• “I had a choice: to stay on a legislative path that would last months or even years and allow hatred to spill further, or put an end to it.”

    Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, Polish minister of culture.

    This is how Sienkiewicz justified his decision to liquidate Polish public television. According to many experts, including those at Freedom House, Polish public television (TVP) had become a propaganda tool under the previous Law and Justice party-led government.

    The incoming minister’s move to dismiss the current TVP management was against the law, as the members’ terms of office were due to last for several more years.

    This is a risky path, as not all courts want to agree to register the new TVP company’s authorities. In 2015, when PiS came to power, it also replaced the entire TVP management, which was in defiance of the law. The PiS then established a new institution that ensured the party’s control over TVP for years to come.

    The new government faces a dilemma: restoring the rule of law and the independence of the media in Poland may be necessary, but might not be entirely legal.

    “I have been strongly opposed to so-called ‘forced solidarity’ for years, and while I was still head of the European Council,” said Donald Tusk at the beginning of this year.

    The Polish Prime Minister, in power since last December, has the same restrictive view on migration as the previous national-conservative Law and Justice government.

    ‘Forced solidarity’ is a name given to the EU’s asylum deal where member states are obliged to take asylum seekers to the EU or pay fines.

    Poland’s two largest parties are opposed to the migration agreement. The majority of the Polish population is against immigration. At the same time, Poland has invited 100,000s of foreigners from distant countries to work in recent years, due to labour shortage. A visa-scandal has erupted, which is currently being investigated by the Polish parliament. Former government members are suspected of taking bribes to allow easier access to visas for migrants from Africa and Asia.

    “Go to Berlin!” shouted Law and Justice (PiS) MPs when Donald Tusk, the future prime minister of Poland, appeared in the Polish parliament this summer. The narrative that the opposition leader was “in the pocket of Brussels” and pursuing anti-Polish interests permeated the election campaign in October 2023.

    The PiS propaganda suggested that the opposition’s win would result in Poland losing its sovereignty. The Poles, strongly in favour of EU membership, didn’t buy it. Moreover, the European Commission has already announced it will unblock billions for Poland from its Recovery and Resilience Funds this year.

    This money had been frozen because the nationalist-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) government would not withdraw its widely criticised justice reform. In Tusk’s case, his visit to Brussels and announcement that he would shelve this reform were enough. Tusk, while not yet prime minister, already has a major success to his credit, that neither the PiS nor the outgoing government of Mateusz Morawiecki can boast about.

    The PiS government’s anti-EU policy was primarily intended to dampen criticism of Brussels at home because of the government’s authoritarian inclinations. Over the past years, Morawiecki’s government took a drastic turn to the right and Poland became a Trojan horse of extremist ideas in the EU. Neither Warsaw nor the Poles have benefited in any tangible way from this.

    However, by stirring up conflict between the European Union and Poland, the Morawiecki government was fostering the interests of the Russians, who were seeking to weaken the bloc. Signs are multiplying among opposition figures and journalists that some PiS politicians were aware of this, and may have openly favoured Russia. These links should be investigated by the politicians who are about to take power very soon.

    Twenty years ago, no one would have bet that Poland’s accession to the European Union would be a great success for the country and Europe. The dominant fears were that Poland needed more reforms, had a weak economy and high unemployment, so its people would flood the Western countries’ labour market.

    Poland joined the EU on credit. Successive governments implemented the required reforms. Poles did indeed travel en masse to work in EU countries, but the Polish plumber became the symbol of a hard-working, reliable craftsman.

    Since Poland’s accession to the EU was a success, it was thought this would be the case for other countries. In 2007, Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU. This is where serious problems began, as these countries, plagued by various political conflicts, failed to carry out the necessary systemic reforms.

    Soon the economic and migration crises began to reach Europe, serious enlargement was postponed for an unspecified period. On top of that, it turned out that Poland – a recent front-runner in Europe – started to cause big problems. Those in power since 2015 started to demolish the rule of law, one of the main pillars on which the EU community is founded.

    Moreover, it turned out that there is no effective way to discipline Poland, because the EU has no tools to do so.

