Things are not always what they seem – Polish elections analysed

Andrzej Duda, recently re-elected as the Polish president, led what many will regard as a dirty campaign. He tried to build political capital by stigmatising the LGBTQ community, further polarised Poland’s already-divided society, and promised legislation in line with the  axioms of the Church, all while enjoying the undivided support of the state-owned media. But this is not why he won.

To understand the political success of President Andrzej Duda, or the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in general, we have to forego the simplified media narrative of the battle between the enlightened pro-European liberals on the one side and the anti-establishment poor on the other. Even those Western media outlets left of the centre which saw the populist movements in the West as giving voice to those left-behind, do not try to interpret developments in the East of Europe in quite the same way. It’s a mistake to do so: while nowhere in the West the populist-authoritarians managed to actually gain power, in no other place in Europe the left-behind are as far behind as they are in its Eastern part.

To make sense of recent events in Poland it is necessary to analyse not only the past few years, but also the period when modern Poland was being born. The transition following the fall of communism had a tremendous influence on later decades. In 1989, for the new Polish government, turning to a free market was a necessary step of becoming a part of ‘the free West’; its plan was to radically free-marketize the economy. And so one of the most visible results of the transition was the rise in social inequalities.

While Polish GDP rose steadily throughout the 2000s up to 2015, welfare levels did not. The state resigned from an active role in almost all spheres of life; little to no support was offered to persons from low-income families, unemployed or otherwise vulnerable citizens. For example, even today around half a million pensioners – many of whom have worked their whole adult lives – receive a monthly pension of less than £200 sterling. Twenty-five years after the 1989 transition period, the same type of thinking about economics persisted – subsequent governments kept on pushing the agenda of individualism and complete economic autonomy in a free-market environment. Those who succeeded in 1989 were doing well; the others patiently waited for the promised period of general welfare which the years of austerity and economic growth were supposed to bring about.

However, the state institutions necessary for the establishment of prosperity and of civil society were neglected or privatised. Twenty-five years after the reforms of 1989, citizens, especially outside of large cities, felt that their electoral choices did not reflect on the political reality – regardless of the narrative of growth and the promises of the liberal politicians, the state institutions were slow and ineffective. The majority therefore felt unrepresented and had no sense of any political agency.

In 2015 Duda, an MEP of the conservative Law and Justice party, unexpectedly won the presidential election for the first time. Up to 2015 the Law and Justice Party (PiS) was a party supported mainly by two groups: those most disadvantaged by the 1989 reforms, mainly inhabitants of the East and South of Poland, and those with strong catholic values (these two communities often overlapped). However, in 2015 PiS attracted new voters – those who had previously supported the liberal parties. The reasons behind that shift are clear; PiS was the first mainstream party in Poland post-1989 which offered the voters social policies whose aim was to directly improve the living standards of large groups of the citizenry.

Their approach was certainly not a comprehensive one – they chose the easy way of direct monetary transfers instead of the reform of the old institutions and the establishment of new ones. Nevertheless, it was a step in the right direction, in a country struck by poverty, with widespread corruption, almost non-existent public housing, where oncological patients died before they could see the doctor, and where the rate of most life-satisfaction inducing factors was steadily sinking for 25 years. When PiS gained majority of seats in the parliament, the current democratic decline started – with the gradual overtaking of the state-media by the party, further politicization of the rule of law and disregard of the rules set by the Polish constitution. The constitutional laws (which also theoretically bound the Polish state to look after the well-being of the citizens) were too abstract when contrasted with unquestionable improvements in their lives that the Poles saw: between 2014 and 2019 the number of children living in extreme poverty fell by 50% – from 715 to 312 thousand, while the minimum wage was raised from 40% to 50% of the medium wage. Crucially, PiS rejected the neoliberal focus on the individual agency, and – both economically and culturally – accentuated the importance of the national community instead. There was no coming back.

After five years of Duda’s presidency, his opponent in the runoff voting was Rafał Trzaskowski, a prominent member of the Civic Platform (PO), the centre-right liberal party which – after nearly 10 years of being in power – lost the elections in 2015. Understandably, Trzaskowski’s candidature was interpreted by the majority as one positing a revival of the old order. While the difference between the number of votes each candidate received (around 500,000) was not huge, I doubt there was anything Trzaskowski could have possibly done to win the election. For the majority of Poles, Duda was the only viable option. Do not get me wrong – I am not saying that it was a fair game: the dismantling of the public character of the state-media as well as Duda’s use of hate-speech changed the character of the presidential campaign. But – if we look at the broader picture – the reasons behind Duda’s victory lay elsewhere. He symbolised the transition in the understanding of the duties of the Polish state towards its citizens and a shift of the identity of the citizenry from a collection of individuals into a national community.

Fortunately for the Polish democrats, the vision of Poland offered by Duda and PiS is flawed in both these areas. In the first sphere – because PiS’s attempts at welfare politics lack the institutional framework necessary for systemic prosperity. In the second – due to the limited nature of the sense of community offered by PiS. A national identity built on the idea of exclusion – not only of the minorities, but also of the other half of the society that does not accept its values – is, by definition, weaker than one formed with inclusivity in mind. Another factor slowly disempowering PiS are the demographics of its voters: in the recent elections Trzaskowski won in all age groups younger than 50; the scale of support for Duda grew together with the voters’ age. Gradually, to attract younger Poles, PiS will have to take on either a more liberal – or even more nationalist – approach.

While the support for PiS is likely to fall over the years, it of course could be too late to save the Polish democracy at that stage. But free Poland is by no means lost: if the opposition manages to take the issue of welfare seriously, and to define an attractive model of statehood and national identity, it could win the elections and breathe new life into the Polish democracy.

Unfortunately, I doubt that it will happen anytime soon.

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