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Poland's interregnum

About the author
Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. For many years he was foreign correspondent and then columnist for the (London) Observer. Among his books are The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo (1963; Granta, 1999); The Struggles for Poland (Random House, 1988); Black Sea (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1996); and Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland (Granta, 2003)

“Once upon a time, there was a kingdom ruled by two identical twins…” Until 25 September's parliamentary elections in Poland, that was the first line of a fairy tale. Then the two brothers Kaczynski, Jaroslaw and Lech, wrote the first page of a story in which Jaroslaw was prime minister and Lech was president.

In the elections, Jaroslaw's Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (Law & Justice / PiS) movement surfed forward on a late surge of support and – rather to its own surprise – became the largest party in the next Sejm (parliament). In the presidential elections due on 9 October, Lech Kaczynski is currently running second in the opinion polls to Donald Tusk, of the Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform / PO), but he is catching up fast.

Aged 56, the twins still look unnervingly alike. Both are pudgy, with tiny brown eyes and a permanent half-smile. They take the precaution of wearing different ties. But would Poland know if, one day, Jaroslaw decided to try the presidential chair and Lech appeared at a cabinet meeting?

Also about Poland’s politics, society and foreign policy 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)

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

Fortunately, that won't happen. First, because the twins' personalities differ. Lech (who is also mayor of Warsaw) is more candid and straightforward; Jaroslaw is a highly intelligent schemer who is happier behind the throne than out under the lights. But second, because the twins don't think the Poles would long tolerate a dual monarchy.

In reality, their election success has dropped the Kaczynskis into a prickly bush of choices. As leader of the biggest party, with 27% of the vote, Jaroslaw Kaczynski should be stepping forward as the next prime minister, to lead an inevitable coalition with the Platform (24.2%). Instead, he is stepping backwards. What if he did agree to lead the next government, and the voters then decided that one Kaczynski was enough and turned against his brother in the presidential poll? Or what if Lech lost the presidential race? Maybe he should get the job of prime minister as a consolation prize, allowing Jaroslaw to go back to the off-stage power-broking he prefers? What if Lech won? A surge of resentment against an all-powerful Kaczynski dynasty would burst out sooner rather than later.

So Jaroslaw is trying to postpone any final decision. He wants to delay the final announcement of a prime minister and government until after the presidential result is known after the likely second round – on 24 October at the latest. Meanwhile, he is putting forward an experienced but little-known politician, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, as a provisional frontrunner to head a coalition government. Few people think that Marcinkiewicz will do more than keep the seat warm for one of the Kaczynski twins.

The Polish looking-glass

At first glance, and especially to a foreign eye, the two parties which did best in the election can appear similar. Both are broadly centre-right, and both draw their strength from new moods in the electorate. In contrast to the political alignments which have run Poland in the sixteen years since the collapse of communist one-party rule, these two are heirs neither to the post-communist tradition of the outgoing government nor to the post-Solidarity groups which alternated in power. But if they are similar in what they aren't, they have little else in common.

Civic Platform is essentially a liberal, or even neo-liberal party. Keen on “healthy competition”, the Platform adopted a trendy fashion among global economists: a “flat tax” which would take a fixed 15% from rich and poor alike. This proposal alone probably pulled the Platform down into second place, after starting ahead. But the Platform was also suspected by Catholic fundamentalists of being “liberal” on homosexuality and abortion, while super-patriots accused its leaders of selling Poland's independence to the European Union. Platform supporters are generally younger, better educated and better-off than Law & Justice voters. Their shock when Jan Rokita, the Platform leader, failed to win and claim the prime ministership was painful.

Law & Justice is a political species rare in northern Europe. It is Christian (in Poland meaning Catholic) but also “social”, in the sense that it distrusts the uncontrolled free market and approves of state intervention to protect the market's victims – especially families. It believes, rather inconsistently, in a “smaller state” which at the same time does more for its citizens.

Law & Justice wants to reduce taxes but to spend more on police, on reform of the judiciary and courts and – above all – on the fight against the corruption which now disfigures Polish public life. It also calls for a constitutional reform, restoring some of its lost authority to the presidency of the republic.

