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Poland's left must offer a real alternative to break the right-wing deadlock

The decimated left faces a considerable challenge in distinguishing itself from the liberal opposition.

An anti-government candle-lit vigil in front of Krakow's District Court in relation to judical reforms in Poland. An anti-government candle-lit vigil in front of Krakow's District Court in relation to judical reforms in Poland. Image: Artur Widak/SIPA USA/PA ImagesThe recent local government elections in Poland have further strengthened the polarisation of the country’s political scene between two parties from the right: the Law and Justice Party (PiS) and Citizens’ Platform (PO). While the latter made important gains in some major cities, PiS still managed to consolidate itself as the country’s leading political party. With the left remaining marginalised on the sidelines of Polish politics, the domination of these two right-wing parties seems set to continue.

Depending on who you listen to, Polish democracy is either dying or flourishing. The standard critique, repeated in the mainstream western media, is that since winning the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2015, PiS is attacking such institutions as the courts and public media; and leading Poland into Europe’s growing club of illiberal democracies. The PiS government is regarded as a threat to the values upon which the European Union (EU) has been constructed; as well rolling back many of the democratic gains of Poland’s transition from a Soviet-backed socialist state. PiS, of course, reject such claims. They point not just to their electoral victories but also to their continual high standing in the opinion-polls. They refer to the deep conviction in Polish society that institutions such as the courts are corrupt and that their reforms are required in order to create a more transparent and efficient legal system. PiS argue that they are implementing a popular programme of social reform, against the wishes of a corrupt elite.

PiS have combined their encroachments on liberal democracy, with the promotion of nationalist and socially conservative policies, creating a political environment in which the far-right is emboldened. The party and government is structured around its leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, who has avoided the formal responsibilities of government while conducting proceedings from the sidelines. The left has to heed these warning signs and oppose the present moves towards authoritarianism and conservative nationalism. At the same time, however, it must offer an alternative to the liberal opposition, which seeks a return to the very economic and social order that spurred this right-wing conservative turn.

Limited liberal democracy

As the professor of philosophy Domenico Losurdo explains in his book on the topic, liberalism has historically excluded sections of society from the freedoms it promotes. Such was the situation in Poland after the transition to capitalism in 1989. As well as generating huge social inequalities, the main political parties, media and academia became dominated by neoliberal ideology. Huge swathes of the population were essentially excluded from political decision making, as electoral turnouts rarely exceeded 50% and membership of political parties and trade unions slumped. The enlightened and progressive elites in Poland had assumed the ‘white man’s burden’ of educating and socialising the masses about the new capitalist world order, while ensuring that they were kept far away from the levers of power.

The liberal opposition seeks a return to the very economic and social order that spurred this right-wing conservative turn.

The period of neoliberal hegemony in Poland replicated many of the so-called populist features of  the present PiS administration. The division between the elite and the people was emphasised; however in this case it was the elite that was pure and progressive and the people corrupted and regressive. Similar to contemporary populism, Polish politics was also divided into two antagonistic blocs. No overtly neoliberal party was ever able to win political power in a democratic election, despite its overbearing ideological influence in public and intellectual life. Politics fractured along historical lines, with  ‘post-Communist’ and ‘post-Solidarity’ camps dominating the political scene until the mid-2000s. Whilst the political debate often oscillated around questions of historical legacies, both blocs implemented similar neoliberal economic programmes once in office. By the time that Poland had entered the EU in 2004, both of these political blocs had all but disintegrated due to the unpopularity of their policies, meaning a new recomposition of party politics was required.

Dominance of the right

From the mid-2000s a new political divide began to crystallise. The ‘post-Communist’ Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) had been decimated after introducing a neoliberal third way programme in the early 2000s, while becoming mired in corruption scandals. Meanwhile, out of the ashes of the ‘post-Solidarity’ bloc, two new parties emerged: PO and PiS. Despite their common histories, these two right-wing parties adopted an antagonistic stance towards one another and in the absence of a credible left, they have now dominated Polish politics for over a decade. PiS cast itself as a pro-social conservative party; whilst PO assumed the mantle of a slightly more liberal party aligned to the mainstream European Christian Democratic right. After a short and unsuccessful period of PiS led coalition government (2003-2005), PO held the reins of power between 2007 and 2015.

These PO led governments (which for the majority of time were led by the now President of the European Council, Donald Tusk) were ruling during a new phase of Polish capitalism. The country had undergone over two decades of austerity, which had begun in the late period of the Polish People’s Republic (PRL). Soaring unemployment and depressed salaries had resulted in around 2 million Polish citizens emigrating to western Europe after EU enlargement. Public services such as the health service had deteriorated and significant parts of the country were blighted with poverty. However, entry into the EU offered new opportunities for economic development. Poland received the largest amount of structural and cohesion funds of any EU member state; unemployment was eased by mass emigration; and new private investment flowed into the country, ensuring that Poland was the only EU country to avoid  an economic recession following the global financial crisis. Moreover, despite continuing to erode and commercialise many of the country’s public services and welfare benefits, the PO government refrained from introducing a new wholescale package of neoliberal reform, similar to that introduced in many other European states.

