Poland’s Populists Are Suddenly Vulnerable

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- If politics is all about keeping control of the narrative, Poland’s nationalists just got a glimpse of what can happen when you lose it. The seemingly impregnable political machine that’s stamped its authority on the country over the past three years and defiantly faced down castigation from the European Union has shown it has vulnerabilities.

A painful few weeks saw the prime minister embroiled in a scandal overdisparaging comments he made during his past life as a banker and the strongest rebuke yet from the EU over Poland’s overhaul of the courts. They culminated in a lukewarm endorsement from voters for the governing Law and Justice party as it failed to gain all but one of the big cities in local elections. In Warsaw, the main outpost of the opposition, Law and Justice was trounced.

Poland, backed by Hungary and other nationalist allies, has led the line in what’s become Europe’s biggest standoff between East and West since the Berlin Wall fell almost three decades ago. Whether it’s a temporary setback or a sea change remains to be seen, but alarm bells have gone off for the leaders of “Poland First” patriotism that turned the country into a prototype for Donald Trump. At party headquarters in Warsaw the day of the vote, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Law and Justice leader and Poland’s populist-in-chief, said the campaign for reelection to government next year has started and “we will have to work, work, and work again.”

The party won a resounding victory when compared with local elections in 2014. It took control of at least six regions compared with one before. But it was clear the share of the vote was down from 2015, when the numbers swept it to power with a record parliamentary majority. Questions are being asked why it couldn’t build on that success. “People realized that Law and Justice isn’t immortal,” says Joanna Mucha, a lawmaker for the opposition Civic Platform group.

Until now, nothing seemed to faze the leadership. A protracted impasse with the EU over a power grab of the independent judiciary and public media and a confrontation with the U.S. and Israel over a law making it a criminal offense to suggest Poland played any role in the Holocaust were met with kudos among supporters. They bought into the narrative of a plucky government standing up for their nation against what the party calls “anti-Polonism.” In April, as relations with allies deteriorated, Law and Justice still commanded an average lead in the polls that was wider than its sweeping victory in 2015. It helped that the economy was—and still is—growing at a healthy clip. That’s because Poland is the biggest net recipient of EU aid, and consumers are enjoying Law and Justice’s increased spending on social welfare such as subsidies for families.

Then came events tougher to manage for Kaczynski, 69, and Mateusz Morawiecki, 50, the prime minister he hand-picked in December as the slick, English-speaking face of the new Poland.

Two days before Poles cast their ballots, the European Court of Justice ordered Poland to immediately suspend its Supreme Court overhaul, raising concerns among Polish voters about whether Law and Justice is covertly pushing the country out of the EU. That came after Morawiecki had to fend off a deepening scandal over recordings of private conversations in Warsaw restaurants five years ago when he ran the Polish business of Banco Santander SA. The comments reminded voters of his past as one of the “elites” Law and Justice has railed against, rather than the politician criticizing foreign companies for “colonizing” his country. In the recordings, Morawiecki was heard making expletive-laden remarks about having to fawn over Jews and rich foreigners to get their money. He suggested Poles one day might be grateful to “work for a bowl of rice.” He also joked about serious injuries to a Formula One racing driver who was about to be sponsored by his bank. Morawiecki apologized, though he said the remarks’ publication by foreign-owned media was an attempt to smear him. The party redoubled its efforts with ads depicting a Poland that allowed Muslim immigrants.

“It’s a clear verdict that the populist revolution is getting weaker,” says Marcin Zaborowski, senior associate at Visegrad Insight, a journal of analysis and opinion focusing on central Europe. “It’s also a personal defeat for Morawiecki, who has been a better, modern face of the party, geared to more centrist voters, and this bid has failed. The result will weaken the position of Morawiecki within the party.”

Publicly, Kaczynski is standing by his protégé, opting for a Trumpian refrain. “We’ll have to work so there’s much less of what is now called fake news,” he said after the vote, “so that everyone makes decisions according to what they think, but also so that every Pole knows that during these four years Poland has moved forward, very strongly.”

All sides will have an opportunity for competing shows of strength next month: Nov. 11 is Poland’s Independence Day, marking when the nation was reconstituted at the end of World War I after centuries of foreign rule. It will be more than just the usual harnessing of the country’s nationalist forces. —With Maciej Martewicz

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