A few hundred yards from the European Solidarity Center is a small, military-style barrack that formerly served as Solidarity’s headquarters. Wałęsa keeps an office in the former, but has not set foot in the latter in many years. He and the union he once led are now on opposite sides of the country’s political rift: Like many of its blue-collar members, the new leadership of Solidarity is largely supportive of a populist government that, according to Wałęsa, is threatening the country’s hard-won democracy.
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In Poland’s first democratic elections after the fall of Communism, Wałęsa endorsed a slate of candidates for the Sejm, the country’s Parliament. Among them were the twins Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński. When Wałęsa was elected Poland’s first president, at the end of 1990, Jarosław became his chief of staff.
The honeymoon did not last long. Although he’d lionized Wałęsa as a heroic opposition leader, Kaczyński soon accused him of secret complicity with the Communist regime, and organized raucous protests against the president; one featured a burning effigy of his longtime ally.
Like much of the rest of the world, Kaczyński had once thought of Polish democracy as having its origins in a broad popular movement against Communist dictatorship; now he argued that it was built on an unacceptable compromise with Communist apparatchiks who secretly remained in control of Poland’s political and cultural institutions.
With his brother, Lech, Jarosław founded a far-right movement built on a series of conspiracy theories. The new Law and Justice Party argued that liberals, homosexuals, and Communists were aiming to undermine the true character of the nation from within. From outside, Germany and Russia were plotting to take revenge for their recent defeats. Only uncompromising defenders of traditional Polish values, like the Kaczyński twins, stood a chance of saving the nation.
To the surprise of political analysts, this paranoid stew of fearmongering has proved politically potent. The Kaczyńskis won power in 2005, with Jarosław serving as prime minister and Lech as president. Their hold on power slipped away when another party on which Law and Justice relied for its parliamentary majority defected, and Lech died in a tragic plane crash. But in the fall of 2015, Kaczyński staged a successful comeback: The party he leads won the presidency as well as, for the first time, an absolute majority in the Sejm.
Over the past four years, Kaczyński has used his power to stage a massive attack on Poland’s democratic institutions. In an astoundingly short span of time, he has turned state television networks into reliable purveyors of government propaganda; gained effective control of the country’s court system; weakened the independence of the electoral commission; restricted free speech; and initiated a number of high-profile trials against political opponents, including the director of the European Solidarity Center. As Wałęsa put it in a public letter co-signed by 14 other senior statesmen from across the political spectrum, the government has repeatedly attacked the country’s “division of power” in ways that seriously imperil “the foundations of the democratic state.”