Expectations and frustrations

The PO government and its liberal spokespeople declared the country was an economic “green island” in Europe and that it was enjoying its “best period for over 300 years”. From their privileged vantage point it was impossible to understand how society could be dissatisfied during a time of such impressive development. However, this economic growth had both raised the expectations and frustrations of large parts of society.

The lives of many of the poorest in society did not improve and even worsened during PO’s consecutive terms.

On the one hand, the lives of many of the poorest in society did not improve and even worsened during PO’s consecutive terms (the percentage of those living in extreme poverty rose from 5.6 percent in 2008 to 7.4 percent in 2014.) . Concurrently, the lives of many of the aspiring middle class were becoming increasingly difficult. The transition to capitalism had brought with it a rapid expansion in university graduates; and for some time higher educational qualifications helped to ensure upward social mobility. This provided the material basis for the liberal ideology of meritocratic individual achievement and a justification for the structural inequalities generated by the transition to capitalism. However, the relation between education and income has been steadily weakening in recent years; and those with higher education are finding it increasingly difficult to secure full-time employment. The percentage of the workforce employed on temporary insecure contracts grew from just 5.6 percent in 2000 to 27.9 percent in 2015 (increasing from 14.2 percent to an incredible 73.1 percent for 15 to 24 year olds during the same period.) It was becoming increasingly hard to secure stable employment; raise the capital to buy a secure home; have access to high-quality public services; and look forward to a retirement with a liveable pension.

A new conservative hegemony

PiS took advantage of these social frustrations, managing to break the previous liberal hegemonic bloc and win the support of diverse social groups. This  was achieved through offering a coherent political alternative. Firstly, they promised a series of social policies, aimed at reducing poverty and easing the hardships faced by large sections of society. Secondly, they identified a corrupt elite, reaching back to the PRL, that they claimed continues to infect the legal and political institutions of the state. This was not purely a statement of populist political fantasy. Corruption scandals have blighted successive Polish governments over the past couple of decades, including during the PO-led administrations. Moreover, the courts have often stood up for the interests of the most powerful in society (developers, banks, owners of reprivatised buildings evicting tenants and so forth) resulting in over two-thirds of Poles not having confidence in the independence of judges. Thirdly, PiS was able to combine these policies into a generalised anti-Communist and nationalist discourse. They promised to complete the revolution started in 1989, that they claimed had been stalled by the previous elites that retained their power in the state’s institutions. Moreover, they would finally stand up to the international and European institutions that wanted to dictate Poland’s domestic and foreign policies.

PiS did something that was anathema in Polish politics – they fulfilled many of their electoral promises.

After gaining power in 2015, PiS did something that was anathema in Polish politics: they fulfilled many of their electoral promises. During their first year in office, PiS introduced a generous package of child benefits, named “Family 500+ Plus” in reference to the 500 PLN (£102.84) per month in child support available for second and subsequent children under the policy. The average monthly wage in Poland is 3,429 PLN (£705.25) after tax. PiS also raised the minimum wage and lowered the pension age. The 500+ child benefit had an immediate positive effect. Child poverty decreased, between 2015 and 2017, from 23 percent to 11 percent, with the number of children receiving child benefits rising from 2 million to 3.8 million (although over 3 million children are still excluded).

Simultaneously, the government began to encroach upon the institutions of the state and bring them under their control. Public broadcasters were rapidly turned into a loyal mouthpiece of the government. A series of changes to all levels of the country’s judicial system were implemented, from the Constitutional Tribunal to the Supreme Court, that have eroded the independence of the judiciary system and potentially the rule of law in the country. A new aggressive ‘anti-Communist’ historical policy was launched. This has involved removing and changing monuments and road names relating not only to the Communist period, but to the Soviet victory over fascism, Polish volunteers during the Spanish Civil War and pre-war socialists. PiS aligned itself with the most conservative elements of the Catholic Church, which have attempted (so far unsuccessfully) to completely ban abortion. The government inflamed nationalist and racist sentiments in society, in particular using the question of the country accepting refugees as a means to spread fear and division. New divides with the EU were opened, around the issues of court reform and the Polish government’s decision not accept its previously agreed quota of refugees. For the first time the EU triggered Article 7 against a member state, that could in theory lead to Poland losing its voting rights within the EU.