    The Union is once again at a crossroads: accepting new countries or reforming to prevent it from breaking up? The example of the Polish experience shows that both are necessary. Without enlargement and the will to admit more countries, the EU loses its credibility. But it must have the tools to discipline countries that break its rules.

    I was eight years old when communism collapsed in Poland, but I remember well the atmosphere of that time: Solidarity posters, family discussions about whether the ‘commies’ could be defeated, and great hopes for better times ahead. Hardly anyone expected it to succeed: the communists had the whole state apparatus, the media and the militia on their side.

    Yet we prevailed. On 4 June 1989, communism came to an end in Poland.

    Thirty-four years later, on 15 October 2023, the atmosphere surrounding the Polish elections was similar. Although we are now living in a free Poland, the reality was just as grey, harsh and devoid of hope for change. For the past eight years, we have watched the country slide into the depths of authoritarianism.

    Instead of engaging in a lively discussion, we were condemned to listen to a monologue conducted by those in power. Anyone who thought differently was an enemy of the nation (or rather of the authorities). The nationalism that emanated daily from the mouths of the politicians in power left no room for us to breathe.

    As in 1989, many believed that these elections would not change anything. But, just like at that historic juncture, the people of Poland proved to be unpredictable. The opposition — pro-European, democratic, with smiles on their faces — won unequivocally.

    This happened because Poles mobilised on an unprecedented scale. Turnout exceeded a record 74 per cent, with some voters queuing for up to six hours to cast their ballots.

    Once again, it proved that when Poles mobilise, they can rise to beautiful things. These elections restored my faith in democracy, people and Poland.

    It is also a sign for the whole of Europe: authoritarian politicians do not know the day or the hour when the nation will shake them off.

    He is young, unafraid of controversy and taking new voters by storm. Slawomir Mentzen, 37, is the rising star of Poland’s far-right party Konfederacja. This new party is expected to win around 10 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections on Sunday.

    Konfederacja will owe this to Mentzen, who has boosted the party’s poll numbers. He is particularly popular among men in the 18-39 age group. During the campaign, hundreds of young men queued up outside meetings with him across Poland called ‘Beer with Mentzen’.

    At these events, he takes the stage and, with a mug of beer in one hand and a microphone in the other, he talks about his views on taxes, immigrants, and the welfare system. He would gladly abolish them all.

    These ideas appeal to Poland’s young, who do not use the health service as much as the elderly, and regard the taxes they pay as a necessary evil. They expect simple answers to complex questions.

    Mentzen owns a law firm that deals with “so-called” tax optimisation, and a brewery. During his beer meetings (where Mentzen gets increasingly drunk, which also pleases the public), the politician is supposed to show the softer face of the far-right party. Konfederacja’s other radical politicians have been sidelined for the duration of the campaign.

    Meanwhile, Mentzen himself shares the same extremist views. In 2019, he said: “We don’t want Jews, homosexuals, abortion, taxes and the European Union”. Now he is adding Ukrainians, who he says are draining the Polish tax system and receiving overly generous benefits from the state.

    The Confederation’s anti-Ukrainian campaign is also the reason why the ruling Law and Justice party has turned against Ukraine in recent weeks. With an Ukraine-sceptic approach, the governing party hopes to siphon voters from this far-right group.

    Three million Polish Zloty (about €650,000) is the value of land bought by Iwona Morawiecka, the wife of the Polish Prime Minister, journalists have revealed. The total value of PM Mateusz Morawiecki’s wealth is unknown.

    Before turning into politics, the prime minister was the CEO of a large foreign bank in Poland. He has savings and bonds worth almost five million zlotys (over one million euros), plus several houses and apartments. Polish law does not oblige family members of politicians to submit a declaration of their assets.

    The Prime Minister’s critics say that if the wealth of the Prime Minister and his family were made public, it might not go down well with the voters for his Law and Justice party, ahead of next month’s parliamentary election.

    “We will not allow Ukrainian grain into Poland after 15 September even if the EU is against this. The interests of the Polish farmer are of the highest importance to us,” stated Robert Telus, the Polish Minister of Agriculture.

