October 28, 2005


The following analysis of the aftermath of last Sunday's elections in Poland was written especially for DIRELAND by our regular contributor on Eastern European politics, DAVID OST (below left). David_ost David is professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, and occasional visiting Ost_book_cover_1 professor at Central European University. He has written extensively on democracy and political economy in Eastern Europe, with particular focus on the Solidarity movement in Poland. His most recent work is The Defeat of Solidarity: Anger and Politics in Postcommunist Europe (Cornell University Press, 2005). His articles have appeared in The Nation, Dissent, and Tikkun among other publications.

Kacsynski_postelection_1  On Sunday, October 23, the conservative populist Lech Kaczynski (left) won the Polish presidency, defeating his neoliberal rival Donald Tusk by nine points. Only a month earlier, Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party and Tusk’s Civic Platform won the parliamentary elections too, dividing up over 60% of the seats between them, and promising to govern together as a coalition. But less than a week after the presidential voting, the coalition is already coming apart. Law and Justice, tasting power, has pushed Civic Platform away and is beginning to govern in a de facto coalition with the right-wing extremist, anti-systemic parties, the xenophobic Self-Defense (Samoobrona) and the anti-gay and anti-Semitic religious fanatics of the League of Polish Families (Liga Polskich Rodzin.)

Before the elections, the Kaczynski twins (lower right -- Lech is the new president, Jaroslaw the parliamentary leader who controls the prime minister) -- repeatedly said they wouldKaczynski_twins_2 refuse to enter into coalition with these two extremist, far-right parties. But as the press now reports (Gazeta Wyborcza, October 27), Law and Justice met with Self-Defense over a month ago to work out a possible de facto coalition. Poland is today moving rapidly to the political right – not so much the neoliberal right of free-market globalization, but the traditional right of presidential decrees, uncompromising government, religious extremism, and disenfranchisement of the "riff-raff," both street criminals and political opponents. Dig those history books out of the basement: Law and Justice is reviving the so-called "Sanitation" politics of the 1930s.

Whether it will succeed or not is unclear. Capital markets have already reacted negatively, but the Kaczynski brothers have been working towards this moment for years. Progressives in Poland are already in despair. How did it get to this?

First, on the presidential elections. In the end, it came down to a battle between two right-wing visions: Kaczynski’s anti-systemic, Poujadist populism vs. Tusk’s straight-laced neoliberalism. Kaczynski’s calls to "clean up" the political system of its rot and Donald_tusk_1 corruption, and to improve workers’ standards of living in the process, won out over Tusk (left) and his appeals for calm, stability, and a flat tax to encourage corporate investment. Despite losing consistently since 1989, Polish liberals still haven’t learned that appeals to free-market "rationality" will not carry the day in a country with unemployment near 20%. Kaczynski won support from rural voters, the poor, the religious right, and from supporters of the extremist parties whose candidates lost in the first round of voting. Tusk appealed particularly to the better-off, the better-educated, and inhabitants of the larger cities where the economy is doing well.

Kaczynski won votes both from the losers in the economic transformation and from those who want the government to create a more "moral" society, and see corruption and cultural degeneration as the sources of the present "rot." Often these are the same people: those who want a more economically just society often latch on to moral issues as substitute satisfactions, as if they know that in the world’s current neoliberal moment economic satisfaction is unlikely, and they want to have at least some kind of triumph of their own.

In the week before the election, these people came out of the woodworks and massively joined Kaczynski’s campaign. "Before the first round I had a hundred volunteers, mainly high-school and college students," said Michal Sztybel, the 20-year old head of Kaczynski’s campaign in Bydgoszcz. "Afterwards, Father_tadeusz_rydzyk_1 older people started coming to us in droves," thanks to urgent appeals from the extremist Radio Maria network -- which is led by Father Tadeusz Rydzyk (right, an openly anti-Semitic Christian extremist in the Falangist tradition of Spain’s Francisco Franco or America’s Father Coughlin) -- and from right-wing candidates who dropped out in the first round, as well as from the Solidarity trade union (of which Kaczynski, in 1990, was acting president).

