The centre-Right Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform, PO), which ruled the country for 8 years along with the Polish People’s Party (PSL), tried to tell us that we should not complain, as a new “golden era” has just arrived on the banks of the Vistula River. The effect will be a change of rule and the electoral success of its arch-foe, the Right-wing Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice, PiS) party.
One may ask why the act of complaining may be of any political significance. I consider it a central pillar of understanding the political developments in Poland this year.
It is true that some things may be getting better around here. GDP growth in recent years may have been impressive, new roads are being built and unemployment is slowly going down.
But behind these stats lies a not-so-great reality of unstable employment. “Junk jobs” are an epidemic amongst young people which makes some of them completely uninsured and therefore excluded from the public health care or pension system.
Contract work, basically meant for freelance jobs such as journalism, is being used in extreme situations, such as for hiring supermarket workers or cleaners. Our labour inspection services do not have enough teeth to fight this phenomenon on a larger scale. The more lucky ones that pay some of these contributions still do not have the means to make a family or have their own home. Public housing for rent is seriously underdeveloped in Poland, so the only serious solution is having a loan, usually paid for 30 years or so. Many youngsters are excluded even from such an option.
Another key element of the Polish political puzzle are European funds. It became an obsession for most of the Polish politicians to fight for as much EU money as possible and allow as little interference of European institutions in Polish internal affairs as possible. PO therefore wanted once to have more money put to roads instead of rails, and PiS will now try to steer clear of any ambitions regarding CO2 emissions cuts.
EU funds were the cornerstone of the “golden age” narrative. It was the party of the then-Prime Minister Donald Tusk (later on replaced by Ewa Kopacz) that negotiated loads of money on our behalf and now we can use them for the development of the country. For quite some time this technocratic notion of development worked well – especially combined with branding of the main opposition party (PiS) as “irresponsible populists” that would put this development in jeopardy. After the Smoleńsk plane accident in 2010, when a large part of the Polish political elite (including late president Lech Kaczyński) died, it was even easier to paint PiS as a threat to liberal democracy in Poland.
Changes on the political scene
But then, last year, the first problems emerged. In the autumn, in local elections PO lost some ground in big cities to various, independent urban movements. It came out that for a growing group of voters the idea that all you need is to pour public money into stadiums or to pour as much concrete as possible into every single public space in the city was completely old-fashioned.
But – until this discontent was contained at the local level – it looked as if the ruling Civic Platform could modify its policies and narrative. Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz decided to push the public relations machine of the party to its limits. And the limits soon became evident.
Time for some questions. How long can you say to people that everything in their country is on the right track? That each and every decision of your government was the right one? Are you sure you want to talk about building a new bridge in a small town struggling with an exodus of young people and a high structural unemployment rate? Do you really want to show you negotiated loads of EU money to somebody waiting in long hospital queues? And do you really think that eco-politics are abstract and detached from everyday experiences?
Well, that was basically the PO strategy this year. It culminated in an orgy of self-complacency of its presidential candidate, the incumbent Bronisław Komorowski. He so persistently argued that everything is fine and that opposition patry PiS just wants to quarrel and complain that from winning in the first round with a result higher by 40 percentage points than its closest competitor, as opinion polls suggested, he lost in the second round to Andrzej Duda – a young Member of the European Parliament from the PiS party.
Duda did not need to do much – he just kept smiling and showing he has some ideas. He argued that change is needed and he wants to ride on this notion to the Presidential Palace. After a sudden success of the rebellious rock star, Paweł Kukiz, who garnered 20% of the votes in the first round of the elections, Komorowski panicked and ordered a referendum regarding, amongst other things, a change to the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) electoral system in the parliamentary elections, the main theme of Kukiz’ electoral campaign. The results were obvious – he did not gain support, and his narrative that he is a guarantee of stability in the country went to the trash can. Although he tried to show he has some ideas for the Polish youth, he was prone to loads of gaffes, as, when asked by a youngster about her sister’s low wage that makes a vision of buying a flat almost impossible, he simply argued that she should change her job.
How to be stubborn and lose
One might have thought that such a loss would act as a cold shower and stop PO form falling in love with itself. Wrong. The party did everything it could to show that the social problems it ignored do not exist. When the newly elected president Duda talked about malnourished children during his inaugural speech in parliament, he was met with laughter and outrage from the MPs.
Jarosław Kaczyński and his faction decided to change its radical image by tapping into the discontent among young people, who did not remember the rather controversial rule of the party from 2005 to 2007. He decided to take a bit of a back seat and let first Andrzej Duda, and later Beata Szydło (soon-to-be prime minister) show a younger, more moderate face of the party.
