Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Donald Tusk’s left-liberal authoritarian revolution: Poles are facing something completely new

The “Protest of the Free Poles” organized by PiS in Warsaw on January 11 gathered tens of thousands of people in defense of media pluralism, freedoms, and the rule of law less than a month after Donald Tusk’s left-liberal government was sworn in.

Donald Tusk ultimately wants to build a facade democracy with no possible political alternative, and the eight years of rule-of-law narrative against Law and Justice were just preparing the ground. Poles should actively protest because the stakes are very high, says Piotr Semka.

(Piotr Semka is a well-known conservative journalist and columnist in Poland, having worked for many prestigious media outlets since the fall of communism in Poland in 1989–1990. He was a dissident against the communist regime in his youth in the 1980s, when he took part in students’ protests and wrote for Solidarity’s underground press.)


This article was first published in Polish in the Do Rzeczy weekly in January 2024.


My dear Do Rzeczy editorial team asked me to write an analysis of the new Polish political situation after December 13, 2023 [when Donald Tusk formed his new government]. I was asked to answer the following questions: “What is this conflict all about?,” “What are the stakes?,” and, finally, “Who is going to win this clash?”

What is this conflict all about?

Well, first things first. What is this conflict all about? It is astonishing that the decision made by Donald Tusk’s government to demonstratively break the rule of law in a plot to take over the public media was met with such eloquent silence from the most important political scientists and commentators on the Polish political scene.

It is actually Jan Rokita (a former top figure in Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform party, ed.) who has now become the best analyst of this new state of affairs. He has called Tusk’s actions “the practice of a limited state of emergency.”

As Rokita writes: “This practice involves the de facto (but not de jure) suspension by the authorities, on an ad hoc basis, for a limited period of time, of an existing law, with the aim of facilitating the takeover of institutions that are still outside their control. This is a practice that, in the intention of the authorities, should quickly and effectively hit the most sensitive interests of the Right, after which there should be a return to a state of normal rule of law as soon as possible.

As the former Civic Platform (PO) politician writes: “As I am writing this in the final days of 2023, it remains to be seen whether this is a one-off concept of the ruling center-left, motivated by the ruling party’s over-emphasis on the importance of controlling television. Or is it a developmental concept, intended to lead to a broad shift in the balance of power in Polish politics?

As Rokita points out, Tusk is taking advantage of the fact that the classic language of “lawlessness versus rule of law” has been appropriated by his camp over the previous years. This is largely what helps him carry out an operation that is so outrageous from a legal point of view.

Rokita is quite right.

The events of the past month have shown that the hope that Tusk’s allies, the centrist Third Way alliance and The Left, would somehow mitigate the PO leader’s thirst for revenge has turned out to be completely empty. What’s more, not only has Szymon Holownia, as leader of Third Way’s Poland 2050 and Speaker of the Sejm, failed to take on the role of someone who might at least distance himself from Tusk’s tactics, but there have been calls from Holownia’s party for even harsher measures.

Protesters holding signs calling for a Europe of free nations at the January 11 demonstration in front of the Sejm in Warsaw

Michal Kobosko, for example, the de facto number two in Poland 2050, advocated the forcible removal from the premises of public television TVP, radio and the PAP news agency of Law and Justice (PiS) deputies exercising their right to parliamentary intervention. In a media statement, another politician from Holownia’s group, Ryszard Petru, even called for President Andrzej Duda’s veto to be ignored [when passing laws].

All this should be compared to Donald Tusk’s previous period in power from 2007 to 2015.

Again, let’s go back to Rokita, who explains that when he took power in 2007, Donald Tusk had a scattered base that was ideologically moderate and not inclined to any kind of radicalism. Now, things are different.

Rokita mentions the organized militant groups clustered around Tusk during the eight years of PiS rule: feminists, green fundamentalists, revanchist lawyers, and fanaticized journalists and intellectuals. These groups stood by their leader’s side during the months-long PO campaign, and are now demanding their dreams of revenge be fulfilled.

Is Tusk giving in to them, or does he fully share their revanchist fervor? Probably both. The most compelling circumstance for Tusk is that the entire intellectual and media support base of the new coalition considers as dogma the need to break PiS’s backbone for a long time to come. Despite wincing at Tusk’s modus operandi, this support base actually agrees to what can be called a “limited state of emergency.”

