What does a Post-Kaczyński Poland Mean for Democracy in Europe?
By Reece Pelley
For the first time since Poland’s governing Law and Justice party (PiS) received a parliamentary majority in 2015, the country is on the cusp of something unexpected: the possible collapse of PiS’s control of political power. Last month, PiS’ 69-year-old head, and Poland’s de-facto leader, Jaroslaw Kaczyński, was released from a month-long hospital stay following what officials initially stated was a minor knee injury. Shortly after his release, the Polish government revealed to a curious nation that Kaczyński’s supposedly innocuous hospital stay was actually the consequence of a “life-threatening situation.” Since his release, the leader has been seen in public sparingly and has missed several votes in parliament. Now, with his health in doubt, an internal power struggle to replace the long-serving party chairman is ushering in a new and uncharacteristically uncertain era in PiS’s dominance of Polish politics.
Since 2015 the locus of political power in Poland has rested within Kaczyński’s small, non-descript Warsaw office. Although he does not hold an official cabinet position, he is the undisputed leader of the Polish government and handpicks who forms the public face of the party’s leadership in Warsaw and Brussels. For the past several years, as documented by Human Rights First and other watchdog groups, Kaczyński has used his political might to systematically weaken Poland’s democratic institutions and solidify PiS’s hold on political power.
With his health failing, many are beginning to speculate about what will happen to PiS’s campaign against democratic constitutionalism in a post-Kaczyński Poland. In recent years infighting between far-right politicians and the party’s traditional supporters threatened to split the party in two. To prevent such a breach, Kaczyński worked to placate PiS’s right flank. Notably, in January, he orchestrated a reshuffling of the government and installed Mateusz Morawiecki, a former banker and a favorite of the far right, as prime minister.
Although Morawiecki is currently the face of the Polish government, it is far from certain that he is PiS’s man of the future. There remain numerous politicians in the so-called “convent” of Kaczyński loyalists who will undoubtedly compete with newer party leaders to succeed the ailing chairman. Some of the more high-profile candidates include Interior Minister Joachim Brudziński, Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro, and former prime minister Beata Szydło.
The outcome of this power struggle will have profound implications for human rights and the rule of law in Poland. Although it’s too early to tell who will replace Kaczyński, there can be no doubt that his successor will come to power at a moment when PiS is accelerating its attack on democratic constitutionalism. Just this month, PiS undertook a sweeping purge of the Polish Supreme Court, forcibly retiring 27 of the court’s 72 justices as of July 3. If a far-right politician is able to emulate Kaczyński’s political acumen and keep the PiS party alive, Poland will likely continue down its anti-democratic path. If such a leader does not exist, on the other hand, PiS could fracture, leaving various factions vying for political power without a unifying agenda.
There are reasons to be optimistic if PiS is unable to coalesce around a new Kaczyński-like figure. The party is increasingly amenable to outside pressure when it comes to its most controversial political moves. Just this year, in the face of tremendous backlash from the United States, Israel, and the European Union, PiS repealed the criminal provisions of its so-called “holocaust law,” a piece of legislation prohibiting certain discussions of Polish complicity in antisemitic actions during World War II—the law was vigorously defended by Kaczyński and his government. Additionally, the PiS government is facing growing domestic opposition to its attacks on the Polish constitution. As of this writing, protestors continue to demonstrate in opposition to PiS’s purge of the Supreme Court, and only two jurists have applied to fill the 55 vacancies created by the government’s actions.
A weakened post-Kaczyński PiS would be a positive development for democratic constitutionalism in Poland. His departure from public life will likely expose the party for what it has always been: a loosely affiliated coalition of right-wing political groups that uneasily coalesced around Mr. Kaczyński’s unique blend of euroskeptic populism. If far-right groups leave, the party will have significantly less power in the Polish legislature and it will become increasingly difficult to exert its will over the Polish people. At a time when public opposition to PiS’s anti-democratic movement is growing, the retirement of Mr. Kaczyński could usher in an era in Polish politics free of the party’s domination.