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State of the Left - Poland

Where now for the Polish left?

Jędrzej Włodarczyk - 13 November 2015

With no representation in Poland’s Sejm following last month’s elections, the left must urgently reconfigure to escape extinction

With the strong victory of the Law and Justice party (PiS) in last month’s parliamentary election, Poland has been firmly switched to the conservative right. For the first time in democratic memory the conservatives yield an absolute majority. Also for the first time, the Polish Sejm will lack representatives of the left or any other truly progressive force. The newly created United Left coalition (ZL) suffered a humiliating defeat, failing to reach the eight per cent trheshold required for coalition groupings, effectively ending the postcommunist chapter in Polish politics.

After eight years, the governing Civic Platform (PO) lacked any genuine motive for prolonging its stay in power, other than power itself. Its downfall was to be anticipated following the unexpected defeat of its incubent president Bronisław Komortowski to newcomer Andrzej Duda in May's presidential election. With 24 per cent of the vote, PO lost severely but was not crushed. On the other hand, it is overstating the result to call PiS's victory a landslide.

For PiS it was a lucky combination of  events that tipped the balance in its favour: prime minister Ewa Kopacz's inepteness, combined with the unprecedented appearance of new political forces like the enigmatic Kukiz 2015 movement and Nowoczesna (Modern), a neoliberal party formed by former economist and World Bank adviser Ryszard Petru, as well as the failings of the left and the conservative-libertarian Korwin party. PiS’s autocratic leader Jarosław Kaczyński a comfortable majority with 37 per cent of  the vote.

But dismissing the newly arisen conservative tide on chance of luck is also too simple a view.  A strong desire for a more solidarist approach has been growing in the Polish society for quite some time. Without a credible progressive offer on the table, PiS entered the role of the traditional social democracy – with a socially conservative twist.

After May's disasterous presidential election, an emergency plan for the left was put forward by the OPZZ trade union. Following two months of negotations between Leszek Miller's Left Wing Alliance, Janusz Palikot’s social-liberal Your Movement, the Green party and the smaller Labour Union and PPS (a direct descendant of the pre-war socialists), a big-tent alliance was formed: ZL.

A month before the election, ZL adopted a new strategy, putting forward Barbara Nowacka, the 40-year-old co-chair of Your Movement, as the leader. Idealistic, outspoken and credible in her leftwing views, Nowacka seemed to gather a small momentum, reaching up to 11-12 per cent in the polls. This was not a bad performance taking into account the crucification of the leftwing parties by mainstream media and public opinion only a few months earlier. The coalition put forward a rather bland and ecclectic campaign, but for the first time a more genuine social democratic language has been adopted with emphasis on tax reform, labour rights and seperation of church and state. And then, with the party leaders television debate, just three days before the campaign finish, the coalition’s hopes of modest success came to a bitter end.

Just a few months earlier, a brand new leftwing group, Partia Razem (Together), had been created; it was inspired by the new-left movements of Spain and Greece. The purple-coloured party of the ‘young precariat’ surprised everyone by registering its party lists. With impressive organisational bravado, the young activists were fighting an impossible battle indeed. Ignored by the manistream media, but discouraged nonetheless, they trailed in the polls up until 20 October's debate. Standing in front of professional but bland politicians, Together's representative, Adrian Zandberg, came across as genuine, charismatic, energetic and well-prepared. A so called ‘Zandberg effect’ followed, and this – combined with a rather dull performance from Barbara Nowacka – was enough to tear out a chunk of voters from the ZL, effectively ending their particular coalition’s dominance of the left.

And so, with the settling of the election's dust, Poland is the only European country without a leftwing representation in parliament. As both groupings managed to pass the three per cent threeshold they are intilted to state funding, but there is no point in arguing that there are any winners on the left from this civil war. The ZL fell into squables just moments after the distastrous results came in, and so the future of the coalition hangs in the air. Many leftist commentators breathe a sign of relief – the longstanding technocrats from Poland’s Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) are finally history and with them the postcommunist odium. It is a chance for something new, but as Marek Borowski – the only independent social democratic senator – notices in an recent interview, problems lie ahead for all of the left. Together's euphoria and well-deserved good humour may quickly descend into sectarianism, while the remnants of the ZL coalition face the prospect of needing of reinvent their programme and the challenges of adopting a radical new grassroots strategy. Not to mention an event bigger challenge: what to do with the remains of the SLD. It seems that in the new political landscape the old party is more or less obsolote.

While the whole situation seems distastrous, the coming years, with a hard-line conservative party now in power, offer glimses of hope and the opportunities of probable full-scale reconfiguration of the Polish left. Three scenarios seem equally possible.

First, an in-depth debate on the left could result in a grand coalition of the socialist-leaning Together witht he remnants and successors of ZL coalition. Alternatively, there may be the establishment of two leftwing parties: Together, on the one hand, eating out support from the socially conservative simultaneously economically Keynesian PiS; on the other hand the ZL’s successors offering a modified third-way programme to compete with the centrist PO.  The third remainging possibility is for the ZL remnants to disintigrate entirely, giving rise to Together in its place.  

It is pessimistic, but realistic to think that a fourth scenario, featuring a complete marginalisation of leftwing parties, is also at hand. This is unlikely in the long run, but, judging by the history of the left’s ongoing mistakes, not impossible.

Jędrzej Włodarczyk is a lawyer and leftwing activist

A contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's monthly insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

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