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Poland: a Vicious Cycle of Disdain

By Bartlomiej Kozek

Law and Justice (PiS) came to power promising to empower people left behind by years of transformation of the Polish economy. Its supposedly egalitarian rhetoric contrasts with contempt for ‘the liberal elites’ and so-called ‘radical leftist’ circles.

The liberal opposition and supportive media have used contempt as a weapon too – to the detriment of political discourse in Poland. Any progressive alternative to these two options will need to focus on giving hope and bridging societal divides that arose in the last years. Simply defending procedural mechanisms of liberal democracy will not be enough.

Who’s a friend, who’s a foe?

On New Year’s Eve, the main public TV channel decided to resurrect an old satirical format called ‘New Year’s Crib’ (Szopka Noworoczna). Its latest edition was an all-out attack on the current Polish opposition.

The programme is a quintessential example of what a governmental takeover of the public media can look like in its extreme form. After Law and Justice (PiS) got into power in the autumn 2015 elections it quickly either paralysed (the Constitutional Tribunal) or colonised (public radio and TV) public institutions in the country.

The effects of the latter can be seen each evening in the Wiadomości news programme on TVP1 – the same channel that aired ‘New Year’s Crib’. The opposition there is almost always labelled as ‘radical’, the government as patiently working for the betterment of the nation, and the refugees as aggressive and unable to fit into Western societies.

Such are the effects of firing most of the well-known journalists from the public broadcasters. They were replaced by conservative pundits getting their own shows supposedly as a way to “guarantee true diversity of opinions”, as the new chairs of both TVP and the Polish Radio (PR) declared.

The true nature of these changes could be seen in the recently aired satirical review of the events of 2016. ‘New Year’s Crib’ portrayed former leaders of the opposition party Civic Platform (PO) as people mired in scandals and corruption, detached from life experiences of everyday Poles and fighting to claw back power by all means possible.

Law and Justice (PiS) party politicians, on the other hand, were celebrated as saviours of the fatherland – just as Donald Trump was portrayed as a person crushing political correctness and the liberal elites. What’s “the biggest flaw of the current ruling party?” asks an actor on the show: that the leader Jarosław Kaczyński, although outstanding, “can’t be everywhere at the same time”.

“In our programme we have abortion!” shout women with umbrellas, dressed in black just as the ones protesting against the ideas of tightening the already draconian anti-abortion law in Poland. “And I have children”, replies prime minister Beata Szydło.

German chancellor Angela Merkel also features, letting in thousands of migrants: “Tomorrow belongs to us!”, they sing in a melody from “The Cabaret” movie. People fleeing from war and poverty are portrayed as akin to Nazis gaining power in Weimar Germany.

Hatred reinvented

What the show makes clear is that PiS (and its whole right-wing social milieu, including political pundits and satirists) is not only interested in gaining power; it is also resolute in its attempt to enforce its cultural and symbolic dominance. It doesn’t want to end the spiral of symbolic violence, in which for years its electorate was portrayed as older, less educated, and unfit for modernity, it just wants to turn the tables and become the new – and this time conservative rather than liberal – ruling elite.

For most of the Polish right-wing (be it PiS or its supporters in the media) it’s important to declare their sensitivity towards the less well-off and developed regions of the country, but only when they’re ‘on the right side of history’; that is, conservative and supportive of PiS’s rule.  Such an electorate needs to be constantly reminded why it’s important for Szydło, Duda (President), and Kaczyński to stay in power. The famous 500+ (circa 120 euro) monthly allowances per child is cited as often as Civic Platform once reminded their well-educated voters about building highways and getting as much money from Brussels as possible.

PiS has the majority of the opposition to thank for strengthening the view of the party as a political force focused on empowering people of lower incomes in rural areas. Yet on the local level its politicians close public schools, and so on, using the excuse of local authorities’ budgetary shortages just like their adversaries.

Total war of ‘Two Polands’

The liberal opposition sees no problem with playing the role set for it by PiS. It’s claiming that a direct social transfer is a form of corrupting the electorate or arguing that it will be spent mainly on alcohol (despite no evidence of this) gave Kaczyński’s party ammunition to brand them as insensitive and out of touch.

This can also be clearly seen in the recent occupation of the main chamber of the Sejm (the lower house of the Polish parliament), by MPs from Civic Platform and Nowoczesna (a new liberal party). During the protest, Civic Platform promoted its “Decalogue of Freedom” as a political alternative to PiS rule, highlighting issues such as freedom of speech, gatherings, culture, or entrepreneurship. But what is missing is startling – the lack of freedom from poverty.

