In July, Andrzej Duda of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) was elected to serve a second presidential term in Poland, in a narrow victory over Rafał Trzaskowski of the right-liberal Civic Platform (PO). PiS and its satellite parties in the “United Right” coalition will not be blocked by an adversarial head of state. The high turnout, at 68 percent, gives the right-nationalist party an even greater mandate.
The election split Poland almost down the middle: 51 percent for the incumbent president, 49 percent for Trzaskowski. The divide has been explained in both the Western and Polish media by a familiar trope. On the one side there are the tolerant, cosmopolitan liberals; on the other the conservative, plebian populists. While this formula does illustrate certain dimensions of the split, it overemphasizes the differences between the parties.
Today’s political divide between PO and PiS can be traced to the electoral collapse of the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). In 2005, having eroded their base of support through social spending cuts and corruption scandals, SLD’s electoral share in the Sejm (parliament) dropped by 30 percent. The two right-wing parties, PO and PiS, scooped up the lost votes, marking the beginning of the political duopoly in Poland that persists to this day.
At that time the two parties were considered relatively similar. They were both successors to the post-Solidarity right of the 1990s and were socially conservative, against abortion and gay marriage. Following the election, however, coalition talks between PO and PiS broke down, and an intense rivalry began. For fifteen years, they wrestled over power, with PO presenting itself as the party that would bring Poland closer to Europe and PiS promising that it would eradicate the “post-communist condition” that it blamed for a moral deficit in Polish politics.
In 2015 Duda was elected president and PiS swept parliament. The party formed a coalition government with other right-wing parties, which was led by Beata Szydło as prime minister and Jarosław Kaczyński as chairman of the governing party. The PiS government pursued a series of reforms, called the “Good Change,” including a significant expansion of social transfers and limitations on the autonomy of the judiciary. After two years, Szydło was replaced as prime minister by former banker Mateusz Morawiecki, in an attempt to improve the party’s image with the West. The “Good Change” paid its dividends. Poland has enjoyed strong growth since 2015 driven by household consumption. In 2019 PiS held its majority in the Sejm.
Despite PiS’s recent successes, this year’s presidential contest wasn’t a cinch for the governing party. In an effort to turn out its base, it decided to fight the presidential election as a culture war, presenting itself as the defender of Polish values. Duda ramped up the anti-LGBT rhetoric, characterizing “LGBT ideology” as a form of “neo-bolshevism” whose goal was to indoctrinate Polish children. This comparison had already become a staple of the Church hierarchy, when a year ago the archbishop of Krakow compared the “rainbow plague” of LGBT people to the “red plague” of communism. PiS made full use of its control of public television. The station’s signature evening news program ran stories suggesting that Trzaskowski’s victory would be a victory for Germans, a favorite target, and sent anti-Semitic dog whistles, alleging that 200 billion złoty set aside for “Polish families” would be used to appease property claims by “Jewish organizations.”
While the negative characteristics of the governing camp have been widely reported in the Western press, we hear less about the sins and failings of the opposition. PO’s primary weakness is its lack of a clear political identity. It is against PiS, but it is difficult to say what it is for. Even among hardline PO voters, one hears few positive statements about the party or its program. In pro-PO circles there is a culture of condescension toward the poorer part of PiS’s electorate, reminiscent of Reaganite discourse about “welfare queens”: PiS voters are supposedly bums who have babies to collect benefits, which they spend on vodka and vacations to the Baltic coast. Among the pro-PO middle class, there are some who have an inability to differentiate, as the great writer of the Polish left Stefan Żeromski once did, between snobbery and progress.
To Trzaskowski’s credit, his campaign avoided this kind of condescension. The candidate even wrote an open letter to PiS supporters saying he would be a president of reconciliation. He promised to keep PiS’s popular social programs. These appeals were in part based on a hope that Trzaskowski could capture the votes of some PiS supporters, especially the village youth, which is less culturally conservative but benefits from the party’s social spending. This tactic failed because, despite recent efforts, PO is still associated with a rise in the retirement age and attempts to reduce worker protections when the party was last in power.
