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Poland from a bird’s eye perspective.
Its success and failure

Adam Wrona, University College London

Over the last thirty years, Poland has become a symbol of a successful political transformation and one of the fastest-growing economies in the European Union. In the first fifteen years, we managed to build economic and institutional foundations, and in another fifteen - to take advantage of the opportunity that integration with the European Union gave us. Yet, the transformation came with a price, including high unemployment, which lasted for several years, income stratification, social exclusion. 


However, the socioeconomic reality looks incomparably better today. Poland was the only country in Europe to maintain economic growth during the financial crisis of 2009, and according to recent forecasts, will potentially be one of the least affected economies in the EU by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, the Polish society is, however, ruled by the mythologies originating in the very beginning of the Third Polish Republic (from 1989), successfully propagated and reproduced by the consecutive governments. 


The beginnings of the transformation

For many years, we have been dealing with two myths of the Round Table Agreement that could be called a white and black legend. While the white legend was about ‘good’ generals peacefully giving up power in 1989 because they were aware of not being able to proceed with their rule, the black legend, proclaimed by the opponents of the agreement, was hailed ‘the conspiracy of red and pink.’ They believed that the deliberation which took place in ‘Magdalenka’ was collusion that established the Polish political scene for decades. White legend dominated among the major media players, but after Law and Justice (PiS) won both presidential and parliamentary elections in 2005 and then (especially) again in 2015, the black legend began to gain increasingly more supporters, particularly among younger people.


If we consider the talks that took place at the Round Table as mysterious, many mistakes made by the first four Solidarity governments are wrongly confused with the consequences of the 1989 agreement. A good example could be the government of Jan Olszewski, which is thought to be the one that was dismissed due to the lustration campaign. The reality, however, was different. Olszewski's government was the first government to be elected by the Sejm in a fully democratic election. It was also a minority cabinet composed of four parties with a total of 114 seats in the Sejm. Moreover, President Lech Wałęsa had a reluctance to the government. All this meant that Olszewski’s cabinet had to collapse sooner or later. The lustration resolution submitted by MP Janusz Korwin-Mikke, which was to disclose the names of parliamentarians, ministers, judges, and prosecutors who cooperated with the UB (the Security Office) and SB (the Security Service), was only a pretext. The real reason for his dismissal was the lack of coalition capabilities on the part of Olszewski. As a result, the lustration process became an instrument of political reckoning for many years. 


Back to the future

Finally, the history of the Third Polish Republic is, except Bronisław Komorowski and Andrzej Duda, the history of conflicts between presidents and prime ministers. For example, ‘the fight for the chair’ of Lech Kaczyński and Donald Tusk or the ‘rough friendship’ of Aleksander Kwasniewski and Leszek Miller. We chose an intermediate system between the presidential and parliamentary cabinet, in which the president has the greatest legitimacy from the society, but the real government is elsewhere. Cohabitation in Polish conditions, especially now, would lead to irreversible changes in the political scene.


Another myth is the strong attachment of the Poles to the constitution. Almost 43% of those eligible to vote took part in the constitutional referendum in 1997, and only 6.4 million voters were in favour. Paradoxically, it introduced a law that the referendum is binding with a minimum attendance of 50%. Moreover, this constitution was established by a centre-left-dominated parliament in which more than a third of the right-wing voters were not represented. This constitution is in many respects imperfect, too extensive, and ambiguous but looking at the current political situation, there are no signs that it will be changed in the coming years.


The legend is the vision of a country of success, which Bronisław Komorowski promoted during his presidential campaign in 2015, talking about the new ‘Golden Age.’ In the last 30 years, we have failed to reform higher education to be at least a European class. However, we managed to rebuild the local government, which was the greatest success of Tadeusz Mazowiecki's internal policy. It has remained largely autonomous, most of the local government officials are away from parliamentary politics and focus on the development of their small homelands.


On the one hand, Poland is a country with great economic development, often indicated as a symbol of transformation. And, on the other - a country of missed opportunities, in which the society, which has been highly polarized in recent years, is a reflection of the Polish political scene. A country in which each successive government subordinates the public media. A country where demographic problems will cause us more and more problems. A properly organised energy transformation, modernisation of the army, or cybersecurity will be a big challenge for us. The overall balance of Poland in the last 30 years is, in my opinion, positive, although ambiguous. I hope that in the next 30 years we will be able to build a country on more solid foundations, we will manage to get a cross-party agreement on issues such as health, education, and climate. Time will show whether Polish democracy is ready for it.

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