Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

What Makes Kaczyński Tick?

[Editor’s Note: This commentary first appeared in German under the title “Polens Direktor” in der Spiegel, no. 3/2016, pp. 88-89. It is reprinted with permission from the author.]

Wojciech Sadurski, Challis Professor of Jurisprudence, University of Sydney; Professor, Centre for Europe, University of Warsaw

Without a doubt, Jarosław Kaczyński is not just paramount but also an absolute political leader within Poland’s ruling elite. While formally speaking he is just an ordinary MP and the leader of the majoritarian political party, PiS (Polish acronym for Law and Justice), in fact he directly controls every top executive and parliamentary official in Poland – and he revels in showing them their proper place. President Andrzej Duda, hand-picked by Kaczyński to run for the job from amongst the lower ranks of the party, has been behaving as a docile and obedient servant of Kaczyński. The same can be said for Prime Minister Beata Szydło. At the 11th hour in the lead-up to the election, Szydło desperately tried to reassure the electorate that she would not nominate the thoroughly unbalanced Antoni Macierewicz for defence ministry. She was promptly humiliated by Kaczyński, and fumbled awkwardly to explain why her initial promise had to be breached.

So, with such an absolute personalization of power in Poland, at first blush it would seem an easy task to characterize the ruling party’s “doctrine”. It is enough to simply identify Kaczyński’s political Weltanschauung. No competing factions there, no strong deputy leaders, no complex mosaic of supportive policy-framers, agenda-setters, or opinion-influencers…  There is only Kaczyński – and his army of acolytes, eager to rationalize any of his decisions or public statements, no matter how implausible the justification.

And yet, the task of defining “Kaczyński’s doctrine” is far from simple – perhaps because there is none. His own “policies” are an uneasy mix of intuition, prejudice, resentment and fear, comprised of very few, and incoherent at that, policy platforms.

Social and economic policy is an uneasy mishmash of economic liberalism (lower taxes, simplified regulatory policies for enterprises) with “generous” welfare payments – in particular, the shocking electoral bribe of PLN 500 monthly per child. Poland is an economic success story, with the GDP per person quadrupling between 1990 and 2015, but not everyone has benefited from the economic growth of recent decades. The main losers are the older workers of huge state-owned industries – now rendered inefficient and obsolete. Relative, though not absolute, deprivation created a large constituency of the dissatisfied. Members of this group are usually at the bottom of educational structure, and are easily persuaded by the most fantastic explanations for the sources of their misfortune – something that PS is very good at. Kaczyński has also picked up traditional left wing clients, by catering to the resentments, complaints and bitterness of the left-outs. It is no wonder that there is no left wing party in the current Parliament – PiS captured this constituency through a disparate collection of welfare promises that do not cohere into any consistent economic policy.

Foreign policy? On this subject, Kaczyński has some very strong opinions, but very little knowledge. Essentially ignorant about the outside world, he does not speak any language other than Polish, and is resolutely uninterested in foreign affairs. His perspectives are informed by strong dislikes, with Russophobia and Germanophobia taking centre stage. Even before his electoral victory, he was describing Poland as a “German-Russian condominium” – and despite the idiocy of the concept, he seems to actually believe it. His Euroscepticism is mild (after all, it was his twin brother Lech who had agreed to the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, at the time when Jarosław was Prime Minister) but his perception of the EU is basically that it is governed by, and serves the interests of, Germany. It would be a mistake for the other European governments to try to attribute any coherent “doctrine” to Warsaw on international relations.

The absence of internal consistency that characterizes Kaczyński’s approach to economic policy and foreign relations is certainly not unique to these policy areas – he lacks any comprehensive, fact-based, rational doctrines, offering only intuitions and slogans based on resentment and bigotry. Policies for law and order? Tougher punishments. Immigration? Refugees depicted as Muslim aggression. Education? More patriotism (in its most unreflective form) taught in schools, and an absolute rejection of such demoralizing themes as sex education or gender equality. And so on.

Decisively, Kaczyński is not burdened by a program of policies that his government and his President are in charge of putting into practice. But where Kaczyński is really strong, and where the current action is, is in a comprehensive, radical, illiberal counter-revolution. While Kaczyński ignores policies, he is genuinely and tirelessly absorbed in rebuilding the state to align it with the institutional vision of his role model Victor Orban, with unmistakeable resemblance to regimes in the other illiberal European states: those of Vladimir Putin, Aleksander Lukashenka and Recep Erdogan. The ultimate mot d’ordre of Kaczyński is the full “consolidation of power”. In reality, it means a systematic and relentless annihilation of all independent powers which may check the will of the ultimate leader.

This is the real doctrine of Jarosław Kaczyński – and he is neither coy nor apologetic about it. What others see as the separation of powers, checks and balances, political pluralism or countervailing powers, he views as chaos, a cacophony of voices and aberration – and he yields to no one in his efforts to eliminate it.

In 2011, his party published a long document, authored largely by Kaczyński himself, about the vision of the state, in contradistinction to the then governing Civic Platform. One of the propositions was that a well-ordered Poland should have “a centre of political direction” (not to be equated with any formal constitutional offices). Such centre would enforce the true national interest. The slightly Orwellian flavour of that phrase did not come from thin air. Back in the 1970s, as a student at the University of Warsaw, I was a member of a “privatissimo” seminar run by an ex-Marxist turned liberal legal scholar, Professor Stanisław Ehrlich. Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński were my older friends, and fellow-participants in the seminar. In addition, Jarosław was Ehrlich’s doctoral student. He proved an able disciple of Ehrlich in more ways than one – and the language of the 2011 programmatic document of PiS bears striking resemblance to Ehrlich’s writings.

