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The Five Lessons of Populist Rule

WARSAW – Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland’s de facto leader, has become, next to Donald Trump, an avatar of the populist threat to the Western democratic model. As we await Trump’s inauguration as US president on January 20, it is worth pondering the first year of populist rule in Poland. The results have run contrary to expectations.

The conventional view of what awaits the US (and possibly France and the Netherlands) in 2017 is an erratic ruler who enacts contradictory policies that primarily benefit the rich. The poor will lose, because populists have no hope of restoring manufacturing jobs, despite their promises. And massive inflows of migrants and refugees will continue, because populists have no plan to address the problem’s root causes. In the end, populist governments, incapable of effective rule, will crumble and their leaders will either face impeachment or fail to win re-election.

Kaczyński faced similar expectations. Liberal Poles thought that he would work for the benefit of the rich, create chaos, and quickly trip himself up – which is exactly what happened in 2005-2007, when Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) last governed Poland.

But the liberals were wrong. PiS has transformed itself from an ideological nullity into a party that has managed to introduce shocking changes with record speed and efficiency. Other countries currently anticipating populist rule should take note of its key hallmarks.