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The false promise of a new left in Poland

As the old, post-communist left struggles with its own failures, the nascent new left already appears to be compromising with a liberal centre - a simple repeat of the old left's mistakes. For the left in Poland to survive, something has to give.

Janusz Palikot speaking in Bydgoszcz, Poland. Wikimedia/Zorro2212. Some rights reserved.

It is correct to begin an analysis of the Polish left with a critique of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) government from 2001 to 2005. Since this time, the left has been a minority force in Polish politics, a politics now dominated by two parties from the right. However, rather than Grodzka’s party, Palikot’s Movement (RP), offering a viable alternative to the SLD, RP tends to repeat the previous mistakes of the left by placing itself within a liberal economic framework, and thereby restricting its potential growth.

The rise and decline of the SLD

The 2001 parliamentary elections marked the high-point for the SLD and the project of creating a social democratic party out of the remains of the formerly ruling Communist party. Despite (or perhaps because of) its associations with this previous regime, the SLD was able to rapidly hegemonise the left of the Polish political scene and by 1995 it held both presidential and parliamentary power. Although it lost the 1997 elections, it still increased its share of the vote and was well situated to take advantage of the disastrous right-wing coalition government that had pushed the country into economic stagnation, causing soaring unemployment. Despite the reservations many may have had with the SLD, at this time it was able to present itself as the party most likely to improve the living standards of working people and the poor. In 2001 it won over 40% of the vote and went on to form its second coalition government with the Peasants’ Party.

The SLD’s difficulties during the 2001-2005 government were partly imposed upon them and partly self-inflicted. The priority of Leszek Miller’s government was to take Poland into the European Union, a task it had achieved by May 2004. In order to meet this aim it had to comply with a series of convergence criteria which essentially required it to continue on a course of economic liberalisation. These policies ensured that living standards were not sufficiently improved and dissatisfaction with the government grew. Simultaneously, the SLD entered into a compromise with the Catholic Church, effectively agreeing not to pursue its liberal reform agenda on issues such as abortion and lesbian and gay rights, in return for the Church’s support for a ‘yes vote’ in the EU referendum.

The political concessions made by the SLD were not simply pragmatic ones. Miller openly endorsed the precepts of neoliberal economics, associated himself with Blairism and the now discredited theory of the “third way” and eagerly followed Bush and Blair into Iraq. The government also became riddled with a series of corruption scandals that served to build the image of the party and its leadership as being part of a dishonest elite that wished to preserve its privileged status. The SLD was now regarded as a self-serving party of the establishment and not a genuine left-wing party that attended to the interests of its electorate.

The hegemony of the right

Out of the opposition to the SLD government rose the two new right-wing parties that continue to dominate Polish politics today. Initially, both the Citizens’ Platform (PO) and Law and Justice Party (PiS) had similar programmes and aims. The leaderships of both these parties had their origins in relatively marginal sections of the former opposition movement during Communism; they had both participated in previous right-wing coalition governments; and as one,they claimed that a corrupt elite had usurped political and economic power in Poland and that this elite was thwarting the development of a healthy capitalist economy and society.  In the run-up to the 2005 elections, it was widely expected that PO would emerge as the largest party and would form a new right-wing coalition government with PiS.

The 2005 parliamentary elections moved Polish politics in a new direction. The SLD received around a quarter of the vote it had in 2001, which its new young, technocratic leadership greeted in celebratory mode. Meanwhile, PiS won the largest share of the vote through presenting a programme combining the protection of the poor, Catholic conservatism, and anticommunism with nationalistic patriotism while running a campaign that focused on PO’s staunch neoliberal programme. Rather than forming a government with PO, however, PiS entered into a coalition with the new peasant populist (Self-Defense) and nationalist (League of Polish Families) parties. For the first time in Poland’s post-Communist history, power seemed to have shifted from the liberal, urban elite to the poorer, conservative countryside. Polish politics had entered a new and uncertain phase, which was given added spice by the fact that the presidential and prime ministerial posts were being occupied by identical twins.

This new government lasted barely two years. It embarked on a radical programme of reforms that it claimed would rid the country of its corrupt elite and culminate in the creation of a new Fourth Polish Republic. It attempted to introduce a series of reforms that pushed the country in a new conservative and authoritarian direction. Furthermore, despite its rhetoric, the government continued the country’s neoliberal economic path, introducing, for example, a more regressive income tax system.  

