The mutiny of the lemmings

There are two antagonistic Polands now, and one must go back to 1989’s Round Table negotiations to understand why this is the case.

Photo: CreativeCommons/Piotr Drabik

When V4Revue asked me to write about the outcome of the Polish Parliamentary elections, I found it to be a difficult task. The victorious Law and Justice Party is well known for being unpredictable. So I tried to be as broad as possible by proposing three scenarios, only weeks later realizing that my predictions did not even come close to reality, because Jarosław Kaczyński had a cunning plan up his sleeve all along.

To understand the current situation in Poland, one has to go back to the Round Table negotiations in 1989. For some, it was a triumph of a self-limiting revolution: a peaceful transition of power. But a sense of injustice was growing among those people left behind by a country changing at an extremely swift pace. Voices emerged, that the Round Table was actually a deal brokered between the Solidarity elites and the communists, so that they could monopolize power, leaving everyone else out. This legend was only strengthened when in 1992 Jan Olszewski’s government fell as a result of the clash over lustration and decommunization. He became known as, “the only true-anticommunist prime minister, who was overthrown by communists and traitors” – this was just what was needed for the founding myth to take hold.

From then on, this parallel narration smoldered at the edge of mainstream political life. But it was Jarosław Kaczyński, who re-forged it into a complete parallel universe. With the help of Catholic Radio Maryja and some right wing newspapers they managed to build a self-sustaining media ecosystem that now claims to be “the only, true, Polish journalism,” which stands in opposition to the “regime” or “foreign-funded” mainstream media outlets, who they say “lie to support the establishment.” Their whole system was built around the creation of a private University in Toruń, which was meant to groom journalists to the media. Right wing historians published books that aimed to “show the truth,” while diminishing such legendary personas like Lech Wałęsa. The narration of the Church, that saw the European Union as a threat to “true Polish values,” portrayed the Polish political class as traitors, who after the collapse of the Soviet Union, turned to a new principal – a German-ruled EU.

In order to appease those Poles, who found themselves on the losing end of economic reforms, they blamed former security agents, who allegedly infiltrated businesses and syphoned money out of them. And many right wing Poles still find this explanation convincing, willingly remaining in a bubble and refusing to accept any counter narratives that come from the outside. They look down on other parts of society, calling them “lemmings,” those little rodents, who are allegedly unable to think for themselves and just follow the slice to their own destruction.

In 2005 when the coalition led by Law and Justice came into power, they hoped to “get rid of the system,” but internal conflicts tore their plan apart. Jarosław Kaczyński, unable to rule with his minority government, played va banque and called new elections hoping to gain a single majority. Voters, fed up with his unpleasant style of government, decided otherwise. For right-wingers this was proof that the “system” was afraid of Jarosław Kaczyński, and they claimed that the elections were rigged. A few years later when his twin brother, President Lech Kaczyński, died in a Smoleńsk plane crash, they needed no further proof. According to them, the system will do anything to protect itself – even assassinate the president!

Today, two Polands exist: on the surface, there is an Eastern European success story – a modern and progressive country that is enjoying the best moments in its history; and then underneath, inside this right wing bubble, there is another Poland that believes that the fight for freedom never ended – that enemies today just display different flags. This bubble swallowed about 20% of society, but it seems it has become as big as it can get. Therefore to regain power, Jarosław Kaczyński had to feint the enemy. So a whole campaign was launched to convince people, that the old, truculent and vindictive Law and Justice was a song of the past. Instead Poles were provided with a modern and sleek product, complete with a new generation of politicians, like President Andrzej Duda and Beata Szydło, promising widely expected social reforms.

This plan was a success, with Szydło becoming prime minister of the Law and Justice government but on the next day the masks dropped. Szydło and Duda turned out to be just puppets in Kaczyński’s hands. It became clear that the party’s true aim – completely dismantling the post-1989 order, punishing traitors and then starting all over again – was unchanged. However, because their majority did not allow them to change the constitution, they attempted a cunning plan to remove all obstacles: dismantling the state institutions, and reverting or modifying nearly all reforms introduced by the previous government to their liking. Kaczyński knew that some changes might be met with strong opposition, so he acted quickly in order to secure his position, but his “blitzkrieg” faced stronger resistance than expected.

A vast number of Poles took the streets in order to express their opposition to Kaczyński’s attempts to hijack the Constitutional Tribunal. To counterbalance it, tens of thousands of Law and Justice followers were bussed into Warsaw to take part in pro-government rally. Kaczyński, in strong words, tried to paint the opposition as the “worst sort of Poles,” “traitors” and “beneficiaries of the old system, trying desperately to defend their privileged position.” He claims that he has a national mandate to carry on with his changes, but this claim is remorseless considering he only attained power because of low voter turnout and a proportional electoral system: in absolute numbers, less than one in five Poles voted for Law and Justice.

There is an ancient Polish legend that tells of Popiel, an unjust usurper prince, who as a punishment for his misdeeds, was eaten by mice. And just as in the legend, if the anger of today’s “lemmings” prevail, another ruler of Poland might fall victim to the rodents.

Tomasz Oryński

Tomasz Oryński

is an independent journalist based in Glasgow, publishing mostly in Polish and Czech émigré media and on his own website He got an MA of Czech Studies and Central European Studies at University of Glasgow.