The Polish Right Can Be Defeated

The success of Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice Party is alarming, but there is room for left alternatives to grow.

Jarosław Kaczyński of Poland's Law and Justice Party at a rally in Kraków in 2013. Piotr Drabik / Flickr

In October, the Anglophone world expressed shock at political developments in Poland. “Poland lurches to the right,” the Guardian announced in a headline that typified the reaction of Western European newspapers.

The object of alarm was the October 25 elections, which returned Poland’s socially conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) — led by Jarosław Kaczyński — to power with an unprecedented parliamentary majority. When the dust finally settled, PiS controlled 235 of the 460 seats — something no party had achieved since 1989.

After the victory of Law and Justice’s Andrzej Duda in the presidential election earlier this year, many media outlets fretted that Europe’s success story — economically robust, Western-facing, Europhile, Putin-hating Poland — had flipped. The xenophobes were firmly in control. Poland had succumbed to the wave of authoritarian nationalism sweeping Eastern Europe, embodied most prominently by Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

But this “lurch to the right” narrative is an exaggeration. For one thing, Poland hasn’t lurched anywhere. Two right-wing parties have dominated the country’s political system for the past decade, fusing neoliberal policies and conservative Catholicism.

Civic Platform, who Law and Justice ousted from power in both elections, may be slicker and less prone to explosions of outright bigotry, but they remain a staunchly conservative party. And Law and Justice are not insurgents who emerged from nowhere — they have previously won both the premiership and presidency, and for eight years have been the official opposition.

Several factors explain Law and Justice’s triumph.

First, a scandal stemming from recordings of the Civic Platform’s finance minister wining and dining business leaders dogged the party. In addition, former Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s departure for the European Council hampered Civic Platform.

In this context, Law and Justice stepped in as the alternative to a stale government with a whiff of corruption about it. It also helped that PiS gave voice, however distorted, to those who have not benefitted from Poland’s economic success, by promising to reverse some welfare cuts and return the retirement age to sixty-five (from sixty-seven).

In addition, the refugee crisis played an important role in the election. Outgoing Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz’s fate was sealed when Poland broke ranks with the other Eastern European nations and supported the European Union (EU) quota for Syrian refugees. In a climate of heightened anti-migrant fervor — all the more absurd because hardly anyone was actually passing through Poland — it was easy to present Kopacz, and Civic Platform by extension, as putting Tusk’s prestige over Poland’s national interest. And for Duda to humiliate Kopacz by issuing a presidential summons requiring her to explain the decision.

Poland’s new leaders certainly are nasty bigots. Their election rhetoric included accusing migrants of carrying diseases, and PiS benefitted from growing anti-migrant sentiments in Poland enflamed by spectacles like a viral Facebook post that claimed to show a video of “5 Muslims raping a Polish girl, and the Polish government can do nothing about it!”

The Polish right also drew heavily on the country’s culture wars, where abortion, in vitro fertilization, and the teaching of “gender” (a word which in Poland has come to cover everything from Judith Butler to sex education) in schools are hot button issues. Part of Law and Justice’s manifesto included a total ban on abortion (it is legal in cases of rape or when the woman’s health is endangered).

Still, it’s far from clear whether PiS has either the political will or the political capital to enact much of what they’ve promised — they have a history of failing to follow through. Kaczynski may dream about making Warsaw into Budapest, but he’s a long way from making it so. Nor could he ape Orban in achieving rapprochement with Putin’s Russia — and not just because Polish public opinion remains staunchly anti-Russia. Kaczynski harbors a personal hatred following his brother (and former President) Lech’s death in the 2010 Smolensk air crash, which is widely believed in Poland to be the work of the Russians.

So what will Kaczynski actually do? As Sławomir Sierakowski argues, “the essential tasks of government — economic stewardship, military readiness, social policy, and the environment — do not interest him.” Rather he will focus on appointments to public positions: “He has always believed that “repairing the state” is personal: people, not principles, are the key to success.”

He may also try to force the abortion issue to a head. In September a civil motion to outlaw abortion failed by just twenty-eight votes. There is no doubt it would now pass, despite staunch public support for retaining the current law. While large majorities oppose abortion on demand, and disapprove of it in general, equally large majorities support the right to it in cases of rape or when the woman’s life is at risk.

For the Left, the election confirmed its impotency. There is not a single left member of parliament in Poland, by any definition of “left” you care to choose. There is no social-democratic party, no radical left party, no green party, barely even a social liberal party. Nothing. In the European Union’s fifth largest country, the Left is simply nowhere to be found.

The annihilation of left political parties stems in large part from the collapse of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the main post-communist social-democratic party — led once again by Leszek Miller — which has gone from government power to no parliamentary representation in the span of a decade.

Miller was prime minister from 2001–4, the party’s heyday. Under his tenure, Miller pushed Poland to join the EU, implemented regressive structural reforms, backed Bush and Blair in Iraq, and, as was finally revealed last year, permitted the CIA to host torture camps on Polish soil.

He resigned a day after Poland became an EU member, dogged by scandal, high unemployment, and the lowest-ever approval rating of a Polish government. Ever since, Law and Justice and Civic platform have filled the vacuum the SLD left.

Each attempt by the SLD to recuperate their image has floundered — most embarrassingly in the presidential election, when they chose to run thirty-five-year-old news presenter Magdalena Ogorek. Instead of freshening up their brand, the move was met with derision (and more than a bit of misogyny). To make matters worse, she went off message throughout the campaign. She ultimately netted just 2.4 percent — the SLD’s worst-ever showing.

