In Poland, the Left Battles the Far Right and Russian Imperialism

The “populist” ruling party and the “liberal” opposition aren’t the only choices in Poland’s election this Sunday. Polling in third place, the Lewica coalition offers a left-wing alternative that could prove decisive in forming the next government.

The leaders of Poland's Lewica (The Left) coalition on stage ahead of the 2019 parliamentary elections. Adrian Zandberg, the coleader of Razem, stands second from right. (Omar Marques / Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has been going on for almost a decade — yet for many in Europe, the full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, changed everything. It was as if they suddenly realized that a war is going on right beside them. Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in Poland, where a host of issues related to Ukraine are major campaign themes ahead of the general election this October 15.

The country is currently governed by Jarosław Kaczyński’s far-right Law and Justice party (PiS), with Mateusz Morawiecki as prime minister. It has long pledged support for Ukraine’s defense, but in more recent months has stirred conflict over the economic fallout of the war. The biggest alternative is Donald Tusk’s neoliberal Civic Platform (PO), the main force in the Civic Coalition (KO). The left-wing coalition Lewica (The Left) is fighting for third place with Konfederacja, a party with libertarian and neofascist elements which is challenging PiS from a further right flank.

For Lewica, too, the war in Ukraine is an important context for the general election. Especially worth examining, from the international left’s perspective, are the positions of Lewica’s social democratic wing, known as Razem (Left Together).

The Polish Left

Between the great upsurge of the Polish labor movement, embodied by Solidarność, and the rise of Razem in 2015, there was no meaningfully left-wing party in Poland. Yes, we had some governments that were called “center-left” — but ones of the kind that lower taxes and build American prisons. The ruling center left of the late 1990s and early 2000s was, for all intents and purposes, a Tony Blair–style left, defending neoliberal hegemony. Razem has strongly separated itself from this experience, even speaking of the criminal liability of neoliberal-left leaders such as former prime minister Leszek Miller.

Yet Razem is also part of a broader coalition. It was the descendant of Miller’s party, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which founded Nowa Lewica (The New Left) together with Robert Biedroń’s social liberal party Wiosna (Spring). With Razem, they created a coalition called Lewica in 2019.

On the separation of church and state, on same-sex marriages, and on economic issues, Razem dragged the coalition to the left. Wiosna’s case is more complicated. For instance, it was Wiosna leader Robert Biedroń who distanced himself from the neoliberal left, insisting that “years ago, the Left succumbed to the fatal temptation of the third way of Tony Blair and the British social democrats believing that neoliberalism was the solution. . . . The young generation of the Left thinks quite differently and speaks a different language.” On the other hand, this is also the party of politicians like Krzysztof Śmiszek, who, when asked how he owns five apartments, replied that he earned them with “hard work.” Wiosna’s leader Biedroń even tried to ally with neoliberals from Tusk’s PO, though they rebuffed his proposal.

The different parties in the Lewica coalition also have different emphases. The SLD praises its own record in power in the 1990s and 2000s. Wiosna emphasizes a kind of moral liberalism, speaking less actively about socioeconomic issues (although people associated with Wiosna, such as Agata Diduszko-Zyglewska or Maciej Gdula, have spoken about these openly, as have nonparty candidates, such as writer Jacek Dehnel or activist Jana Szostak). It was Razem, however, that combined social and economic issues, giving a new quality to the alliance. Its influence is visible in the Lewica coalition’s program, which includes tax measures to make long-term renting more viable, and support for housing cooperatives and people already paying off housing loans.

In addition to the fight against labor precarity in Poland, the construction of a new housing policy, and issues related to the state’s secularism, the Polish left has set its sights on the country’s defense program. Here we are talking not only about Razem, which talks a lot about this topic in its program, but also about intellectual and journalistic circles such as Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique). The war, indeed, is a decisive context for the election.

