Professor Rafał Riedel: Undoing Poland’s Eight-Year Illiberal Trend Demands Significant Time

Dr. Rafał Riedel, Full Professor and Head of the Department of Political and Administrative Systems at the University of Opole and visiting fellow at the Vienna School of International Studies.

Dr. Rafał Riedel of the University of Opole: “The illiberal trend in Poland persisted for a duration of eight years, during which Prawo i Sprawiedliwość / Law and Justice (PiS) party extensively seized control of the state. The changes PiS party implemented were so deeply ingrained that reversing them will require a considerable amount of time. While I won’t specify another eight years, it is evident that this is not an overnight transformation. In my view, certain changes may materialize in weeks, others in months, and unfortunately, some changes may take years or prove irreversible due to entrenched processes.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Dr. Rafał Riedel, Full Professor and Head of the Department of Political and Administrative Systems at the University of Opole and visiting fellow at the Vienna School of International Studies, delves into the challenges of reversing Poland’s eight-year illiberal trend. As the new government, led by Donald Tusk, takes the reins, Prof. Riedel acknowledges the deeply ingrained changes implemented during the illiberal era, emphasizing that the transformation won’t be an overnight process. The illiberal trend, characterized by the party-state capture, state-market relationship shifts, and erosion of liberal democratic values, necessitates time and strategic interventions.

Reflecting on the recent elections, Prof. Riedel highlights the central role of collective memory manipulation in shaping political discourse. He cites examples of Germanophobia during the campaigns, underscoring the strategic use of historical narratives for political gain. The interview delves into the impact of Prawo i Sprawiedliwość / Law and Justice (PiS) party’s populism on Poland’s political landscape, emphasizing the generational divide and the need to reassess the conservative label.

Discussing the illiberal turn, Prof. Riedel outlines the key indicators, including violations of liberal democracy and the phenomenon of state capture. The interview addresses the implications for democracy in Poland and the potential for reversing this illiberal trend through democratic means. The upcoming European Parliament elections in 2024 are anticipated with caution, considering the Eurosceptic sentiments, while concerns about a surge of far-right parties in the broader European context are analyzed in the context of Poland’s political dynamics.

As the interview concludes, Prof. Riedel emphasizes the significance of the October elections as a potential impetus for a positive shift in Central and Eastern Europe. Poland, with its substantial size and influence, has the potential to pioneer a new trend, challenging the illiberal status quo and reaffirming its commitment to European values.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Rafał Riedel with some edits.

Manipulating Collective Memory for Populist Political Gains

March of a Million Hearts. Hundreds of thousands march in anti-government protest to show support for democracy in Warsaw, Poland on October 1, 2023. Photo: Shutterstock.

Thank you so much for accepting our interview request. So, I start with the first question in the context of a liberal trend in Poland. How do you see the role of collective memory manipulation and its connection to authoritarian Populism? Considering your paper on collective memory manipulation and its connection to authoritarian populism, do you see any evidence of such manipulation in the recent electoral campaigns, and how might it impact democratic processes in Poland?

Dr. Rafał Riedel: Thank you for your invitation. Your question is impressively detailed and tailored to my work. 

Now, regarding the mentioned paper itself, it’s essential to note that it serves primarily as a conceptual framework, offering a tool for analyzing how memory manipulation, particularly collective memory, can be employed manipulatively by populist and authoritarian politicians. The focus is on understanding the mechanisms through which political leaders shape and exploit collective memory to further their agendas.

Secondly, the paper primarily offers a conceptual framework and does not delve into empirical analysis of specific cases, such as Poland or Hungary. However, if we focus on the context of Poland, especially considering the recent election, my simplest answer would be, “yes.” Concrete examples can be provided, and while I could share various instances, I’ll highlight one general and another specific example in detail.

It’s crucial to understand that in Polish politics and in Poland in general, history and historical education wield significant influence. This isn’t merely a subjective observation; scholars have extensively discussed the pivotal role of history, historical education, and what is termed “Gedächtnispolitik” in German, in Poland. This prominence is likely attributed to Poland’s dense and rich history, where the narrative of victimhood plays a central role. Political forces across the spectrum frequently recycle collective memory in the public sphere, saturating discourse with history, storytelling, and historical context. Unsurprisingly, this historical narrative becomes a potent tool in politics, at times employed in a manipulative manner.

