Poland: Eurosceptics take over

Posted on 04. November 2015

by Hanna Pienczykowska

hanna-pienczykowskaThe national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party’s victory in the recent Polish parliamentary elections was no surprise, and came in spite of the Christian Democrat Civic Platform (PO) government’s implementation of the EU financial programmes; continuous economic growth during its eight years in power; and successfully cultivating an image of Poland as an important partner in Central Europe. Moreover, just before the elections, the unemployment rate became a one-digit number. Despite these successes, Polish voters got angry with Civic Platform, especially when they raised the retirement age up to 67 for both men and women, then tried to close down the mines, which are not very profitable but employ many people and have a strong trade union representation. Polish voters also grew tired of personal scandals involving some ministers and top politicians of the Civic Platform and Polish People’s Party. They were furthermore confused by contradicting messages on the new refugee quotas coming from Brussels. Although accepted by the Polish government, the public’s concerns about the refugee crisis were echoed not only by nationals holding Celtic crosses at anti-refugee manifestations, but also by Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the Law and Justice party, saying that refugees can “bring parasites to Europe”. Polish voters wanted a change.

Why did PiS win?

The Law and Justice party promised that change and won the parliamentary majority. First, they said they would re-install the previous retirement scheme, with women retiring at the age of 60 and men at 65. They also promised 500 zloty a month for every child after the first born, free medicines for seniors, lower taxes for individuals and small enterprises, and bigger taxes for big corporations and banks. The authors of these measures have calculated that only additional child benefits would cost over 21 billion zloty a year – but they have not yet disclosed how they will find that money – and economists predict that big corporations will just shift the increased tax burden to the customers. Moreover, the party always underlines that Poland cannot agree to every measure that is imposed by the EU and tends to be xenophobic and revisionist, both on the international arena and back home. But why did 37,6 % of voters chose to believe these populist claims?

As professor Bielik-Ronson said on Tomasz Lis na Żywoa popular TV programme on Monday, Polish voters do not let their vote depend on the economic programme of a particular party. She says that PiS owes its victory to its language of “pride and dignity”. That is also the reason why Kukiz ’15, a party lead by a rock singer whose main argument is that they have to topple the corrupt system, entered the Parliament.

Although many of PiS’ promises are just too expensive to implement, the party has won 235 out of the 460 seats in the parliament. This gives the party a mandate to create a single-party government. The last time this happened was in 1989. Because the Law and Justice party doesn’t need a coalition partner to form a government, it also doesn’t need to make any compromises. The party itself is under the control of one man: Jarosław Kaczyński. Although he’s not going to be the new Prime Minister, it’s him, and not the future PM, Beata Szydło, who looks at me from the covers of all opinion-making weeklies in the news shops.

Why did PO loose?

Civic Platform, which obtained 24% of the vote, will have 138 MPs. But the unpopular reforms of the past two years – raising the retirement age and attempting to close down some coal mines – may not be the main reason why PO lost so much power: paradoxically, it’s the European success of Donald Tusk, former Prime Minister and PO leader, that is to blame: Tusk used to block or relegate strong rivals in the party, but when he became President of the European Council, the Civic Platform was left without a strong leader. Ewa Kopacz, who succeeded Tusk as Prime Minister, was seen as an appointed substitute not only by the public opinion, but first and foremost by other members of her own party, who got disengaged from the campaign – and with Kopacz alone fighting for the reelection, it was impossible for the party to stay in power.

Moreover, Polish voters had the impression that the ruling party benefitted too much from its position. On the one hand, VAT was raised, while on the other Ewa Kopacz appeared in public wearing Michael Kors sneakers worth 600 zloty, one third of the minimum salary in Poland. For some voters there was an obvious link between those. Then the Minister of Foreign Affairs was recorded saying that the Polish-American alliance is basically worth nothing. In the 2015 presidential campaign, PO just assumed that Bronisław Komorowski, the country’s President from 2010 to 2015, would be re-elected with no effort. Then voters got disengaged from PO during the parliamentary election campaign, as much as the Civic Platform itself was disengaged during the presidential campaign. The party made plenty of mistakes, which created the impression that PO was more interested in the positions they held and were paid for than in being reliable representatives of their people.

Why is there no left party?