The War and the Election

Ahead of the election, Lewica is surely the strongest defender of migrants’ rights, with regard to not only Ukrainian refugees but also the Polish-Belarusian border crisis, as discussed by Cyryl Ryzak. In both cases, the reactionary right is playing up the migrant issue for its own ends. Law and Justice cynically portrays refugees from the Middle East in a bad light; but the fascists of Konfederacja also look witheringly on arrivals from Ukraine. They refer to the border crisis as an “immigrant assault on Poland’s border.”  Even the liberals from KO have picked up on some aspects of the vilification of refugees: the coalition’s September 8 election advert accused Law and Justice of allowing more immigrants into the country than France or Germany has.

But also significant, in the current geopolitical context, is that it is the far right that most loudly calls for peace with Russia. This is especially proposed by politicians from Konfederacja, which includes overtly pro-Putin politicians such as Janusz Korwin-Mikke and Grzegorz Braun. Like certain right-wing columnists — though some have tried to disavow these views since last February’s full-scale invasion — they see Putin as a leader who will renew Christian civilization or, to use Nikolai Berdyaev’s phrase, the “New Middle Ages.”

Left-wingers in Poland have shown no such sympathies with the authorities in Moscow, and instead place a strong emphasis on repelling Putin’s invasion. One Razem demand is a so-called Polish Defense Doctrine, which would define the country’s “strategic interests.” Another is the depoliticization of the intelligence services, currently seen as overly under the sway of the current government and its ministers.  To counteract such pressures, Razem proposes, among other things, that the rules for promotion to officer ranks should be codified. Other policies include active cooperation with reserve officers; investment in social services within the Polish Armed Forces; investment in the Polish arms industry; and a focus on mechanisms to protect civilians in the event of an attack.

Another important aspect of this election campaign, related to the war, is the Polish government’s recent imposition of a ban on Ukrainian grain imports. Such imports have been protested by Polish farmers, who believe Ukrainian grain is undercutting their prices. However, as Marcel Wandas rightly notes in liberal-left magazine, this claim is absurd: the embargo changes nothing, as grain prices are decided on the European and, moreover, global market. Despite its supposed intention of supporting farmers’ incomes, this looks more like a diversionary campaign by the right-wing government.

Indeed, we should not overestimate the supposed “welfare chauvinism” of Law and Justice, often said in international media to combine right-wing identity politics with income support for the poor. The real picture is more contradictory. This can be seen most clearly in the government’s flagship 500+ program, which provides cash transfers of 500 PLN ($115) a month per child. Through this policy, people get money in their hands, so they can spend it again in the private sector. What it doesn’t mean is support for public services, which are constantly underfunded.

Yet unfortunately, the government’s discourse around Ukrainian grain was also supported by some politicians within Lewica. The vice chairwoman of Nowa Lewica, from the coalition’s most liberal wing, said, “Ukrainians should be helped, but their grain should not stay in Poland.” If not firmly supporting the Law and Justice policy, this part of the Left failed to fight against another chauvinist move by the Polish government.

Chances for the Left

According to polls, the election is most likely to be won by Kaczynski’s PiS, with Donald Tusk’s party coming in second. Yet there is still an open fight for third and fourth place. According to the September 22–25 IPSOS survey, the Lewica coalition is likely to come in third, ahead of the Christian Democrats from the Trzecia Droga (Third Way) coalition and the far-right libertarians from Konfederacja.

In this optimistic scenario — in earlier polls, Konfederacja was favored to take third place — Lewica would score 10 percent and be in a position to join a government with Tusk. This broad left coalition seems a natural ally for the neoliberals, whose more progressive wing is growing stronger. More unpredictable is the behavior of Third Way, a composite force that risks not making it into parliament at all.

Surely, a defeat for Law and Justice and an increased vote for Lewica would be an important step in terms of building left-wing power in this region of Europe. In particular, a strengthened Razem could help its comrades in the other countries of the region. In this sense it is vital that it wins third place rather than the far-right Konfederacja, which at the very least will support Law and Justice’s authoritarian reforms. From them we can expect an authoritarian order similar to Hungary’s.

Only in protecting Poland’s existing liberal democracy, limited as it is, will there be an opportunity for greater networking of the Left and the construction of a new left politics in the Eastern European region. Then, too, it will be possible to rebuild cooperation with numerous organizations from the West.