The failures of the liberal opposition

The liberal opposition and PO only offer a return to the previous status quo. 

Large demonstrations were organised against the reforms of the courts and media, and a new social movement formed opposing the authoritarian shift in Poland. These protests tended to be restricted to the large cities and were dominated by the urban middle classes. Liberal politicians vied for dominance on these demonstrations, hoping that this would turn into a social movement that could challenge the dominance of PiS. Nearly three years into the term of the PiS government, this movement has been marginalised and support for PiS remains high.

The liberal opposition and PO only offer a return to the previous status quo. They defend a constitution that they themselves had failed to uphold when in government, ignoring its clauses on such things as full-employment and housing. They look to the EU to ride to its rescue, which again plays into the hands of PiS, who can assert that they are defending Poland’s democracy against the unelected bureaucrats from Brussels. The liberal opposition yearns to build a new ‘pro-democracy’ social movement, reaching back to some of the traditions and symbols of the Solidarity movement. However, they are missing one vital ingredient: the organised working class, which had provided the backbone of Solidarity. The intelligentsia had ridden to democracy on the back of a mass working class trade union movement and then betrayed it once they arrived at their destination. They are no in position or mood to now mobilise to protect it. The liberal opposition has also shown no willingness to support the labour disputes of workers, such as the recent strike at Poland’s state-owned airline LOT, during which nearly 70 trade unionists were sacked.

Can the left offer an alternative?

PiS came to power as the left reached its lowest ebb, winning no seats in parliament for the first time in its history in 2015. The left has been divided in its attitude towards the ‘pro-democracy’ protests, unsure whether it should attach itself to an opposition movement dominated by liberals against a government that has instigated the largest downward redistribution of wealth in over three decades. The problem facing the left is that it has to both oppose the authoritarian right-wing policies of the PiS government, whilst remaining resolute in its opposition to the neoliberal programme of PO. Despite the defeat of the left in the local elections, both PiS and PO were unable able to significantly expand beyond their core electorates, thus showing the limits of their support. The left has to try and build on and exploit the limitations of these parties.

PO is itself a conservative party of the right. When in office it made no attempt to reform such things as the abortion law or weaken the influence of the Church in public life. It was the PO government that began the regressive turn in historical policy; and it was even PO that first encroached upon the Constitutional Tribunal at the end of its last term in office. PO and large sections of the liberal opposition continually display an elitist and classist attitude towards PiS and its electorate, which is sometimes even expressed in racist tones – such as using the slogan ‘PiSlam’ or when PO derided the ‘African standards’ of PiS. PO has failed to build its base beyond the major cities and more wealthy urban electorate, reducing the opposition to PiS to a relatively privileged section of society.

Despite its social rhetoric, PiS remains a right-wing party that will tend to oppose the labour disputes of trade unions.

Simultaneously, there are severe limitations in the economic and social programme of PiS. Despite the success of 500+, this remains a conservative welfare policy which, for example, is decreasing the participation of women in the workforce. A left-wing alternative is to universalise these benefits while investing in public services, such as nurseries and housing. In order to help fund these investments, the left must do what PiS has avoided and reform the regressive taxation system. Also, the PiS government, despite its nationalist rhetoric, remains heavily dependent upon the inflow of EU funds to maintain economic growth. Once these funds are reduced in a couple of years, the base of the PO and PiS governments’ macroeconomic policies will have been eroded. The question will then be raised as to how government spending can be increased and directed towards those areas in most need of investment. Also, despite its social rhetoric, PiS remains a right-wing party that will tend to oppose the labour disputes of trade unions. Only the left can provide a political voice to such movements.

The immediate task for the left is to overcome its internal divisions. Despite the protracted decline in support for the SLD, no credible left alternative has yet been established. At the 2015 parliamentary elections, the young left-wing party Razem (Together), made the significant achievement of crossing the three percent threshold needed to receive state funding. However, the party has failed to build upon this success, winning around 1.5 percent of the vote at the local government elections, whilst the SLD gained around 6 percent. There is an urgent need for the left to unite around a new political project against the hegemony of the right. The former Mayor of the city of Słupsk, Robert Biedron, has announced that he will try and build a new national movement of the left, although it remains unclear what its political character will be.

Breaking the dominance of the two right wing parties and forming a credible political alternative and social bloc is an immense challenge for the Polish left. If it is not successful in this task, then the shift towards right-wing authoritarianism will continue. 

About the author

Gavin Rae is a sociologist from Warsaw. He has written extensively on Poland and Central and Eastern Europe, including two books: Poland’s Return to Capitalism and Public Capital: The Commodification of Poland’s Welfare State. He is co-founder of the left-wing think tank Naprzód, which is the Polish member organisation of the Transform! Network of European left-wing think-tanks. 


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