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Culture War Roundup for the week of October 16, 2023

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In culture war-ish political shifts from Eastern Europe, Poland's opposition looks to have overcome the PIS, meaning that the sometimes notorious Euro-skeptic right-wing government will likely be replaced by a more EU-phile coalition.

While the PIS won the most votes of any single party, with around 36.6% of the vote, this was less than the last election's 43.6%, and there seems to be a lack of coalition partners to reach the 50%. This was a fatal slide, which while having many contributing factors followed a major scandal in which corruption in selling Visas greatly undermined one of the PIS's key policy points- immigration- while validating accusations of corruption. While there will be some pro-forma opportunities for PIS to try and form a government, in practice leaves the likely next government to be an opposition-left coalition, which will likely be led by former prime minister (and former European Council president) Donald Tusk, who leadership in Poland was what paved the road for PIS to rise to power about 8 years ago.

Such a result will likely be greeted as a relief and good news for the European Union elites, and especially for Germany and Merkel, who Tusk was a reliable partner for. Tusk is about as much a Eurocrat as one can have, and has long been a leading voice in European circles shaping anti-PIS narratives as he tried to get back into Polish politics in the name of countering democratic-backsliding.

With a EU-phile government in Warsaw, this means some policies are likely to change. However, the nature of changes are likely to fall short of a 'the opposite of anything PIS did,' due to dynamics of PIS both doing some genuinely popular things which required 50-stalins criticisms, and for the nature of changing paradigms. Some of the dynamics that led to PIS criticism- such as the nationalization of hyper-majority German-owned Polish majority- aren't as likely to be reversed and re-sold once to the same companies once a shakey three-party coalition mostly united by being anti-PIS. Some things will be reversed, some will be kept, and some things will just be paralyzed due to coalition politics. That said, the European power centers- especially Brussels and Germany- can likely expect a more compliant Polish government for the next few years while Germany and France make a major push for power centralization in exchange for EU enlargement.

Various policy changes to look for movements on might include-

EU-centralization: This is one area where EU policy changes may see or enable significant shifts. One of the PIS's claims to notoriety was its functional political partnership with Hungary to block EU-level efforts to punish/exclude/potentially even suspend voting rights of recaltrant states. While condemned as part of anti-democratic badness, this had a major functional effect of blocking attempts at EU centralization that could sideline and selectively punish bad, or just unpopular, states. Tusk, as a EUrocrat, is almost certainly to step back from watering down issues targeting Hungary, but whether this will translate into a broader centralization momentum is less clear. The Germans and French have shifted from a current-EU-model of centralization (where individual states would be able to punished and lose veto rights- something Tusk might have gone along with) to now proposing a multi-speed-Europe model in exchange for expansion, which has far more serious implications, and which Tusk has opposed in the past (for potential reasons to broad for here).

Judiciary: This will likely be the quickest / easiest reversal, to EU applomb. The Polish judiciary followed a judges-select-the-next-judges, not appointment by the elected party akin to the German or US, and attempts to change that was strongly condemned by the EU (for whom the Polish Judiciary was seen as reliably deferential, despite corrupt origins from the post-communist transition). PIS paid regular political costs, and Tusk will drop that at the first chance while likely trying to prune if not purge the influence of PIS-associated judges (which will not be subject to significant EU-level criticsm)

LGBTQ+WE: This is one where the government line will likely align with the EU consensus of embracing the rhetoric and enabling/encouraging advocacy groups to set up social networks in Poland that were previously resisted. While over action will likely be less than full-throated supported, this was a PIS culture war point that the anti-PIS coalition will likely reverse for internal and external support reasons, though it will easily be a function that plays more to elite interests and foreign legitimization from EU allies than widespread domestic support.

Ukraine: There's very likely to be little substantive change on this. The biggest change is likely to be if there's a change in the distribution of arms vs other aid, which will reflect the military-industrial and rearmament policy more than a desire to aid Ukraine itself. While PIS did have election-rheotric and some disputes with Ukraine, I wouldn't expect the new coalition to substantially different on the conflict points (no Ukraine food dumping on politically significant farmers), and some of the criticisms of PIS on the Ukraine front came as much from a 50-Stalins direction as anything else.