This absence only strengthens the PiS narrative in which the government focuses on social issues (minimum hourly wage, decoupling access to healthcare from payments of social insurance, free drugs for people over 75), whilst the opposition stays on supposedly abstract themes such as the Constitutional Tribunal or freedom of assembly.

The opposition parties protested against new regulations limiting the availability of the Polish parliament for journalists. After they occupied the Sejm’s chairman seat the parliamentary session was moved to another room, in which almost exclusively PiS MPs voted on the country’s budget. Such a step further escalated the conflict and raised as of yet unanswered questions about whether or not there was a quorum during the vote.

The problem is PiS can easily sell behaviour such as occupying the Sejm as proof of the uncompromising character of its adversaries (PO and Nowoczesna), who in their view cannot cope with losing the election and with another party changing Poland in a way that they don’t like. They try to portray the liberal opposition as a political forces with no positive plan for the country, a force which always says “no” to each and every proposal coming from the Law and Justice government.

Such a divide allows the government to have the upper hand even though it opens as many areas of conflict with various social groups as possible – as it did previously from 2005 to 2007.

This time its opponents also include, for instance, teachers protesting about the reforms in the education system (the biggest regarding scrapping of the middle level of the educational system between elementary and high schools), and NGOs which are portrayed not only as places filled with the sons and daughters of opposition politicians, but also as beneficiaries of foreign financial support; a way, according to right-wing circles, for external players to influence Polish.

Such an escalation of political conflict by PiS is probably the one strategy that the majority of the liberal opposition (PO, Nowoczesna) seem to bet their fortunes on. The problem is that PiS – even when successfully challenged, such as during the ‘Black Protest’ against more restrictions on access to abortion – always finds a way to eventually land back on its feet.

Perils of the liberal opposition

The mainstream opposition politicians and activists also seem to be helping the government in recent months. The leader of Nowoczesna, Ryszard Petru, decided to go on holidays at the time his MPs were occupying the Sejm – despite multiple declarations that democracy in Poland was in peril and that the next budget may be illegal due to irregularities in the Sejm.

The leader of Committee of the Defence of Democracy (KOD), Mateusz Kijowski, was denounced by the press as using KOD money collected at its street gatherings for payments to his IT company for disproportionately expensive services.

This took place even as he officially declared in public meetings that his public activities are possible only thanks to “the help of the family”.

Such problems wouldn’t be as big as they are now if two important issues were dealt with properly: transparency and a different type of leadership. While Nowoczesna at least has some hard-working MPs, the public perception of KOD is of a one-man show, thus his misconducts put the whole movement in a difficult situation.

Their political tactic seems to consist more of a critique of almost everything PiS does, rather than putting forward alternative proposals. Even though both PO and Nowoczesna presented their refreshed political programmes last autumn they failed to produce a single policy proposal that could become a symbol of them being a viable alternative.

The “uncompromising opposition” model shows its intellectual weakness and incapability to attract disenchanted PiS voters who want more social justice and redistribution. It ends up producing unfounded arguments that the ‘500+’ social programme leads to “taking women away from the labour market” or even writing articles against universal access to healthcare, as published on the webpage of a local KOD group.

Building an alternative

Along with reforms in social policy the prime minister Beata Szydło’s government now focuses on the Strategy of Responsible Development (SOR). Its aim is to accelerate the convergence of the GDP levels with the European average and the expansion of Polish companies on a global scale.

This plan, aiming in creating a “national middle class” like the government in Hungary, seems to be the final building bloc in creating a winning coalition (with who?)  – base of loyal voters that would guarantee PiS rule in the coming years.

The new middle class, created thanks to dismantling of the civil service and replacing it with political protégées alongside supporting smaller companies – together with conservatively educated and culturally right-wing youth, lower income groups, people living in smaller towns – constitute a strong power base for the future.

The main question for people interested in strengthening social justice, sustainable development, and human rights in Poland is whether or not a new progressive opposition bloc, consisting of the Greens, the left-wing Razem (Together) party, and young politicians from the dissolved Zjednoczona Lewica (United Left) coalition will materialise before the next election.

Such a bloc would have a chance to become an alternative to both conservative PiS and the emerging liberal opposition bloc (PO, Nowoczesna) not only in electoral, but also policy and narrative, terms.