Kaczynski’s communitarian and anti-liberal campaign – he contrasted his vision of a "solidaristic Poland" to what he said was Tusk’s vision of a "liberal" Poland – appealed to all these constituencies. He embraced anti-gay and anti-Europe politics to appeal to the Christians, promised low-income housing and renewed state-supported health care for unionists, a tough stance toward both Russia and the EU to bring in the nationalists, and a thoroughgoing overhaul of the political system – a "Fourth Republic" willing to lock up the criminals to replace the pusillanimous present republic – to bring on board the political extremists. For the Kaczynski brothers, the militant right-populist rhetoric is key. They recognize that their chief constituency are those who feel they’re suffering economically. This demagogy (very similar to that of France's Jean-Marie LePen in his attacks on social and political "decadence) is aimed at keeping those economic "victims" in line, so that even if those people don’t get the economic prosperity they’re looking for, at least they get the satisfaction of seeing "bad guys" taken down and "morality" upheld.

Solidarnosc_1 The Kaczynskis (who as children were movie stars ) have built their entire political career on this basis: that they would be the one to organize people’s anger. Already in 1990, they were the first to break with the original Solidarity government because they sensed, correctly, that economic shock therapy would create an ocean of resentment, and that the politicians who win would be those who "articulate" that resentment and channel it to themselves. The Kaczynski brothers were thus the first to break the unity of Solidarity and create a political party: the Center Alliance, which they formed in 1990, was but the first incarnation of the Law and Justice party that has triumphed today.

And so Kaczynski, last week, won 80% of those who voted earlier for Andrzej Andrzej_lepper_2_1 Lepper (left), the pugnacious and demagogic leader (part Mussolini, part Robin Hood)Maciej_giertych  of the Self-Defense party, and 86% of those who voted for the pro-Radio Maria candidate Maciej Giertych (right), of the League of Polish Families. Giertych is the father-worshipping son of a Polish politician who crusaded against "Jewish-masonic conspiracies" -- and Giertych's campaign slogan this year was "Poland above all!" ("Polska jest wazniejsza!"), which calls to mind the German Nazi slogan "Deutschland uber alles." Kaczynski also decisively won the large rural vote (40% of the electorate), among whom Kaczynski beat Tusk 2:1.

While Kaczynski prevailed among the poorer and the angrier – those who hope life will improve but believe it probably won’t – Tusk won the support of the more successful: the prosperous, better educated, inhabitants of large cities who do believe life will improve for them. Tusk also won in the more urbanized and secularized western and northern regions of the country, while Kaczynski triumphed in the poorer and more religious eastern regions.

As for left-wing voters, in the run-off they divided between those who see the march to an ever more laissez-faire economy as the greatest danger today, and those who see the erosion of the rule of law and the specter of religious fundamentalism as the key dangers to be Ryszard_bugaj avoided. The former voted for Kaczynski, the latter voted against him, meaning for Tusk. So while Ryszard Bugaj (left), the leading and most consistent democratic socialist from the old Solidarity movement and the former leader of the Union of Labor party, threw his support to Kaczynski, 75% of the first-round voters for the ex-Marek_borowski communist, social-democratic candidate of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), former vice-premier Marek Borowski (right) – mostly urban, relatively prosperous liberals – voted for Tusk in the run-off. (Overall, most of those voting for Tusk were mainly just voting against Kaczynski. For one of Tusk’s biggest problems was a personality that did not inspire passions. Indeed, he spoke out against passions, promising only a presidency of hard work and decency. Few were moved.)

Many domestic observers see President Kaczynski (lower left) as a politician in the Peronist mold, and the question now is how he will behave in office.Lech_kaczynski_hands_raised_1   Of course, until the Constitution is changed (as Law and Justice promises), it is still parliament that has most of the power. Liberals were pleased that Law and Justice’s parliamentary power seemed to be contingent on a coalition with Civic Platform, and they were allayed that Jaroslaw Kaczynski appointed Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz -- a neoliberal economist (though simultaneously a homophobic religious radical) -- as prime minister. Indeed, some were hoping that Law and Justice would just limit itself to lining its own pockets just like previous governing parties have done. But since the elections, Law and Justice (logo right) has indicatedPis_logo  that it indeed wants to make good on its call for a radical overhaul. The Kaczynskis are not likely to maintain their promises to economically help the poor. They are already backing off on their pledge to increase budgetary outlays for health care, and the ongoing budgetary crisis makes it almost certain that they will in fact soon impose a wave of cutbacks. And this only makes it more likely that they will seek to consolidate their popularity not by bringing economic justice but by bringing moral righteousness. It is this that brings them – much sooner than anticipated – to the radical right.