Ewa Kopacz as the leader of PO decided to run a completely unsuccessful campaign. Even though her party bitterly lost the presidential elections in May, though its strategy was mainly to scare people away from “PiS radicals”, it decided to continue this line of argument. PO pushed scaremongering to its limits. It became so extreme that the party was not able to effectively communicate even its successes, not to mention its plans for the future. The most striking example was the party meeting in which Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz announced the electoral programme. She mentioned a low, 10% personal tax which the party later had to explain for a week what exactly it meant – that it was not a flat tax, but just the lowest band of a progressive system.
Scaring the electorate was all the more counterproductive as the election – surprisingly – became focused on concrete, social and economic ideas. PiS dominated the discussion with ideas, such as 500 PLN (more or less 120 euros) for every second and further child in the family (and even the first one in the most needy families), taxing banks and shopping malls, or raising the tax-free allowance.
Current affairs also played a role among the topics of the political debate during the campaign, but besides the migrant crisis none of them became a more long-term subject of fierce debates. Despite the fear campaign of PO societal issues, such as abortion or gay marriage – these were on the sidelines this time around. Some parties managed to shed some light on some of their proposals further highlighted in the later part of the text. The fact that there was just one all-party TV debate didn’t help in making the political debate less chaotic.
European affairs, besides the migration issue, were not a huge part of the political conversation in last weeks. A more assertive stance towards issues such as immigration or climate change will definitely be noticed soon by other member states. There will be no nice words towards Moscow, but Prague, Bratislava and Budapest may see a renewed interest in a common front against ideas perceived as “killing the economy” or taking Europe towards a federation, and not “the union of nation states”, as PiS prefers it to stay.
Parties of change
With such a lack of inspiring message from PO (best seen in the televised debates), it quickly became apparent that people wanted something different – political forces that complained not about their opponents, but about the current state of the country. Lots of them voted for PiS – exactly 37.6% compared with 24.1% for PO. The party of Jarosław Kaczyński won the elections in most of the Polish regions and even in big cities such as Warsaw. But a large group alsodecided to give their votes to smaller parties.
They effectively decided to turn in two directions. The first one was a Right-wing negation of the status quo and an appetite for a complete overhaul. This part of the electorate turned to the Kukiz’15 Movement (its leader took pride in saying that he has no political programme as – in his opinion – they are just a bunch of lies), united under calls for the FPTP electoral system, limiting taxation to minimum or calling off any Polish commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It was enough to get 8.8% of the votes. A similar stance was taken by the KORWiN party, led by the controversial Polish MEP, Janusz Korwin-Mikke. As it competed for a similar electorate with Kukiz’15, it ultimately failed in getting into the parliament, getting only 4.8% of votes. It is worth noting that they garnered over 14% of support, being more to the Right than the already Right-wing Law and Justice Party. In the youngest age range of the electorate (18-29) their share was even higher and reached, according to exit polls, almost 37%!
The more liberal branch of the electorate decided to support: .Nowoczesna (.Modern), a new centrist party led by the economist Ryszard Petru. He plugged into a well-educated, market-oriented electorate in big cities, fed up with the Civic Platform turning from economic neo-liberalism to pragmatism of the centre. .Nowoczesna strongly argued for a low, 16% flat tax rate on income, business and goods and services that was attacked as potentially hurting the poorest. He also hardly fought the labour unions in mining and education and their prerogatives, which he sees as privileges. It got him 7.6% of the votes – the results in bigger cities were even better, such as in Warsaw .Nowoczesna came third, with 13.4% share in the Parliament.
On the other side of the political spectrum, we have seen the emergence of the Razem (Together) party, composed from former members of Left-wing organisations, such as Młodzi Socjaliści (Young Socialists, MS), urban activists, and members new to politics. Razem rose to prominence after the televised debate, when one of its leaders (a party of collective leadership), Adrian Zandberg, clearly stated its Left-wing principles on issues such as the fight against corporate tax evasion, or against xenophobic remarks regarding asylum seekers. In effect it surpassed the 3% threshold (3.6%), which means that it will have access to state funding and therefore funds for strengthening the organisation to promote its ideas. Ideas as such that put it in an “old-school social democracy” camp, but in Poland is seen almost as “communist” – for example, with a proposal for a 75% personal income tax rate for millionaires.
“Old Left” ejected from parliament
The sudden rise of a Left-wing party was seen in the more centre-Left Zjednoczona Lewica (United Left, ZL) coalition as a stab in the back. The presence of two Left-wing parties on the political scene, even if in reality they represent different constituencies, is still seen as dividing votes. In reality, one can see that the presence of two parties on the Left allowed them to garner different voters, i.e. Razem got a good result amongst youngest voters that saw ZL as unelectable.