The biggest surprise of the elections was the result of the two leftist parties: the United Left (composed of Twój Ruch and the Democratic Left Alliance – 15% of seats in the previous parliament – and the Greens) and grass-root socialist party Partia Razem. Neither made it passed the election threshold, but what is interesting is that a lot of people with leftist outlooks say that it’s better that way: United Left was full of old, even Communist-era politicians who were blocking the generation change.

Not so with the second party, Partia Razem, which epitomises the generation change on the left , but appeared only several months ago, without a charismatic leader, state subsidies, or exposure via prime time television, making it difficult to confirm their reliability and reach the broader public. Although they didn’t manage to reach the 5% election threshold, with a result of 3,6% they are entitled to subsidies from the public budget and can be better prepared for the next elections. On the other hand, it means that the Polish parliament will consist of centre-right, right-wing and far-right parties, like Kukiz ’15 (9% of the votes in the elections), set up by a rock singer whose main goal – which earned him a lot of votes – is to topple the system.

I had a look at the MPs from this anti-establishment movement, including Rafał Winnicki, the leader of the National Movement and infamous nationalists’ marches on 11 November, and Adam Andruszkiewicz, the leader of the All-Polish Youth, which has organised several anti-migrant marches where the members of the organisation were praising the idea of “great Poland”; with such strong personalities on the right, the argument that the failure of the leftist parties will trigger reforms and result in a renewal of the Left in general in Poland seems to be somewhat weak. The question if there is somebody in the new Sejm able to outweigh the right-wing nationalist discourse is quite painful to answer.

Who votes for the right-wing parties?

While I’m writing this piece, Michał Bilewicz, a Polish researcher working on the prejudices of Polish citizens, is speaking on the radio. He says that there is a certain group of young people who believe in conspiracy theories and vote for anti-establishment parties. This trend has been visible for a couple of years, e.g. at the manifestations on Independence Day, attended not only by young activists of the National Radical Camp and All-Polish Youth, but also by my fellow students from the university. But I have never thought they were the majority. And I never would have expected that 63 % of voters aged 18-29 would chose a right-wing, Eurosceptic party (Law and Justice, KORWIN, Kukiz ’15).

There is also a certain change in the structure of the Law and Justice’s electorate. The party used to find most of its supporters among the victims of the liberal transition to the market economy, people who had no high education, and Catholics. But in these elections, PiS won in every age group and among people with a broad educational background. The only groups defined by Ipsos (an international market research company) in which Civic Platform won, were directors/managers and entrepreneurs and even here the differences were tiny. Furthermore, .Nowoczesna, a new neoliberal party representing entrepreneurs, which got 7,6% of votes and 28 seats in the Sejm, is expected to slowly but surely take over this electorate.

Analyses of any age or social group show the same thing: Polish voters turned right.

Why should we worry?

The outcome is worrying because without a leftist party in parliament, some segments of society will not be represented. The issues of gender equality, female leadership and generation change were addressed in this campaign, but the results were deceitful: even if female leaders Szydło (PiS) and Kopacz (PO) were leading their parties’ campaigns, were they really making the decisions? And what kind of generation change and youth empowerment is this, if someone like Adam Andruszkiewicz (25 yo, Kukiz ‘15), who calls refugees “islamic terrorists” in public speeches and sends letters of support to Viktor Orban, becomes an MP, and Adam Kądziela (22 yo, .Nowoczesna), who has been working on the implementation of the Youth Guarantee in Poland and has lobbied for better chances for young people on the labour market, loses by a whisker?

I thought I lived in a bubble of well-educated young people, living in big cities, and having the opportunity to travel. But when 63% of young people vote for a Eurosceptic party, maybe the bubble I live in is a completely different – and small – one. Having a lot of euro-enthusiastic friends like Futurelabbers or the people in the Model European Union community, I had the impression that people of my social and educational profile appreciated the idea of Europe, the importance of cooperation and the need to work on the flaws of the EU. In my view, it’s a civic education issue; let it be at school, in non-formal education or in private conversations. Now we are going to have Eurosceptics forming a majority government and promoting nationalism in the parliament with no leftist party to counter their discourse. I’m not afraid that democracy in Poland will collapse immediately, as some pro-Civic Platform media suggest, but the Hungarian scenario is slowly emerging on the horizon. Moreover, I have major doubts about whether objective school-based civic education, raising open-minded, critically thinking citizens, is possible in this political setting. It is something I blame the Civic Platform for; during the eight years they were ruling over my country they did not find it useful to introduce more intercultural teaching, European education and critical thinking in schools.

Now we have to deal with the consequences.