Can Europe Make It?

Poland's right turn: inexplicable madness or rational response?

Western commentators see the 'sudden' right-wing turn of Poland as a so-passé mixture of nationalism, populism and deficits of democracy. But the truth is very different.

Marta Tycner
7 January 2016

Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) protest in Gdasnk against Law and Justice’s (PiS) attempt to change constitutional law. Demotix/Michal Fludra. All rights reserved.Apparently, a mysterious infectious disease has spread across Central and Eastern Europe. Countries, which for years after the fall of communism were examples of an accomplished transition to the ‘Western world’, have been sliding, one after another, into inexplicable madness.

For western commentators, this disease, which they see as a so-passé mixture of nationalism, populism and deficits of democracy, seems to have appeared out of the blue, for no visible reason.

For example, Poland, new Europe’s leading economy, got infected in October, when in the recent elections the right-wing conservative and nationalist Law and Justice party gained a majority in the parliament. The new government inaugurated its tenure with a series of outrageous anti-democratic moves, including a frontal attack on the Constitutional Court and on the independence of the media. Defenders of democracy in Poland and abroad protest and express their concern, but without understanding what happened, they may actually do more harm than good.

So, what happened? For the last eight years Poland was governed by the centre-right, pro-European, mildly progressive, but economically neoliberal Civic Platform. It continued the seemingly successful line of most of the previous governments since 1989: modernisation of the country’s infrastructure, privatisation of state property and state services, liberalisation of the labour market.

With European money and big public-private partnership investments, it built motorways, high-speed train connections, stadiums for the Euro 2012 championships. Big cities, particularly Warsaw, flourished. Sky-scrapers were constructed to house corporations giving reasonably well-paid jobs to open, nice, well-educated professionals who form the new middle class.

This is the reality most visitors would see in Poland, but also the reality many of its inhabitants treated – and to a certain extent still treat – as the only truth about the country.This is the reality most visitors would see in Poland, but also the reality many of its inhabitants treated – and to a certain extent still treat – as the only truth about the country. A brief look at some of the economic indicators, especially the impressive accumulated economic growth (53% from 2003 to 2014), only confirm this impression.

And yet some people are not content. A closer analysis of the statistics focusing on indicators other than growth could easily explain why. The most common net wage in Poland (mode) is £305 per month and half of the working population earns net less than £405 (median). In some jobs, like cleaning or security, people earn on average less than the minimum wage (£220 net).

And anyway, the minimum wage is for many just a mirage, since it only applies to permanent contracts; due to the ‘elasticising’ of the job market, these have been replaced by insecure fixed-term contracts (27% of the working population) and self-employment (19%).

In most cases no permanent contract means no pension scheme, no right to sick leave, holidays, to unemployment benefits, no right to join trade unions, and for women – no maternity leave. Universal childcare benefits are unknown. The state has withdrawn from all areas judged as ‘unprofitable’: railway connections are being liquidated, the number of hospitals and nurseries is diminishing in long term, post offices are disappearing from the countryside.

The two major groups disadvantaged by this situation are the population of the provinces, and the 20- and 30-somethings who are being offered worse and worse employment conditions.  

The situation on the job market also has to do with Poland’s position in the international division of labour. In the early 1990s, Poland’s industry and financial sector was rapidly privatised and went to the hands of foreign investors. International corporations had usually no interest in sustaining their new acquisitions, seeing that the alternative was either a profitable liquidation of a factory or its transformation into a subcontracting entity, hiring cheap workers.

This was the start of what became a specialisation: Poland competes internationally with cheap labour. And to stay competitive, labour has to be relatively cheaper in comparison with ‘old Europe’, which profits from Polish call-centres, storehouses, and factories producing simple subcomponents. If anybody in Britain is curious why tens of thousands of young Poles prefer to be waiters on the Isles rather than to look for a job at home, here is the answer.  

People excluded from the benefits of the transformation were numerous from the very beginning: workers released from privatised factories, members of the bankrupted State Agricultural Farms, elderly people deprived of access to good healthcare. Yet, it was a transition from socialist planned economy to free market capitalism, and the most ‘progressive’ part of the population, the democratic elites, the builders of the independent state, believed firmly in the blessings of neoliberalism, so much in fashion in the late 1980s. The state as such was seen as bad by definition, social security made people lazy, asking for basic rights was manifestation of an immoral ‘demanding attitude’.