If we look for recent examples from the election campaigns preceding the parliamentary elections on October 23, the role of Germany stands out, presenting a particularly intriguing case. The complex history between Poland and Germany, spanning over 1,000 years, is marked by various challenges. In terms of manipulation, a notable instance is the Law and Justice (PiS) party led by Jarosław Kaczyński. They engage in what I call "Germanophobia" in some extend. While it’s valid to maintain a critical stance towards neighbors, this fraction exploits and amplifies anti-German sentiment at every available opportunity. The inspiration for such sentiment is evidently drawn from historical narratives. To illustrate, a frequently used phrase during the political campaign in Poland was "Für Deutschland" which has become the subject of jokes and memes on the Internet.

I’m not sure how acquainted you are with the Polish discourse, but "Für Deutschland" originated from two words taken out of context from Donald Tusk’s speech. He was expressing gratitude to Angela Merkel after receiving the Charlemagne Prize. This speech, delivered in German, was extensively exploited by a particular political party, turning it into a crude instrument of party propaganda, suggesting Tusk’s servility towards Germany. Unfortunately, these two words were repeated several hundred times daily, by the politicians, and in the so-called public TV by the PiS media officers.

This repetition was part of a negative campaign aimed at portraying Donald Tusk in an unfavorable light. The use of "Für Deutschland" in their discourse is highly representative, as the term "German" was transformed into an epithet in their campaign. It ceased to be merely an adjective describing their adversary; instead, it became an offensive epithet. The discursive coalition, consisting of high-ranking party representatives, opinion leaders, and quasi-journalists, played a crucial role in shaping this narrative. Some individuals who were supposed to be journalists failed in their role and instead became instrumentalized by a particular political party.

The manipulation went beyond political communication and delved into the realm of discursive coalition, where the word "German" carried a pejorative connotation. 

It appealed significantly to 30-40 percent of the electorate, making it a functional tool. This example, with its Germanophobic and anti-German meta-narrative inspired by historical references, illustrates a manipulation that goes beyond electoral strategies and touches on broader societal sentiments. Certainly, there are numerous elements to this discourse, and one could delve into discussions about Second World War compensations from the perspective of international law. However, I’m not attempting to initiate such a debate on the justification or lack thereof. I’m emphasizing this from an electoral standpoint, where this historical topic was evidently utilized as a tool, instrumentalized for political purposes. This is why I categorize it as a manipulation—because it served a strategic function in the electoral context. 

PiS Party Predominantly Supported by Older Demographics

How do you perceive the impact of PiS party’s populism on the overall political landscape in Poland, particularly in terms of shaping public discourse and political behavior? PiS has often framed its policies as defending national sovereignty and traditional values. In your view, how has this populist narrative resonated with the Polish electorate, and what demographic groups are particularly influenced by it?

Dr. Rafał Riedel: I’m afraid I have to affirmatively respond to this question. So yes, PiS party’s populism certainly impacted the political landscape. Regarding the resonance of this popular narrative among different demographic groups, the answer to the last part of your question is relatively straightforward. Analyzing the electoral groups and their preferences in the recent elections, it’s evident that the PiS party garnered support predominantly from older demographics, or using a politically correct term, those who are chronologically advanced.

However, despite their victory in terms of seats won, they, in a sense, lost because they lacked coalition potential. The so-called democratic opposition, as a coalition, secured more votes and parliamentary seats. This outcome was driven by the mobilization of younger electoral groups who found PiS party to be an unappealing choice, viewing it as a more conservative, passe (old) type of party. This generational gap was observable not only in the leaders of the party but also in the messaging and support they garnered, including how they distributed resources and allocated the public funds.

While PiS party may address several electoral sectors as a massive party, its primary focus lies in Eastern Poland and older fractions of the electorate. Nonetheless, the younger demographic was mobilized during the elections, contributing to the high turnout, which was exceptional by Polish standards and indicative of a revolutionary momentum, which we witnessed in October elections.

It’s conceivable that when you tailor your message to an older electorate, it naturally aligns more with conservative values. Despite PiS labeling themselves as conservatives, I’m quite skeptical about this characterization. Often, when we discuss traditional values and national sovereignty, we automatically associate them with conservatism. While potentially conservatism is a significant ideological tradition, the PiS party’s message and behavior did not genuinely reflect conservative principles.