Behind the fractures and divisions of party politics, the country’s socio-economic performance was gradually beginning to improve. Entry into the EU had provided the country with a newly expanded market both for its goods and its workers. Up to 2 million Poles emigrated to the promise of better opportunities in countries such as Britain and Ireland, which helped to rapidly bring down unemployment and provide a flow of resources back to the country. Furthermore, the government had successfully negotiated the right to receive the largest share of EU funds and subsidies from the EU budget framework that was to come into effect from 2007 and run until 2013.

By the 2007 elections, PO had tempered some of its most extreme neoliberal economic policies, and had positioned itself as the party that would defend the precepts of a liberal secular state against the authoritarian and conservative policies of PiS. After winning 41% of the vote it then formed a new coalition government with the Peasants’ Party. During the course of its first term in office it adopted a new economic strategy, which may be termed ‘pragmatic liberalism’. In contrast to previous governments from the liberal right, the PO administration took a more cautious approach to economic reform as it sought to maintain social support in an attempt to win an unprecedented second term in office.

Pragmatic liberalism and economic growth

This new economic strategy was partly influenced by the outbreak of the global economic crisis in 2008. The government was prepared to allow public debt and the government deficit to rise in order to finance public investment and spending. The government did not embark on any extensive austerity reforms and in some cases it actually did the opposite, such as increasing the salaries of teachers and partially reversing the privatisation of the pension system. Most importantly, public investment was increased to the highest level, as a share of GDP, of any EU country, growing from 4.2% of GDP in 2007 to 5.7% in 2011. This was achieved through utilising the large inflow of EU funds and investing heavily in infrastructural projects in preparation for the Euro2012 football championships. Poland spent 26bn dollars on infrastructural projects such as stadiums and roads—more than Britain, in fact, spent on the London Olympics. Between 2008 and 2012 the Polish economy grew on average by 3.5% and is now the only EU country to have avoided an economic recession since the beginning of the global economic crisis.  

It was this relative economic success that allowed PO to become the first governing party in Poland’s democratic history to be re-elected, forming a second coalition government with the Peasants’ Party in October 2011. PiS was once again the largest opposition party, with a new political divide having crystallised around interpretations of the Smoleńsk air crash that had killed 96 prominent public figures, including the Polish President Lech Kaczyński. However, on the left of the political scene a new situation began to unfold. For the first time, the SLD was usurped as the largest political party on the left, winning just 8% of the votes, against the new Palikot’s Movement, which scored an impressive 10%.

Economic decline and social dissatisfaction

From the end of 2011, PO has held both parliamentary and presidential power. However, a worsening economic situation is eroding support for the party; as economic growth slows, unemployment rises, real wages decline and public services continue to deteriorate.  During the 1st quarter of 2013 GDP growth slowed to just 0.4%. Behind this lies a sharp slowdown in public investment, declining by 25% from the end of 2011 to the end of 2012. Private companies have been unable to make up for this decline, with company profits in the first quarter of 2013 being nearly 14% below the level that they had been a year earlier.  

The deteriorating state of the economy and living standards has led to support for PO rapidly eroding over the past few months and it now lags behind PiS in the opinion polls. Social dissatisfaction has grown, with the three trade union confederations planning a joint national demonstration in September and discussing organising a general strike, and a social movement collecting enough signatures to call for a referendum on whether to dismiss the Mayor of Warsaw (Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, PO). However, the main political beneficiary of this discontent continues to be PiS, with both of the parties on the left struggling to challenge the dominance of the two leading parties of the right.

Liberalism and the left

To understand the ongoing difficulties facing the left we should return to the major strategic challenges that have faced the left over the past couple of decades. The collapse of Communism and the “shock therapy” reforms that paved the way to capitalism had the effect of creating both disillusionment with the left and large social inequalities and pockets of poverty. Furthermore, the alignment of economic with political and cultural liberalism meant that the ideals of a liberal secular state and social tolerance became associated with the privileges of the wealthiest in society. The defeat of the left in 2005 signalled that many of those excluded from the benefits of the transition to capitalism looked to the Catholic, conservative right as a political force that would protect their living standards and social rights.

This has been exacerbated by the strategy of many on the left (most notably ex-President Aleksander Kwaśniewski) of seeking an alliance between the left and the liberal centre. The SLD proposed a coalition with smaller liberal-centre parties after the 1993 and 2001 elections, both of which were rejected. During the period of the PiS government, the SLD attempted to forge a new political coalition with the small remaining fragments of the liberal centre, that served not to build support for the left but actually weaken it. Even during the previous parliamentary elections, the SLD stood on an economic programme that was agreed with the Business Centre Club, thus failing to offer a coherent social and economic alternative to the PO administration.

