institutions, including the constitutional court, part of the judiciary, civil service, and public media, have been purged and packed with subservient political appointees. A near-total abortion ban has tragically resulted in deaths of numerous women, while others suspected of performing abortions are being targeted by the police.

With the introduction of so-called LGBT-free zones, Law and Justice has fueled discrimination and hatred against the Polish LGBTQ community, leading to real tragedies. Under the leadership of Jarosław Kaczyński, Law and Justice consistently pursues its agenda of transforming the country into a hard-right, ultraconservative oligarchy. How did Poland reach this dramatic point?

Jarosław Kuisz seeks to answer this question in his newest book, The New Politics of Poland. Clearly tailored for an international audience, his account revisits the principal events in recent Polish politics to explain the continued public support for what he calls Poland’s “populist turn.” Kuisz interprets Law and Justice’s rise to power as part of the “global wave of illiberal populism” that swept through world politics in 2015 and 2016, from the Brexit vote to the election of Donald Trump.

He explains that because of this “wave,” and the “local mistakes” committed by liberal politicians in Poland, Law and Justice achieved unprecedented victories in the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections, which subsequently led to a departure from Poland’s previous “liberal, pro-European, and clearly pro-Western” orientation. According to Kuisz, a pivotal cause of Poland’s “illiberal turn” is the “trauma” of loss of national sovereignty embedded in the collective Polish psyche, which Law and Justice has adeptly exploited to serve its own political goals.

One cannot deny that Kuisz’s book is ambitious. Not only does he adopt three distinct temporal perspectives — starting from Poland’s “illiberal turn” of 2015, the fall of communism in 1989, and the eighteenth-century partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, respectively — but he also analyzes Polish history in a reverse chronological order, attempting to formulate an all-encompassing narrative of the nation’s modern politics.

As a result, The New Politics of Poland has such a broad scope that it too often resorts to generalizations and simplifications, which make its image of Polish politics and history incomplete. What is worse, the book omits events and processes that do not fit into the narrative of a sudden “illiberal” breakthrough in Poland’s previously successful march toward Western liberal democracy.

Kuisz writes that “longing for the glorious liberal past” of 1989–2015 “will not do” to stop Poland’s decline into authoritarianism. The presupposition underlying that statement encapsulates why liberal centrism, not only in Poland, has been so inept in combating the nativist far right. For the past of Polish liberalism is far less “glorious” than Kuisz portrays it. By idealizing the history of post-1989 Poland, the author refrains from critically examining how the Polish political establishment failed to adhere to the basic principles of liberalism — and in turn contributed to the country’s shift to the right.

Paradise Lost

Making no secret of his liberal sympathies, Kuisz carefully avoids any direct criticism of the center-right Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) party, which was in power between 2007 and 2015. Consequently, his description of the period surrounding the far-right takeover does not render an exhaustive picture of Polish politics, and at times almost trivializes it.

According to Kuisz, liberal politicians in 2015 faced defeat in two consecutive elections because of what he terms “fatigue” and “outdated software.” In his view, a major mistake of Civic Platform in 2015 was the lack of a “political communication strategy” to inform voters of its accomplishments.

Take his description of the fateful decision by President Bronisław Komorowski not to attend a presidential debate with the other candidates when running for reelection in 2015. Instead of presenting this for what it was — an arrogant display of contempt for the Polish public — Kuisz writes that Komorowski “did not know whether it was even appropriate to have a public discussion” with his opponents, because they were “peculiar.” While Kuisz acknowledges the Polish voters sought a change of their country’s economic policies, he disparagingly contends that their “eagerness for change did not precisely indicate what they expected from that change.”

Readers of Kuisz’s book will find no mention of more profound reasons why the Polish voters turned away from Civic Platform since the 2015 runoff election, such as its prolonged austerity policies or the increasing regional disparities in Poland’s economic development. Neither does he elaborate on the present challenges facing Polish politics concerning immigration and the climate change, which have long posed an ideological puzzle for Civic Platform. The conclusion toward which Kuisz steers his readers is that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the policies or the ideology of the liberal center during its time in power — and those who did not support Civic Platform in 2015, particularly the Left, bear at least partial responsibility for Poland’s shift toward authoritarianism.

Notably, Kuisz dedicates minimal attention to parties other than Civic Platform and Law and Justice. He mentions the Polish Peasants Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe, PSL) only as an afterthought when discussing political strategies of liberal politicians, even though it was a junior coalition partner of Civic Platform between 2007 and 2015 and indeed part of nine of all nineteen post-1989 Polish cabinets. PSL’s loss of popularity among its traditional rural electorate is one of the structural reasons of Law and Justice’s continuous dominance in the polls.

Moreover, throughout his book, Kuisz dedicates just one (!) sentence to the far-right Confederation (Konfederacja) coalition that entered the Polish parliament in 2019 and groups extreme economic libertarians and Polish nationalists. Today, the Confederation is the political force with the highest support among young Polish men, and for a moment in March 2023 the polls designated it as the country’s third-biggest political force.