In my view, not every regressive idea qualifies as conservatism. I’m not aware of conservatives who disregard and actively undermine institutions, which is precisely what PiS party did. Their actions amounted to the vandalism of liberal democratic institutions. Consequently, I find it challenging, among other reasons, to label them as conservatives. While PiS party attempted to frame themselves as defenders of national sovereignty and traditional values, this was largely a verbal strategy. Upon closer inspection of their actions, decisions and policies, there was little evidence of a genuine commitment to defending national sovereignty or upholding traditional values. 

Liberal Democracy Encompasses More Than Mere Majoritarian Voting

In your paper "Populism Is the Only Game in Town. Poland’s Illiberal Turn as an Authoritarian Threat," you argue that Poland has been experiencing an illiberal turn. Could you elaborate on the key indicators of this illiberal shift and its implications for democracy in Poland?

Dr. Rafał Riedel: Certainly, the indicators of Poland’s illiberal turn can be observed through various international rankings, such as Freedom House and Bertelsmann, which show a decline in liberal democratic ratings. However, delving more deeply into the developments on the ground in Poland, I would highlight two significant dimensions of this shift.

Just as liberalism can be defined in various ways, the same holds true for illiberalism. It’s important to note that illiberalism is not merely anti- or counter-liberalism. Rather, it can be analyzed along multiple dimensions. One such dimension can be termed as social-political, while another is distinctly economic. 

Primarily, illiberalism involves a rejection of liberal democracy. This rejection is evident not only in the most recent elections but also in preceding ones. Illiberal forces have successfully created a semi-cleavage, dividing the electorate into those aligned with liberal values and messages, and those favoring a more social-oriented approach. The illiberal factions vehemently oppose the liberal message, marking a significant aspect of their ideological stance.

At the same time, I get the sense that their opposition to liberalism was specifically directed at neoliberalism. Their message resonated strongly with those who felt disillusioned by the changes in Poland, particularly within the broader context of Central and Eastern Europe. While our focus is on Poland, it’s important to acknowledge that the post-1989 reforms were socially challenging, shaped significantly by the principles of the neoliberal paradigm.

The reforms were implemented during a Zeitgeist dominated by Thatcherism, Reaganism and a global shift toward neoliberalism. Many scholars argue that, given the prevailing atmosphere, there seemed to be little alternative. Fast forward one and a half decades, and the rise to power of these forces can be seen as a backlash against the weariness induced by the previous trend—a response to the fatigue stemming from the transformations of the late 20th century. In essence, this strain of illiberalism emerged as a counter-revolution, a reaction to the 1989 revolution and the subsequent wave of transformations.

And I believe this aligns well with various interpretations of illiberalism. Rhetorically, they skillfully placed blame on liberal democracy itself. As political scientists, we engage in debates about whether there exists any democracy other than liberal democracy. Even when simplistically defined, liberal democracy extends beyond mere majoritarian voting; it involves the safeguarding of minority rights. It also means that the political process operates within legal boundaries, encompassing non-majoritarian institutions such as the constitutional court and central bank, which are respected for their independence.

From this political perspective, the key parameters I would identify are the violations of liberal democracy and the phenomenon of state capture. In essence, I would characterize it as a party-state capture, as they have taken control of institutions like public media, the constitutional court, the Supreme Court, NGOs, foundations, and more, staffing them with party functionaries. While there may be some parallels with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, it’s crucial to avoid direct comparisons due to the numerous differences in their approaches.

Now, a brief overview of the second dimension, focusing on economic terms. If we examine various parameters related to the state-market relationship, the post-communist reforms, characterized by liberalization, commercialization, and marketization—following a neoliberal Washington Consensus-type program—were similarly disregarded. Instead, there was a preference for increased state involvement in the market and economy. However, I hesitate to label it any form of a coordinated market economy, as the outcome was quite the opposite. What transpired was, once again, a form of state capture. Party functionaries took control of state-owned companies. At one point, they advocated for the "Polonization" of the banking sector, emphasizing the need for "re-Polonization."

For example, the underlying assumption was that, following the privatization process post-Communism, the banking sector fell into the hands of foreign entities. To restore economic independence, they asserted the necessity to reclaim and "re-Polonize" the sector. Using public funds, they frequently acquired or, at times, coerced the sale of assets from foreign investors, manipulating legislation and employing various political maneuvers. While the outcome increased Polish capital in the banking sector, it concurrently meant a return to public ownership. Presently, it comprises state-owned banks or capital groups, including investment funds and insurance companies. Ultimately, this "re-Polonization" amounted to simultaneous "re-nationalization," marking a regression from the trajectory of building a more privately oriented capitalist economy. It is again a backlash and represented a counter-revolution against the earlier trend of market liberalization. These two parameters stand out as significant indicators of the shift toward illiberalism in both the economic and political spheres.

