Decrypting the Polish elections

Prime minister Ewa Kopacz and Beata Szydło
Prime minister Ewa Kopacz and Beata Szydło

On Sunday, Poland will have its parliamentary elections. The international press rarely comments on the political scene of this country with 40 million inhabitants. However, the Polish elections offer an interesting case. It is expected that the results will bring a major change, and for the left, it will probably not be one in the good direction.

For starters it’s important to understand some basics of Poland’s politics. It’s a parliamentary system, where most important executive powers are held by the Prime Minister who is elected by the lower chamber of the Parliament (Sejm). The Polish President has also some influence but less. The Prime Minister depends for his position on the Sejm, and can be dismissed by a vote of non-confidence. The upper chamber of the Parliament (Senat) is of far less importance.

In the post-communist period, there has been no party that has succeeded in obtaining an absolute majority that would allow it to elect the Prime Minister without a coalition. For the last two elections however, the ruling centre-right party (Civic Platform – PO) came really close. Donald Tusk was the longest ruling Prime Minister, even though he did not finish his second term due to an irresistible job offer he got to become President of the European Council. His successor – Ewa Kopacz – has not shown much political talent. In a short period the PO was overtaken in opinion polls by Law and Justice (PiS) its major opponent on the right.

The latter party is considered to be a front-runner of upcoming elections. With its long-running leader Jarosław Kaczyński now hidden in the shadows, the party is lead by Beata Szydło. Although she did not have much of political experience, she seems to have convinced the voters closer to the centre, contrary to somewhat more right-wing Kaczyński.

These two major parties do have quite a lot in common. Both have roots in the anti-communist opposition of the previous era. Both are rather conservative when it comes to morality, although PiS is considerably more radical in this area. When it comes to economic policy, the differences are merely declaratory. PiS, in its rhetoric, is trying to create an image of a party that cares for the poorest. But in the 2005-2007 period when they were briefly in power they continued a disastrous policy of privatisation, tax breaks for the rich and dismantling social security (which was already nearly non-existent). This policy was also endorsed also by the PO. The success story of Poland during the crisis was mostly subsidised by EU-grants and GDP growth was achieved over the backs of the poor. This resulted in a dramatic growth of inequality and precarisation of labour.

The real difference between the two biggest parties is their stance on religion and (more recently) immigration. Whereas the position of PO on both this issues is rather ambivalent, Law and Justice does not leave much to imagination. With vivid support from a large part of the clergy, and some outrageous comments on the current migrant crisis, PiS seems to be heading into the verge of the right side of the political spectrum.

Or that’s what you might think if you know nothing about the smaller, radically right-wing parties in Poland. Two of them managed to register their lists in the whole country (which is not a simple procedure). KORWiN, a radically conservative-liberal, eurosceptic and anti-immigration party led by Janusz Korwin-Mikke (currently an independent MEP) is probably going to be on the verge of the 5% threshold. The other political movement, Kukiz’15, is concentrated around its charismatic leader Paweł Kukiz. This ex-rock star managed to surprise everyone by getting 20% of the votes in presidential elections earlier this year. His only proposal at the moment seems to be the introduction of single-member constituencies, in order to “crash the rotten political parties”. Using this somewhat absurd idea he managed to convince many people disillusioned with politics. In a six months period his ideas lost much of their momentum. In order to find candidates for parliamentary seats he turned to nationalist movements. His programme resembles in many ways the one of KORWiN, and so do his standings in the latest polls.

Closer to the centre we have two small parties: the Polish People’s Party (PSL), one of the last existing agrarian parties in Europe, and a new liberal pro-business party Nowoczesna.pl (which translates into modern.pl). Both parties are expected to really have to fight by getting through the 5% threshold. PSL has a reputation of a party that can form a coalition with anyone. Nowoczesna.pl is a fresh initiative of a faithful pupil of Leszek Balcerowicz, an orthodox economist and architect of the Polish transformation.

The fierce less competition on the right wing doesn’t mean there are no leftwing parties. Poland has a coalition of many smaller parties (notably the Greens) and the post-communist SLD (Alliance of Democratic Left). The coalition faces a bigger threshold than normal parties – 8% – but in all likelihood will manage to overcome it. However, this was not clear for some time. The candidate of the SLD during the Presidential elections only managed to get 2% of the votes. She continued a well established tradition by trying to present right-wing and liberal propositions as part of the left-wing ideology. The last time SLD managed to win parliamentary elections (in 2001), it presented a programme so blairite that even Tony Blair would call it “too neoliberal”. This time however, thanks to the broadness coalition, the United Left does present some traditional social-democratic proposals. Led by charismatic Barbara Nowacka, this party will fight for the third position.

Razem
Razem

The remaining leftwing party Razem (Together) probably will not be able to exceed the threshold. This party is worth mentioning though, because it might gain importance in the future. It is a party broadly based on Spanish Podemos party with a complete democratic and transparent structure, no autocratic leaders and a critical attitude towards establishment parties. Even its choice of the colour purple shows its similarity to Podemos. Considered radically left-wing in Poland, it is in fact vastly inspired by the social-democratic parties of the post-war welfare states. Progressive taxation, fighting tax evasion and ending privileges for big business for Razem is a way to finance decent health care, public investments and social security. Its representative Adrian Zandberg seems to have won the final pre-election debate according to experts, both right and left wing. Even so, being created just a few months before the elections and having a small budget, any result over 3% will be a surprise.

In short, this is not a good time for Polish left. It seems unlikely that either of the two left-wing parties will come close to winning. Though there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The left is slowly moving away from neoliberal myths. The three leading parties have women as their leaders. The main topics of the campaign were not heated debates on secondary, ideological issues, but rather important ones, like the tax reform. And even if it will not change anything, I finally have someone to vote for.

Pawel Wiejski

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