Simultaneously, Kuisz misleadingly identifies the left-wing Left Together (Lewica Razem) party as “anti-liberal,” without specifying to which parts of its program he refers (same-sex civil partnerships? secularization?). The implicit assumption underlying these omissions is that political forces other than Civic Platform or Law and Justice possess limited relevance and lack the capacity to change Polish politics in meaningful ways.

In his book, Kuisz condemns political polarization as a “populist” strategy of maintaining power and a threat to democracy. However, by conceptualizing the Polish political scene as a struggle between the two dominant right-wing parties, his analysis contributes to the same phenomenon. This perspective aligns with the conventional wisdom of Polish liberal analysts and commentators, who consider Civic Platform the only viable political alternative to “populist” Law and Justice.

Rupture or Radicalization?

But there is a deeper problem, here. The New Politics of Poland presents the rise of Law and Justice to power as a pivotal rupture in Polish politics. Kuisz deplores that after 2015, “post-Cold War liberal rhetoric was hastily replaced by a reactionary, ultra-Catholic, nation-state agenda.” In this narrative, since that election victory eight years ago, Kaczyński has pursued “a cultural counterrevolution” hostile to the earlier “liberal universalism” and now aims to redefine Polish identity based on the principles of national dignity, Catholic values, and heroic interpretations of the past.

This assertion is based on a selective and generalizing reading of Poland’s post-1989 history. Law and Justice did not reverse but exacerbated many of the policies that had already been introduced by previous, supposedly liberal Polish governments. In his attempt to draw an existential divide between “national populists” and the “liberal elite,” Kuisz overlooks the fact that Poland’s descent to authoritarianism was preceded by a long history of concessions made by liberals to conservative and reactionary forces.

Although its scale has assumed unprecedented proportions under Law and Justice’s government, the instrumentalization of history by Polish right-wing politicians is not a new phenomenon. Since its founding in 1998, the Institute of National Remembrance (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, IPN) has made attempts to impose one official way of interpreting the country’s recent past.

Often dubbed a “historical police,” this curious research institution wielding prosecutorial powers has been accused of favoring conservative agendas in its work and criminalizing the history of even the non-communist Polish left. Through the institute’s activities, the Polish political class established a dangerous precedent, subjecting independent historical research to political agendas. Nowadays, the most recent iteration of this precedent has been the contentious law temporarily enacted by Law and Justice in 2018, which imposed criminal sanctions, including jail terms, for accusing the Polish nation or state of complicity in the Holocaust.

Kuisz devotes an entire chapter to the international controversy surrounding that law, paying particular attention to the remark about “Jewish perpetrators,” which Law and Justice prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki made at the Munich Security Conference in February 2018.

Notably, his account of this scandal omits one detail. On the same day as he made his comment, Morawiecki also laid flowers on the graves of soldiers from the Świętokrzyska brigade. This was a far-right military unit that, late in World War II, fought against the Polish communist underground and collaborated with Nazi Germany. The Polish nationalist right celebrates them as part of the so-called “cursed soldiers” (Żołnierze wyklęci), who waged guerrilla warfare against the Polish communist authorities and whose part was complicit in carrying out pogroms of Jewish, Belarussian, and Ukrainian civilians.

If Kuisz had mentioned this minor event, he likely would have had to acknowledge that it was the liberal president Bronisław Komorowski who in 2011, with support of both Law and Justice and Civic Platform, declared March 1 a “National Cursed Soldiers Remembrance Day.” Thus, the celebration of extreme-right, antisemitic militants has become part of the official historical narrative of the supposedly liberal Third Republic of Poland. By trying to capitalize on the obsessive anti-communism of the nationalist right, liberals legitimized its presence in Polish politics for years to come.

Perhaps the most notable example of how the Polish liberal center betrayed the basic principles of liberalism is its relationship with the Catholic Church. Kuisz aptly points out that since 1989, successive Polish governments have allowed the uncontrolled transfer of public property to the Catholic Church, making it the second-largest landowner in the country.

Simultaneously, the Church successfully seized control of education in schools and restricted freedom of expression. However, when tracing the roots of its power, Kuisz relegates it to sources too distant — the eighteenth-century partitions of Poland and the last decade of the Polish People’s Republic — to explain how the Church successfully defended and, in some cases, expanded its enormous privileges for over a quarter of century, from 1989 to 2015. Thus, he stops short of drawing the most obvious conclusion of this story: that after 1989, the expansion of the Catholic clergy’s power was incompatible with the simultaneous efforts to transform Poland into a modern liberal democracy.

The culmination of this process came in 2020, when the Polish Constitutional Tribunal criminalized abortion and assisting in abortion, allowing exceptions only in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is at risk. Since 2016, Law and Justice has subjugated Poland’s constitutional court, enabling the transformation of Poland’s political system without a constitutional majority and the adoption of unpopular laws without requiring a parliamentary vote. Kuisz notes that this decision overturned the earlier so-called “abortion compromise” yet does not specify what this “compromise” consisted of or how it was sealed.

The 2020 ruling was the second time in Poland’s post-1989 history when the Constitutional Tribunal restricted women’s reproductive rights. The first occurred in 1997, when the tribunal struck down “difficult personal situation” provision enacted by the parliament one year earlier as a ground for abortion, with three dissenting opinions in a twelve-judge court.