If there is a parallel in western Europe to PiS, it might be the Christian Social Union (CSU) in Bavaria. The CSU (traditionally the junior coalition partner of the far larger Christian Democratic Union) is also outspokenly Catholic, politically authoritarian and touchily patriotic. Both parties are absolutely non-liberal. In the 1980s, the CSU was horrified by Reagan-Thatcher laissez-faire policies, which it regarded as profoundly immoral and anti-human.

The Kaczynskis' PiS is very much like that. Over Europe, it admires Tony Blair for his resistance to further EU integration, and the PiS has even suggested that it might wriggle out of Poland's obligation to join the eurozone. (As this was one of the undertakings required before Poland joined the EU last year, abrogating it would create pandemonium at Brussels and among the other 2004 entrants).

But in domestic policy, the PiS detests the “Blairite” downsizing of the welfare state, and is suspicious of further privatisation and the “freeing-up” of the labour market – all values which the rival Civic Platform supports.

Burying the ghosts

It's all very un-western. In Britain, Germany or Scandinavia, the traditional left-right line-up placed conservatives and most liberals in favour of free trade and deregulated capitalism. Social democrats and socialists, on the other hand, relied on a powerful state to enforce social justice, and had protectionist instincts about international trade. But in post-communist Poland – as in much of east-central Europe today – that pattern has to be turned inside out.

Neal Ascherson’s writings on Poland include:

The Polish August: The Self-limiting Revolution (Penguin, 1981)

The Struggles for Poland (Michael Joseph, 1987)

An excerpt from The Struggles for Poland:

“Too much emphasis on the oddity of Poland becomes destructive, hiding a nation under a crust of caricature. And in the end it is very misleading. In important ways, Poland – one of the older European states – has been more 'normal' than its younger neighbours...The modern Polish novelist Kazimierz Brandys once divided the world into countries with corpses under the floorboards – including Germany and Russia – 'and those like France and Poland which have no corpses to hide'. When a visitor commented that Poland was an abnormal country, he retorted: 'It is a perfectly normal country between two abnormal ones'.”

Here, it's the conservatives who are suspicious of the free market, deeply and sometimes rabidly nationalistic, hostile to the “liberal” philosophy of the European Union, and collectivist in their approach to society. And in contrast, it's what could once have been called the “left” in Poland – the reformed communist party, and intellectuals who were advisors to the once-mighty Solidarity trade union – which drove the country through the traumatic process of dismantling and privatising the centrally-planned economy, abolishing job security, opening Poland to competition and bringing the nation finally, in May 2004, into the European Union.

The Kaczynskis lead the “presentable” wing of Polish conservatism. But to their right is a zoo of small, extremist parties, often paranoid in their worldview and egged on by the ultra-nationalist Radio Marija (whose listeners believe that Brussels, Washington and the Jews are conspiring to wipe out the Polish nation by spreading free abortion and homosexuality).

Compared to them, PiS is moderate and responsible. But much of the fanatical religious-patriotic vote clearly went to the Kaczynski party. So, ironically but logically, did some of the old communist vote, utterly disillusioned by the capitalist policies of its own leadership.

This background will make it hard to keep a PiS-PO coalition together. And what government can be confident of its own legitimacy, when less than half the electorate bothered to vote? All the same, as Adam Szostkiewicz wrote recently in openDemocracy (“The Polish lifeboat”, 22 September 2005), these parliamentary elections marked a real turning-point.

The murky period since 1989, dominated by post-communists ashamed of their past or by post-Solidarity parties ashamed of betraying the old Solidarnosc ideals, is over at last. Instead, Poland will now be governed by two powerful, reasonably normal centre-right parties, which are interested in living people rather than in ghosts from the 20th century. It is true that the Poles show an almost bottomless contempt for their own democratic politicians. But there are things they do believe in, and one of them is their membership of the European Union which more than 80% of opinion poll respondents approve. That is a talisman against any retreat into xenophobia.

Poland will be a difficult, unpredictable European Union partner. Polish domestic politics may well become more turbulent. But, with luck, these unlikely twins can open the windows of Polish politics and let in fresh air.

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