Poland’s onslaught on the media is misguided and dangerous. It also heralds an era of communication breakdown with the rest of Europe
In a New York Times piece titled “The Obama theory of Trump”, political strategist David Axelrod yesterday tried to explain the astonishing rise of America’s most mystifying presidential candidate.
Obama, Axelrod remarked, won the favours of the electorate back in 2008 because his deliberative, patient personae contrasted starkly with the bellicose strand of his predecessor (George W. Bush). The Donald was now an enduring darling in the polls, he continued, precisely because his trash-and-brash attitude made Obama look both distant and hesitant. Quite simply put, voters were most often attracted by personal qualities that – compared to that of incumbents – were at the polar opposite.
Strong point – and one that seems to apply to the Poles themselves. Last October, the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) triumphed in Poland’s general elections by sweeping aside the pro-market Civic Platform. The results saw the patriotic-conservative, Eurosceptic Jaroslaw Kaczynski become the country’s new strongman after eight years of rule by the mild-mannered Donald Tusk (now president of the European Council).
It didn’t take long for Kaczynski to correct the “liberal imbalances” introduced by his predecessor. In fact, the whole operation was wrapped up in about 12 days.
Less than 24 hours after being sworn into office, the new government named a close friend of Kaczynski to head the intelligence service. Within weeks it replaced the heads of the Warsaw stock exchange and several large state companies with party loyalists. It then packed Poland’s constitutional tribunal with mates; it also amended existing rules so that overturning any law would require a two-third majority. It is now virtually impossible for the court to veto any legislation advanced by PiS.
But what arouse most concerns was the government’s takeover of the public media. Earlier this month it passed a law allowing it to appoint all heads of state-run broadcasters. It swiftly followed suit by putting a loyalist in charge of PTV, the country’s most popular network. It is said to be drafting a law that would enable it to sack journalists at all public media outlets that are not vetted by the new management.
The measures have irked the EU. In an unprecedented move, the European Commission on 13 January launched an investigation into Poland’s rule of law. This could result in the country being stripped of its voting rights in the Union (although insiders play down that possibility for now). At a more symbolic level, it could also complicate Poland’s participation in the Eurovision song contest.
But the government is not too bothered with parading or keeping friends. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who had a first stint as prime minister between 2005 and 2007, believes his task as ridding Poland from its liberal excesses is an unfinished job. He is now doing everything in his power to make sure voters won’t remove him from power this time around. In that task he follows in the footsteps of Hungarian premier Viktor Orban, who after returning as leader in 2010 alienated the rest of Europe through pressures on the media and the judiciary.
Yet such tactics are only one side of PiS’ strategy for cementing its popularity among voters. The party returned to power last autumn by promising to introduce family benefits, lower the retirement age and reduce the tax burden on the poor. The problem, as PiS now realises, is that such measures are very expensive. And Poland desperately needs €82.5 million in European funds to help boost growth, which the EU will be reluctant to dole out should Warsaw’s budget deficit bump against its 3 percent limit.
And so the government is now going after big business to plug the gap. It plans to collect PLN2 billion ($485 million) from a tax on retailers largely targeted at foreign groups like Jeronimo and Tesco. It is also introducing a new levy that will require banks to pay 0.44 per cent of their adjusted assets every year.
The government argues there measures will benefit small shops and ordinary Poles. But they will probably do more damage than good to the country’s economy, hurting everyone in the process. Standard & Poor’s downgraded Warsaw’s credit rating earlier this month, after which Polish stocks, bonds and the zloty dunked. Moody’s believes the banks’ ability to absorb shocks is now reduced, as a result of which they will lend less to people and small businesses. Even the central bank thinks the government’s plan for boosting the economy is bonkers.
A weak and wary Poland is the last thing Europe needs. The new government is already throwing a spanner in efforts to solve the refugee crisis, and its awkward statements threaten to provoke a new arms race with Russia. Unless PiS changes course, even those who voted the party in power may soon wish their own Donald could return.
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