Poland’s recent presidential election strengthened nationalist rule while exposing deep divisions in society. Analysis should not, however, oversimplify the result. The Right’s popularity is not primarily the outcome of their traditional values, but their generous welfare offer. Only a radical alternative welfare model, combined with progressive ideals, could provide a credible substitute.
Poland’s politics is uniquely multifaceted, rendering the diagnosis of a disillusioned populace gravitating towards a right-wing populism unsatisfactory. A comprehensive understanding of Polish politics must consider its long history of occupation and subsequent strong nationalist feeling, its communist past, the continued centrality of Catholicism and consequent traditional values, its relationship with Europe, and the desire for simplistic yet generous state support.
Scapegoating by the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) is plentiful – of refugees, liberal elites, and more recently, the LGBTQI+ community. This, however, can go only so far in explaining the success enjoyed by PiS. While the Right elsewhere, under the guise of anti-establishment populism, pursue aggressive deregulatory neoliberalism, the PiS are genuinely anti-neoliberal. Their winning formula combines a nationalist social conservatism with a transformative welfare offering.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Poland partook in a delayed presidential election. In the second-round run-off held 12 July, incumbent and PiS-backed Andrzej Duda defeated, with 51% to 49% of the vote, Warsaw Mayor, Rafał Trzaskowski, who represented the main opposition party, Civic Platform (PO).
The election was not without controversy. Claims of bias pro-Duda state media coverage and voting irregularities for Poles living abroad have incited calls from the opposition for the vote to be invalidated. With the result, the ruling PiS, supported by Duda – dubbed the ‘Pen President’ for his uncritical commitment to government legislation – will enjoy the freedom to pursue their political agenda with little effective opposition for the upcoming three years.
Significance of Duda’s Victory
Duda’s re-election is seminal to the direction Polish politics will take. Had Trzaskowski won, the legislative agenda of the ruling PiS would have been scuppered as the President can veto any bill. With an ally in the Presidential Palace, Jarosław Kaczyński (the leader of PiS and de-facto leader of Poland) can pursue his uncompromising program to fundamentally alter Poland’s constitutional and societal composition.
The concern held by many of the anti-Duda constituency was the President’s previous and now probable future role in abetting the anti-democratic reform of the judiciary – whereby the PiS have filled the Constitutional Court with loyalists, and aim to replicate this in the Supreme Court – and the increased government control of the state-media outlet, Telewizja Polska (TVP).
The Polish media proved to be the bitter battleground of the presidential election. Duda’s campaign centred around the supposed hostility of the private press, accusing the German owners of Poland’s leading tabloid, Fakt, of attempting to influence Polish democracy. Such complaints were in blind ignorance of the blatant pro-Duda bias of the public media outlet, TVP. Analysis by Reporters Without Borders dubbed the channel ‘government propaganda’. The channel was overwhelmingly hostile to the incumbent’s rival, Trzaskowski, labelling him a pro-LGBT ‘extremist’. The pervasive hand of the ruling PiS into the public and private media will likely increase over the next three years given their desire to limit the foreign ownership of private media.
State media bias against the opposition candidate during the election is the central argument made by those seeking to make the case that the result is illegitimate. Global examples, from Brexit to Trump, show that, even in elections as close as the vote on 12 July, claims of breaching electoral law seem to hold little weight in attempts to invalidate results. This is especially so in the present Polish case given the considerable turnout of 68% – the largest since 1995.
It would, however, be naïve and frankly patronising to equate Duda’s victory to the electorate’s absorption of state propaganda. Polish voters are not indoctrinated thoughtless actors, but rational individuals who understand the extent of partiality from TVP, and from the Church who too have been attributed responsibility for mobilising support for PiS in recent years in rural regions.
Duda’s victory gives the green light to the government for further illiberal reforms. Abortion legislation in Poland is among the strictest in Europe, with plans to further limit access. Anti-LGBT legislation is also likely to proliferate given the homophobic platform on which Duda campaigned during the election.
Explaining PiS and Duda’s Continued Electoral Success
As mentioned, the success of Duda and PiS is not your typical case of right-wing populist incursion. Their achievements are not the usual story of neoliberalism wearing an anti-establishment mask and successfully misleading a disenchanted electorate. Kaczyński’s winning formula is threefold: offering successful and popular welfare policies; a strong nationalist sentiment combined with a neo-authoritarian state-citizen relationship; and aligning closely with the conservative traditional values of the Church – a facet that lends itself to a degree of scapegoating certain groups.
PiS have governed with a majority since 2015; their success is largely attributed to the ‘Family 500+’ programme. Shock therapy Hayekian economics imposed from 1989 had individualised society. In stark contrast to this neoliberal status-quo, PiS offered a family orientated deal. As well as lowering the pension age from 67 to 65, they had their flagship policy – free money. The ‘Family 500+’ programme sought to reduce child poverty and increase the birth rate by offering 500 zloty (approx. £101) every month for every child.
This policy was and remains immensely popular – it is almost untouchable for the opposition. It eased pressures for those in poverty, especially in the provincial regions worst hit by the fundamental economic transformation post-1989, offering a real life line to many.
