There can be no doubt that in recent years there has been a large restructuring of politics in Eastern Europe, specifically within Poland. The right-wing populist has been gaining momentum on top of the power that they already held. The shift in rhetoric and policy coming out of the country has prompted many in the media to wonder what the cause is, and what can be done about it. The extreme right did not come from nowhere, and the reasons for their surge in support are not new in any sense.? Two possible explanations for the populist “Law and Justice” (PiS) party’s rise are racism, and economic anxiety.
Racism in Poland has been increasing since 2015, with nearly two thousand total recorded hate crimes occurring in 2018 and 2019. Immigrants and refugees have been told to go back home by polish nationalists, who believe that Poland is for Poles and no one else. The people who bear the brunt of these attacks and crimes are typically Turkish or Muslim, but the hate is spread towards all people not considered to be “Polish” enough. Poland does not have a clean history when it comes to the treatment of minority groups, with persecution against Jews and Romani being the focus as well as attention shifting to the perceived threat of Muslims. It is not only people on the street committing hate crimes against these groups, the government also has a hand in stoking the flames of racism. In 2016, a council designed to fight against discrimination in Poland was abolished, with no replacement planned. Polish MP Adam Andruszkiewicz successfully advocated for the removal of the National Radical Camps symbol from police literature detailing racist symbols, further confirming the Polish governments sympathies towards the extreme-right. All of this is to say that Poland has a history with racism and prejudice, and that one cannot ignore that when looking at PiS policy today.
The increase of hate crimes and violent acts against minority groups in Poland has caused many to feel unsafe. So called “anti-terrorism” laws are being used to deport anyone police deem fit. As long as the police suspect you of being involved in any potential acts of terrorism, they can spy on you, hide the case files from your lawyers and send you out of the country. This all comes despite the fact that according to Foreign Policy, Poland has experienced zero terrorist attacks stemming from an Islamist ideology as of October 2020.
While racism most certainly plays a crucial part in motivating voters toward the extreme-right in Poland, economic conditions also have to be taken into consideration. When it comes to Poland however, this explanation does not seem to hold water. The financial crisis of 2008 rocked almost the entirety of Europe, but Poland was not among the countries hit. In fact, when the recession was at its worst, Poland’s economy grew by 2.6 percent. While the countries economy is not at the levels of its Western European partners, to say that things are collapsing in Poland is not true. The economy of Poland seems to be doing well by most metrics. Polish President Andrzej Duda even uses the economy to get votes for the Law and Justice party. The PiS is able to take credit for a growing economy and claim that by voting for them, you are voting for increased social spending alongside increases in minimum wage and reductions in retirement age. This is not to say that PiS is doing this altruistically. The motivation for increased spending is to tie the people to them so that they are able to stay in power through continued promises of payment.
How the PiS frames these economic issues plays a role as well. While the party targets elites, minority groups are also in the crosshairs. The messaging is clear, if you are an LGBTQ+ person, a Muslim, black or simply not Polish, you are an outsider that threatens everything that the PiS has accomplished. To this end, PiS has demonized these groups, writing laws that ban the promotion of LGBTQ+ issues as well as the “anti-terrorism” law described above. PiS also frames issues brought up by minority groups and the left as “communist” in an attempt to play on peoples fears. In this way, they dilute the words actual meaning into something alien and hostile.
The future looks uncertain for Poland and Polish politics. Currently, PiS has a strong hold over the government, and their exclusionary policies continue to be enforced. The opposition in the Civic Platform (PO) is not as strong as it needs to be, and The Left not performing well enough to mount any serious counterattack. For now, it seems as if PiS will be able to spread their rhetoric of hate and blame for a while longer. However civic action is still strong, with women protesting abortion bans at the forefront of the ongoing outcries against the government. We will see if one day the opposition can mount a comeback and reverse the damage that PiS has inflicted among minority communities.