Tyranny has arrived in Poland and this time it’s real

In today’s Poland, no power since 1989 has teetered so perilously close to actual tyranny as the current regime, writes political commentator Rafał Woś

editor: Grzegorz Adamczyk
author: Rafał Woś
Poland's new Prime Minister Donald Tusk during a news conference in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday Dec. 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

The time for tyranny has arrived, and this time, it’s unfortunately real. No government in Poland since 1989 has come as close to sliding into actual tyranny as the current one, nor has any other given itself such broad permission to become tyrannical. Moreover, none have been as effective in practically eliminating the safeguards that constrain them.

Let us start with a few questions.

Firstly, if the Law and Justice (PiS) party governed recklessly, what do we call the actions of their successors? Super-reckless? Turbo-reckless? Mega-turbo-reckless? Secondly, if PiS disregarded all “safeguards” or “minority rights,” where do ministers like Culture Minister Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, responsible for the attack on public media, and Justice Minister Adam Bodnar stand on these issues? Serious suggestions only, please.

Thirdly, the previous regime was accused daily, both domestically and internationally, for eight long years of harboring an “authoritarian gene.” It was said that PiS would never relinquish power once gained, that they would not respect the election results, that they would imprison opponents, and strip the opposition of its last media strongholds. Those who do not remember should remind themselves, read up, watch again. How then, against the backdrop of these accusations, should we describe those who govern now?

How can we even comment on declarations like: “We are restoring constitutionality and looking for a legal basis to do it,” by Adam Bodnar? Or “Lawful is what we understand as lawful” by Donald Tusk? Or “The constitution is a trap that PiS sets for democracy,” as the academic lawyer and staunch PiS critic Wojciech Sadurski was kind enough to comment?

How can the constitution, the anchor of democracy, especially in its liberal interpretation as advocated by Sadurski, become a trap for democracy? It would be different if PiS had changed the constitution, stripping it of its power, sanctity, and authority.

But that didn’t happen. It’s the same fundamental law that Sadurski himself cited just a few months ago in his fight against PiS. Yesterday, it was his shield in the battle against democracy’s enemies. Today, it evidently chafes him (and the entire ruling camp). So, politicians circumvent it, and lawyer Sadurski loudly applauds them for it.

There are two options to consider: Are these people truly “democrats” as they have long pretended to be? Or did they only invoke democracy when it suited them? If so, who are they really?

The good news is that time will answer this last question. In the next few years, we will learn the true stance of the aforementioned individuals on democracy, rule of law, human rights, and freedom of speech. We will know them by their fruits. That is for sure.

Now, there are, broadly speaking, two potential scenarios. The first is an optimistic one. In this scenario, disenchanted sympathizers of the so-called democratic camp console themselves with the thought that this is just political theater — a reaction to years of humiliation. They hope that eventually, reason will prevail. The public television TVP, the Constitutional Tribunal and other PiS institutions will be cleansed, and all will be well. Right now, it might not look pretty, but peace will return to our land. And the current situation? At worst, Sienkiewicz, Bodnar, and the unfortunate liquidators of public media will serve as scapegoats, to be replaced by newer models.

Unfortunately, there’s also a second, more likely possibility. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that the current rulers won’t be able to stop their anti-PiS crusade. The path of force, revenge and reckoning will be too easy, and the conviction of their moral righteousness too intoxicating. Then, it will be too late. There is no turning back from a web of lies, as one falsehood leads to another, creating increasingly complex structures where removing one element then threatens a collapse and loss of credibility. They must keep going and certainly not back down. On the contrary, full steam ahead.

This is already evident. Doubts about their media policy within their own camp are covered up with bold offensives on other fronts: the war against a president signaling readiness to compromise, or intrigues against the National Bank of Poland President Adam Glapiński. It’s an old and tested method, especially characteristic of authoritarian environments. There’s always some “last unconquered village of Gauls” to conquer before laying down their arms. But not before, oh no! There’s always some PiS remnant threatening a resurgence of PiS-ism. And so, the cycle continues.

Until the end.

This second path is all the more likely because the new power faces almost no oversight. PiS had powerful foreign adversaries: the European Union, liberal Western media, Soros’s network. At home, they faced a strong opposition, media friendly to it, and opinion-forming elites. Paradoxically, this served PiS. It kept them in check, ensuring that even if they had an authoritarian gene, it would be constantly fought against, never taking full control.

The anti-PiS doesn’t have any of these checks on its power. They won’t be watched by foreign powers or liberal media in conjunction with filmmaker Agnieszka Holland. And after taking over public media from PiS, there will be even fewer safeguards.

This is the tragedy of our new rulers. This is their curse. It already makes them tyrants — real tyrants and not the imagined ones they projected onto PiS. It also makes them extremely dangerous.

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