Polish society is polarized. For the duration of the presidential campaign, which lacked the presence of a strong left or even a center-left, the two right-wing parties tussled over the basic legitimacy of power relations. Duda’s victory has been characterized as another example of the triumph of the populist right over the liberal center, and a rejection of neoliberalism. But such an explanation flattens the reality. Beyond international trends, it is important to consider this result in the context of Poland’s post-1989 transformation. Looking at how this history shaped PiS’s politics in unique and contradictory ways allows us to understand the party’s particular appeal—and its weaknesses.
The networks of political and economic power that exist behind the scenes in all countries are harder to conceal in a place like Poland, which has been “building capitalism” for thirty years. Several major business scandals involving public officials of the SLD, PO, and PiS have exploded in the past two decades. Poland’s capitalist transition may not have produced a Russian style–oligarchy, but political competition is intimately intertwined with the spoils of capitalist development.
One example that illustrates these dynamics is the re-privatization of housing stock expropriated after the Second World War, a policy that to this day returns property to its pre-communist owners. Re-privatization is easily abused because of a longstanding lack of legislation on the issue, which allows legal interpretation by the judiciary to act in its place. When re-privatization ends in tenant evictions or the restriction of public property previously accessible to all, judges are viewed as being in cahoots with con men. This phenomenon makes it easier to understand the popularity of PiS’s judicial reforms, which to outsiders look like a clear attempt to take over the courts and rig the system. The reforms speak to the feeling of many Poles that the court system favors the rich and tramples over the poor. In a particularly egregious case, a businessman successfully sued Warsaw’s government for millions in lost rental income for a building he swindled out of an elderly person for small change.
PiS is vocally anti-communist. But its relationship to the communist era is more complicated than its rhetoric would suggest. As the opposition loves to point out, many members of the party’s in-crowd were once members of the Polish United Workers Party (PZPR), the communist party that governed the country for over four decades. For example, Stanisław Piotrowicz, who had been a prosecutor during martial law in the early 1980s, was recently appointed to the Constitutional Tribunal. Unlike the vulgar anti-communism of the 1990s, which blamed unemployment on “red capitalists” and argued that all Poland needed was one great purge, PiS’s critique is not directed at nefarious ex-communist personnel. Instead PiS rails against what happened after 1989. According to the party, the privatization process following the transition was distorted by secret service involvement, corruption, or just plain criminal activity. According to Jarosław Kaczynski, what occurred was not marketization but “Latinization,” which turned Poland into a Latin American oligarchy. Only PiS, he claims, can bring about justice in economic relations, an argument that appeals to a large cross-section of society repulsed by the dirty dealings of the political and business elite, including former SLD voters.
Despite the centrality of anti-corruption to PiS’s program, it is quite a different party today than the Center Agreement (PC), the party Kaczyński and his brother Lech founded in 1990 to offer a clean break with the Polish People’s Republic (PRL). At the center of PC’s program was a “new state” whose elite would not be morally compromised by shabby deals and secret service connections. (This did not stop the Kaczyński brothers from establishing their own business network in the early days of Polish capitalism. As Jarosław Kaczyński himself admitted, “if we had taken a purely moral stance, we would have nothing.”)
One important way the party has changed is in its relationship to the Catholic Church. In the early 2000s, the Kaczyński brothers decided to reach out to the clerical-nationalist milieu for political support. Even though they had always valued good relations with the Church hierarchy, this was surprising at the time. The Kaczyńskis were, and Jarosław Kaczyński still is (Lech died in the Smolensk plane disaster of 2010 while serving as president), devoted to Marshal Piłsudski, the father of Polish independence in 1918. A Polish form of Bonapartism, Piłsudskism is militaristic with a strong cult of action and heroic sacrifice. It traditionally valued loyalty to the state over ethnic communalism, however, and had a conciliatory attitude to Poland’s national and religious minorities.
