Poland’s Far Right Is Distorting the Debate on Welfare — and Winning

Maciej Gdula

Ahead of his reelection on Sunday, Polish president Andrzej Duda claimed that “LGBT ideology” was a threat “worse than Soviet communism.” Together with his homophobic offensive, Duda successfully played on Poles’ fears over the economy — fusing a reactionary culture war with the promise to defend families’ benefits.

Polish president Andrzej Duda, backed by the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), celebrates with supporters following initial election results during Poland’s runoff on July 12, 2020 in Pultusk, Poland. Maja Hitij / Getty

Interview by
David Broder

The Polish presidential election reached its decisive second round on July 12, as incumbent Andrzej Duda faced off against Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski. While Duda’s hard-right Law and Justice Party has dominated Polish politics in recent years, he ultimately edged out the more moderate-conservative Trzaskowksi by a narrow 51 to 49 percent margin.

The result sparked dismay in most international media. In addition to Polish authorities’ clashes with the European Union over the independence of the judiciary, the campaign was marred by Duda’s harsh attacks on LGBT Poles and the use of the state broadcaster as a mouthpiece for the ruling party. Some even fear an irreversible drift away from liberal democracy.

Aside from its culture-war offensive against minorities, Law and Justice’s support has also been widely attributed to its record of providing benefits payments and its apparent welfarist agenda. Yet as sociologist Maciej Gdula notes, its cash transfers to families themselves obey a privatizing logic, where direct payments replace the provision of guaranteed services.

Gdula is also an MP for the Wiosna (Spring) party, part of the Lewica (Left) coalition that took forty-nine of 460 seats in October’s parliamentary election. Following Duda’s victory on Sunday, Jacobin’s David Broder spoke to Gdula about the weaknesses of the centrist opposition, the rival social hierarchies that structure Polish politics, and how the Left is resisting Law and Justice’s attacks on LGBT people and other minorities.

David Broder

First, let’s look at the sociology of the vote. In a recent interview, you mentioned two established but competing visions of social hierarchy. First, there is a cosmopolitan tradition that looks down on those Poles who are considered less cultured. Then there is the Right’s view of the social hierarchy, based on ethnicity and the exclusion of minorities. How far did this divide correspond to the voter blocs in Sunday’s runoff?

Maciej Gdula

When we look at the results, we see how class relations divided the vote. It is obvious that Law and Justice (PiS) collected the votes of the countryside, where most people voted for Duda. This is a less educated electorate, who mainly have an elementary education or went to vocational college. It should be added, however, that PiS is generally strong among the elderly, who tend to have lower qualification levels just because of their age. PiS also won decisively among workers, taking around 60 percent. So, looking at this map, it is clear that the popular classes granted PiS their support.

How did it build such a mobilization? First, the government-controlled media hammered home the message that PiS was a guarantee for social spending and social programs. All day long, the state broadcaster repeated the message that Trzaskowski comes from the same Civic Platform (PO) party that criticized the government’s “500+” family income-support program and increased the compulsory retirement age, whereas PiS reduced the retirement age and substantially increased the minimum wage.

Yet while PiS claimed to uphold the economic interests of the popular classes, they attacked not only the elites who threatened these economic gains but also people belonging to minority groups seen as inferior or alien. In the 2015 presidential election, it was refugees who were presented as a threat to national security, stability, and culture; this time around, LGBT people played this role. Duda signed a “charter for the family” banning the promotion of LGBT issues in public institutions and — claiming to protect children from “sexualization” — proposed a constitutional ban on adoption by same-sex couples.

Looking at Poland from the outside, you might imagine that the ultraconservative PiS is confronted by a liberal opposition. But PO are moderate conservatives themselves, and Trzaskowski did not strongly resist this demonization of LGBT people. He sought to present himself as moderate and said that we should reject all forms of hatred — but he did not use the term LGBT.