The experiment having gone awry, Miller returned as leader to try to save the party. The grand plan for the latest elections was the United Left coalition, drawing in the Greens and the social liberal grouping around Janusz Palikot, a defector from Civic Platform who delights in scandalizing and criticizing the power of the Catholic Church.

They were the insurgents of the last election, giving young Poles a chance to stick it to the church; the result was the election of Poland’s first trans member of parliament. But she, like the rest of them, is gone from parliament. While Miller’s hope was that the coalition would keep the SLD afloat, it only succeeded in sinking all three partners.

The one ray of light for the Left is the formation and moderate success of Razem (Together), a party loosely inspired by Podemos and Syriza. Having only formed earlier this year, Razem correctly refused political cooperation with the dead weight of the SLD, who they argued had discredited the Left.

In TV debates they roundly beat the SLD, and as a result achieved 3.2 percent, enough to secure regular state funding and possibly transform a back office operation into something more serious. While that transformation won’t be easy, Razem does offer some hope of a left renewal. And given that everyone is starting from a low base, they have as much claim as anyone to do it.

Despite surveys suggesting that 25 to 30 percent of the Polish population identifies as left wing, the trajectory of the Polish left has been consistently downward. The challenge, many argue, is generational one. Aleks Szczerbiak writes that the

overarching electoral-strategic challenge is to develop an appeal that can bring together its two potential bases of support: socially liberal and economically leftist voters. The kind of socially liberal voters who tend to be younger and better-off, prioritize moral-cultural issues, and in Western Europe would incline naturally towards left-wing parties, in Poland are often quite economically liberal as well.

Many of these people vote for Civic Platform as the lesser evil against Law and Justice. Szczerbiak continues,

The economically leftist electorate, on the other hand, tends to be older and more culturally conservative; indeed, for this reason many of those who are nostalgic for the job security and guaranteed social minimum that they associate with the former communist regime often incline towards supporting right-wing parties such as Law and Justice.

There’s little reason to think the wreck of the SLD can bring these two wings together, and even less reason to think that would be a good thing. A new face like Razem may actually be better placed to do so, even if it will be a difficult task.

October’s contest election again saw the rise of insurgent candidates and parties. In the past, they have seemingly come from out of nowhere to win significant representation — and in the process, supplanted the previous insurgents.

In 2010 it was Janusz Palikot and his marriage of neoliberal policies and libertarian insults of the church. In the European elections last year, it was Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a virulent right-winger who even Law and Justice wouldn’t touch. And this time around there were two insurgents: Pawel Kukiz, a rock star who also stood in the presidential election and .Nowoczesna, a “modernizing” party that says it wants to rip up government red tape and build a Poland of entrepreneurs.

Kukiz solely ran on electoral reform. He called for the introduction of direct plebiscites and single-seat constituencies — effectively abolishing proportional representation — on the grounds that it would dismantle the political power of parties.

On social issues, Kukiz is deeply conservative, so much so that when there was a brief concern in Law and Justice that they wouldn’t achieve a majority, it was him who they reached out to first. Even worse, he has openly cooperated with the far-right National Movement (Ruch Narodowy), who have links to Hungary’s Jobbik. Hanging on to his coattails meant that a party that achieved 1.4 percent in the European elections and 0.52 percent in the presidential elections now controls around a quarter of his forty-two seats.

.Nowoczesna is a very different beast. As their insistence on putting a dot before their name indicates, they want to be seen as the modern, pro-business, tech-savvy face of Poland. Their manifesto would make Cameron and Merkel go weak in the knees, promising an end to excessive business regulation; a health service with “patients at its heart”; education based on “shaping entrepreneurial attitudes and learning entrepreneurship from an early age”; strengthened ties with Germany, Europe, and NATO; and “increasing the efficiency of the Polish army and the development of the defense sector” that can, “just like Israel, drive the economy.”

The insurgent ebb and flow certainly shows the instability of Polish politics outside the big two and the ever-present Peasant Party. These insurgent parties often coalesce around controversial individuals who gain media exposure before people tire of them. But it also seems indicative of a growing generational divide. What all of these parties oppose is the stuffiness, deference, and hierarchies that characterize Polish politics, and much of Polish society.

And it is the young who are voting for them. Kukiz won 42 percent of the vote among eighteen to twenty-nine-year-olds in the presidential election; before that, Palikot appealed to young people fed up with the Church interfering in their lives.

It would be wrong to read too much progressive potential into this phenomenon — the Right has been the main beneficiary. But there is plainly a dissatisfaction with politics as usual that manifests itself as a generational divide. The Polish cohort for whom the pre-1989 regime is a thing of the past is impatient with the parties and figures that have dominated for the last twenty-five years.

Many of them have experience working elsewhere in the EU. Some are the angry young men voting for demagogues like Kukiz, or the budding entrepreneurs attracted to .Nowoczesna’s gleaming corporate capitalism.

But others are the people founding and organizing Razem, or involved in the Krytyka Polityczna journal and reading groups, hungrily reading Polish translations of Zizek, Badiou, or even Lenin, or discovering lost figures in the radical Polish tradition like Stanislaw Brzozowski.

After the election British historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote a column arguing that

more of the talented, energetic young Poles who have left the homeland to enjoy the freedoms of modern European life in countries such as Britain and Ireland should go back to help fortify a modern, liberal, European Poland. Personally, I love having them here as my students at Oxford, and as fellow Europeans in a Eurosceptic Britain, but if I may put it this way: “Agnieszka and Pawel, your country needs you!”

But most Agnieszkas and Pawels, in Poland or the UK, are not Oxford graduates, and while they surely will influence Poland’s future, they might not have much motivation to be good little European liberals.

Rather, they may well be part of alternatives that look to shake things up even more. What form that shake-up takes is yet to be determined.