Kaczynski vs Tusk: Poland is voting today – democracy is at stake

In the last few days before the election, opposition leader Donald Tusk was almost everywhere.

Kaczynski vs Tusk: Poland is voting today – democracy is at stake

In the last few days before the election, opposition leader Donald Tusk was almost everywhere. On Monday he discussed the election debate on TVP, the PiS government's propaganda channel. On Tuesday he met women in Lodz to promise them more equality after his election victory. On Wednesday he drove to Elk in the northeast to discuss Poland's security and military leadership resignations. On Thursday he appeared before voters in Katowice. Every vote counts, never since the collapse of communism has an election campaign in Poland been so hard and intensely contested.

The brutalization of the political debate has reached its lowest point. Hatred and agitation are omnipresent, especially on the side of the ruling party, which has based its entire campaign on stoking fear of the return of the "German" Tusk government. The boundaries of morality and decency have long been exceeded.

This Sunday's election is - and this is no exaggeration - about the future of democracy and Poland's membership in the EU. Only 34 years after reunification, the country is teetering on the edge of the abyss: with the PiS's third mandate since 2015, Poland could slide into authoritarianism - with Kaczynski as a would-be dictator. His model of rule hardly differs from that of the old Soviet system: Kaczynski wants to institutionalize his party's leadership role and weaken or eliminate all opposition movements. According to his understanding, the state belongs to those in power and the act of voting is little more than a formal confirmation to make the government credible. In other words: the elections are only good if the PiS wins.

For Kaczynski, any means is acceptable to stay in power. He abuses all state institutions that he has previously restructured in order to gain advantages in the election campaign. All important economic control bodies, such as the central bank, stock exchange supervisory authority, anti-monopoly and regulatory authorities, as well as all state-owned companies, which he has filled with loyal PiS supporters, are now campaigning for the government. The head of the State Electoral Office and all election commissioners were also nominated by the PiS. This is how Kaczynski understands democracy.

In order to secure his party's monopoly of power for years to come, Kaczynski could silence the independent media, eliminate the independent judges and weaken the local administration after his third election victory. Kaczynski has never made a secret of his desire to bring the independent media under his control. He simply considers your criticism to be treason, because he believes in the infallibility of himself - and his party.

Two years ago there were attempts to take over the majority of shares in TVN, which is controlled by the US company Discovery. But after a strong reaction from Washington, the PiS was forced to retreat - President Andrzej Duda blocked the law directed against TVN. At the beginning of 2023, the government tried to install its own political commissioners at the critical internet media Onet and Wirtualna Polska who would represent the government's position there. The editors-in-chief categorically rejected this - as did the well-paid purchase offers from businessmen who were friends of the government. The state-owned oil company Orlen was more successful: it had already taken over the Polish local newspapers from the German Passauer Neue Presse in 2020 and converted them into a PiS propaganda machine.

There is little doubt that the PiS would do everything in its third term in government to finally undermine the independence of the courts. Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who is also Attorney General, has always refused to comply with EU calls to reform the Supreme Court and restore the rule of law. The PiS government has long since written off the 35 billion euros from the EU reconstruction fund that Brussels withheld because of the dispute. Instead, she enjoys her impunity: Ziobro is already blocking investigations that target party colleagues and supporters. Since the Constitutional Court was hollowed out, no laws have to be examined to see whether they violate the constitution. Now it's a matter of intimidating the remaining law-abiding judges in all instances - and replacing them with loyal PiS command recipients.

The dispute with the EU is priced in if the PiS government continues, because it is prepared to only implement those decisions from Brussels that fit the PiS chairman's concept. Poland is unilaterally blocking grain imports from Ukraine, even though the EU has allowed the European embargo to expire. Brussels is responsible for the bloc's trade policy. Warsaw refuses to accept migrants who came to Europe via the Mediterranean - and also refuses to pay the resulting payments. Warsaw also rejects the “Fit for 55” program, which is intended to ensure a 55 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

During the election campaign, Kaczynski ridiculed the EU ban on internal combustion engines and called for more time to achieve independence from fossil fuels. He was outraged by recommendations from various international committees to reduce meat consumption: The PiS would not dictate to Poles how much meat they could eat per year, he polemicized. Climate goals can hardly be achieved with Kaczynski.

At first glance, Poland sometimes seems like a country on the rise. The cities are blossoming, office towers and apartment buildings are shooting into the sky. Young people who work for foreign companies and fly to Paris or Barcelona for weekend trips sit in restaurants and cafés. But in the eighth year of PiS rule, clouds are gathering - for the first time in 32 years the economy is stagnating, inflation is in double digits, and the investment rate is falling. Instead of combating inflation with strict financial discipline, the government is increasing social benefits and handing out billions in election gifts: it is abolishing motorway tolls, introducing free medication for children and seniors, and paying 13th and 14th month pensions.

Under the banner of repolonization, the PiS has renationalized several banks and corporations controlled by foreign investors, even though the state is known not to be the most efficient owner. In doing so, PiS created hundreds of high-paying jobs for loyal supporters, their family members and friends. But that's not the only thing Kaczynski is interested in: he wants to control strategic economic sectors in order to use them to secure political power. Like now: He ordered the energy, gas and fuel prices to be lowered during the election campaign and thus manipulated the mood of the voters.

When the EU criticizes the creation of new state-controlled monopolies, Warsaw sometimes threatens "Polexit." Poland's former Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski fears that another PiS term in office could even lead to Poland leaving the bloc. “They are already preparing the public for this,” complains Sikorski. "That's a scandal!"

And playing with fire, the country also owes its growth to its accession to the EU. Brussels has transferred around 160 billion euros net to Poland since 2004. The streets were modernized and the cities were renovated. To date, Polish farmers receive almost three billion euros in subsidies per year, more than 200 euros per hectare. The EU therefore enjoys a high level of approval in Poland. Kaczynski is willing to give it all up for one reason - to consolidate his power.