In the mid-2000s the Kaczyńskis won the support of Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, a powerful priest who runs a business empire centered around the media outlets Radio Maryja and TV Trwam. Rydzyk had previously been instrumental in uniting various nationalist and ultra-Catholic groupuscules into the League of Polish Families (LPR). He delivered to PiS traditionalist Catholic believers, who would go on to become the party’s most loyal electorate.
While clerical nationalism was seamlessly integrated with the anti-corruption mission of the Center Agreement, the presence of an extremist wing has given the organizational dynamics of the party a fractious character. In the 2005–2007 government PiS formed with the LPR and the agrarian protest party Self-Defense, this group was given near free reign. Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro oversaw an aggressive anti-corruption and anti-communist campaign. He organized televised arrests, which in many cases had no basis in evidence. Although not among the LPR defectors, he was one of Radio Maryja’s favorites.
Ziobro’s investigations pushed former SLD minister Barbara Blida to commit suicide rather than face a humiliating televised arrest. The case against her, it turned out, was bogus. Ziobro and Prime Minister Kaczyński were seen as going too far. After an attempt to build an anti-corruption case against Andrzej Lepper, the demagogic leader of Self-Defense, backfired, both Self-Defense and LPR left the coalition, triggering early elections in 2007 where PO was the victor.
After an internal conflict, Ziobro formed Solidarity Poland, which he positioned as a more hardline PiS. While this party is part of the “United Right” coalition, Kaczyński has learned his lesson and keeps the pugnacious Ziobroists at a distance. They are still, however, an influential group in the governing coalition. Ziobro is once again minister of justice, a position that commands vast resources. Solidarity Poland possesses some of the youngest, more dynamic, and most extreme cadre on the Polish right, including the Euro-parliamentarian Patryk Jaki. They have the backing of Radio Maryja and the sympathy of PiS members who believe the government is too cautious.
The civilizational warriors have a bête noire in the form of Prime Minister Morawiecki, who considers the clerical-nationalist wing a liability. Since Duda’s election, the Ziobroists have been on the offensive against Morawiecki, hoping that Ziobro or someone closer to them would replace him. A public television program accused the prime minister of undermining the Duda campaign by funding oppositional media, in the form of COVID-19 informational advertisements in newspapers whose editorial line is critical of PiS.
Morawiecki is a bit of a fish out of water in PiS. Previously, he worked as a banker and as an economic adviser under Donald Tusk, the PO’s prime minister from 2007 to 2014. He only joined PiS in March 2016, then served as deputy prime minister and minister of development and finance in the government of Beata Szydło, who he replaced as prime minister in December 2017. Morawiecki, however, has deep roots in the Polish anti-communist movement. His father, Kornel Morawiecki, was the leader of the martial law–era militant underground organization Fighting Solidarity, in which Mateusz was an active participant. Despite his short time in PiS, Morawiecki is the architect of the fiscal policy that paid for PiS’s social transfers. His successful management of the COVID-19 crisis, which minimized the economic damage of the pandemic, puts him in a powerful position. With his performance at the EU bailout negotiations in July considered a success by the party, for now he is secure in his post.
Morawiecki is the developmentalist face of the PiS government. He has a good image in the West. He likes to cite Thomas Piketty and Mariana Mazzucato, even writing the preface to the Polish edition of the latter’s The Entrepreneurial State. Morawiecki has articulated a grand vision of re-industrialization and modernization. The “Morawiecki Plan” aims to uplift the poorer, eastern “Poland B” through economic development. Morawiecki and his team consciously harken back to Poland’s patriotic developmentalist tradition, especially to the figure of Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski, the interwar technocrat who undertook the construction of the port of Gdynia and the industrialization of central Poland. This vision is backed by Kaczyński, who is enamored with its patriotic pastiche.
Much of Morawiecki’s plan, however, remains on paper, and some speculate that many of its projects amount to little more than PR stunts. Initiatives Morawiecki has celebrated, like the Solidarity Transport Hub, are the culmination of a decade of infrastructure investment, financed in large part with EU funds. The center-left SLD stabbed itself in the foot with its single-minded focus on EU accession, keeping expenditures at a minimum so as to meet European deficit limits, while the beneficiaries of that accession have been the two right-wing parties that have been showered with money from Brussels.