Rearmament: Since Ukraine started, the PIS went on a major armament buying spree to modernize and bulk up the Polish military. Part of this was to free up older platforms to pass on to Ukrainians, while others were about establishing Poland as a military leader in Europe. Pre-election criticism focused on cost, and so reigning in would be natural (which could in turn mean less direct arms transfers in the future). The real interest will be what is cancelled versus what is changed, as various EU-power centers were more opposed that Poland was buying from outside the EU- especially US and US-alllied suppliers- rather than rearming itself. This will likely be a more case-by-case basis as PIS already had the ability to start some contracts that may have clauses making it less feasible to back out and transfer. It would be a major surprise, and reversal, if new-Poland renenges on the Korea tank contracts and goes for a German option.

Military-Industrial Policy: An outset of the Ukraine and Rearmament policies, PIS was establishing relationships and efforts to make Poland an autonomous arms center who could compete with French and German armament industries both inside the EU market and without. This had a dynamic of countering the EU strategic autonomy efforts (which are largely synonymous with French and German led arms projects), so there may be EU-advocated efforts to reign in the potential competition as a part of the rearmament restraint and Ukraine aid reallocation. Look for if South Korea's tank deal is radically restructured, as that was not only a rearmament program but also a lead-in to joint R&D for Polish military production capacity.

Media: One of PIS's condemned policies was its functional de-Germanification of Polish media. During the post-Cold War period and the early 2000s, part of Germany state-encouraged economic policy was the expansion of German economic interests, especially media interests, in the post-Soviet east. This led to a major centralization of Polish media by German corporations, who weren't adverse to leveraging corporate influence for political influence and themes, including shaping editorial lines on Polish politics. Tusk was a beneficiary of this as part of his German political alliances, given the nature of German government-corporate media relations which can be characterized at times as 'cozy,' but when the PIS took power they compelled foreign-owned media concentrations to sell, which is how the PIS gained outsized media influence that the opposition decried as state propaganda. Despite PIS now losing hold of that, I suspect that there will be no explicit German re-sell/reversal: rather, the Polish media landscape will likely be re-coopted by the new ruling coalition, just with different political interests in charge, or the new government will attempt to compel re-sell, but with an eye for more pro-EU rather than German-specific interests, to try and re-establish a dominant pro-EU media sphere but do so in a way a future-PIS government can't reverse as easily.

Immigration: This is likely to be one area where PIS broke the EU-phile paradigm, and Tusk and the anti-PIS quietly maintain continuity as a whole. While Tusk was a committed EU-phile and ally of Merkel, PIS made extremely good political hay from its anti-immigration stance, even getting the grudging German acquiesence when it was used in the 2021 Belarusian-instigated refugee crisis, where PIS preventing migrants from requesting asylum served as one of the only shields preventing an otherwise easy movement from Belarus-thru-Poland-to-Germany during the German government formation process. Given the EU-wide changes to immigration, and especially Germany's, while Tusk may entertain some token-level redistribution support, this will be a topic they step very gingerly around, not least because letting in immigrants corruptly was a key point of what brought PIS down, and could easily do them in again in turn.

There's more to be guessed at, of course, and I don't claim any special insight, but overall I'd expect by next year Poland-EU relationships to be on a fundamentally different tenor, but not at all what they were before PIS took control. Expect a lot of whom and who sort of 'it was really bad when PIS did it, not so much an issue now' tenor as conflicts occur, but one where Tusk and his EU allies try to make longer-term systemic efforts to prevent PIS from returning and cement a pro-EU coalition for as long as possible, but doing so knowing there's very shakey footing that could see them quickly fall and a PIS-coalition return.

PiS made extremely good political hay from its anti-immigration stance

A major scandal during the campaign was the "cash-for-visa" affair. Moreover, PiS does a lot of posturing on illegal immigration while opening the floodgates to legal migration. In many ways, they remind me of the GOP. Pretty hardline on stuff like abortion but totally hypocritical on immigration

One of PIS's condemned policies was its functional de-Germanification of Polish media.