For if the Kaczynskis do drive Civic Platform away, they can maintain power only by Samoobrona_polish_selfdefense_party_1 allying with Self-Defense (logo left) and the League of Polish Families, whose voters ensured Lech’s presidential victory. This week, they already bypassed Civic Platform’s nominee for Speaker of Parliament, and got the votes of the extremist parties in order to elect their own. It is not at all unlikely, therefore, that the most extreme radical right parties will soon be part of the governing coalition in Poland.

The mainstream view is that this cannot happen, that non-economic agendas still cannot trump economic ones. Globalization, it is said – meaning things like the European Union and the need for economic competitiveness – means that the nationalist and religious fundamentalist rhetoric of European parties is just that: rhetoric, intended only to win votes, not for actual deployment. But though that’s been the case in the past, is it really a guide for the future? How plausible is that? This is a time when the anti-immigrant New Right advances in western Europe, the religious right gains gets bolder and bolder in the United States, and Polish voters turn out for parties and candidates that denounce liberal democracy. The problem with the analyses calmly predicting the perseverance of liberal democracy is that they are made chiefly by the same liberals who keep saying that passions are irrelevant, and whose candidates keep losing.

Of course, it is possible that Law and Justice will rein itself in, or succumb to the pressure of international financial markets and reach out more willingly to CivicPlatforma_obywatelska_civic_platform  Platform (logo right). For the events of the last week have driven down the value of the zloty and of Poland’s stock market. The political instability poses the danger of a freeze on new investments, not just from outside the country but from inside as well. As Penn State University political science professor Michael Bernhard points out, given the events of the past week, "anyone with a former Communist Party membership and mobile assets would be a fool not to send them overseas at this point, and to suspend all on-going investment plans."

The problem, though, is that Civic Platform will not be satisfied with a coalition offer aimed only at making it take responsibility for unpopular economic decisions. That’s why it has also been demanding control of other ministries, like Internal Affairs as well, which controls the police. But Law and Justice so far has been unwilling to give up any of the so-called "force" ministries. And so a coalition to appease the financial markets may not be as inevitable as western financial markets now seem to feel.

Of course, it may be possible to calm financial markets and move to greater authoritarianism. Law and Justice may yet reach out to the so-called "red barons" (former communists now among the economic elite), allowing them their freedom in return for continued financial support. In this way, Poland might become more like today’s Russia.

The conclusion is hardly reassuring. Still, the similarities with contemporary Russia are Putin among the more paradoxical of current Polish developments, particularly given Law and Justice’s explicit and tough anti-Russian stance. Just like Putin (left), the Kaczynskis refuse to give up the "force" ministries. Like Putin, they talk of locking up "corrupt" businessmen who also happen to be political opponents. (They must have awe-inspiring admiration of Putin’s ability to send his biggest rival, the former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to a hard-labor Siberian prison camp with an 8-year sentence.) And the broader aim may be to keep the economy going by scaring other businessmen to go along. Of course, without Russia’s oil income, it is doubtful such a policy can succeed. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be tried. And though the EU might protest, it cannot risk alienating Poland too much, given both Poland’s large size and long-standing sensitivities about western mistreatment of the east.

(It should also be added that the criticism in some of the European press about Law and Justice’s homophobia will also have no effect on Polish politics. Kaczynski didRainbow_flag_1  indeed help build up his right-wing base voters by trying, unsuccessfully, to block gay rights parades while mayor of Warsaw, but neither he nor Tusk raised the issue during the campaign. Only if he tries to enforce a ban now that he’s president will it provoke a conflict with the EU, though even then it will be one that the EU Commission, if not the European press, will certainly try to avoid.)