Lest someone think that there is an irony in the most avowedly “anti-communist” Polish politician echoing quasi-Marxist language, it should be said that the resemblances are not coincidental. So much of Kaczyński’s current programme of illiberal counter-revolution emulates Communist rejection of pluralism and constitutionally entrenched liberties. No wonder the two key men in charge of drafting and enforcing the two main pillars of “reforms” – pacification of the Constitutional Tribunal and turning public media organisations into government bodies –  are former activists of the Polish United Workers Party, Stanisław Piotrowicz and Krzysztof Czabański, respectively.

It is significant that Kaczyński has chosen these two areas – plus the utter politicization of civil service – as the targets of the head-on, systematic attack at the outset of his rule. An independent constitutional judiciary, public media and an apolitical civil service are three aberrations to be removed, in his vision of a consolidated state implementing the will of the “centre of political direction”. The haste and the brutality with which these “reforms” were bulldozed through the parliament stunned even some PiS advocates, and compelled anti-PiS activists to stage demonstrations on an unprecedented scale.

Kaczyński knows what he is doing: his recently formative experience came when PiS held power, though in a coalition with two other parties, in 2005-2007. He remembers that it was the Constitutional Tribunal that in 2007 dismantled the top item on PiS’s legislative agenda: so-called “lustration” (the purge of former Communist secret police informers, alleged and real). The Tribunal also struck down PiS laws which would harshly limit constitutional liberties, including freedom of speech and assembly. These days, anti-Communist “lustration” is no longer on the table, largely due to the passage of time and the presence of ex-Communists in PiS itself, but the paranoia about a hostile Fifth Column in the judiciary, media, and civil service, is as strong as ever. Hence the pacification of the Tribunal (though the jury is still out on how successful Kaczyński will be in actually enforcing the law that would basically destroy the Tribunal as we know it – a judicial institution very much fashioned after the Bundesverfassungsgericht). Hence, subordinating public media fully to the Minister of… yes, you guessed it, Treasury. Hence, removing guarantees of an apolitical, professional public service…

Kaczyński lacks a constitution-amending qualified majority in the parliament, and is thereby deprived of the capacity that Orban enjoyed to bring about a new Constitution. He therefore acts in a less refined way: by simply disregarding the Constitution at any step in the implementation of these “reforms”. The Constitution was breached in substance (almost every provision of the law on the Constitutional Court is blatantly unconstitutional ) and in process – with the parliamentary opposition effectively silenced, and the main acts pushed through the parliament at break-neck speed, often in the middle of the night, to have the law ready for the President to swiftly promulgate the following morning. It is not subtle, but it has been efficient. Constitutional constraints are, for Kaczyński, just another irritant which should not stand in the way of his program of “reforms”.

Some PiS sympathizers reassure themselves that the period of “state reforms” will soon end – that it is just a necessary prelude to important policy changes that, they say, would be difficult without preparing the institutional ground. But this is nonsense. For one thing, there is no comprehensive policy program; for another, Kaczyński’s counterrevolution has permanence built into it. Its end-point is like a horizon: it can never be arrived at. Or, to change the metaphor, it is like a Hydra: as one head is cut off, another reappears. There will always be an element of “non-consolidated” power – an institution or an agency not fully subordinate to the will of the ultimate leader.

There is, I am afraid, nothing sophisticated about this account of Kaczyński’s doctrine: an unashamed, ruthless and largely unconstitutional grab for power, and an assault on any independent sources of political influence. But it is just that, and it is not pretty: a large, card-carrying liberal democratic state in the centre of Europe, so far a proud citizen of the EU, and a real success story within the “new Europe”, turning into a nasty authoritarian regime. The EU must come to terms with the fact that there is yet another renegade in its midst – or better, use all the leverage it has in the Treaty of European Union (Article 7, in particular) to demonstrate that Kaczyński’s regime is beyond the pale. The worst it can do is look the other way.

Suggested Citation: Wojciech Sadurski, What Makes Kaczyński Tick?, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Jan. 14, 2016, at:



4 responses to “What Makes Kaczyński Tick?”

  1. […] commentators have noted, the changes in Poland bear a worrying similarity to changes made in Hungary over the last few […]

  2. […] On this reading moral doubts of the parliamentary majority suffice to set aside law which was validly adopted and upheld by the court. Defying the Court by the refusal to publish the Court’s judgment(s) unfavourable to the majority only adds to, and corroborates, this. Only yesterday high-ranking government officials justified such refusal by saying that a „judgment that goes against the will of the people (= majority) will not be published. It is no more than a press release and the judges might have as well ordered coffee and snacks while working on it”. Ruthlessness, scorn and ridicule all in one, indeed. However, what follows here, is not so much the analysis of the legal aspect(s) of the Polish case. Enough has been already written on it. Rather, I want to focus on the process that is at the root of the revolutionary zeal and provide intellectual underpinning for it. Without taking into account of this side of the problem, the analysis is incomplete. This process is encapsulated by the term “politics of paranoia”, a strange combination of emotions, irrationality, symbolism and distrust. Political paranoia of Polish leaders clearly drives their actions, and the constitutional developments are no more than the mere result of it. […]

  3. […] of all independent powers which may check the will of the ultimate leader.” Wojciech Sadurski, What Makes Kaczyński Tick?, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Jan. 14, […]

  4. […] play back then, the deep political polarization and the sweeping politics of paranoia that always drove Kaczyński, there is simply not enough evidence to answer these questions in the affirmative. The political […]

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