Besides infrastructure, PiS’s economic policy has been oriented toward geopolitical ends. PiS wants Poland to be a regional power, no longer dependent on German investment or Russian oil. The party is working to establish Poland as a new financial center in Eastern Europe. Following Brexit, Morawiecki is wooing banks downsizing their London operations with a cheaper salariat. J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Credit Suisse have all opened offices in the Wola district of Warsaw. PiS also wants Poland to become a gas hub for the region. Świnoujście on the western edge of Poland’s Baltic coast is now the site of the massive Lech Kaczyński gas terminal, whose construction began under the previous government and is now being expanded. In addition, a pipeline is under construction to increase the supply of Norwegian gas.
PiS’s crusade to build a “new state” is often seen as part of a global shift by the worldwide right from “neoliberalism” to “populism.” In fact, because of PiS’s social programs, it is upheld as the ur-example of such a process. Yet PiS is in many ways an outlier. The economic programs of Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini, and Viktor Orbán have tended to follow the traditional right. Trumponomics is all about tax cuts. Salvini’s signature economic issue is a flat tax. Orbán implemented the lowest corporate tax rate in the EU and ruthlessly cut welfare spending.
In contrast, PiS’s welfare programs cannot be dismissed as trivial or symbolic. While the tendency of the liberal opposition to call PiS “socialist” sometimes outdoes the Tea Party’s abuse of that word, it cannot be denied that 500 złoty per month for each child has really helped the Polish poor. PO has learned the hard way that to stay relevant in Polish politics, one has to declare one’s commitment to this policy. The same goes for lowering the retirement age, which PO had increased when it was last in power.
Because of its instrumental character, PiS’s welfare state has weaknesses. Public services remain woefully underfunded. The medical and education sectors have seen strikes and protests in recent years due to the underpayment of staff. In the face of the declining quality of public services, those who can afford it increasingly turn to private schools and medicine. In this way, PiS’s policies are exacerbating inequalities. Instead of the universal services characteristic of Scandinavian social democracy, in Poland the wealthier spend their social transfers on private services, while the poor depend on a neglected public sector.
PiS wants the popularity that comes with providing a welfare state, but it wants it for cheap. This stinginess is on full display in the realm of housing policy, where PiS promised 100,000 new affordable housing units by the end of 2019 as part of its Housing Plus policy and instead delivered a total of 867. In the face of rising costs, it quietly abandoned its commitment to building public housing and instead offered land grants to private developers who would make 15 to 20 percent of new apartments affordable.
PiS has a fiscal conservative commitment to balanced budgets and a low tax burden. Poland’s taxation system is one of the least progressive in the EU, with only two tax brackets of 18 percent and 32 percent—a product of the last PiS government, which eliminated the highest bracket of 40 percent. Much of the funding for PiS’s social programs has come from closing consumption tax loopholes, not from income redistribution.
PiS wants to build a strong state steered by a national elite and to this end it puts Poland’s public assets at its disposal. The degeneration of public media is the most obvious example of the stakes here, but PiS’s takeover extends throughout Poland’s significant state-owned sector. In a mimicry of the very processes PiS criticized under previous governments, its appointees in various public enterprises rack up respectable salaries for shoddy work. At the Gryfia shipyard in Szczecin, the docks remain empty despite promises of revitalization, while the director has acquired three new cars for his personal use. PiS clearly prioritizes the creation of loyal managerial cadre over the health of enterprises on which workers and their communities depend.
Lack of effective policy for nationalized industry is nowhere more evident than in coal mining. When PiS came into power, it promised that coal would continue to be the basis for Polish energy for the next 200 years. The sector was consolidated into the Polish Mining Group, and large investments were made in the mines. Rising costs, the long-term economic unsustainability of coal, and cheap Russian imports have destroyed these plans. Now the PiS-appointed leadership of the mining sector is struggling to deal with a financial crisis. A plan to phase out coal mines with guarantees of good jobs for former miners is nowhere to be found. Instead the government has shown its contempt for the idea of a “just transition” during negotiations over the EU bailout, allowing for cuts in the fund allotted for this purpose that have deprived coal-mining regions of billions of euros.