Why? Despite having some younger faces on their electoral lists (the co-chairs of the Green Party, Adam Ostolski and Małgorzata Tracz, were list leaders in Szczecin and Wrocław) and choosing Barbara Nowacka as the leading figure of the coalition, ZL suffered from the fact that it still had two highly controversial (and older) figures at their forefront: former Prime Minister Leszek Miller and Janusz Palikot, leader of the Twój Ruch (Your Movement, TR) party.
The other problem was the lack of an emotional message that led the ZL coalition to dropping out of parliament. In these elections the lines were drawn quite clearly – PO was the party of continuity, PiS for conservative change. Kukiz’15 and KORWiN were highly anti-establishment, whereas .Nowoczesna wanted to get a liberal voice to the parliament, and Razem represented mainly (but not only) young people working in precarious conditions.
ZL failed to tell a differing story. The Greens’ narrative of fighting for renewable energy and green jobs was present locally, but was not consequently pursued by the whole coalition as parts of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) sent more pro-coal signals to its electorate. In effect, it failed to attain the 8% threshold for coalition with just 7.55% of the vote – and in effect, the new Sejm (Polish Parliament lower chamber), once again, will be eft without Green MPs.
The future belongs to… who?
What does the future hold? Certainly we will see some shake-up in the Left-of-centre of the Polish political map. It remains to be seen if the parties of ZL coalition will part ways or, on the contrary, decide to strengthen co-operation, potentially leading to the creation of a new party. All of them will receive state funding, so they will still be on the lifeline.
On the one hand, the perspectives for progressive forces seem bleak. Being shut down from the parliament, they will struggle with attracting media attention. Civic Platform PO may decide to shut them down permanently, embracing a bolder blend of social liberalism and flirting with some Left-of-centre economic ideas.
The other scenario may be much better. PO may implode after losing power as the fact of being a big tent party with no strong ideological backbone will become more apparent. The more conservative part of the party may still block its shift to the Left, or even break away and support the government of Beata Szydło.
It also remains to be seen if the Law and Justice PiS government – the first one in Polish history after the 1989 transition with an absolute majority in the parliament – will stick to its promises of focusing on the economy and will deliver on their electoral promises.
If PiS were not to implement these measures, then some parts of their electorate may become disillusioned. But another chance may come if at least some of the party and its smaller allies will want even strictler conservative changes, regarding abortion laws or in-vitro fertilization rules, for instance. Because Civic Platform PO was, for quite a long time, divided on these issues (it even failed to pass its own project of civil recognition of gay couples), this may be a chance for the Left.
One thing is sure – never force us to believe that everything in our country is perfectly fine. Never. We may even topple our government if we are forbidden to complain. So let us do that, and possibly, at least some of us will turn complaining into creating ideas for a better Poland.
The current situation also poses a challenge to Partia Zieloni (Green Party). After a period of development in 2013 and 2014 later last year the party saw a split. A faction formerly attached to Młodzi Socjaliści (Young Socialists) decided to create their own party, arguing that continuing to run in the elections as Greens is suicidal in the Polish societal conditions, helped with the creation of Razem. Greens decided to participate in the negotiations facilitated by one of the trade union confederations which resulted in the creation of ZL (United Left).
Now the future of the centre-Left alliance seems largely unknown. There is a serious risk the coalition will soon split, as it was the case with a similar Lewica i Demokraci (Left and Democrats, LiD) project after the parliamentary elections in 2007.
A possibility of a hard dialogue with Razem cannot be ruled out, but the personal divisions that took place with the departure of some of the Razem politicians from the Greens may not make this dialogue easy. Some sympathy from some of the parts of the new party towards nuclear energy or GMO agriculture may also be cited as an obstacle. Greens managed to strongly influence the stance of ZL (United Left) in these two issues.
The participation of the party in the ZL coalition seemed as a pragmatic choice. The failure to gain seats in the Polish parliament may mean that different strategies will be discussed. Should the party focus more on its core ecological issues to differ from other Left-wing parties – or is it a suicidal scenario in a country where people don’t see the state of the environment as a political subject?
Can it out-manoeuvre a more Left-wing alternative of Razem, or should it try to reach out to other parts of the society, becoming more, ‘bourgeois’? If it focuses on such a path, can it be more appealing to the Polish middle class than the Petru party, promising a neo-liberal heaven for all those with mortgages and jobs in multinational corporations?
These are the dilemmas facing the Greens. The party will soon have at least one new co-chair, as Adam Ostolski decided not to run for re-election. What direction will the Greens take? It will be interesting to watch.