The last weeks in Poland seem a bit similar to riding a rollercoaster. We on the progressive side of the political spectrum have a feeling that we have been through it already, between 2005 to 2007, when the Law and Justice (PiS) party ruled Poland for the first time – only this time, the ride seems to have accelerated and has way more twists and turns.
A short summary
We have already had a fight around the Constitutional Tribunal in December 2015, changes in the public media law and sanctioning of far-reaching governmental snooping of our activities on the Internet. Our fear grows when we hear ideas such as changing the electoral law (changing the proportional system of elections to the lower house – Sejm – to a mixed one by creating 230 single-seat constituencies filling half the seats with a huge potential for gerrymandering) or a massive cutting of the Białowieża Forest.
Tens of thousands of people take to the streets to protest. Discussions on progressive political strategies for the coming months are being waged. Should we accept the polarising conflict line, in which you can be either for or against PiS and risk melting with politicians of the centre-right Civic Platform (PO) or centrist .Nowoczesna (.Modern)? Or maybe we should focus on the long-term goal of creating a “third option”, as the leftists from the Razem (Together) party have done, with the risk of slipping towards the margins of the current political debate?
Not all questions produce definite answers right now. Some dangers are starting to become clear and can be seen in some of the commentaries from both politicians and the protesters. The defence of the status quo, disregard toward the election results or thinking of the European institutions as a sort of Messiah that will save Poland from the right-wing rule will lead us nowhere.
One such example is the narrative of just 18-19% of the people with voting rights who decided to support Jarosław Kaczyński and propel his party to power. This “silent majority”, always surprisingly supporting the political side that we are on, has been haunting the Polish political scene for ages. But not only the Polish scene – the strategy of mobilising such voters is pursued by the leader of the Labour Party in Britain, Jeremy Corbyn.
The problem is that the above charge towards a low level of support for the ruling party can basically be targeted towards any party that would win the elections in a country with low turnout such as Poland – including a potential progressive one in the future.
This mistake is often accompanied with another one, where people suggest the success of PiS is a sort of stupid joke of the voters and an ungratefulness of the electorate for the great rule of PO, when kilometres of roads were built, billions of euros of EU funds were invested and Poland was the only European country that averted the recession during the financial crisis. Failing to see the reasons that made people mad when one tried to show the stats behind the economic success of the Third Republic ended up in the PiS government.
Defending democracy should not be combined with shutting down the dissenting voices of groups who feel they are being excluded from the Polish successes after 1989 or the parts of the electorate who just wanted to change the ruling party. Not to mention that the Civic Platform also had its own sins, related to a creative way of looking at democratic values, such as choosing two additional judges of the Constitutional Tribunal “in advance”. Not to mention hysterical attempts of a referendum that would allow a change the voting system from a proportional to a full first-past-the-post one.
Not so progressive alternatives
A suggestion that mass protest in defence of the Constitution should be a good opportunity to show political alternatives for the factions now in opposition should not be seen as a particularly controversial statement. Right now we may observe two narratives – a more left-wing one criticises PiS for not realising all of their social promises at the same time (i.e. with the postponement of raising the tax-free allowance), while the other tends to support the status quo and representing the interests of people satisfied with eight years of PO (Civic Platform) party rule.
The only candidate left for the title of the leader of that party, Grzegorz Schetyna, promises appeasement towards the Roman-Catholic Church and the return towards economic neoliberalism. The main opposition looks like it is retreating from the Christian democrat “new centre” towards a “PiS-light” worldview and a fight for the economically liberal electorate with .Nowoczesna.
Some commentators had hopes that high opinion polling for the latter new centrist party of Ryszard Petru would force it to take a path of social liberalism. Instead it decided to go on war with the trade unions and wants a change of law, thanks to which each 1 złoty of state subsidies would go to the coffer of a party only for each 1 złoty it obtains from private donors. It would mean a departure from the current system in which the parties get subsidies according to the level of popular support in the general elections towards a model which promotes the ones with the best abilities of gathering rich sponsors.
