Political outline of a divided nation
Sebastian Kruszewski, University of Southampton
From a very young age, we learn of how important it is to love our country and of the countless generations who have sacrificed their lives for its freedom. It is reflected in the particular importance we attach to our flag, anthem, and numerous statues of the national heroes. It is rather hard to argue with the salience of patriotism and the role it has played in shaping the modern Polish nation. Yet, this beautiful concept that to this day underpins our society and, to a large extent, defines who we are, has time and again gone hand in hand with deep divisions that have haunted our nation for centuries. Nonetheless, what we might have observed over the last ten years is yet somewhat unprecedented.
The societal division is nothing new to the political reality in our country. One could easily argue it has always been with us, constituting a de facto inherently worse part of Polishness. There are multiple examples of that including the feudal fragmentation of our fatherland following Boleslaw III Wrymouth’s will or Boleslaw Prus’ testimony regarding the internal cleavages that effectively stopped the Polish nation from standing up against its oppressors in the 19thcentury.
By the same token, we have always been strongest when united. It was precisely the ability to overcome the internal quarrels and disagreements that led to the rise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth [Read more here] that for centuries remained a dominant force and power to be dealt with in this part of the old continent. Bearing that in mind, one might now wonder - how could we allow for the current political reality to have gone so bad in the first place? Cannot we learn from our own history?
To find the answer to this conundrum, it is vital to understand the story behind the conflict that has preoccupied our lives in the last fifteen years. The origins of the two parties that have dominated Poland’s political life in the 21st century go back to 2001 and the internal splits within the governing coalition AWS-UW (Akcja Wyborcza “Solidarnosc” - Unia Wolności; Solidarity Electoral Action - Freedom Union). However, after that, as a result of numerous scandals within the newly elected government SLD-UP (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej - Unia Pracy; Democratic Left Alliance - Labour Union), both Civic Platform (PO) and Law and Justice (PiS) quickly became the largest opposition groupings, gradually gaining more and more support in society. Given the centre-right nature of both factions, as well as the shared roots of the majority of its members, the two were largely perceived as a perfect fit capable of forming a new governing coalition. Which this time could provide Poland with the political stability it had needed so much. Such hopes were very much well-founded at the time, especially after successful cooperation between the two in the 2002 local elections. Furthermore, both parties had one, common objective which was to oust the discredited SLD from power.
Unfortunately, that is not what happened. The increasingly bitter campaign marked by numerous attacks on the largely liberal economic policies of their possible future allies brought PiS the victory it craved so much. The progressive resentment and animosity between the two led to the subsequent coalition talks breaking down not long after they started. The emerging divide on solidary and liberal Poland began being more and more visible. The former, represented by PiS was characterised by collectivist national attitudes and support for the redistribution of national income through social policy, whereas the latter by largely individualistic attitudes, support for the market economy, and openness to Europe and the world. Sounds familiar, does it not?
Still, a political rivalry is not something abnormal in politics. To the contrary, it is precisely the factor that underpins the very concept of modern democracy. Nonetheless, it might become dangerous when one moves it from being a simple struggle for power onto the more societal level, destroying friendships and dividing families in the process. It could be argued whether divisions are a defining feature of Polishness. Yet, this is what we might have observed over the last ten years of Polish politics, and the very moment that set in motion the whole series of events that have led to the current reality was the Smolensk catastrophe.
Quo Vadis Polsko?
The incessant accusations of national treason or even collaboration in purported ‘assassination’ of the late President and other 95 statesmen have created a strong sense of divide permeating all areas of life in our country. Instead of using it to the purpose of building national unity, PiS leadership has since then done everything to use it as political leverage running a constant campaign of hatred and aversion, very often under the false pretence of ‘uncovering’ the truth. On the other hand, the Civic Platform’s leadership is not without fault either in this regard. Without doubt, years of mockery and utter ignorance with which they have treated political opponents and their voters, largely from rural areas, were far from burying the proverbial hatchet. Instead of building unity, they have been presenting themselves as the ‘only cure’ capable of stopping the Law and Justice from coming back to power.
Where does it leave us? The assassination of Paweł Adamowicz in January 2019 showed us very well what endless rhetoric of conflict and irreparable division may lead to. Nevertheless, the light of hope is still there. The leadership of the two parties have demonstrated just fine how united they might be when it comes to matters of utterly national importance, such as the question of politicians' remuneration in the middle of global pandemic and recession. Jokes aside, we have always been at our greatest when united and the turbulent history of our nation very much proves that. After all, this is precisely what modern patriotism means, putting aside one’s interests for the betterment of society as a whole. If only we realised that and put an end to the cleavage that has haunted our nation for the last ten years, what would there be to stop us from becoming a truly prosperous and successful country that others look up to and take the example of? After all, is that not what we all want?