Any way one looks at it, then, liberal democracy in Poland is likely to face increasingly hard times. Without a coalition with Civic Platform, Law and Justice is necessarily driven into coalition with the radical right. Nor does this necessarily mean that Civic Platform becomes the main opposition. The Democratic Left Alliance, which ran the government till last week, won 12% of the seats in the new parliament, and it will play the role of main opposition. And to the degree that they are able to do so, Civic Platform will probably refuse to be associated with them. The legacy of the past thus remains a big obstacle to success. For in the end, the long-term success and stability of liberal democratic politics probably requires a liberal-socialist alliance, just as happened in western Europe after World War II. To the extent that this remains unlikely – not only because of political rivalries but because of globalization’s constraints – the populist, illiberal right will probably continue to advance.

Finally, are the liberals right to be in such despair? It’s hard to say. Law and Justice is certainly pushing fast to consolidate its own hold on power. But the problem with thePoland_map_2  liberals is that they tend not to have any ideas on how to improve things – first of all, people’s economic conditions. Voters gravitate to populist demagogues not because they believe in all they say but because people always needs a party that at least says something can be done to help them out. Law and Justice will be trying to appease people’s economic anger by offering them more authoritarianism instead (something certainly not unfamiliar in contemporary American politics). But other parties can challenge this successfully not by shouting that the other guys are demagogues but by offering real ways of addressing economic conditions. If that’s not possible – both because the political will isn’t there, and because in this age of strong global capital but weak international civil society, real economic alternatives are genuinely hard to come by – then we may be in for more radical right-wing governments elsewhere in the world.

The moral of which is that we should all watch Poland closely. It might well be a harbinger of things to come in the west as well. -- David Ost

RELATED READING: An interesting pre-election article by the legendary former dissident Adam Michnik (right), looking at what remains of the Adam_michnik_1 Solidarnosc-led Polish revolution, contains some pointed observations on the Poland of today. In an essay, "In Search of Lost Sense," originally published in Gazeta Wyborcza, of which Michnik is now editor (and translated in the excellent English-language German online 'zine Sign and Sight), Michnik writes of today's Poland: "The days of selfless heroism are gone, and the spirit of enterprise and competition has superseded the solidarity ethos. The social activists' altruism, courage and sense of honour are rare goods in the Polish market these days, and they are not valued very highly. Shrewdness and brutality, ruthlessness and impertinence are a lot more effective and a lot more popular. Intrigue will often dress up as moral cause; fanaticism can be presented as a defence of principles. No wonder people who have given the best years of their lives to fight for Poland's freedom are now feeling frustrated." To read the complete Michnik artricle, click here......And you might want to look at Norman Birnbaum's August article, written exclusively for DIRELAND, reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the birth of Solidarnosc, "Evaluating Solidarnosc, 25 Years Later," by clicking here.

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» Poland's new president from Hobson's Choice
Lech Kaczynski, President-elect of Poland While Germany's parliamentary system continues to simmer, Polish voters elected far-right Lech Kaczynski (Law & Justice Party) president (23 Oct, IHT):The Kaczynski victory is likely to lead to a much tougher ... [Read More]

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» Poland's new president from Hobson's Choice
Lech Kaczynski, President-elect of Poland While Germany's parliamentary system continues to simmer, Polish voters elected far-right Lech Kaczynski (Law & Justice Party) president (23 Oct, IHT):The Kaczynski victory is likely to lead to a much tougher ... [Read More]

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» Poland's new president from Hobson's Choice
Lech Kaczynski, President-elect of Poland While Germany's parliamentary system continues to simmer, Polish voters elected far-right Lech Kaczynski (Law & Justice Party) president (23 Oct, IHT):The Kaczynski victory is likely to lead to a much tougher ... [Read More]

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Posted by: aka | Dec 24, 2006 8:17:37 AM

"Polska jest wazniejsza!" translates to "Poland is more important!", not "Poland above all!".

Interesting article, although I think way too much is being made of the Kaczynskis' "anti-gay" stance. It's such an irrelevent issue as long as unemployment remains as high as it is and the government as corrupt as the ex-communist SLD was.

I think PiS was one of better choices for Poland.

As for anything written by Michnik, it's important to keep in mind that he believes Jaruzelski to be, "Deep down [...] a Polish patriot and a partisan of democracy."

Posted by: bruksela | Nov 2, 2005 6:26:02 PM

When you talk of "eerily familiar" I am more apt to think back to the rhetoric of Hitler and the political and economic circumstances which propelled his rise to power.Irony of ironies.

Posted by: Troutsky | Oct 31, 2005 12:29:11 PM

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