When Poland’s populist and conservative Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) won a landslide majority this past fall, many were alarmed—and with good reason. PiS is a right-wing party, and like its political counterpart in Hungary, the Viktor Orbán-led Fidesz party, it too prides itself on being the defender of Poland’s traditional values and national sovereignty, the Roman Catholic church, and the country’s morality. Many worried that PiS’s election marked not only a rightward turn in Polish politics, but represented a broader resurgence of right-wing populism, xenophobia, and conservatism across Eastern Europe.
But political and social attitudes don’t, of course, change overnight—and for most Poles they haven’t changed that dramatically from the fall of 2007, when they voted more liberally than they did at the last election. What has changed is not that Poland and Eastern Europe as a whole have become more conservative, but that Polish voters chose the only credible option that was presented to them; there currently is no liberal or left alternative. Certainly, the weakness of the contemporary left—its movements, its social-democratic and more radical parties, its intelligentsia—can be partially blamed for this result. But the left’s marginalization in Polish electoral politics was years, even decades, in the making. It wasn’t inevitable—there’s no such thing in politics, even in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, anymore—but there weren’t many other possible outcomes. Reflecting on recent events, but going back to the 1990s (the period of transformation before Poland joined the EU), the 1980s (the period leading up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union), and even the 1970s (the period when the first partial reforms of the economy took place), I’ll try to explain how the right became Poland’s only choice.
In examining the choices made by the Polish electorate in past years, it is instructive to ask ourselves not why Poles are veering rightward, but who besides the right Poles could have voted for. In particular, what has happened to the Polish left? In 2000 the rule of the Election Action Solidarity (Akcja Wyborcza Solidarność, or AWS), a broad coalition of parties close to the union, Solidarity, and united mostly by their anticommunism, was coming to an end. Having begun as a protest movement, the party didn’t do much to retain working-class support and eventually lost it in the late 1990s—ironically, to the same post-communists the working class ostensibly resented. The Democratic Left Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, or SLD), a party composed mostly of former Communist Party apparatchiks from pre-1989 Poland, took power in 2001. During the rule of the SLD, the most prominent opposition came from the pro-market liberal-conservative Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, or PO) and the more nationalist and conservative PiS. There was no left opposition in those years.
Efforts to create genuinely socialist or social-democratic parties were either undermined by liberal-conservative Solidarity elites back in the 1990s or, when they were successful, as in the formation of Labour United (Unia Pracy, or UP) by left-leaning Solidarity figures, eventually consumed or marginalized by the SLD, which towered both in size and resources over such grassroots leftist organizations. This was also true in the 2000s, when the SLD triumphed. The radical left was not a viable option for Polish society, at the time determined to join the European Union. Eventually, even post-communist Poland eagerly embraced a liberal and pro-Western agenda in order to legitimize its membership in the EU. And for those who weren’t as eager about these prospects, there was a choice of anti-establishment, socially regressive, and destructive populists to choose from.
The weakness of the left proved disastrous in the 2005 elections that followed Poland’s 2004 entry into the EU, when the right-wing PiS won. PiS ruled for two tumultuous years, with the main opposition party, the pro-market, liberal PO, remaining unchanged. The SLD’s ratings dropped because of corruption scandals and the AWS had already dissolved, effectively opening up space for newly created right-wing parties that were modeled on the brutal and legendary efficiency of charismatic leaders who had few qualms about crushing naysayers and internal dissent within their own ranks. The timing coincided with the arrival of 24/7 news media channels and the professionalization of politics, where PR specialists, full-time propagandists, and spin-doctors took over prominent cabinet positions.
The PO took over from PiS in 2007 and ruled for two consecutive terms. For the eight years of its rule, the PiS again dominated the opposition. It’s not that Poles didn’t vote for other parties at all. The conservative-agrarian Polish People’s Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe, or PSL), a former partner of the SLD, was in parliament for a fifth consecutive term, with a stable but limited voter-base of farmers and rural workers. Controversial millionaire politician Janusz Palikot—formerly of the PO—succeeded in what seemed like a doomed mission: creating a libertarian platform (the Palikot Movement, as it was called) that helped forty new faces enter parliament in 2011, many of whom were leftists promoting ideas like the legalization of marijuana and same-sex marriage, and opposing the church. Vehemently hated by the right and with no coherent agenda or proper party structures, Palikot’s movement was quickly outmaneuvered in parliament and his most promising people were cherry-picked by other parties. But it was clear that one reason why a center-right and a conservative right were trading spots at the head of the Polish government was because there was no legitimate left or liberal alternative, and therefore, most people chose to vote for mainstream parties, such as the liberal PO or center-right PiS. There is simply no incentive for most Poles to vote for the marginal left and liberal parties that stand no chance of winning power.