The weakness and political inertia of the SLD has allowed space for RP to emerge. As Anna Grodzka has said, it is not easy to define exactly what RP is. It has not yet consolidated itself as a political party and, rather absurdly, still carries the name of its founder and leading member. In the run up to the 2011 elections RP built its credentials through advocating a number of leftist social and cultural policies against the conservative reforms that have been introduced over the past two decades. These include removing compulsory religious education from schools, making priests pay taxes, supporting the state-funding of in-vitro treatment, supporting same-sex legal partnerships and liberalising the abortion law. The first openly gay and transsexual MPs, alongside a leading representative of the women’s movement, were elected to parliament as part of RP’s slate, providing hope for some that a new left-wing political movement was being created.

However, on economic policies the party has far from clear left-wing credentials (notwithstanding the notable exceptions of members such as Grodzka herself). RP has primarily positioned itself as a movement that represents the frustrations of the young, educated, and entrepreneurial sections of society; promising to remove the bureaucratic obstructions of the state and allow small- and medium-sized businesses to flourish. It has advocated policies such as introducing flat tax rates, arguing that humanities students should pay for their studies, supporting the restriction of companies providing medical tests for employees and supporting the government’s bill to raise the retirement age. Rather than creating a new left or genuine social democratic party, RP is a liberal populist party whose progressive policies on some social and cultural issues are combined with a commitment to neoliberal economic reform.

Since the 2011 elections, Leszek Miller has returned as leader of the SLD. This underlines the weakness of the party and its failure to create a new, younger leadership over the past two decades. However, rather than continue in its neo-liberal course of the last SLD government, Miller has moved the party to the left on most socio-economic issues and opposed the most strident neoliberal policies of the government (such as raising the retirement age). The problem for the SLD is that it has not been able to regain the trust and support that it lost during its last term in office and it has, as yet, failed to make any serious breakthrough in the opinion polls.

The table below shows support for RP and the SLD from January 2012 to July 2013. We can see that at the beginning of 2012 RP had fallen slightly below the 10% it had gained in the 2011 elections but had twice the level of support of the SLD. However, this quickly changed and from the end of 2012 RP has not managed to score above 4%. At the same time, the SLD has managed to slightly increase its support, drifting into double figures on a couple of occasions. However, both parties remain far below that gained by PO and PiS (in July 2013 PiS were scoring 26% and PO 24%).

Support for RP and SLD (%) (source)

 

01/2012

03/2012

05/2012

07/2012

09/2012

11/2012

01/2013

03/2013

05/2013

07/2013

Palikot Movement

8

8

7

5

4

4

2

4

4

3

Democratic Left Alliance

4

8

12

9

8

9

8

10

9

7

Left unity?

A seemingly obvious and tempting solution to the troubles facing RP and the SLD may be for them to unite and form a common electoral bloc. In recent months some prominent politicians previously close to the SLD (including Aleksander Kwaśniewski) have formed a new movement with RP (Europa Plus) with the aim of standing candidates in the European elections. The SLD has declined to participate in this and has decided instead to stand independently. The idea that the left could raise its support by organisationally uniting these two parties is not supported by historical evidence. This is simply another attempt to form an alliance between the left and the liberal centre, most likely reducing the support for the left and allowing PiS to gain more support amongst those who are most negatively affected by the decline in economic growth.  

For the left to rebuild itself it has to place itself at the forefront of those who are opposed to the PO government and the neoliberal reforms it is introducing. Whilst this includes supporting progressive reforms around sexual rights and the building of a secular state, it also has to present an economic alternative that will provide economic growth, create jobs and protect social benefits and public services. This primarily means introducing a programme of increased public investment, through raising government spending and utilising the new funds that will come to Poland through the EU’s forthcoming 2014-21 budget.

The dividing line in Polish politics is the same one that is forming in other European countries. It is between whether one is for austerity or not; whether one supports investment to drive economic growth and create jobs or is in favour of cutting public spending. RP has clearly shown that it supports liberal economic reform, reform that will further undermine support for the left. Meanwhile the SLD – struggling to free itself from the shackles of the past – may be tempted into a future coalition government with PO. That would be the final nail in the coffin for Poland’s major left-wing party. The task of building a strong left-wing party that is trusted and supported by large sections of society continues to be an elusive task in Poland. Yet, it is one that is needed more urgently than ever before.


[1] http://www.cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/2013/K_098_13.PDF

About the author

Gavin Rae is a sociologist living in Warsaw. He has written extensively on issues surrounding the transition in Central and Eastern Europe and European Union expansion, with particular focus on Poland. His book Poland's Return to Capitalism was published by IB Tauris, he runs the blog Beyond the Transition.


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