The Key Lies in Distinguishing Between Democratic and Non-Democratic Forces

Donald Tusk speaks at an election rally after a televised debate on government television at the end of the campaign in Warsaw, Poland on October 9, 2023. Photo: Shutterstock.

Given the recent elections in Poland and the success of Donald Tusk, how do you interpret the results in the context of your research on populism and illiberalism in the country?

Dr. Rafał Riedel: The most appropriate answer, without leaning towards any particular viewpoint, would be to adopt a wait-and-see approach. It is still too early to draw definitive conclusions. Although the elections occurred in October, the constitutional periods were extended by the previous ruling party, and the new government was officially appointed on December 13, just a week ago. Speculation at this point is limited, and interpretations remain relatively soft, given the evident change in democratic mood in Poland.

Personally, I harbored some skepticism about the smooth transition of power, given my negative assessment of authoritarian populist politicians. I was even doubtful about whether the power transition would occur seamlessly, particularly considering earlier instances in Brazil and the United States where transitions faced challenges. While I am not suggesting a regular coup, there have been examples, often inspired by figures like Donald Trump, who served as an intellectual ally to these politicians. As of our current conversation, the formal transition of power is underway, with the President appointing a new government led by Donald Tusk.

The illiberal trend in Poland persisted for a duration of eight years, during which they extensively seized control of the state. The changes they implemented were so deeply ingrained that reversing them will require a considerable amount of time. While I won’t specify another eight years, it is evident that this is not an overnight transformation. In my view, certain changes may materialize in weeks, others in months, and unfortunately, some changes may take years or prove irreversible due to entrenched processes.

As of our conversation, there is an ongoing international spotlight on Poland, particularly concerning the battle over public media. The previous administration continues to occupy the buildings, creating a standoff with the new government attempting to usher in new leadership. While they may have formally relinquished political power, their presence persists in numerous institutions. For someone like Donald Tusk, governing becomes a formidable task when facing opposition in public media, the Central Bank, Constitutional Court, Supreme Court, and more. The process of disentangling from these entrenched positions will undoubtedly take time.

Another significant and pressing question is whether reversing this trend is feasible through democratic means. While democratic expectations dictate that the process adheres to legal standards, there is uncertainty about its effectiveness in a reasonable timeframe. On the democratic front, the hope is for a proper and lawful reversal, but pragmatic considerations introduce the possibility that it may be a lengthy process, potentially facing another risk of backlash.

Categorizing these political forces in a simplistic right-, left-wing spectrum doesn’t suffice, as they transcend such conventional distinctions. The crux lies in distinguishing between democratic and non-democratic forces, with some aligning with authoritarian tendencies. This isn’t a standard political game unfolding within the democratic arena, with all players respecting the democratic principles. 

One of your articles explores the concept of "De-Europeanization of Eastern peripheries." How might the recent elections impact Poland’s relationship with the European Union, and what implications could this have for democratic norms and values? Do you think that Tusk’s government could stop the de-Europeanization of Poland? 

Dr. Rafał Riedel: Yes, I think so, because this was one of the main points during the electoral campaign. The question of Europe emerged as a crucial point of reference, shaping the political discourse. On one side, there was Donald Tusk and the entire democratic coalition, explicitly declaring a pro-European stance. On the other side, the PiS party increasingly adopted a Eurosceptic position. In my view, they have shifted from soft Euroscepticism to a more assertive hard Euroscepticism, with their post-election message being distinctly hard-Eurosceptic. This marks a significant transformation in Polish European politics. The recent EU summit showcased the reception of leaders like Donald Tusk, signaling a positive response. There are high expectations, both pragmatically regarding the unfreezing of the recovery fund—frozen due to concerns over democratic backsliding—and symbolically, as a return to a closer relationship with Europe. The structured shift in Poland is apparent, touching both on practical matters like the recovery fund and symbolic aspects, emphasizing a reconnection with Europe.

Exchange of Knowledge and Know-How Among Populist Movements Across Borders

Chairperson of Law and Justice, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Photo: Tomasz Kudala.

