Thursday, October 25, 2007

Poland‘s Oct. 21 elections are over, and the Civic Platform, a liberal party, has won. The bearers of almost all Polish names known in the United States rejoice: Adam Michnik (kingmaker and creator of the image of Poland in the New York Times), Wladyslaw Bartoszewski (left-leaning former foreign minister), Lech Walesa (the hero of Solidarity, now definitely a has-been), Aleksander Kwasniewski (an ex-communist and a former president), Bronislaw Geremek (a scholar and Communist Party member for 18 years, and a former foreign minister), plus dozens of other notables. They all rejoiced over the defeat of the conservative government of Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Whence this coming together of a diverse crowd?

The defeated party, Law and Justice, had a plurality in the former parliament. To rule, it entered unsavory coalitions. The two tiny extremist parties it allied itself with got less than 5 percent of the vote this time, rendering them ineligible for representation in the Sejm. The two bizarre miniparties are defeated, and a liberal party victorious. What is there not to celebrate? Allow me to dissent.

The Polish elites united to celebrate the downfall of the conservative Law and Justice Party, because it demanded from them a confession about their past. The process was called vetting and was initiated in March 2007.

Half a million people were asked to say if they were informers in Soviet-occupied Poland. Did they report on their fellow officials, professors, students and colleagues? This blunt question brewed a storm of indignation among the ladies (and gentlemen) who protested too much. The so-called intelligentsia refused to comply. The spirit of civil disobedience went into action, and the vetting was never completed.

Then the elites took their revenge. They made public statements and broadcast them abroad. The Kaczynski government was declared a threat to democracy, obstructionist, nationalistic, fixated on revenge against the former communists, set on populist indoctrination and morbid suspiciousness.

The gander (Kaczynski derives from the Polish word for a male duck) was said to be pathologically dumb and even criminal; the names of Vladimir Putin and Josef Stalin were invoked, so foreign observers were apt to assume a totalitarian coup was taking place in Poland. After months of vilification (Adam Michnik’s histrionic articles about Mr. Kaczynski’s Poland appeared in the New York Times and the New York Review of Books), a crisis in the shaky coalition made it collapse, and new elections had to be called. With such an array of invectives in the background, it slipped from view that the Kaczynski government was a loyal friend of the United States and kept a contingent of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the Civic Platform ran on the promise of withdrawing Polish forces from both countries.

Besides proving democracy alive and well in Poland, the elections also demonstrated the power of the press. Were it not for the incessant barrage of insinuations and insults, Polish voterswould not have been moved to gamble on the Civic Platform.

Edmund Burke once remarked in the British House of Commons: Yonder sits the Fourth Estate, and they are more important than them all. He was right: the Fourth Estate is more powerful than the other three, especially in countries like Poland that do not have a long tradition of conservative governance.

The press won the elections for the Civic Platform. It removed opprobrium from long-term members of the Communist Party (now social democrats and respectable citizens), and declared the conservative segment of Polish society exudes the bad odor of populism and backwardness. Yet it was largely the right that did the yeoman’s work in the struggle against communism.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, a lion’s share of the help from abroad meant to assist anticommunist forces in Poland went to groups on the left side of the political spectrum. They got a head start. Now the right is scrambling to start its own newspapers and TV stations, and win over the traditionally leftist intelligentsia.

The Polish elections provided a lesson all post-communist countries should bear in mind. Without an apparatus of public relation and without cultivating (and winning) a significant portion of the country’s intellectuals (the people who create and control discourse), no elections can be won in a democratic society. Another lesson is that communism, though defeated, has left a long shadow. It forced ambitious people to cope with their not-altogether-pristine past in a not-altogether-honest way.

Prime Minister Kaczynski conceded defeat with dignity and grace. The winner, Donald Tusk, declared himself pro-business, open-minded and ready to say yes to any demand from Brussels. The right is intimidated and reels under accusations of authoritarianism. In many ways, what is happening in Poland is a replay of the situation of the religious right in America before it won a place at the table.

Perhaps, come next elections, the Poles will learn that to win it is not enough to be in the right. A political party has to assiduously work on its image and learn to develop cordial relations with the Fourth Estate.


Research professor of Slavic Studies at Rice University.

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