Instead, Soros' Open Societies foundation literally bought one of the most prestigious newspapers ("Rzeczpospolita") as part of a wider consortium under their noses, LOL. They simply scaremonger about the Germans while allowing US plutocrats to buy up domestic media instead.

My understanding talking to my friends in Poland is that this shift is largely a product of this being Poland's first proper election year since the current war in Ukraine kicked off. A lot of the more "Euro-sceptic" figures/organizations within the Polish Legislature are in the doghouse for having been perceived as being "Soft on Russia" and the votes reflect that.

Hm. I've heard along those lines, but I don't find it convincing. Poland was massively, hugely disproportionately behind Ukraine for the first year of the war, and the spat with Ukraine over Ukrainian farmers was sometimes criticized in 'this benefits Putin' terms, but not as a 'soft on Russia' issue per see.

Really, one of the key points for me as an observor was that the PIS was doing doing relatively well but had a late-election slide, which suggests a typical late-emergence issue that saps support. There's nothing particularly 'soft on Russia' that comes to mind, but the two things that seemed to get the most attention/resonance in external media were the Polish-Ukraine grain dispute- which I've not seen evidence was particularly controversial in Poland- and the Visa scandal- which was a direct blemish on the government.

I wouldn't be surprised if there was an opposition coordinated turnout function that later is revealed to have been particularly impactful, but a lot of the results can be covered by a late-game motivation slump and well-timed late-game scandal. PIS was a fair deal closer to retaining power than is likely to be acknowledged.

The visa-selling scandal is particularly bad because PiS is facing two other right-wing blocs - Civic Coalition (Tusk's lot) are right-liberals and Third Way are a bit of a grab-bag but the largest party in the bloc are old-school agrarian populists. A right-wing party facing no serious right-wing opposition that fails to deliver on a right-wing agenda due to incompetence or corruption can survive for a very long time because their voters don't have anywhere to go. (Whether this applies to the GOP is left as an exercise for the reader).

Given how well Third Way did, I think a lot of social conservative voters switched from PiS to the Third Way parties in disgust at the visa-selling. They are still voting for a party in the populist quadrant of the political compass, but this time one that doesn't sell visas.

What? PIS was blamed for nearly everything possible, but not for being "soft on Russia". There were some complaints that they were so incompetent that they effectively help Russia, hard in wrong ways, more or less viable attacks about specific people etc. But "soft on Russia" was one of the dumbest ways to attack PiS, maybe "being too cozy with Brussels" would be worse. So this was not pursued seriously.

Yes, some crazies on FB posted that giving Ukraine 200+ tanks was done by Russian agents. But that was not seriously believed by anyone with a working brain.

It was quite hard to be noticeably harder on Russia without making semi-suicidal moves.

A lot of the more "Euro-sceptic" figures/organizations within the Polish Legislature are in the doghouse

Which ones?

Konfederacja was sole part which consistently went "Support for Ukraine is bad". And in the end they had not succeed (Korwin did korwin thing and started talking about one of his favourite topics).

this shift is largely a product of this being Poland's first proper election year since the current war in Ukraine kicked off

not really, if anything war helped PiS

I second that, Polish society holds one of the least favorable views on Russia in the whole world, and PiS is the most hawkish Polish political party on the hard security issues. The party leaders have shown hostility towards Russia from decades and no careful observer of Polish political scene would accuse PiS of being "soft on Russia".

such as the nationalization of hyper-majority German-owned Polish majority

What does this mean? PIS nationalized nominally-Polish companies owned by Germans? Or is it related to the media sales mentioned later?

I appreciate the writeup.

What does this mean? PIS nationalized nominally-Polish companies owned by Germans? Or is it related to the media sales mentioned later?

'Nationalized' isn't technically correct, in that the companies were sold rather than seized, but polandization of media was an established PIS goal partly accomplished in part by using control of the government to ban government entities from buying subscriptions, which undercut the financial viability of a significant number of media outlet. In short- financial viability depended on public purse strings, and so the party in power has power of the purse. (Which is one reason why it's unnecessarily likely to revert to foreign ownership- the same tactic could occur again, and media is even more dependent on state-support than before.)