Considering the rise of populism globally, how do you see Poland’s political landscape influencing or being influenced by broader international populist movements?

Dr. Rafał Riedel: I’m currently collaborating with a colleague from Vienna on a paper exploring the diffusion of populist ideas across borders. Specifically, regarding the type of authoritarian populism seen in Polish politics led by Jarosław Kaczyński and his party, it’s clear that they drew significant inspiration from Viktor Orbán, openly expressing this influence. In 2011, after losing the parliamentary elections, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS, famously claimed that he was “convinced that one day, we will have Budapest in Warsaw,” providing a stark acknowledgment of his admiration for Orbán. The frequent meetings between Kaczyński and Orbán facilitated a learning process, with such influences openly declared in the Polish context.

The diffusion of illiberal ideas is working though transnational networks of the populists. There are numerous instances highlighting their admiration for figures like Donald Trump and their favorable view of how he was received in Poland ruled by PiS party. In contrast, after Joe Biden’s election, the Polish President notably delayed sending diplomatic congratulations to Washington. These populist leaders forged alliances through various means, organizing meetings, supporting one another, and hosting politicians from across Europe, such as Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, and others. They collaborated on conferences and attended events like Vox’s electoral events in Spain, showcasing the extent of knowledge and know-how exchange among populist movements across borders.

What are your expectations for the European Parliament elections in Poland scheduled for June 2024?

Dr. Rafał Riedel: Certainly, I wouldn’t attempt to predict the results as it’s too early, and I’m not a fortune teller. Typically, European topics hold significant importance in Polish discussions. I anticipate a highly spirited campaign, especially since it coincides with the ongoing pan-European debate about the future of Europe and federalization.

Presently, the PiS party and other Eurosceptic parties seem to be adopting a defensive stance, a trend likely to continue into the next year. If we manage to achieve re-democratization and re-Europeanization in Poland, I will predict the victory of pro-democratic, pro-European forces. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that around 30 percent or more of the population holds Eurosceptic views, be it soft or hard Euroscepticism, and this will be reflected in the elections. The key question is whether the Eurosceptic camp will be dominated by PiS party or if it will be divided between PiS party and Konfederacja, a more right-wing and more Eurosceptic party in the Polish political spectrum.

Poland Can Once Again Emerge as a Pioneer in the Broader European Context

Lastly, how concerned are you about a possible surge of far-right parties after the Netherlands in the upcoming European Parliament elections in June?

Dr. Rafał Riedel: On the Polish political spectrum, my skepticism about categorizing PiS party as a far-right party, as I’ve previously mentioned, aligns with the reservations many political scientists have about the oversimplified notions of right-wing and left-wing. Such labels often fall short, especially considering that their economic program may not neatly fit into conventional right-wing characteristics. However, it’s undeniable that PiS party exhibits strong nationalist tendencies and holds hard Eurosceptic views. I anticipate their continued association with the European Parliament fraction, known as The European Conservatives and Reformists Group.

In the European context, I don’t anticipate PiS party achieving more than 30 percent. In fact, I expect even less, considering the prevailing trends in Europe, as you mentioned, such as in the Netherlands. While they secured around 20 percent in their electoral result, it’s crucial to recognize the Dutch political system’s fragmentation and optimization, making it unlikely for a significant number of Dutch deputies from the right-wing spectrum to be elected, despite being the leading party. Looking at Germany, especially in East Germany, anti-migration sentiments could potentially boost right-wing parties. However, European elections are often considered second-order elections, meaning that domestic issues frequently take precedence over European topics in the discourse. Hence, I believe this analysis needs to be conducted on a nation-state level rather than a pan-European level. The absence of a European public sphere and pan-European parties, coupled with the fragmented nature of campaigns, necessitates an examination within the domestic political systems of the 27 member states. Each country’s specific political dynamics will play a crucial role in determining outcomes.

Just to conclude, I consider the October elections in Poland as a significant impetus. The prevailing mood in Central and Eastern Europe, dominated by figures like Orbán and Kaczyński, had been rather disheartening. However, the results in Poland bring a sense of hope and a breath of fresh air. Given Poland’s substantial size in terms of territory, population, and economy, it has the potential to exert a powerful influence. Orbán, with his anti-European and illiberal stance, finds himself more marginalized, lacking a Polish ally in Brussels. I hope that akin to its role in 1989, Poland can once again emerge as a pioneer, regional leader, and initiator of new trends in the broader European context.

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