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Polish Politician Radosław Sikorski, Academics Discuss Polarization at Center for European Studies Event

Polish politician Radosław Sikorski spoke about polarization at the Zaleski Symposium, which was hosted by the Center for European Studies.
Polish politician Radosław Sikorski spoke about polarization at the Zaleski Symposium, which was hosted by the Center for European Studies. By Courtesy of David Elmes
By Madeline E. Proctor and Dailan Xu, Contributing Writers

Polish politician Radosław Sikorski, a member of the European Parliament, discussed polarization in Polish politics at a symposium hosted by Harvard’s Center for European Studies on Wednesday.

The event — titled “Poland at the Crossroads” — also included two panels consisting of a number of academics and experts on Poland. Sikorski discussed combating political polarization in the country during the symposium’s keynote address.

“I don’t believe we will have the votes to change the constitution. But we could stabilize the center,” Sikorski said. “And then there is an incentive to be less polarizing, less extreme, which is the opposite incentive from what you have here and to a large extent in Parliament as well.”

Sikorski said he doesn’t believe that politicians should “be forced to commit political suicide out of respect for the constitution.”

“When Brutus stabbed Caesar, they then did nothing because they thought, ‘Right, the law will now take care of everything,’” Sikorski said. “We should not repeat that mistake.”

During a Q&A session following the address, Sikorski said he believes Poland has a unique diplomatic advantage on the global stage because of the country’s history of being colonized rather than colonizing other nations.

“I hope we will reconstitute Warsaw as a hub for pro-democracy activities.” Sikorski said. “I hope that means, for example on Ukraine, we can be more persuasive to the Global South than some of our Atlantic allies, because we are not the former colonizers and we can explain colonialism is also something done in Europe.”

Sikorski said he hopes Poland can become more open for partnership with other nations in Europe.

“We need to end the Cold War with European institutions and with some key allies,” Sikorski said. “That can only be done by talking to partners rather than isolating ourselves.”

The first panel in the symposium, on the 2023 elections in Poland, saw remarks from University College London graduate student Marta Kotwas, Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities professor Radosław Markowski, and University of Warsaw professor Karolina Wigura.

The second panel of the symposium was titled "Democracy in Deeply Polarized Society."
The second panel of the symposium was titled "Democracy in Deeply Polarized Society." By Courtesy of David Elmes

Central European University associate professor Maciej Kisilowski, University of Warsaw associate professor Anna Wojciuk, and University of Oxford associate professor Marek Naczyk spoke at the second panel, called “Democracy in Deeply Polarized Society.”

Kisilowski and Wojciuk co-authored a book on tensions within Polish politics, including those that stem from the “deep diversity” of ideology in Polish society.

The panelists discussed polarization in the context of a recent election won by the nationalist Law and Justice party, which is awaiting a vote of confidence in parliament after failing to achieve the seats needed for a majority. But Wojciuk told the audience that Polish polarization is not limited to recent events.

“Let’s see Polish polarization, and let’s acknowledge that this fact is not a new one. It didn't come with Law and Justice,” Wojciuk said.

In their book, Wojciuk and Kisilowski proposed bolstering local government and decentralization as remedies for polarization.

“If you have a system in which power is shared with, let’s say, the 16 provinces in Poland, called voivodeships, you don’t have two Polands,” Kisilowski said. “You have 16 Polands because as you saw, there are many shades of conservatism and progressivism, yes. And that itself lowers the polarization.”

Still, Kisilowski said a more decentralized system can leave room for some parts of government to remain unitary.

“Why not innovate and for example, not have a decentralized electoral system? Let’s have a unitary electoral system, so that the conservative regions cannot — like in your country — create local totalitarianism for gerrymandering,” Kisilowski said.

Naczyk, a visiting fellow at the Center for European Studies, said he believes in applying a “political economy perspective” to think about solutions to polarization in Poland.

Specifically, Naczyk said Law and Justice has “very much politicized and problematized imbalances” between capital and labor in Poland.

While he disagrees with the “nationalist conservative discourse” of the party, Naczyk said his solution is also based in aims to strengthen Poland’s capital, labor, and state.

“If you want to have slightly less polarization, this is not a silver bullet because this will certainly not solve all of Poland’s problems. But at least introduce a culture of cooperation, negotiation, and thinking strategically about the future,” Naczyk said of his solution.

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