The winning combination of right-wing rhetoric with welfare support is dangerous for the opposition, whether that be Civic Platform or parties on the left. After all, universalism and the welfare state tend to be championed by the centre-left. Whereas in Britain it is benefit claimants who are demonised by the Right as the source of society’s woes, in Poland populists have occupied fertile territory for a centre-left that failed to mobilise after the collapse of post-communist parties in the late-1990s.
The offer of free money is a vote winner – and Kaczyński knows this. The scheme is not, however, part of any kind of nuanced welfare state with a system of tax credits or sustainable health service funding. This, after all, is far harder to sell to an electorate than ‘free money for every child’. Indeed, social expenditure under PiS is far from diverse; healthcare is systematically underfunded, with Poland suffering the lowest physician to population ratio in the EU, while an underfunded education system has forced teachers to strike.
The ‘Family 500+’ scheme is far from perfect. While the principle of universalism in state support is admirable – particularly with universal basic income, for example – when in isolation, universalist provisions lack cost efficacy. IBS analysis found that, while the programme reduced poverty, this could have been done far cheaper as middle- and high-income families have also benefited. The policy was not accompanied by any further progressive measures, with Poland continuing to sport a regressive system of taxation as the rich and corporations enjoy low rates. The programme was not offered out of a genuine desire to reorganise the role of the Polish state or to promote fiscal efficacy, but to win votes.
Alongside simplified offerings of state financial support, PiS have consistently pedalled nationalist rhetoric. They speak of a national sovereignty which has been denied to Poland for most of the last three centuries, with Kaczyński claiming to ensure the restoration of ‘dignity’. This notion of power and sovereignty has been associated with the almost ‘seductive’ level of authority enjoyed by Kaczyński, despite not holding the office of either Prime Minister or President. The enormous power over the state possessed by PiS is, supposedly, devolved to Polish families through granting individuals control over their own finances. A neo-authoritarian state-citizen relationship has developed and appears to be appealing – portions of the electorate are attracted to the level of authority exercised by Kaczyński, and to the individual sovereignty granted to them through schemes like ‘Family 500+’.
This state-citizen relationship is utilised effectively by PiS as a means to divide sections of society and scapegoat individuals. Those demanding greater state support, such as the aforementioned striking teachers, are presented as assailants against the agency and sovereignty of the ordinary Pole – the refugees, the LGBT community, and the teachers ‘want your money’, so the narrative goes.
With this is revealed the third element of the tryptic for PiS success. Scapegoating.
It tends to fall against those whose values are antithetical to the traditional conservativism expressed by the ruling party. The recent presidential election was based on societal values. Duda was able to encompass all that has ensured PiS success in recent years. Central to his appeal was the ‘Polish family’. For years, Duda, Kaczyński, and PiS have presented themselves as protectors of ordinary families by providing financial support, of communities, and of Christian values, all from ‘dangerous ideological offensives’.
The presence of a common enemy, an ‘other’, is indispensable to Duda and PiS. In the past the so-called ‘modern threats’ have been migrants, refugees, and the liberal elite. It was the LGBTQI+ community who bore the brunt of the most recent election’s culture war. The ability to spread division is the central mechanism through which the ruling party can deflect from their own sins, whether that be the anti-democratic legislation being pursued, or the blatant hypocritical elitism practiced through rewarding those loyal to the government.
Support for Duda’s unapologetically traditional values is strongest in previously neglected rural Poland, not yet exposed to the modernism of urban areas and where the Church remains a definitive determinant of community principles. In July’s election, Duda was able to demonise the LGBTQI+ community to incite division. While it is important not to overstate its prevalence in determining voting behaviour, a poll found that, among men under 40, the LGBT community was considered the ‘biggest threat to society’. A survey from 2019 found that only half of Poles accept homosexuality. Voting behaviour is multifaceted, yet it is clear Duda recognised that an issue as divisive as LGBTQI+ rights can mobilise his core support.
That said, by kowtowing to his safe conservative voters (about one third of the electorate) Duda nearly cost himself the election. The narrow election result unveils a dangerous reality for the ruling party – that a considerable constituency are awake to the government’s sins and are disillusioned with the divisive rhetoric. Indeed, Trzaskowski, Duda’s rival, positioned himself poles apart from the incumbent, standing on a pro-democracy, pro-LGBT platform. In the end, swing voters cast their ballots with their wallets, with the alternative offer uninspiring.
Poland’s Divided Polity
While nuances should be recognised, Poland’s electoral divide broadly follows that seen elsewhere in Europe; that is, between the young and old, and between metropolitan and provincial regions. Trzaskowski enjoyed support in big cities, while Duda dominated small towns and rural regions in the south east. The ruling party and Duda monopolise rural Poland, with the President boasting to have visited all 380 of Poland’s districts. It is unsurprising that the self-proclaimed candidate of ‘real’ Poland held his victory address in the small town of Pułtusk. Central to Duda’s campaign, and to PiS campaigns before that, was the narrative of restoring dignity and ‘redistributing prestige’ to provincial Poland which has been plagued with depopulation and the impacts of neoliberal policy.