Even more importantly, after scandals of grand corruption toppled the SLD government in 2005, Polish politics began to resemble the U.S. and UK systems, in that the contest was no longer between a variety of political alternatives but between two. In virtually every election since 2005, the two right-wing parties, PiS and PO, have won more than 50 percent of the vote, and have also held a decisive majority of seats in the Sejm (lower chamber of the parliament), the Senate (the upper chamber), and the European parliament. In the 2011 Senate elections PiS and PO together took over ninety of a hundred available seats; only one senator out of the hundred was elected on a left platform. The mainstream parties also changed the electoral law before 2011 to their benefit: each constituency now chooses one representative to the senate, when previously, senators were elected according to a system of proportional representation, meaning smaller committees and parties were allocated seats according to the number of votes they received.
So does PiS’s recent victory represent the resurgence of populist nationalism in Eastern Europe? Perhaps. But it also represents something equally troubling about Polish politics: there are no left-wing alternatives. The lack of a prominent left in Eastern Europe is not evidence of any inherent weakness, but rather, tells us more about how neoliberal and neoconservative parties can capitalize on the mass disenfranchisment of people and dismiss forces on both sides of the political spectrum as radicals. In Poland this sad truth is illustrated by the astonishing fact that the post-communist party, the SLD, was incorporated into the political system and gained legitimacy, while the same continues to be denied to many other parties and social movements. This, too, teaches us an important lesson about countries and regions undergoing rapid economic and political transition: it is the power imbalances and inequalities we inherit from the past that shape contemporary politics, not the other way round.
The consequences of not having a viable left alternative in Poland’s political system loomed even in the chaotic and uncertain 1990s. It was already clear then that unless a democratic, egalitarian, and popular left party emerged, it would be nationalists and other enemies of the liberal-democratic order who would win the protest vote. David Ost, a gifted observer of Polish politics and an acute critic of the parties that emerged from the success of Solidarity as a union and a mass movement, was one of the first to observe this in his book based on research conducted in the 1990s, The Defeat of Solidarity: Anger and Politics in Postcommunist Europe (2005). Times of crisis breed anger, and there’s no easy formula for restoring order and advancing a progressive agenda. But the anxiety of the general public—that can and should be alleviated by policy, even if it cannot succeed overnight—should be addressed by at least trying to communicate with the disenfranchised. The left was often lacking on this front. Meanwhile the right, notes Ost, had plenty of occasions to turn angry working-class people against alleged internal and external enemies—the left, the Jews, and the “commies.”
Poland in the 1990s was characterized by protest and resentment—this period of transformation, even if there was no military overthrow of the ancien regime, was not a peaceful time. Factories were going bankrupt, inflation was sky-high, and millions of people were living in dire poverty. Criminals and the mafia were the scourge of small-time entrepreneurs while former party secretaries and secret service officers became oligarchs, making millions in shady deals and seizing control of state assets. Back then the former leaders of the opposition against the regime, figures like Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuroń, were busy defending their recently launched capitalist economic policies from its many critics. While doing so, they also helped weaken the left because it was precisely these policies that were angering the growing number of workers who were laid-off, unemployed single mothers, and pensioners unable to afford basic necessities like medication. The former communist left represented by the new “social democrats” capitalized on that anger in the 1990s and won the election in 1993. But meanwhile, hand in hand with leaders of the new, post-Solidarity parties who were promoting many of these policies of economic liberalization, they also destroyed any chances of a democratic-socialist, progressive, or center-left party taking power. The ex-communist left became the hegemonic force on the Polish left—reinforcing the idea that being on the left equals communism. Apparatchiks and former bearers of Moscow’s orders refused to leave politics and infuriated many by changing their name to “social democrats” while retaining their assets and party structures from the 1980s, when they were still shooting miners and other workers. While in the short term this did not prevent the SLD from winning the elections three more times (the presidential, twice, and the parliamentary, once) it forever alienated the majority of the Polish population from ever supporting the “left.”
The political weakness of the left also has other causes, many of them the product of the strange bedfellows forced on dissidents organizing against communist rule in the 1980s. When Solidarity—undoubtedly a movement for equality and justice—was broken up the first time in the early 1980s and its leaders were temporarily imprisoned, it was no longer unions or popular opposition that united people but the church. Obviously, at the time, the Roman Catholic Church was interested in promoting conservative values—as it always has been—but it opened its doors to almost everybody. The vehement anticommunism of an otherwise ultra-conservative and socially regressive church made it ecumenical: at the time, it wasn’t uncommon for a Jewish professor to hold a lecture for workers in a Roman Catholic Church. The church effectively legitimized its place in politics for decades to come (it became, as French sociologist Alain Touraine points out in his analysis of the movement created by Solidarity, one of the three pillars of democratic opposition). Poles, even those who weren’t close to the church (Polish society is mostly, but not exclusively, Catholic) came to believe that the church’s place in the political order was somehow natural, much as the citizens of other countries may feel about the necessity of state institutions, like the supreme court, in preserving democracy.