If a possible leftist alternative emerges it would be well advised not to fall into the trap of being a mirror image of PiS. The long-term success of a progressive political project not only needs to mobilise urban liberals, but try to seize at least some of PiS’s power base, such as people living in smaller towns.

It should therefore do everything it can not to look like a defender of the pre-2015 political status quo; a status quo that allowed PiS rule in the first place.

Green themes on the horizon

Instead of entering the arms race of denigration of political opponents and their electorate, the Left in Poland needs to develop a message of hope for a different, better country. A message with a flagship policy with a symbolic power as compelling for the public imagination as the famous 500+ was when people started wanting more from their government than just building new roads.

It remains to be seen what such a symbol would be. The Greens – in such a scenario – would already have lots of things to talk about.

Smog has emerged as a huge problem in towns and cities, especially in the south and centre of the country. The government promotes ‘clean coal’ and reforestation efforts as its climate policy mix – even though it aims at cutting more wood from the ancient Białowieża forest. It also practically destroyed the development of wind energy in the country and with it the chance of new, green-collar jobs.

The challenge – as in many places in Europe – will lie in showing the electorate that ecological policy is a) intertwined with other spheres of public life (such as social and economic policy) and b) is as important as them.

One possibility would be to try to build a political narrative around the symbol of ‘clean air’ – from practical solutions (and focusing on ways to clean it up such as sustainable energy, transport policies, and fighting energy poverty) to highlighting it as a health, poverty, and quality of life issue (where an eco-political vision of healthcare and public housing – two important topics for the Polish electorate – could be showcased) and growing into a metaphor of a different type of politics (democratic, civic, tolerant, and clean as non-corrupt).

Issues such as developing a green, innovative economy, new quality jobs in smaller towns and the countryside, and creating a good educational system focused on the well-being of next generations could also be incorporated into such a narrative.

Overcoming the political divide

Although clean air will probably not be an election winning topic (let’s remember it is more of a important subject in the colder parts of the year) it gives some breathing space for the party – as well as a chance to differentiate it from the rest and show interconnections between ecological, social, and economic policy.

A wider progressive alliance would need something more – a coherent vision, of a country where operating within democratic rules and with an openness towards diversity (from LGBTQ rights to refugees) is not incompatible with pursuing policies that aim to fight poverty, economic inequality, or territorial underdevelopment and associated inequality.

Such a vision may combine a progressive societal and economic outlook, while at the same time being appealing to small ‘c’ conservative ideas on preserving local heritage (both natural and cultural) and social bonds, and connecting with the greater parts of Polish national historical mythology, namely the more tolerant, multicultural moments of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or the XIXth and XXth century progressive and left-wing authors, thinkers, and politicians.

The formerly ruling Civic Platform was known for its vision of the development of the country in which focus was shifted to big cities as ‘engines of growth’ that would pull up the less developed parts of the country.

Even though it abandoned such a perspective while it was in power it failed to understand the gradual shift of priorities and the public wish to complement infrastructural development with better, more robust social policy.

It led to giving up smaller towns and the countryside to right-wing political forces such as PiS or the populist Kukiz’15 movement, which has nationalist politicians in its parliamentary club.

It will be crucial tor any new progressive initiative to remember the growing clamour for more wealth distribution and for stability and security after years of precarious work in a deregulated labour market.

A progressive way forward

Instead of thinking about Poland as an ‘immature democracy’ and Poles as a ‘naturally conservative’ society we need a perspective in which the European semi-periphery is somewhat of an avant-garde of global trends, such as right-wing populism. Trends accelerated in Poland by years of privatisation, poor public services, a precarious job market, and very porous social safety net.

A programme of (re)building a national middle class along with more protectionism, social conservatism, and the return of borders may have its local variations, but pointing the finger toward Poland as a sort of anomaly is to forget about Donald Trump, Brexit, or the popularity of forces such as Alternative for Germany, National Front in France, or the Party of Freedom in the Netherlands, and seems useless both for external observers and the Polish opposition.

There will still be issues that the Law and Justice government will not achieve much on. Reform of the tax system has ground to a halt. Growth of the tax-free allowance is slow. The issue of pre-kindergarten care has been side-lined. Although some progress has been made in rebuilding public transport there are still regions of the country where it is hard to live without a car. The list goes on.

Such a progressive political project would allow for a creation of a new voting coalition of people of low and middle incomes, for which high quality of public services, along with a more sustainable development of the country, would constitute a necessary element of social progress.

There is still some time to make this scenario happen. And some hope for it to materialise too.

Poland: a Vicious Cycle of Disdain