This week, famed Polish activist and politician Lech Walesa gave an exclusive interview to conservative news magazine Heti Válasz. Over the course of the discussion Walesa, who gained international recognition for his fight against Communism in the 1970s and ‘80s, talked about his political career, the accusations that the current right-wing Polish government have levied against him, the rise of populist demagoguery in western politics, and his growing disapproval with the tactics of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Walesa, 74, is a former electrician who rose to fame as the leader of the trade union. In that role, he rallied Poles in against Communist dictatorship. Widely viewed as a fighter for human rights and democracy, Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.
Following the fall of the Iron Curtain, however, Walesa’s political fortunes declined rapidly. After five controversial years as the first democratically-elected President of Poland, the Solidarity leader was defeated by former Communist Aleksander Kwaśniewski. While Walesa has been involved, in various capacities, in Polish political life since then, he has never recovered the popularity he enjoyed as a leader of his country’s fight against Communism.
A Polish Government that “Lies Shamelessly and Wants to Destroy Europe.”
In his interview with Heti Válasz, Walesa expressed his dismay with Poland’s current government, PiS (Law and Justice), which he said is engaging in “populism and demagogy,” and is
speaking bullshit and winning elections.
He added that, while he agrees with some of Law and Justice’s complaints regarding the state of Poland’s constitutional structures, “while I wished to fix it democratically, they are exterminating every disturbing factor.” In particular, he argued that PiS “throws away every law they dislike”, which runs counter to the principles of democratic government.
Characteristically, Walesa’s reaction to these developments was to tell Heti Válasz that
I am about to speak with the prime minister and tell her that she speaks bullshits, lies shamelessly and wants to destroy Europe.
Referring to the large far-right rally that swept through Warsaw earlier this month with chants of “Pure Poland, white Poland!” and “Refugees get out!”, the former President expressed his dismay at the event. He also accused PiS of complicity in the sort of demagogy that Poland witnessed on November 11th, arguing that
The current government has embraced football fans and the mob – with the help of whom they are in power – and now it is difficult to get rid of them.
Responding to these accusations, Walesa dismissed them as “ridiculous,” adding that the only thing that “Bolek” reminded him of was his father, as it was his name. The former Polish president described the ongoing court case against him as a case of pure politics, claiming that “I have disclosed everything but PiS is in power now, they control the press so they echo their own version.” In addition, he expressed confidence that the courts would exonerate him, saying that “It costs money, but truth will prevail.”
Despite his overall negative evaluation of the state of Polish (and European) political life, Walesa continued to express confidence in the future, telling Heti Válasz that
I believe in democracy, because sooner or later it will prevail.
“Populism and Demagogy” in Hungary
Lech Walesa (right), with Viktor Orbán (center) at the 2012 UEFA European Championships in Kiev (Photo: FFT/UEFA)
Turning his attention to Hungary, Walesa said that he has been following political events within Hungary with dismay. In particular, Walesa criticized what he described as Fidesz Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s attacks on the European Union, a tactic that has since been embraced by the Polish government, and which the former Solidarity activist argued could be disastrous.
Referring to the EU, Walesa admitted to its flaws, while emphasizing the crucial role it plays, arguing that
it is bureaucratic, but we need it. If Hungarians and Poles destroy it – because they are able to do so –, in 5 minutes France, Germany and Italy would form an alliance we could not influence. Hungarians took the same stance as Poles: they do not want to build but destroy.
Walesa also expressed his disappointment in Orbán’s shift toward “populism and demagogy,” as well as what he described as a political climate in Hungary in which “there is no cooperation.” Adding that he knows the Hungarian PM “very well,” Walesa claimed that “earlier I had better opinion about him. He is a wise man with good arguments, but I thought he would rather build.”
Turning to the spread of populism and authoritarian politics in Europe as a whole the former electrician turned anti-Communist lamented the current state of affairs, saying
We will need 100 years to clean all this. But people are fond of it.