PiS and Duda’s offer of unconditional state benefit is appealing to those in provincial regions. It is here where the ‘Family 500+’ programme has had its greatest impact. It is, therefore, important to understand that support for Duda and PiS does not always equate to support for their social conservatism. Many are swing voters for whom PiS welfare provisions have benefitted them immensely. Their support for that continued level of state provision is often given regardless of the party’s traditional views – patronage to PiS is given not because of but in spite of their illiberalism. As such, new votes leased to PiS since 2015 are conditional, balanced on unstable foundations.
The narrow election result spells trouble for the Right. It is evident that the over ten million Poles who supported Trzaskowski are conscious of the threat posed by PiS to Poland’s democracy, a democracy hard fought for in the 1980s with the Solidarność trade union movement. PiS are brave to tamper with the democracy of a population who began the demise of the Eastern bloc through their desire for true representation.
Further threatening the position of the ruling party is the economic fallout of COVID-19. While Poland is set to be least affected among EU countries by the pandemic, it will enter its first recession since 1989 given that they were the only European nation to emerge unscathed from the 2008 crash. Support given to PiS and Duda from wavering voters is, as mentioned, conditional on their welfare offer. Should PiS fail to make new stimulating offers, or should the economic downturn force austere measures, these voters may look elsewhere. The only question that remains – where is there to look?
Hope For the Future?
Conditional PiS supporters need an alternative. An alternative that ambitiously expands the current welfare programme to a holistic system of universalist provisions; an alternative that injects hope into provincial regions without compromising socially progressive ideals; an alternative that, instead of sewing hate and division, seeks to heel divides and unite Poland’s diverse populace around a common progressive cause.
Better than any other country Poland has historically presented an ability to coalesce in spite of political variance. It is telling that the politics of both Duda and Trzaskowski were born out of the 1980s Solidarność campaign in which anti-communists from the left and right were triumphant through putting difference aside.
It would be naïve to offer a vision of hope without first grappling with the potential hurdles a political alternative may face. While the progressive left tends to attract the support of the young, their support should not be assumed. Yes, Trzaskowski secured much of the young vote. Poland’s youth, however, also took a considerable liking to far-right candidate, Krysztof Bosak, who combined staunch Polish nationalism with hard-line pro-market economics. Among those aged 18-29, Bosak was the second most popular contender in the first round of the presidential election.
In the second round, Trzaskowski and Duda sought to appeal to Bosak’s voters – Trzaskowski through espousing similar free-market dogma, and promising low taxes and freedom of speech, while Duda appealed to the nationalist, anti-LGBT facet of Bosak’s support base. Despite being the pro-LGBT candidate, Trzaskowski controversially opposed the right to adopt children for the LGBTQI+ community, cowardly conceding to Duda and Bosak’s socially conservative rhetoric.
Trzaskowski and the offer from the centre-right is too safe. It will not inspire the hearts and minds of Poland’s young or provincial swing voters. While Trzaskowski’s party, Civic Platform, oversaw economic growth when in government from 2007 to 2015, their pro-market policies ensured inequality rose and poverty went unaddressed. It is difficult for the opposition to mobilise support around notions of current poor living standards when most, particularly those previously most deprived, are relatively more comfortable under a PiS government. It is only by building on popular policies and offering an alternative welfare state model that progressives will succeed without having to forego socially liberal ideals.
There is at present no real popular left option in Poland. It is important to recognise the connotations the ‘left’ have in ex-communist states. Left-wing parties face the task of rebranding themselves to distance far enough from the nation’s Communist past. There is potential in Lewica (The Left) who recognise the need to offer an innovative welfare programme which, unlike the current government, includes investment across the board and not just in vote winning policy areas. While Lewica are yet to gain popular support on the level enjoyed by PO and PiS, the foundations are present.
The Right have occupied the language of welfare, combining it with their exclusionary nationalist rhetoric. Meanwhile, the centre continues to bang the neoliberal drum. The alternative must combine a progressive, unitary nationalism with an alternative holistic welfare state model.
Kaczyński’s hold on power is not absolute and, as his age advances, internal PiS conflicts when deciding his successor will likely weaken the party’s presentation of strength. It is in this context that a progressive left-wing alternative could emerge.
The environment is evidently ripe for universalist notions of welfare provision – the ‘Family 500+’ is, after all, an unconditional benefit. Given the popularity of the programme, an alternative offer should be sure to include universal basic income (UBI) as its flagship proposal. Not only would this re-establish the notion of universalist state support as a left-wing phenomenon, it would outflank PiS on the level of provision.
Divisive tendencies would be reduced by universalist policy. There would be no need to deem one group more worthy of state support than any other as the ruling party have done pitting the ordinary Polish family against the LGBTQI+ community, for example. In doing so, a radical alternative could help redefine Polish nationalism to become a pride in progressive social inclusion alongside strong state support to alleviate inequality.
Polish politics is uniquely complex. It encompasses a history of oppression and occupation, religion and resistance. It is important not to impose western European understandings of politics onto the complex region. While hope is scarce in such a multifarious landscape, by understanding the success of PiS, we can find promise that an alternative, socially liberal welfare model could be Poland’s inclusionary solution.