Liberal intelligentsia and middle class gradually withdrew to their shelters of private education and private healthcare, and betrayed the people. Only two forces, quickly united, supported the excluded and despised groups in their grief: the Catholic Church and the conservative Right.Only two forces, quickly united, supported the excluded and despised groups in their grief: the Catholic Church and the conservative Right. This immediately made the axis of the political struggle different from what we know in the west: democratic and progressive forces with a neoliberal agenda vs. nationalist and conservative forces with an anti-capitalist agenda.    

The weak Left, the post-communists and the slowly emerging ‘new Left’: feminists, LGBT activists, Greens, etc., usually joined the liberal front. The neoliberal rhetoric associated the Left so strongly with the failed project of state socialism that very few people dared calling themselves leftists, not to mention proposing any socially progressive political program.

Also examples from abroad were not particularly useful: when in the early 2000s the post-communists formed the government, they modelled their policy on Blair’s ‘third way’, just made it slightly more liberal.

Unable to formulate a clear social agenda, and to address the losers of the transformation, the Polish Left did not manage to reclaim its place as a legitimate player on the political scene. It became a mere variant of the liberal project. It was the Left’s major historical failure, which reinforced the paradoxical situation of the conservative Right capturing the votes of what would elsewhere be a left-wing constituency.

The clash between the two parts of the political scene was very clear on the symbolic level: Europe vs. the nation, same-sex marriages vs. traditional family values, liberal democracy vs. firm-hand government, and, generally, openness vs. obscurantism. It was therefore very easy for the liberals to ridicule their opponents for their backwardness and dogmatic religiosity.

They also (rightly, but hysterically) sounded the alarm because of the Right’s authoritarian inclinations. The enlightened public was so preoccupied with the symbolic war that it didn’t see the other level, the Right’s economic agenda. Or when they saw it, they ridiculed it too. And the disturbing truth is that the Right, even though also not entirely free from neo-liberal thinking and far from being coherent in their project, did a huge job to look for their own non-liberal economic solutions.

It embraced a complex agenda of supporting national capital against foreign capital, postulated regional development and a reinforcement of the state. The Right enveloped the propositions in a patriotic rhetoric which made them difficult to swallow. Still, one has to admit: a critique of deindustrialisation and privatisation, ideas like taxing banks and corporations, or some forms of redistribution were first raised by the Right long before the economic crisis moved these topics to the mainstream of the economic debate in the West.

The Civic Platform did not lose the elections because of any new, spectacular mistakes. After eight years their power wore away and the gradual damage to the labour market did the rest. They lost not to some unknown fresh power, but to a well-known and always neglected opponent. The frustrated voters didn’t go mad, they had no other option.The frustrated voters didn’t go mad, they had no other option.

We don’t know yet whether Law and Justice will decide to introduce any pro-social economic changes it promised. They are still discussed, but the key ministries were entrusted to liberals rather than to politicians proposing more redistributive measures. And for the moment the government is busy destroying democratic institutions and creating chaos.

However, the reaction of the opposition is worrying. A civil committee was founded, which organises mass protests in defence of democracy. The intentions are good, but their realisation is to a large extent just a fresh, even sharper version of the old symbolic war. The committee invited politicians from all the opposition parties to join the protests; the most audible voice is that of Ryszard Petru, a banker, founder and leader of the party .Nowoczesna (.Modern), a new incarnation of Polish turbo-liberalism, proclaimed by many enlightened democrats to be the saviour of the country, future prime minister, and their last hope. Words of contempt for those who ‘sold democracy for £85 (of the proposed childcare benefits)’ can be heard, as if nobody understood that precisely this contempt has fuelled the Right for so many years.

And where is the Left? No left-wing party is in parliament right now. The extra-parliamentary leftist opposition consists of two movements: United Left, a coalition of the post-communists and the Greens, and Razem (Together), a new movement modelled on Podemos with a radical social-democratic agenda.

The United Left officially joined the protests, following the usual route of the Polish Left. Razem chose a more difficult path: it organises its own demonstrations against the violation of democracy and consistently addresses social issues. It attempts something hardly anybody dared before: to create a third pole on the political scene, and propose coherent left-wing solutions in both the economic and the symbolic sphere. Its supporters belonged so far mostly to the progressive and liberal part of the political scene.

If it wants to radically transform Polish politics, it has to find a way to address the frustrated voters of the Right. Not legitimising Ryszard Petru as the opposition leader, a move vehemently criticised by democratic elites, is the first step. But Razem needs much more to succeed.

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