It was the same in 2015, when PO left the ground open to PiS’s arguments against immigration, seeking to avoid the issue, and only radical-left party Razem’s Adrian Zandberg actually defended the need to accept refugees. Then, liberals sought to avoid any direct defense of refugees, and similarly today, only the Left supports the LGBT community. We proposed, at the heart of our campaign, a bill to accept same sex-marriage and adoption by same-sex married couples.

David Broder

After October’s parliamentary elections, Law and Justice was widely portrayed in international media as a “welfarist” party, given its child benefits and the like. Yet taken as a whole, its measures not only seem limited by their family-values ideological framing, but also more aimed at helping out the individual small business owners rather than workers as such. Was there any debate on the welfare state that went beyond PiS’s own existing measures?

Maciej Gdula

The system of social benefits is based on direct cash transfers to families. That’s both how it works and how it’s presented: PiS says, “We’re giving you money for you to use as you want.” First there were payments for the second child, then for any child. Then there was the “13th pension payment,” an extra month on top of the twelve payments retired people would receive already. Again, the money goes directly from the state to their wallets. But these cash transfers to family budgets are also money that’s not being invested in the health care system or the education system or care policies.

This has been a cause of social protests. In 2019, there was a huge strike by teachers, whose wages were almost frozen even though the economy as a whole was growing. Characteristically of PiS, they crushed the protests: when teachers threatened not to organize end-of-year exams, the government changed the law to allow firefighters and other civil servants to run them instead. Teachers’ wages were increased in the end, but only slightly.

So, PiS’s approach is not about strengthening public services but creating a bond between voters and the party that’s sending them money. In fact, this itself drives privatization. The average hospital waiting time rose from two months in 2015 to three and a half months in 2019, because money isn’t going into health care: but if people need faster treatment, they can go and buy it from private providers, with their own money.

For many years, PO represented a commonsense liberalism of cutting both spending and taxation. Their problem is now that the PiS is in government, it is spending, and the economy is growing. In the election campaign, Trzaskowski promised not to take away the PiS programs.

There is this idea of a “silver bullet” promise to some group that will win you the election; in 2015, this was 500+ for PiS, and this time, for PO, it was the idea of an extra €50 monthly retirement payment for women who have children. This is quite conservative, since it excludes those without families. Here, PO is trying to imitate PiS. Yet this also raises a question of honesty: Can they be trusted, when they say they won’t cut existing programs? PiS played this card — and when Trzaskowski was asked whether he had voted to lower the retirement age, he said he didn’t remember if he’d been an MP when the vote took place back in 2016. It was immediately discovered that he had, indeed, been in parliament and voted against the reduction.

David Broder

During the campaign, Duda said “LGBT ideology” was “worse than communism”; we may also remember the 2018 effort to remove twenty-seven supreme court judges on the basis that they were holdovers from the communist era. How far is the idea of an incomplete decommunization (“lustration”) and continued “communist threat” an important tool in PiS’s bid to demonize its opponents?

Maciej Gdula

This is quite widely used by the governing Right, which attacks its political rivals by making reference to communist ideology or communist ties. This is also happening despite the fact that some of PiS’s representatives are themselves of communist background — for instance, a judge in the Constitutional Court who was also a judge under martial law in the 1980s.

At the same time as accepting such figures, PiS attacks liberals, the Left, and the LGBT community as either communist-connected or representing ideologies it deems similar to Bolshevism. And this does have some effect. Here, “communism” is taken to mean something foreign, alien: it is not a reference only to Poland’s recent past, but also to whatever is international, cosmopolitan, and presented as non-Polish.

David Broder

Duda has referred to the European Union as an “imaginary community,” and there are tensions over PiS’s interference with the judiciary. Yet it seems the Polish government is ignoring European rules rather than seeking some kind of split, and Hungary will surely veto any kind of sanctions against it. So, in what ways do you expect conflict between Duda and the EU might harshen — and is it all just rhetoric?

