On the surface, Poland's parliamentary elections in 2015 seemed to herald a continuation of the progressive and successful political climate that the country has enjoyed in the past few years.
Poland's politics matter. Its geographical positioning and new-found political clout have made it the anchor between Eastern and Central Europe. Since joining the EU in 2004, the GDP per head in Poland has almost doubled and the country's prosperity, stability, and pro-European leaning in recent years have earned it both respect and sway in European affairs. The recent elections were also only the second in history to have more than three parties with female leadership candidates. Such statistics seemed to augur well for Poland's political future.
In fact, the crushing victory for the Law and Justice Party (PiS) that resulted from October's elections has sent out tremors across Europe. Seismic waves of political instability have left social, cultural, political, and economic spheres shaken in Poland and beyond.
The origins of the PiS find their roots in the anti-communist Solidarity trade union. The party favours an overtly conservative orientation and its success heralds a distinct swing to the right in Poland's politics. Founded by Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński in 2001, the party claims to be the champion of the Catholic Church in Poland. It opposes any legal recognition of same-sex couples and, in 2005, Jarosław Kaczyński publicly stated that, though homosexuals should not be isolated, they should nevertheless, "not be school teachers for example. Active homosexuals surely not, in any case". Mr Kaczynski also warns against the dangers of immigration and the influence of Islam on society, even going so far as to claim that Muslim migrants “carry diseases”.
Aside from regression in social policy, the PiS's success also seems a harbinger of regression in political and personal freedom. In an attempt to consolidate power, the PiS has sacked the heads of Poland's intelligence and security services, replacing them with reliable supporters. Moreover, on December 31st, the Polish government dismissed managers of the public television and radio broadcasters, TVP1 and Polskie Radio, promptly giving its own treasury minister the power to appoint their successors. In protest, since January 1st, Poland’s Radio 1 has been playing the Polish national anthem and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” (the anthem of the EU) alternately every hour. The image on the cover of Polish Newsweek of an eagle (Poland's national symbol) smashed and accompanied by the caption “The rape of Poland” aptly summed up the implications for the social liberty of a nation which had to wait till the 1990s to be permitted democracy. Despite earning itself 18th position, ahead of the US, Britain, and France, in the index of World Press Freedom in 2015, Poland now faces widespread criticism from international freedom of speech groups.
The effect on Poland's environmental policy has also proved negative. The new government is severely opposed to Europe’s climate policies and, despite the fact that 85% of the country's electricity is already supplied by coal-fired power stations, the PiS is obstinately set on building even more.
Previously one of Europe's greatest economic hopes, Poland's financial success in recent years may be jeopardized by the PiS's new policies. The solvency of the previous government is threatened by the PiS's plans to start paying child benefits to parents, to offer those over 75 free medication, and to reduce the retirement age. Clearly aimed at building on the PiS's ageing and conservative support base, these concessions not only overlook the poorest and most needy in Poland in favour of conservative loyalists, but also threaten Poland's recent economic growth.
The consequences for the refugee crisis also give the EU reason to fear. Plans by the European Commission to redistribute migrants across the EU faced opposition by many Eastern European countries, particularly Hungary. An agreement between the EU and the Eastern European nations was achieved only thanks to the support of Poland. But with the PiS in power, and their preoccupation with Polish rather than European concerns, the stability of this agreement is beginning to crumble. The recent upheavals in Poland's political situation therefore appear to be threatening to destabilise the EU's anchor in Eastern Europe, possibly even deepening the East-West divide in Europe. The future of Poland will bear on Europe as a whole, yet only time will tell what bearing this may be.