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State of the Left - Poland

Illiberal democracy grips Poland

Jędrzej Włodarczyk - 10 March 2016

The future of Poland’s opposition parties will be shaped by their respective stances on opposing the government’s increasingly authoritarian reforms

After 100 days in government the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has managed to antagonise almost everyone, besides the party’s core voters. With an unprecedented jump on the state’s institutions and a surprise attack on the consitutional court, PiS is now the first real autocratic force in the Polish political premier league since the fall of communism.

To understand what is happening in Poland, one must resolve to the term ‘illiberal democracy’. Similary to the likes of Hungarian mentor and political ally Victor Orban and contrary to his own party’s name, Jarosław Kaczyński believes that the democratic mandate empowers the ruling party to go beyond the rule of law. Or as Kornel Morawiecki, the Solidarność Walcząca (Fighting Solidarity – a radical wing of anti-communist Solidarity) veteran and pro-government Kukiz’15 parliamentary caucus put it frankly: “the welfare of the people is above the law”. Hence the consitutional crisis, with president Andrzej Duda acting out on an informal coup d’etat by refusing to appoint judges chosen by the previous Sejm (the lower house of parliament). Lawyers unanimously condemned this move as a violation of the constitution. This is only one the most serious of a series of aggressive moves by the ruling political elite.

Apart from instututional authoritarianism, a tough stance towards European partners (Germany in particular) and rightwing rhetoric in symbolic areas, the incubent government maintains traditional social-populist or even socialist policies. The ambitious 500+ programme introducing benefits for families with two or more children is due to start in the second quarter of 2016. A genuine revolution in the othervise neoliberal economic landscape. Parliamenetary oppostion, social-liberal Civic Platform (PO) and more hardline neoliberal Modern (Nowoczesna) are set on a fullscale critique of the planned social spending – other promises include lowering the retirement age, a new tax on foreign hypermarkets and taxing the banking sector. While the two opposition parties lack any thought out plan on how to bite into PiS support, they may find comfort in their relatively stable poll results (going up to 40 per cent, higher than the governing party). This is not the case for leftwing actors.

The recent election disaster for the left (the United Left Alliance did not pass the electoral threshold) has left the Polish Sejm lacking even the most temperate progressive force. The post-communist SLD has decided on escalating its crisis by electing Włodzimierz Czarzasty as succesor to the compromised Leszek Miller. Although intelligent and articulate, he lacks political charm and is seen as a firm supporter of the ‘old guard’ – opposed to change and reform. On the other hand, succesors of the ill-fated United Left coalition have decided to continue their cooperation under the aegis of former leader Barbara Nowacka. The newly created 20 February Movement has had a slow start and is seen as more of a debate platform than full-time political force of the left. The third, and most promising actor, the socialist leaning Together party (Razem) seems to have lost some of its energy but stands as the only serious and realiable alternative – albeit still in the youthful phase. Podemos-inspired but lacking its crystal clear leadership, the youngest polish party seems to have set on a long march.

What seperates these environments apart is their attitude to the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), a newly-created grassroots social movement set on fullscale opposition towards PiS. They have been highly succesful in organising street protests, the biggest since restoration of democracy. Although not ideological as a rule, KOD seems close to the liberal centre represented by PO and Modern. For Barbara Nowacka this does not seem to be a problem, whereas Together has kept its distance, blaming the previous PO government, with its neoliberal, market-oriented policies, for the current crisis. Together faced criticism for this stances and being compared to the nationalist right. The ongoing discussion higlights the left's problem: building too close ties with either of the dominating political forces, renders it obsolete; on the other hand, dropping out of the liberal/conservative narratives throws them straight into political wilderness.

An important factor that differentiates Together from the rest of the political scene is the use of language. Despite organising their own protests in defence of democratic institutions and being very vocal about the rightwing shift, they stay clear from the agressive message that rages havoc in Poland's political debate, focusing instead on creating a cohesive story about the social, cultural and economical reality of the country. This may be a reliable route, as it is highly unlikely any election will be held until the municipal voting in 2018. Given the current dynamics this feels like an eternity.

Jędrzej Włodarczyk is a lawyer and leftwing activist

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

Tags: Jędrzej Włodarczyk

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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