Let’s say you have two parties with similar programs that have broad appeal, but one is secular and the other religious. The first will have to face an uphill battle, while the second can count on the support (or at least, the neutrality) of the majority of the clergy, the Catholic media (of which there’s plenty in Poland), and the local allies of the church, such as the pro-life movement, religious organizations and charities, and others. This might be of secondary importance to Westernized, neoliberal parties that count on the support of middle-to-high income voters living mostly in big cities, but it can have a deadly effect on the left, which traditionally depends on the votes of the underprivileged and the marginalized. This demographic doesn’t usually frequent Warsaw’s coffee shops but the local churches in Poland’s more conservative and traditional regions, and these are the people that the left needs to mobilize and bring into its constituency if it is to win. But the Polish left often finds itself in a quandary when attempting to court the votes of a Catholic majority that is also low-income, small-town, middle-aged, often socially conservative, and who feel unrepresented in the political system, while insisting that the rights of minorities (refugees, LGBTQ persons, the precariat) should be central to a left agenda.
But the ideas of unity and equality—other than within the church or a union, of which the former became stronger, while the latter grew weaker—were undermined by the state as early as the 1970s. As sociologist Maciej Gdula observes, the middle class (and its politics) didn’t emerge after 1989 and the establishment of the free-market system. It was the first partial pro-market reforms of the early 1970s that created the socialist-entrepreneur. Wage inequalities rose, and the skill of an engineer or a mining technician’s income placed him way above the average blue-collar worker, clerk, or teacher. Underpaid jobs were given mostly to women, while personal advancement was mostly available to men. The television and press of the time, including the most prominent weekly aimed at intellectuals and professionals, Politics (Polityka), promoted private initiative and inventiveness, and encouraged people to act creatively and in their own interest. This was a formative process that first shaped only a fraction of Polish society, but it soon produced a new elite, a class more accustomed to the realities of the market and less keen to commit to either conservative or collective causes. Pro-market economic reforms helped create a class that wasn’t necessarily instrumental to the right’s triumph later on, but they didn’t do much to stop it either.
To summarize these developments from a historical perspective: it’s not only the composition of the electorate or the state of the economy that influences which political parties capture and stay in power. There is a constant struggle to eliminate political rivals not simply in elections, but to do so by exploiting the limitations of the political system itself, a system that became closed and undemocratic in the post-communist years. The genuine left can perhaps never triumph without democratizing the system first. But it’s also important to note how the conditions inherited by future generations of activists, politicians, and civil society will determine what is and isn’t politically possible.
Poland, after the collapse of communism, was a country with a small elite of intellectuals and leaders, a large group of former party establishment figures from the 1970s and ’80s, and masses of undereducated workers whose only asset was their unity under the previously state-run economy. Moreover, Polish society was largely conservative and unequal in almost every aspect including gender relations. The majority of the population were not considered meaningful political actors, except when they rejected party politics altogether, such as during the Solidarity-led revolution in the early 1980s. After 1989, Poland was heavily indebted and reliant on the IMF and the World Bank, and this, combined with existing market reforms, was conducive not to a social-democratic consensus, but to a highly elitist, conservative system with enormous potential for populists to exploit. The left could certainly have avoided many mistakes, but it couldn’t change the fundamental nature of a political system that purposefully excludes the general public from decision-making. “Either we go right or we go nowhere” was the Faustian bargain presented to Polish society. And because there were was no other alternative, Polish voters ended up supporting demagogues.
Poland, twenty-five years after its first free elections ended the country’s one-party rule, did not have to take this path. But it is hardly surprising that it did. For reasons both symbolic and historic, the democratic left never had the upper hand after 1989. While it perhaps could have created space for another progressive alternative, or transform itself into a more appealing and long-standing alternative to the dominant forces of the right, the 1980s and early ’90s, when the left was at its weakest, was not the easiest time to do so. Undoubtedly, this affected the chances of progressives in Poland, too. “Black-swan” events of later years, like the plane crash in Smolensk, Russia killing PiS President Lech Kaczyński and creating a myth of martyrdom that fuelled the revival of conservative and isolationist politics, only sped up the avalanche.
The present Syrian refugee crisis and the accompanying wave of xenophobia as well as the delegitimization of traditional parties in Europe is hurting not only the social-democratic parties, but liberals, centrists, and Christian democrats. But there still are avenues for progressive politics, and Poland, despite its right-ward turn, is a telling example. The slogan of PiS that won them the elections was simple: a change for the better. Men and women, old and young, urban and rural, all voted for change, not necessarily for nationalism, xenophobia, racism, or isolationism. They simply wanted to move away from the status quo as far as possible, and PiS presented itself as the only viable alternative. If anyone else had responded to the fear, anger, resentment and insecurity of the Polish electorate, they’d have voted otherwise. It’s not the left alone that lost the elections, it was politics-as-usual that was defeated. But if change is what people voted for, conservatism can only offer a temporary answer. Is Poland’s recent choice that surprising then? On the contrary, it was the most rational one. The real surprises for Poland’s future are still to come.
Jakub Dymek is an editor and journalist at the left Polish publication, Krytyka Polityczna.