A good example of the intellectuals’ inability to see the dangers of the “Tusk Revolution” is an analysis published by Piotr Wójcik in the left-wing magazine Krytyka Polityczna.

The leftist columnist writes: “[The new TVP news presenter] Marek Czyż can pretend he is an impartial journalist mainly because he speaks in a calm tone. It’s a nice change after [the former TVP news presenter] Miłosz Kleczko’s aggressive tone, but ultimately, however, what matters is the content, not the form. And I don’t think anyone doubts on which side of the political dispute Czyż is positioned. TVP’s new CEO, Tomasz Sygut, overwintered the days of PiS rule in a municipal company in PO-ruled Warsaw. Polish Radio’s new CEO, Paweł Majcher, worked in the past as a spokesman for Culture Minister Sienkiewicz […]. So in terms of personnel, we are seeing a restoration of the public media of 2015. Yes, they were better than the PiS version, but they were certainly not good.

This last sentence is crucial in Piotr Wójcik’s article. He notes the obvious lie of Tusk’s team, which claims to be just depoliticizing the public media, but considers the new media will nevertheless be a little better than they were under PiS rule.

And that’s why the mumblings of Marek Sawicki from the agrarian PSL party, the other member of the Third Way alliance, that he does not approve of everything in the PO’s operation, or the dissatisfaction expressed very discreetly by Adrian Zandberg, the leader of Left Together [which supports the governing coalition], about the methods by which Culture Minister Sienkiewicz’s “strong men” forced the doors of the offices of public media CEOs, are of almost zero significance.

All hope is gone that Third Way is going to be a force that will ease the political conflict between Poles. And this is the factor on which PM Donald Tusk is building his position.

Can the Right regain power in Poland after losing the battle for the public media? (Interview)

What are the stakes?

My guess is that Donald Tusk ultimately wants to build a facade democracy with no possible political alternative. The idea is to create a political situation in which no political party outside the current coalition, especially on the right, will ever be able to replace the current ruling class in the future.

The liberal and leftist camp had been dreaming of this since the very beginnings of the Polish Third Republic [after the fall of the communist regime in 1989–90]. It was for this reason that Jan Olszewski’s government was toppled in 1992 [when it tried to disclose the names of former collaborators of the communist regime], and it was for this reason that the first Law and Justice coalition governments of 2005–2007 were already met with a left-liberal strategy of street protests and foreign pressure.

Now, however, Tusk is acting using the “flexible reed” principle known from judo. The political conflicts that would normally not be considered unusual when a political party rules for two legislatures in a row are presented by Tusk as unprecedented lawlessness. This is a way to stigmatize his opponents and justify their forced elimination from public life, and this applies to both politicians and all those who considered that the PiS program served the Polish raison d’état.

The PO leader’s intentions are that the last eight years must be marked with a stigma similar to that of the Vichy government in French history. It is to be a total and outright elimination from public space. Every media person who did not join the opposition movement against PiS must be defined as a propagandist, and every politician of the right must be labeled a representative of forces that threaten democracy.

It is paranoid that the issuance of journalistic certificates of morality or lack thereof should be handled by people like journalist Tomasz Lis, who has been one of the greatest anti-PiS haters in the media space. But this is all about gaining a full media monopoly and imposing an overwhelming power of interpretation.

In that sense, Rokita’s question about whether Tusk will focus, using illegitimate methods, only on taking back control of television is naive. After having taken over the public media, the new prime minister will take on the Constitutional Tribunal, the National Judicial Council, as well as the National Bank of Poland, and will finally push President Andrzej Duda to the defensive.

The current battle is centered around Tusk’s intention to eliminate social equilibrium. Tusk’s assumption is that if the 7.5 million PiS voters are systematically deprived of the belief that they have equal chances before the courts, that they can express their opinions, and that they can hold some political influence, there will be an erosion of their political determination. Similarly, under communist rule, General Jaruzelski’s team assumed that a large portion of the 10 million Poles who joined the dissident Solidarity movement in 1980–1981 would either be intimidated or pushed into passivity, or could eventually be bribed into submission, after martial law was imposed.

Solidarnosc back on the streets on January 11

Very characteristic are the hopes voiced in the discussion forums of the so-called Strong Together (Silnych Razem) group, representing the most aggressive part of the PO electorate, that since they have managed to take control of the public television’s news service, a sizable portion of TVP viewers will now undergo political reeducation and stop supporting the Right in elections.