Hopes of a more moderate economic policy from an economic model which did not decide to depart from free-market, neoliberal ideas after the financial crisis of 2007/2008 seem far too optimistic. If Petru and his party truly surpass PO and become the main opposition towards PiS then the party of Jarosław Kaczyński will have an easy target.
Let us fast forward to 2019 in a scenario in which there will be no new financial crisis. A TV advertisement of PiS: Prime minister Beata Szydło shows the successes of the right-wing government – 500 złotys (ca. 120 euro) per month for each second and further child in the family, a raised tax-free allowance, taxing banks and supermarkets. A more hawkish politician of the party, Joachim Brudziński, will probably add during the television debate: “We care for the people, you just care about some liberal judges. We try to help the people that took credits in Swiss francs, you want an electoral system in which parties are puppets of oligarchs.”
A small hint – the narrative of Viktor Orban and Fidesz during the 2014 parliamentary elections in Hungary was not that far away from the one presented above. Free media turned out not to be as important for the electorate as cutting the bills on utilities. If PO will continue love-bombing of .Nowoczesna and try to sell a story of an almost arranged coalition ticket in the elections in 2015, then PiS will just be happy to ask Budapest on how to successfully show the opposition as corrupted elites, that as, as the populist leader Andrzej Lepper argued, “Have been ruling and now need to go”.
Right now the eyes of those who want to stop the PiS rollercoaster often turn towards Brussels. The initiation in January 2016 of the procedure of controlling lawfulness by the European Commission – the first one in history – is seen by some as an ultimate shame for a country which for so long tried to present itself as a role model.
The sympathisers of the government prefer to accuse the opposition of treason because of changing a domestic political conflict into an international affair. Even here we see a fruitless divide, thanks to which both sides are immune to the facts. The spheres sympathetic to the government of Beata Szydło and the party of Jarosław Kaczyński go on a “besieged fortress” mode each time a foreign criticism occurs, without noticing that the majority of European politicians try to make as modest comments as possible.
The progressive side of the Polish political spectrum, or at least parts of it, like to play the „Significant Other” card – he (in this instance the European Union) who is supposed to watch, judge and control. Such a card is being played for example in the recent article-opinion poll in “Politico”, where some of the commentators suggest that Central Europe is a place far away from the ideals of liberal democracy and is incapable of sustaining it without sliding into a more or less grotesque authoritarian rule.
Such an opinion not only is harsh, but also makes it harder to understand the political situation both in Poland and in Europe. For the Polish liberal-minded folk it is also an easy way not to think about real identity changes, noticed especially amongst young people thanks to ie. the failure to create a secular education, open to differing (world)views. Europe is no longer a point of reference regarding norms and standards for a huge part of them.
Freedom or isolation?
After years of school education, in which Poland is historically almost always a prey for foreign powers (especially Germany and Russia), the main ideological frame for them is the idea of sovereignty and independence. It is no longer a purely economically libertarian narrative on the likes of the current MEP, Janusz Korwin-Mikke – the need for a national identity is getting stronger and stronger. This identity is shaped around the concept of being encircled by other egoistic and hostile communities and damaged from within by “prodigal sons” smearing their own country in Brussels, going to gay pride parades and (as foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski noted) riding on bikes.
Both the liberal and conservative sides of the argument, running around in the fumes of the supposed Polish exceptionalism (be it seeing the country as the most backward place on Earth or an avant-garde in the fight for national sovereignty on “the outpost of Christianity”), do not see how Polish problems are (sadly) nothing exceptional on the map of Europe.
A fragile continent
The truth is that at least since the 2007/8 economic crisis, the problems regarding the cohesion of the EU are getting bigger, not smaller. PiS or Fidesz are nothing odd – the only difference is that they are the parties of government. Danish People’s Party, National Front, Swedish Democrats, United Kingdom Independence Party, Northern League, Alternative for Germany – these are all political forces that hardly can be called marginal.