Maciej Gdula

I think it depends, first of all, on the stability of the government and its own internal development — in particular, whether Mateusz Morawiecki will remain as prime minister or if justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro has ambitions to take on this role. I think if Ziobro becomes head of government, the conflict over the judiciary will be more dramatic, while Morawiecki will be more likely to appease the European Union on this issue. He may make some changes in the Supreme Court and withdraw others, all the while underlining that he is defending the autonomy of Poland’s internal politics from Europe.

Another area of conflict may be Poland’s “LGBT-free zones.” The European Union has begun to ask whether these zones are violating European core values and laws recognizing minority rights. This could have an impact in terms of European development funds, which may be blocked if they are seen to be used in a discriminatory way.

And then there’s the problem of energy policy. Poland is paying a lot of money in fines to the EU because of our failure to meet environmental targets. There are some people in the government who have begun to criticize these fines and want it to be raised as an important point of Polish relations with the EU, insisting these fines should be withdrawn and claiming that conditions they impose threaten Poland’s national energy security.

David Broder

Robert Biedrón stood for Lewica (“Left”) in the first round, but it scored 2.2 percent, finding it much harder to make an impact than in last October’s parliamentary election, where Lewica took 11.2 percent and forty-nine of 460 seats in the Sejm (lower house). What explains this?

Maciej Gdula

The electoral result was below our expectations — we had expected to keep our vote from last autumn’s contest. But for the last fifteen years at least, the presidential election has been particularly difficult, because it is framed as a clash between the incumbent defending the presidency and then the strongest contender.

It was the same this time, with the clash between Duda and his challenger Trzaskowski. But — like with Paweł Kukiz in 2015 — there was also a dark horse in Szymon Hołownia, an independent who presented himself as a “novel” outsider force and did surprisingly well. Hołownia [who took 14 percent in the first round] provides a curious mix of liberal progressivism and conservatism, and he was able to bring people together precisely because he has no clear political agenda: he appears just as a well-known guy [he is a talent show host] who promises he will do good things and empower citizens.

The Left also benefited from this sense of being an anti-establishment force in October 2019’s parliamentary elections. But if we got only 2 percent in the presidential elections, does this mean we have lost 10 points since October? In fact, the same thing happened in the disastrous 2015 elections, when the left-wing candidate got 2.5 percent in the presidential contest, but then in autumn’s parliamentary election, the United Left got 7.6 percent and Razem 3.5 percent. In the polls, Lewica is still at 7, 8, 10 percent, one even put us at 14 percent, even with Biedrón on only 2 percent.

David Broder

If this election was a direct contest between more or less harsh forms of social conservatism and neoliberalism, how do you plan to change the political agenda?

Maciej Gdula

Despite PiS’s welfarist claims, we are criticizing its underinvestment in public services and demanding more spending on teaching staff and the health care system. But we also emphasize that the strengthening of social services must be related to a change of philosophy in the functioning of the state. We seek not just redistribution but building solidarity and cooperation between social partners — between trade unions and the state, between teachers and parents, between patients and health care officials. We are promoting an anti-authoritarian vision of society, not just criticizing PiS for interfering in the judicial system and violating the rule of law, but also seeking to rebuild more participatory, autonomous institutions.

I should say that in Poland, the strongest trade unions are among civil servants — teachers and nurses and, right now, the workers in the judiciary. There are also working-class unions in the mining companies, and we have strong connections with the industrial unions through the OPZZ (All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions). While it is not part of our coalition, this organization can be considered our social partner; we cooperate with it and have good mutual respect.  This is combined with a green agenda much stronger than what the handful of PO-aligned Green MPs are proposing. We need a transformation of the energy system, protection of the environment, and water policies to face up to the continual droughts.

We also need to take a stand on LGBT recognition and women’s rights. A majority of Poles accept the need to allow abortion on demand up till twelve weeks, but we are the only party that is openly standing for that; PO accepts the existing “compromise” where it is allowed only in extreme cases like rape and health problems for the mother. We advocate a separation of church and state, also in order to combat the constant problem of pedophile priests. PiS promises action, but nothing happens; the Church is allowed to self-police and makes only a pretense of doing something about pedophilia. So, we have to fight to push these issues onto the public agenda, too.