The president of the tribunal at the time, Andrzej Zoll, has never denied that his opinion in the case was motivated by his Catholic beliefs. In a blatant case of conservative judicial activism, the tribunal connected Poland’s constitutional order with the interpretation of the right to life aligning with the Catholic Church’s agenda, thus emboldening activist conservatives to demand further concessions in future. Simultaneously, liberal politicians have surrendered women’s rights as part of their political platform.

The above examples demonstrate that many of Law and Justice’s most outrageous decisions represent not a reversal but a radicalization of trends and policies that predate the “illiberal turn” of 2015. What facilitated these trends was the willingness of liberals to appease conservative and reactionary forces, which allowed the far right to determine the boundaries of the Polish public debate. The consequences of these decisions have been fateful: today, a large part of the Catholic clergy openly supports Law and Justice, and Polish extreme nationalists, with parliamentary representation, are more powerful than ever since 1989. The price for liberal indifference may well have been Polish democracy itself.

Conceptual Juggling

While labeling the ideology of Law and Justice as a form of “national populism,” Kuisz carefully distances himself from scholars who would like to see “populism” as a transcendental political form with certain immutable characteristics. Instead, he suggests that “populism” is informed by both global and regional patterns and the latter should be explained at the level of individual country. Although Kuisz rightly identifies the limitations inherent in the concept of “populism,” he does not avoid all the pitfalls the term is loaded with.

The main innovation Kuisz formulates in his book is the concept of “post-traumatic sovereignty.” In his own words, “it is increasingly common for psychiatrists to utter diagnoses of psychic traumas affecting not only individuals but also groups . . . a recurring loss of statehood and sovereignty, accompanied by episodes of violence, can be seen as a source of collective trauma and by extension an important part of collective identity.”

Simultaneously, he contends that “the political frames of rationality are founded on previous experiences.” According to Kuisz, the dramatic history of the last three hundred years has left the Poles perpetually anxious about the potential loss of their national independence. Today, this fear fuels popular support for Law and Justice, which routinely accuses the Civic Platform leader, Donald Tusk, of serving German interests.

It should not come as a surprise that politicians instrumentalize narratives of the past to their present political ends. For instance, Law and Justice leader Kaczyński’s repeated anti-German rhetoric is largely inspired by the ideology of early-twentieth-century Polish ethnolinguistic nationalism and the subsequent appropriation of this ideology by the Polish communist authorities. Kuisz correctly observes that the Polish political culture is sensitive to issues revolving around national sovereignty and independence. However, the problem with the concept of post-traumatic sovereignty is that it defines a quintessentially political phenomenon using psychological terms, which implies that it is at least partially driven by irrationality.

This approach neglects that it is not merely “previous experiences” that determine the collective boundaries of what is thinkable, but also debates, arguments, narratives, and ideas about these experiences. Instead of providing a historical account of how different Polish political traditions have perceived threats to national independence, Kuisz offers a reductive reading of a crucial feature of Polish politics as essentially a form of collective paranoia. In doing so, he follows a long lineage of liberal theorists who turned to psychology when faced with political phenomena they could not grasp in rational terms. Such theories possess negligible explanatory power and offer no guidance for altering the processes they describe.

Kuisz insists that post-traumatic sovereignty is pivotal to understanding not only continuing support for “populism” in Poland but also the country’s attitude toward the Russo-Ukrainian war. This assertion is not as constructive as it seems. If the Polish perception of the war in Ukraine is indeed driven by past traumas and fears, it raises the question of whether it can be reasoned with using arguments and logic.

After reading the book, one might wonder whether it is worth having a serious conversation about foreign policy with the traumatized Poles at all. It is difficult to resist the impression that, in attempting to explain Polish security concerns to the international audience, Kuisz has inadvertently provided more arguments to those claiming that the countries of Central Eastern Europe have a distorted perception of the war and are unable to make responsible strategic decisions about it.

What Hope for Poland?

Poland provides valuable lessons for those concerned with the rise of extreme-right authoritarian regimes, but not for the reasons Kuisz presents in his book. It is no coincidence that leading liberal commentators spearheading the global crusade against “populism” had been involved with the country long before Law and Justice came to power in 2015. Following the fall of communism, Poland — and Central Eastern Europe more broadly — was presented as proof of the triumph of liberal politics conceived on the ideological front lines of the Cold War. Today, Poland’s slide into right-wing authoritarianism is intrinsically intertwined with debates about the limits of post–Cold War liberalism.

At a certain point, Kuisz laments that “populist” politicians would like to hijack the “idea of historical progress” from liberals. This is only half the truth. Polish liberals, like their international counterparts, have themselves abandoned the idea of progress. Poland’s recent history can serve as an example of the worst features of post–Cold War liberal centrism: the assumption that there are no alternatives to its policies, the gradual rightward drift of the political mainstream, and refusal to expand civil rights and liberties.

The alternative to right-wing authoritarianism must involve a positive political program promising progress and emancipation that goes beyond the form of a GDP growth graph. Until liberals recognize this, democracy will remain in jeopardy, and not only in Poland.