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Poland's beacon for Europe

About the author
Marek Kohn is a writer and journalist. His latest book is A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination (Faber, 2004). His website is here.

For the outside world in general, if not Poland’s nearer neighbours, the series of Polish elections that ended on Sunday 23 October were a pendulum swing of little consequence. Conservatives replaced post-communists in the parliament and the presidency; the main point of interest was the appearance on the international stage of the Kaczynski twins once child stars of the domestic screen.

Yet the wider significance of the recent Polish electoral campaigns is better grasped in the terms in which the Poles themselves cast their choice: a “liberal Poland” (or a “free Poland”) versus a “Poland of solidarity”. The victory of Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (Law & Justice / PiS) is a victory for social solidarity. It is a reminder, especially to that corner of the continent where the expression now seems foreign, that social solidarity is a fundamental human need which is liable to reassert itself if insulted or stifled.

Also about Poland’s politics, society and elections in openDemocracy:

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)

Neal Ascherson, “The victory and defeat of Solidarność” (September 2005)

Adam Szostkiewicz, “The Polish lifeboat” (September 2005)

Karolina Gniewowska, “The Polish minefield” (September 2005)

Neal Ascherson, “Poland’s interregnum” (September 2005)

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The choice became more explicit as the presidential campaign reached its final stages. Aleksander Kwasniewski, the outgoing president, deplored it as a false one, while affirming the value of solidarity with a capital “S”. The word was already heavy in the air as the autumn elections approached, after the twenty-fifth anniversary of the “Polish August” and the Solidarnosc trade-union movement. But the idea would have been the undercurrent of the elections anyway.

To some extent the choice was indeed an artefact of the disposition of political forces. Everybody knew that the elections would remove from office the Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej (Democratic Left Alliance / SLD) which is hated by much of the electorate for being the successor to the communist party, and which had exhausted its credit with the rest of the voters. Having monopolised the left in post-communist Poland, it also exhausted the possibilities for politics that combine social liberalism and social welfare. These may be two faces of the same coin in much of Europe, but under Polish conditions their values are opposed.

Liberal or social Poland?

That opposition became the pivot of the campaigns as the two main parties, PiS and the Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform / PO), struggled to accentuate their differences. PO is neo-liberal in spirit, and its presidential candidate Donald Tusk is relatively liberal in social terms. It was easy for PiS to present itself as the guarantor of social welfare, and for the right to use the epithet “liberal” against Tusk in a manner that might seem familiar in America.

The more to the right it was viewed, the sharper this ideological perspective became, and the less it seemed like mere political opportunism. For the right, Catholic and nationalist, liberalism is both a moral and a national threat. Social liberalism threatens the fabric of society; economic liberalism threatens the integrity of the nation’s assets.

Behind the mainstream conservatives of PiS stand the ranks of the implacable nationalists, who see the history of the post-communist Polish “third republic” as one of perfidy – in which so far from being called to account, communists have been free to make fortunes, and where the country is secretly manipulated by the security services, and its assets have been sold to foreign interests.

Seen from the right, Donald Tusk is insufficiently Polish and suspiciously sympathetic to non-Poles. Lech Kaczynski’s campaign chief, Jacek Kurski, played on these suspicions by alleging that Tusk’s grandfather volunteered for the Wehrmacht (the gambit cost Kurski his job). A commentator in the implacable Nasz Dziennik notes Tusk’s roots in the Kashubian ethnic minority and points out that his intellectual heroes, such as Friedrich Hayek, are of Jewish extraction.

Tusk was comfortably ahead in the polls for most of the presidential campaign. He lost his lead as the debate crystallised around the idea of a choice between a liberal and a social Poland. After the candidates of the smaller parties were eliminated in the first round, Kaczynski picked up the rest of his natural right-wing constituency. He also seems to have gained the votes of a quarter of the SLD’s supporters, enough to take him over the halfway mark in the run-off against Tusk. A vote for social solidarity may well have tipped the balance.

Old Poland, new Europe

Kaczynski won in the countryside and in the east. The map of regional results looks strikingly like a map of the “old” and the “new” Poland, with Tusk victories in the formerly German territories of the west, where the communists rebuilt a society on razed ground after the war. Kaczynski’s ideological base is also traditional in its conservatism, its nationalism, its Catholic heart and its recognition of the fundamental importance of social solidarity. The latter may be shaped by the teachings of a universal church, but it is contained within national identity. Calls to halt privatisation and defend a welfare state are nationalist demands.

A concern for social solidarity might not seem surprising in a country where nearly one person in five is unemployed and where monthly earnings average less than €600. But the Polish understanding of solidarity is sustained by much more than want. Although much of what sustains it ideologically may be unattractive or distasteful outside the querulous ranks of the Catholic nationalists, the fog of nationalism should not obscure its universal significance.

Marek Kohn is a writer and journalist. His latest book is A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination (Faber, 2004). His website is here.

There is much evidence, from studies of public health, to show that the Poles have retained a wisdom that has been lost in more affluent countries. Social relations that are unequal and oppressive cause unhappiness, illness and death; conversely, social relations that are affiliative and relatively equal promote good health and wellbeing. The slogan of solidarity in Poland today challenges outsiders to acknowledge its significance, and to resist the temptation to discount it as backward, or to discredit it by its associations.

Nor are ideological formations like these unique to Poland. A similar division between free-marketeers and welfarist conservatives is apparent in Hungary. Moreover, as Neal Ascherson points out in his openDemocracy article “Poland’s interregnum”, PiS bears a resemblance to the Christian Social Union in Germany, where “social solidarity” was a phrase in play in the October elections.

In the past, both Poles and outsiders have been tempted to depict Poland as singular, even peculiar, among the nations of Europe. Now that one European Union citizen in twelve is Polish, it is time to start looking at Poland as an illustration of what matters across the continent as a whole. That means looking at the Poland of solidarity.


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