The media sale was part of the PIS goal of re-polandizing the media, which was a multifaceted fight with both local and foreign interest groups that were actively arranged against the PIS. The role of foreign-owned media in the anti-PIS media sphere was openly acknowledged early on, and often mutually antagonistic. Here is an early 2019 article from DW (a German media company) that's rather frank about the nature of a significant parts of the majority-foreign-owned media sphere being part of the anti-PIS coalition. This is characteristic of the Polish media struggle after PIS came to power in 2016, where the sort of passive 'soft power' German-owned media influence in the earlier 2000s was giving way to more and more overt political influence attempts as part of anti-PIS polish politics.

The breaking point came in late 2020, with the purchase of Polska Press by a Polish state-owned refining company from Verlagsgruppe Passau, the German media company that had been running it since before PIS came in power. Polska Press was a media firm that owned hundreds of local newspapers and websites, including 20 out of Poland’s 24 regional daily newspapers as well as a further 120 regional weeklies. The portfolio of websites were reported to have over 10 million users, and the entire deal enabled access to an estimated 17 million media consumers, when Poland is a country of less than 40 million. Link

If that seems to be a lot, it is. Poland is a country of less than 40 million. But from a media-analysis, and PIS-perspective, the bigger point is that the concentration of ownership already existed.

For all the objections of PIS taking control of the papers, PIS couldn't have taken 20 of 24 regional daily newspapers in a single sale if someone else hadn't exercised collective ownership first, that party had been corporate German since before PIS came to power. While there's always an argument that German media was more neutral and objective and free from government influence, it's not exactly hard to find links between the 2010s German government and German media that enabled the German government to shape corporate media coverage.

It also probably didn't help that anther German media CEO wrote a letter to his Polish media workers calling a PIS politician a loser for opposing Donald Tusk and indicating his intent to apply editorial pressure in his preferred direction. That's the same Axel Springer media group co-owned (and now directly owns) PoliticoEU, one of the primary English-language media groups covering European politics as a direct feeder to the American political-media sphere via it's American cousin, Politico. If you read a media article on how Polish media freedoms were at threat in the later 2010s, there was a non-trivial chance it was either dervied from, or directly from, an Axel Springer outlet.

Axel Springer, completely unrelated, owned a number of Polish media interests in the 2010s that may or may not have been subject to polish-ownership risk.

Put it all together: in the mid-2010s as PIS campaigned to power, the media environment was a majority foreign-owned, especially German owned, with prominent German media actors already indicating a not-so-secret hostility to the incoming party. PIS declared it's intent to re-Polandize Polish media, the German-owned media fought back to preserve their ownership. Arguably, they lost. PIS may have lost this election, but only after a political generation and a general dismantling of the German media empire in Poland.

I appreciate the writeup.

You're welcome.

It's not easy to see it at the first glance, but the supposed coalition will still be quite conservative. A center-right party named 'the Third Way' openly proclaims Catholic morality and values and it seems that without them the parliamentary majority cannot be reached.

Doesn’t feel like that on the ground. Polish people are Shreks, their support for LGBT can be understood as “do whatever you want out of my swamp”, have all the negative rights you want, such that Im not expected to grant you positive freedom. Polish people react to rumours of LGBT flags in Western courthouses, schools, and libraries with a shock that chooses between “this is terrible” and “this is so terrible it must be PIS Stalinist propaganda to scare me away from the west”.

Polls with questions like "do you support rights" don't reflect what's actually happening in the culture war, in fact the attempt to conflate the two feels like a pretty explicit smear tactic.

"Flawed" does not begin to give it justice. Most people haven't the faintest clue what "LGBTI+ ideology" is supposed to mean. Even as a culture war junkie I cannot tell you what those specific pollsters meant by that, I can just tell you that what the elites try to sell under the "LGBTI+" label includes things far outside the overton window of most people even in the progressive west, let alone Eastern Europe.