Even though they do not govern they still have a colossal influence on the political scene, shifting the discourse more and more to the right and making it more hostile towards ideas of further European integration (at a time when due to global challenges and its weaker position it needs it more than ever) and any group that is labelled “alien” in the current political season.
The mainstream response towards this threat tends to create more tasteless “grand coalitions” combining political forces with differing programmes and interests that are more focused on managing the status quo than true governing. Even in countries where coalitions of ideologically similar parties rule they often lack a tendency towards experimentation or bold reforms other than austerity measures.
Right now “non-aggression pacts”, such as French socialists deciding to pull out from the second round of regional elections when the “conventional” right has a better chance of beating the National Front, still seem to work. The questions of “For how long?” and “Do they have a moderating influence on the radicalisation of the language of the centre-right?” remain open.
All of these issues leave a mark on the Polish Greens, who are preparing for yet another long march – with electing their new leadership on the way.
The Zjednoczona Lewica (United Left, ZL) project seems on hold due to the elections of the new leader of its biggest component – Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej (Demcratic Left Alliance, SLD). With the Left shut out of parliament one can see a lack of progressive alternatives for the proposals of PiS – such as regarding entering the group of countries planning to create a Financial Transactions Tax as an alternative to a national banking tax or a critique of rating agencies that are regarded as meritocratic ideals by the liberals and as a support for “the lefties from PO”, as one MP from the ruling party called them.
A rare occasion for an emergence of ecological topics in the public debate (and with them an independent political position of the Greens) comes with the controversies surrounding Białowieża Forest. Białowieża is the last natural forest of its kind in Europe, a small remnant of the times when they dominated the landscape of the continent. Attempts toward extending the national park to whole Polish inclusion that would end the attempts to consider it a normal “managed forest”, were obstructed in parliament a few years ago.
After the change of government a risk of cutting down more and more trees on the pretext of a fight with a plague of woodworm emerged. It is not the first time that PiS decides to treat ecology as one of the frontiers of their political fight. One can remember the fight for saving the Rospuda valley from building a road there – a fight that was a good time for the Kaczyński’s party to portrait ecologists as insensitive towards the needs of local communities.
We can also expect that when the new government will show its opposition toward a strengthening of the EU climate policy the promoters of renewable energy will be painted as “agents of influence” inspired from abroad – such suggestions are already blossoming on the Internet.
But one fight for a forest will not change the hard political situation of the Polish Greens. The emergence of the Razem party with its highly critical, anti-establishment stance towards current political conflicts does not make it easier for them. The party, inspired by Syriza and Podemos, aims to connect to popular discontent in the same way as similar formations in the south of the continent.
A great many unknowns
In the next few weeks we will see which political path will be more successful – the one of Razem, highly criticised by the liberal media for not joining forces with the civic protests against PiS led by Komitet Obrony Demokracji (Committee for the Defence of Democracy, KOD), or a more nuanced stance preferred by the Greens, which go on the protests, while at the same time being highly critical of many aspects of the reality in Poland after 1989.
Later on other problems and questions will inevitably emerge. In times of yearning for “regaining sovereignty” (noticed by one Polish journalist, Edwin Bendyk) and an increased interest of Europe in the events in Poland the EU topic seems to gain importance. How to once more tell a story of the European integration, detached from ideas such as the EU acting simply as a cash machine, bearing in mind its problems in recent years, yet still believing in its future?
Even this seems a difficult task – and it is not the only one. What if the media mainstream will start to demand a common electoral list of the opposition forces? What if the main adversary of PiS will be called .Nowoczesna and not PO? Will PiS slow down after gaining control of the institutions important for the party (such as the judiciary, intelligence or public media) and focus on social policy?
One thing is for sure – the Polish political scene will be an extremely interesting space to watch in the coming years, with many further twists and turns to come. We may be almost certain there will be more street rallies. More nightly sessions of the parliament (the Senate which was discussing and voting changes to the law on the Constitutional Tribunal at 3 o’clock in the morning on Christmas Eve) are also possible. One thing is for sure – times of “a warm water in the water tap” during the rule of Donald Tusk are over.