Poland's election, European lesson

Poland's competent centre-right government has earned it a popular vote for stability and continuity. But the sharp rise of a minority party reveals a generation's parallel hunger for change, says Krzysztof Bobinski.
Krzysztof Bobinski
11 October 2011

The result of Poland’s general election on 9 October 2011 appears to show that Poles have taken a mere two decades to arrive at a stable political system dominated by two parties with predictable policies and without radical extra-parliamentary forces on the fringes.

But the sudden rise of the political showman Janusz Palikot, whose "Movement for the Support of Palikot" amassed 10% of votes, suggests that this settlement could be transient. More immediately, it indicates that the leaders of the two main parties, whose origins lie in the anti-communist Solidarity movement, have been ignoring issues which many people in post-1989 Poland see as vital.

A host of sober commentators sees the emergence of Palikot as a possibly disruptive development. They recall the political mess of the 1990s when many small parties were represented in parliament, and an alphabet-soup of allies was required to form a governing coalition (a familiar feature of new democracies, as Tunisia and Egypt now demonstrate).

This older generation with memories of those chaotic times was glad to see Donald Tusk, the head of the centre-right Civic Platform (PO), garner 40% of the vote and win a second term - the first time an administration has achieved this in Poland. The prime minister's arch-rival Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the nationalist-traditionalist Law & Justice party (PiS), was stuck at 30%. Kaczyński was undeterred: even on election night he sought to push the pendulum backwards by threatening in four years' time to "turn Warsaw into Budapest" - a none-too-oblique reference to Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister whose own nationalist-traditionalist Fidesz dominates his country’s political scene.

Kaczynski’s defiant boast masks the key failure of his party in this election: to convince the majority of Polish voters that the country needed to turn towards traditional values at home and should be prepared to risk a deteriorating relationship with Germany and Russia as the price for "standing up to foreigners".

Instead, Poles chose to give the government composed of Donald Tusk’s PO and its coalition partner, the farming-based Polish People’s Party (PSL, which won 8.5%) an opportunity for another term. The coalition has managed to bring the country through economic turbulence and avoid recession. The unfolding eurozine crisis may be followed by other perils. In this situation, most Poles seem to want a "safe pair of hands".

All well and good, but if everything is fine then what is wrong? For so many people felt that the election campaign was plain dull. It lacked memorable controversies as party leaders repeated well rehearsed themes, much as convicts locked up in the same cell do. Indeed, many who turned away from the ruling PO did so because they felt that the party had been content to administer the country for the past four years and not to seek to modernise it in line with its promises. The party might as well have been following the maxim of the first British prime minister, Robert Walpole: let sleeping dogs lie. At one point the party even told its supporters to stop using the word "reform" as this scared people at a time when the health service is acknowledged to be far from perfect and pension systems are in need of change.

A fresh current

It was in this context that Janusz Palikot, a 47-year-old former entrepreneur, entered the scene. He touched on themes like the legalisation of marihuana which the other established parties were afraid to touch. But by doing so, he showed that there was a demand for them.

Palikot comes from Biłgoraj in eastern Poland, where the great Jewish writer (and Nobel laureate) Isaac Bashevis Singer had family roots and lived for four years in his youth during and after the great war. Palikot, a philosophy graduate who then made a fortune out of marketing fizzy wines, entered politics in 2005. He became the head of the PO organisation in Lublin, the nearby provincial capital, and soon became one of Poland’s most recognisable politicians thanks to risqué publicity-stunts.

When the party’s leadership refused to promote him he resigned and established his "Palikot Support Movement". This initially presented a strong anti-clerical platform, but went on to mine voters which the former communist Left Democratic Alliance (SLD) had left behind in its search for respectability. He also highlighted gender issues (his movement has propelled Anna Grodzka, a woman who underwent a sex-change operation, into parliament) and championed gay rights (including gay marriage) which are anathema to the other parties ever wary of the clergy's views. Palikot has steered clear of economic issues though he probably remains loyal to the free-market convictions of the business clan to which he once belonged. He has shown no interest in environmental issues, and is a European federalist.

The ragtag army of supporters (gays, anti-clericals and people simply bored with the political scene) which Janusz Palikot managed to amass has undermined the SLD, maybe terminally. At 8.2% of the vote, the ex-communists' result is their worst in the history of democratic Poland: lower even than in the (for them) dark days after the transition of power in 1989 when Solidarity was in the ascendant.

The Palikot movement, with a healthy forty seats in the 460-member parliament, can broadly be compared to Germany's Greens, if only in its disrespect for the establishment and liberal approach to gender issues. It promises to act as a strong lobby for the kind of change in attitudes which the younger generation born in the new Poland after 1989 wants to see.

The movement comes just in time for Poland, in two senses. It reflects the concerns of young people who, thanks to freedom of travel, are better attuned to the ways of living and thinking of their confrères in western European countries than their parents and even elder siblings. More importantly, Janusz Palikot represents a hope that Poland will move to become more in tune with social attitudes in Germany, an important neighbour and ally in the European Union of which Poland currently holds the presidency.

This has a political dimension, in that it seems likely that Germany's next election in 2013 will bring a Social Democratic-Green coalition to power, reflecting a major shift towards more liberal lifestyles. Poland’s ex-communists are in decline and the country's Green party is tiny. Majority opinion in Poland regards the fight against climate change as a plot to destroy the country, whereas in Germany (as in Sweden) there is a cross-party consensus on the issue. Most of Poland’s establishment still take their cue on gender issues from the Catholic clergy; Germans are much less concerned. In a word, a gulf is appearing between the two countries. The change in attitudes Janusz Palikot promises will hopefully serve to bridge it.

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