But reeducating TVP viewers is not Strong Together’s only ambition. Here is what one active representative of that group, Anna Mierzyńska, who presents herself as a media expert, wrote on Twitter: “During the New Year’s talks, the idea came up that some kind of special unit should be created to hold the Law and Justice (PiS) party and its related entities and people accountable. The ministries themselves won’t have the time to take care of this due to current matters. It takes a group of people focused on just that.” The reaction to these words from Newsweek Polska journalist Grzegorz Rzeczkowski was significant: “A very good idea, I support this and call for the same thing.”

American Left interfering in Poland’s Oct. 15 elections after failed attempt in Hungary last year (interview)

Another example of revenge run amok was former Central Bureau of Investigation chief Paweł Wojtunik’s warning that “PiS is going to create partisan underground structures.

Wojtunik’s words are quite logical in a peculiar, sick way. Since we consider that PiS is the quintessential threat to democracy, it is not enough just to remove Jaroslaw Kaczyński’s party from power. It is necessary to keep its activists under tight control and assume that they will not rest after being pushed out of office, but will organize increasingly sophisticated and hard-to-control underground structures.

This, of course, opens up a big space for the expansion of “democratic” special services to deal with the troublemakers.

This new dogma of restoring order against the forces that intend to stand in the way has also been expressed by authors whom we might have expected to better control their emotions. Forecasting what 2024 would bring, Łukasz Lipiński, deputy editor-in-chief of the left-wing weekly Polityka, wrote: “On the one hand, the October 15 elections brought optimism to Poles and hope for a real good change […], the creation of a country where everyone – including groups that were repressed by the previous government – can simply feel at home. On the other hand, recent weeks have shown how difficult this process will be. We can see that PiS will try at every turn to block reforms and attempts to make people accountable, and it still retains power in many institutions to which it will claw in order to keep them under its control. These PiS islets will support each other.

It is worth taking a moment to reflect on this kind of rhetoric. Łukasz Lipiński does not reflect on the fact that Law and Justice voters may assume, for the sake of mental balance, that there must be some institutions in the state that are not under the control of Tusk’s people and might be a backstop for them in case, for example, Poland’s new rulers overstep all bounds in making their predecessors accountable and relegating the Right to the margins. To the contrary, the author, in a manner quite reminiscent of the communist period, suggests that PiS is a pest that wants to stop the process of rebuilding the country, and everything must be done to prevent these right-wing forces from getting in the way of the government exerting its enlightened rule.

With this attitude from the media and intellectuals that support the new coalition, the mechanisms of self-restraint in the “Tusk Revolution” are going to be very weak. What is more, the things that are happening in Poland may be a kind of model for the forces preparing the federalization of Europe to permanently eliminate political pluralism.

The policies of the Law and Justice party are being watched by those in Italy who proclaim that Giorgia Meloni should never be allowed to come to power again, or by those on the Spanish left who are sounding the alarm that the Vox party could impose a neo-Francoist regime.

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Who is going to win this clash?

We’ll have to wait at least another month to find out whether the forceful takeover of public media has resulted in any electoral losses for Tusk and, more broadly, the governing coalition. If their poll results remain roughly at the same level as before December 13, Tusk will consider this whole action to have paid off.

My esteemed Do Rzeczy colleague Rafal A. Ziemkiewicz reverts to his favorite phrase that “we are ruled by the Mafia, but fortunately it is the Olsen gang.” But what if Tusk’s media takeover operation turns out to be a success for the Civic Platform?

The horizon of the struggle for political monopoly could now move further. The PO’s problem is no longer TVP, it is now the small private news channel TV Republika. A PO MP has already called on cable networks to remove a television channel sympathetic to the nationalists [to the right of PiS] from their lists, and perhaps in a short while we will be hearing the same kind of calls regarding TV Republika.

If Justice Minister Adam Bodnar begins to take more and more cases under his personal control [as he has already started to do], judges, who are already very supportive of the Tusk camp, will begin to comply with new political demands. And this time there will be no fuss about it in the mainstream media and in the European Parliament.

Therefore, as we observe the actions of the new government, let’s put aside the nice jokes about a new Olsen gang, as we need to observe closely how a system of democracy without alternative is being created. And let’s protest, because the stakes are extraordinarily high. The question is what proportion of Poles will have enough courage and energy to protest.