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Opinion | Want to Save Europe? Learn From Poland

WARSAW — These days, many people view Poland as a warning story for Europe: a country rapidly moving away from liberal democracy. The Law and Justice party, which has ruled for the last four years, represents, many people believe, some of the most worrying trends that can be found across Europe, from the new far-right Vox party in Spain to Matteo Salvini’s League party in Italy to the authoritarian prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban.

It’s true that democracy has suffered under Law and Justice. But there’s another story about Poland that needs to be told, one about how liberals are learning to fight for democracy. There is no guarantee that Law and Justice will be defeated in this year’s elections for the European Parliament and the Polish Parliament, but change is happening.

The European elections this week are being viewed as a crucial test for the illiberal wave in Europe. If Law and Justice and its allies across the Continent perform well, many people believe that not only will it change the face of the European Union but it may also help other illiberal parties in upcoming national elections. That’s why it’s important to look to Poland for lessons. And at a time when the far right is forming alliances and sharing messages, strategies and tactics, liberals should be learning from each other, too.

There’s strength in unity.

Law and Justice has created a black-and-white vision of Polish society, repeatedly suggesting, for example, that there are two Polands opposing each other, one of “solidarity” and the other of “liberalism.” This has had unfortunate consequences for pluralism in Poland. But four years on, the liberal opposition has learned to use this polarization to its advantage. If politics really is, as Law and Justice still likes to posit, “us vs. them,” it’s worth remembering that there are more of us.

In February, nearly every party that opposes Law and Justice — from conservatives to Greens — united into an electoral list named the European Coalition, ahead of the elections this month. These parties have come together under the umbrella of protecting a minimum of democracy and the rule of law, as well as support for the European Union.

This isn’t easy. Every party entering the coalition must agree to painful compromises: Economic liberals have to agree to support some redistributive policies; leftists have to temporarily give up on parts of their social agenda, like liberalization of abortion law. This doesn’t mean that the politicians who are part of the coalition pretend that there are no differences between them. On the contrary, they are well aware that they constitute a diverse grouping. But by putting their disagreements aside and speaking not with one voice but with many voices, all expressing the same message, they are making clear that the illiberal divide-and-rule strategy will not work.

Put politics in airplane mode.

If there is one thing that illiberal politicians invariably seem to be good at, it is grasping that in the age of social media politics is entertainment. They know how to hold an audience’s attention and with a mix of humor, derision and venom, they are able to frighten citizens or amuse them — or do both at the same time.

It’s not just President Trump’s tweets or Mr. Salvini’s Instagram feed. In Poland, Law and Justice politicians have captured the spotlight by making outrageous statements, as when the party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, spoke about refugees carrying “parasites and protazoa,” or when another Law and Justice politician called the European Union’s flag “some rag, associated with something bad and dirty.”

For the first few years that Law and Justice was in power, the opposition was so overwhelmed by trying to respond to every provocation that it barely had time to think. But gradually, the liberal opposition started to learn how to do politics at two speeds. Yes, it’s important to keep fighting Law and Justice on the internet by responding to their provocative posts. (It has also become clear that social media can work in liberals’ favor: A recent documentary on YouTube about pedophilia in the Catholic Church in Poland went viral and is challenging the government.) At the same time, it is essential to think in the longer term. Sometimes you need to turn your phone — and your politics — on “airplane mode,” take a break from refreshing your feeds and really build a democratic agenda.

Beginning in 2017, the Polish opposition began rebuilding its entire political program. Liberal parties and organizations held conferences on how to restore the rule of law and repair state institutions. But we also knew that would not be enough. In order to win, liberals realized that we needed to discuss other topics and policies, like ecology, health care and welfare. Protesting violations of the rule of law, however justified, is reactive. Only by building a rich democratic agenda can we reverse the damage done by the government. And that is what we’ve begun to do. It seems to be working, especially on social issues like L.G.B.T. rights. It is now the illiberals who are forced to react to what liberals put forward.

Nothing will be as it used to be.

If liberals want to win elections, they have to learn how to tell stories that give voters a sense of optimism and purpose — not stories that promise to revert to the status quo before the illiberals arrived on the political scene.

The current struggle is taking place in the context of European Parliament elections. For most voters, Brussels equals boredom. It is the embodiment of distant, inaccessible politics. For decades, European liberals felt they didn’t have worry about elections because the bloc’s complex system of procedures and regulations would keep their politics and policies in place. For quite a while, it seemed that a real European had to be a lawyer.

The rise of the illiberal nationalists over the past few years has challenged this view. These politicians and their parties offer passionate politics, based on strong identities, radicalism and polarization.

The crisis is also an opportunity. The formation of the European Coalition shows that liberals in Poland are beginning to understand that no one can claim a natural right to dominate politics and that we cannot rely only on lawyers and technocrats to protect our values. We need to build forward-looking movements that appeal to broad sections of citizens and voters.

This should be a model for the rest of the Continent. Liberals should campaign on positive programs, on issues that people care about. Europeans are divided on many issues but are united on many others, according to opinion polls, including protecting the environment, fighting climate change and ensuring our rights and safety online. These are issues that require both national and Europe-wide policies.

The lesson for the rest of Europe is here: be creative in adapting to the new challenges of 21st century politics. Illiberals traffic in fear and nostalgia; liberals must offer hope instead of cultivating defeatism. In the fight against illiberalism, a new liberal vision is slowly being born. As the great Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska once wrote, “It is a pretty sentence, but true.”

RelatedOpinion | Alina PolyakovaYou Can’t Trust the Far RightMay 20, 2019Opinion | Roger CohenSteve Bannon Is a Fan of Italy’s Donald TrumpMay 18, 2019Opinion | Karolina Wigura and Jaroslaw KuiszAgainst Liberal DefeatismDec. 30, 2018

Karolina Wigura is a board member of the Kultura Liberalna Foundation. Jaroslaw Kuisz is the editor in chief of Kultura Liberalna. They are fellows at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin.

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