PiS is careful to present its welfare policies as benefits granted directly from the government to the people, with little role for mediating representatives of working people. Trade unions are weak and divided, with Solidarity, which has the strongest support within the industrial working class, acting as little more than an organization for mobilizing PiS voters. The labor movement, however, has not remained quiet. A nationwide teachers’ strike last year brought the defects of PiS’s education policy to the fore. The danger that PiS’s authoritarianism poses for labor was evident in its so-called “anti-crisis shields” during the pandemic, where labor and social rights were temporarily suspended and the government gained the right to dismiss members of Polish tripartite corporatist structures, the Council for Social Dialogue (RDS), without the consent of their organization. Even though PiS made moves to treat unions more respectfully than previous PO governments by convening the RDS, it has now revealed its reluctance to treat unions as an equal partner.
While PiS’s cultural conservatism is sometimes viewed as an expression of the innate backwardness of its supporters, the complexity of the relationship between the Church and the Polish people is glossed over. The secularism of the PRL was deeper than the stereotype of the pious Polak-Katolik indicates. The religious faith of workers came less from doctrinal alignment than from the feeling that the Church offered a more humanistic, less authoritarian alternative to the ruling party. This was only possible because of the Church’s strict separation from public life, where, by and large, its strictures were ignored.
After 1989 the Church very quickly reasserted its role in all fields of life. It has been one of the largest beneficiaries of re-privatization, gaining more assets than it owned before the Second World War, largely at the expense of municipal governments. It forced through religious education in schools. Finally, it got its wish when abortion was restricted and then outright banned, except in special cases, in 1993.
This political activity and economic gain diminished the Church’s standing in Polish society. In surveys conducted among industrial workers in the early 1990s, 66 percent said the Church’s role should be curtailed, while only 6 percent said it should be expanded. The Church ranked second to last among trusted institutions, above the presidency but below the government. A group closely identified with the Church during the dramatic years of Solidarity was repulsed by its greed and power lust.
Backlash against PiS’s cultural policies is already emerging. Since PiS came to power, trust in the Church has fallen by 18.5 percent according to a poll commissioned by the newspaper Rzeczpospolita. Proposed legislation for a total ban on abortions was overwhelmingly opposed by the Polish population, leading to large women’s protests in the streets. The attempt being undertaken now to “re-polonize” Polish media, as well as the announcement that Poland will leave the Istanbul Convention on violence against women, may have the same effect.
The underlying unity of PiS’s economic, social, and cultural policies comes from a goal to cleanse Polish society of the legacies of the PRL. PiS’s project of building a new state supported by the Catholic Church is not based on populism, but on conservative moralism. While the rhetoric against “post-communist deals” is directed against businessmen and politicians, Kaczyński has stated that he regards the legacy of “post-communism” as a society-wide pathology. In an interview with journalist Teresa Torańska conducted in 1994, he spoke of a web of dependencies and privileges going down to the level of factory brigade. In this regard, Kaczyński’s views are not too distinct from the Polish neoliberals who viewed the common Pole as a hopeless “Homo Sovieticus,” completely dependent on the state—except that while neoliberals believed that this “condition” needed to be shattered through the shock of the market, Kaczyński believes it is the role of the state to take action to cleanse society, with private enterprise acting as a junior partner.
PiS offers Poles a moral pseudo-revolution that preserves the country’s post-1989 trajectory, in which the social question can only be understood in relationship to a communist past that needs to be thrown off. It does not represent a backlash to Polish transformation, but rather its final consolidation: the construction of a new anti-communist political superstructure. PiS’s narrative of a previously lawless privatization process and a restoration of justice serves the illusion of a state existing independently of society and social classes. The more PiS feels comfortable in its position of power, the more the illusion will wear.
Cyryl Ryzak is a researcher for the labor movement living in New York City