The Polish lifeboat

Adam Szostkiewicz
21 September 2005

Poland today exhibits small clarity amidst large confusion. What is certain is that the Poles go to the polls on 25 September to elect both chambers of the national parliament (Sejm and Senat), then on 9 October elect the president of “Rzeczpospolita Polska” in a direct vote. There won’t be any Germany-style post-election blues, I promise, but the rest is a mystery.

The leftwing challenge in both contests is in disarray. The unexpected withdrawal of former prime minister W³odzimierz Cimoszewicz from the presidential race is a particular blow to the left. The experienced, moderate politician quit under heavy fire from rightwing rivals and some media accusing him of deliberately lying in his official fiscal records. Cimoszewicz denied any wrongdoing (whereas his own accuser was found to have fabricated a document against him) yet was still forced to retreat.

openDemocracy writers examine Poland’s politics, society, and foreign policy :

Krzysztof Bobinski, “Poland’s nervous ‘return’ to Europe” (April 2004)

Marek Matraszek, “Ukraine, Poland, and a free world” (December 2004)

Neal Ascherson, Pope John Paul II and democracy” (April 2005)

Norman Birnbaum, “Remember Solidarity! Poland’s journey to democracy” (August 2005)

Neal Ascherson, The victory and defeat of SolidarnoϾ (September 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

With Cimoszewicz gone, the rightwing parties are very likely to crush whatever remains of the left, including the current fragmented and divided governing coalition led by the Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej (Democratic Left Alliance / SLD). These parties are the conservative-liberal Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform / PO) and the nationalist-social Prawo i SprawiedliwoϾ (Law & Justice / PiS). They have held a long-term polling lead which shows no sign of diminishing as the parliamentary election moves down to the wire.

Issues and polemics

The campaign is being fought primarily over a domestic agenda, as Poland struggles with huge unemployment – 20% and more in some areas – a widening gap between rich and poor, and a series of corruption scandals involving a number of highly-placed civil servants, politicians, and business executives. While the economy is still in a pretty good shape, the public mood is a mixture of disgust, anger, and deep concern about the future.

PO and PiS have seized the day, claiming they are ready to clean this mess. With few detailed action plans to offer, they have cleverly used a radical rhetoric of change to gain popular appeal. Change is in the air, but what kind of change and what for?

The battlecry of the right is a “fourth republic”, a major overhaul of the current flawed system of government which releases buried social energy and creativity to the benefit of all.

It sounds good, doesn’t it? But when the would-be coalition partners deign to discuss details, major differences between them emerge. These cast doubts on whether PO and PiS can truly deliver on their promise of a “moral revolution’’.

Take tax reform: PO advocates the “flat tax” that has swept east-central Europe in the last two years (and helped Angela Merkel to “lose” the German election), but this is an anathema to PiS leaders, who on the eve of the poll are repositioning themselves as promoters of social justice and fairer distribution of the nation’s wealth.

PiS’s passionate anti-flat-tax cry is evidently designed to lure segments of the left who feel abandoned by their cult figure, Cimoszewicz. In this very attempt the party reveals the political void on the left opened by Cimoszewicz’s walkout. The SLD that won the 2001 election and in the process ministered a fatal blow to then established rightwing parties now seems to be dying.

What ruined the SLD was corruption and moral evasion, but the policies it adopted – a Polish version of Tony Blair’s once-vaunted “third way” – did not help them either in the eyes of their traditional, collectivist-minded electorate.

Leszek Miller, prime minister for most of this period (until his replacement by Marek Belka in May 2004) was an admirer and keen follower of Blair – which may have been good for Poland, but was not so good for the perception of his party in his native land. Public attitudes shifted to the point where the SLD became regarded as an evil force of destruction, and any economic or foreign-policy gains it presided over were forgotten (Poland was led into the European Union fold by Leszek Miller and the SLD-associated president, Aleksander Kwaœniewski).

In this climate, the forces of good entered in the form of rightwing parties whose leaders date their political careers to the heroic struggles of the former anti-communist opposition and the Solidarity movement for human rights and peaceful reforms: the twin brothers Lech and Jaros³aw Kaczyñski of PiS, and Donald Tusk and Jan Rokita of PO. Polish politics is soaked with history, and the historic divisions of the communist era have played a major role in party politics, elections, and intellectual debates during the near-sixteen years of modern Polish democracy.

Trends and prospects

Perhaps no more. Voters need choices. With Cimoszewicz gone and the left in decline, PO and PiS are doomed to clash over issues well beyond that of coming to terms with the communist legacy. This, I think, is good news for Polish democracy. We may be closing the post-communist and post-Solidarity chapter to open a new period in which the public agenda will be redefined. Poles do not know whether PO or PiS will win the elections, nor who will lead the next government, but we do feel the time is ripe for this redefinition.

In the absence of a strong leftwing party, the other parties have begun trying to fill the void. The rightwing populists of the Samoobrona (Self-defence) party led by Andrzej Lepper, a Polish Jose Bové, sells itself as ‘’the patriotic left’’; while PiS leader Lech Kaczyñski, a staunch anti-Communist and a leading presidential candidate, told a tabloid paper – surprise! – that communist-run Poland was not so bad after all in certain areas.

This may be a sign of things to come: with PiS going more and more social, and PO going more and more liberal. The likely electoral scenario might be a rightwing victory followed by a sort of a grand coalition, then a split on the economy or Europe. PiS is far more eurosceptic than PO (though both support delaying Poland’s entry into the eurozone), more Poland-centered, and a more aggressive champion of what it considers vital national interests; PO is more open to the outer world, more “cosmo-Polish’’ (to use the phrase of the great writer Witold Gombrowicz).

The worst-case scenario would be that such a split leads to a snap election won by the currently marginal parties – Lepper’s populists or the Catholic nationalists of the Liga Polskich Rodzin (League of Polish Families / LPR).

In its own very Polish way, Poland is keeping pace with the rest of today’s Europe: we are a little bit confused, a little bit tired, but still proud to be a member of the democratic family, and eager to use our and its potential. We do not think a major change will be disaster, if it comes through the ballot box and if the winners live up to their expectations. In short, and despite everything, we Poles still believe in democracy.

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