    The EU ban on imports of Polish grain will expire in mid-September and the Polish government should lift all barriers from this moment. But the ruling Law and Justice (PiS)-led government is not planning to do so.

    One reason for this refusal is that the Polish market was flooded with Ukrainian grain last May. Polish farmers could not sell their homegrown grain, which lay unwanted in warehouses.

    At that time, Ukrainian grain was only supposed to transit Poland, but most likely some Polish companies decided to bring it to the local market. Inspections showed the grain was low quality, and the Polish prosecutor’s office is now investigating what happened.

    But the whole case has a strong political background due to the upcoming parliamentary election in October. The issue of grain imports has caused discontent among farmers, without whose support the ruling Law and Justice party will not win the crucial vote.

    PiS also has to compete with the far-right Confederation party, which is in third place in the polls, and adopts an anti-Ukrainian stance. This is why the Law and Justice politicians are determined to block the import of Ukrainian grain.

    The government is willing to maintain this ban, even if it turns out to be in contravention of EU law. It is likely that the European Commission will then impose financial penalties on Poland. The cost of this challenge will likely be borne by the citizens.

    After all, for reasons of political wrangling with Brussels, Poland has still not received funds from the Recovery Fund.

    Poland’s courts are having problems staffing incompetent judges. This is the result of the governing Law and Justice’s “reforms” since the party won an outright majority in 2015.

    The epitome of these problems is Julia Przyłębska, the chairwoman of the Constitutional Court, whom Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Law and Justice, called “his social discovery”. He often met her privately and praised her culinary skills.

    Przyłębska became a judge in 1987. She passed the state exam with ‘barely sufficient’, the lowest possible grade for admission to the profession. There are many similar examples. The Association of Independent Judges “Iustitia” published a report showing that the Minister of Justice, in the first years of the “reform,” replaced 160 court presidents with his appointees, despite many lacking qualifications. As a result, the waiting period for resolving cases in Polish courts has increased. 
    The purpose of such operations is for the governing party to gain the loyalty of judges. The Constitutional Court under Przyłębska’s leadership issued rulings in accordance with the will of the authorities. An example was in 2020, when the judges ruled that abortions previously allowed in cases of fetal damage or defects were unconstitutional. This led to huge protests.

    But resistance to top-down changes imposed by the authorities is still strong in Polish courts. Ziobro’s nominee judges are being dissected by the “old” part of the judiciary, making it impossible for the former to rule smoothly.

    Also, the work of the Constitutional Court is frozen. Some judges are demanding that Przyłębska leave, recognising that her term has expired. They do not want to come to court sessions. The court under her leadership has become a de facto dysfunctional institution.

    The EU is the last guardian of Polish courts’ independence, and it should not hold back in its efforts to defend this key principle of the 27 member-bloc.

    It is an unpopular truth: in Poland, few people can count on a decent pension in the future.

    A decade ago, Minister of Economy Waldemar Pawlak said bluntly: “I don’t believe too much in state pensions. I try to secure my future through savings and a good relationship with my children. This will be more secure than these various state chimerical solutions.”

    The belief that the state will pay a decent pension after 1989 has never been particularly strong in Poland.

    Many Poles have taken matters into their own hands, just as the capitalist system had taught them to do. Knowing they won’t have a decent pension, they invested in the property market.

    After the fall of communism, pouring capital in real estate has become the national sport of Poles. Prices have risen at a tremendous rate, especially in Poland’s largest cities. Cheap loans have made it possible to buy a flat without a lot of capital. Many treated it as an investment. Some individual buyers had more than a dozen flats on credit. But this process has made another problem worse: access to housing.

    More and more flats were built, but as many as two million of them are standing empty. A large proportion of these are flats that people have bought as an investment, with a view to selling them off at a profit.

    As a result, rental prices have also risen. Today,only a small minority can afford a mortgage. Therefore, the majority of Poles will be condemned to whatever pension the state will offer them in the future.

    An even bleaker future awaits those who are currently entering the labour market. By 2060, they will barely receive the equivalent of 25% of their final salary as pensioners.