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Polish Liberals Embraced Austerity — and the Nationalist Right Is Benefiting

Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice Party is promising a “Polish version of the welfare state.” Liberals are promising more austerity. Guess who’s going to win today’s general election.

Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) Party, speaks at a PiS election rally on the last day of campaigning on October 11, 2019 in Chełm, Poland. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

This Sunday’s election promises a landslide for Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) Party, bolstered by four years of popular welfare measures and nationalist-conservative rhetoric. Polls indicate that the right-populist party will take between 40 and 45 percent of the vote — up from 37.5 percent in 2015.

Like in Hungary and Italy, Poland’s right-populists pose as an alternative to the neoliberal consensus, allying social measures with their own racist and homophobic ideas. While the center-right opposition serves up empty phrases about democracy and fiscal responsibility, after years of austerity the mass of Poles seems attracted by PiS’s talk of social redistribution.

Yet while the populist right is the likely big winner of the October 13 vote, the picture is not only a negative one. While PiS offers its vision of welfare only to some Poles, in its attempt to bolster Polish nationalism and so-called family values, the election also looks set to offer gains for left-wingers who challenge PiS’s chauvinist agenda.

“The Good Change”

After coming to power in 2015 under the banner of “the Good Change,” PiS has doubled down on its promises of social redistribution. Presenting his program at a packed stadium in Lublin in early September, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński announced the advent of the “Polish version of the welfare state.”

Greeted by LED screens heralding “A Good Time for Poland,” the stubby seventy-year-old told cheering, flag-waving crowds of PiS’s so-called hat trick — measures including an almost 100 percent rise in the minimum wage, increased retirement benefits, and Western-level subsidies for Poland’s farmers.

But there’s more to PiS’s message than just welfare. At the same rally, lifelong bachelor Kaczyński insisted on the centrality of the traditional family — conceived as the child-rearing union of man and woman — and warned that “each good Pole must know what the role of the [Catholic] Church is, [and] must know that without it, there is only nihilism.”

For the PiS leader, there is no real separation between church and nation; he called on the public to cherish Polishness because “the nation is the base for any human’s existence and action.” He continued this mix of nationalism and “family values” along the campaign trail, warning that the LGBT movement represents “a great socio-technical operation aiming at the destruction of society and Polishness.”

While the veteran politician is considered Poland’s real leader, he in fact pulls the strings in the shadows. Current premier Mateusz Morawiecki, a former banker, serves as PiS’s more acceptable public face.

Indeed, while at the Lublin rally Kaczyński addressed the party’s core supporters with his nationalist-conservative narrative, Morawiecki followed on stage in the role of the responsible economist. Promising a “new phase in the state’s overhaul,” he enumerated the billions that will be spent on hospitals, schools, train stations, and police.

Indeed, throughout the campaign, the pair have played “good cop, bad cop”: Kaczyński has warned of the evils the opposition would bring, while Morawiecki has used his credentials as an economist to lend credibility to the ruling party’s spending promises.

“The Best Government We Ever Had!”

PiS’s four years in power have been marked by controversial reforms — and protests — concerning issues such as the takeover of the public media, the undermining of the independence of the judiciary, and attempts to further restrict already very limited abortion rights.

Yet PiS has soared ahead in the polls — and in the streets, the government’s popularity can be felt. In the small Silesian mining town of Imielin, I met Sylwia, a middle-aged woman. She says she is apolitical, but she is also convinced that “This is the best government we ever had — they really care about Poles.”

For Elżbieta, a pensioner I met in the streets of Białystok, Eastern Poland, on a rainy Saturday: “I am satisfied . . . because there’s an increase in prosperity. You can see it, and it’s beautiful. We never had such a government.”

The secret of PiS’s success is its social programs, which have enabled it to win support beyond its hardcore nationalist-conservative base. After eight years of rule by the neoliberal center-right Civic Platform (PO), in the run-up to the 2015 contest PiS sensed that Poles were tired of being told they had to tighten their belts.

It offered them a greater share of growth, through an economic offer couched in “family values.” This was typified by its “500+” scheme, offering families 500 złoty (115 euros) per child, from the second child onward — as long as the (heterosexual) parents are married. Ahead of this year’s contest, PiS has extended this measure to the first child, vaunting itself as protector of “the Polish family.”

Before 2015, PiS had been part of a neoliberal consensus through which all parties from left to right had promised that the path to growth lay in weakening labor rights, cutting pension benefits, raising the retirement age to sixty-seven (from sixty for women and sixty-five for men), and rigorous budget discipline.

Professor Julian Auleytner, the rector of the Pedagogical University in Warsaw, is credited with inventing the 500+ measure for a smaller party in 2011. He told me that back then “everyone, including the PiS, said there was no money” for this policy.

But while he is critical of the program’s details, he notes that “the material situation of children has really improved. This is visible to the naked eye if you go to any school.” He also sees it as a political success: “For a great majority of families, this has been perceived as an economic progress offered by the PiS, in contrast to the liberals, who always warned about high social costs and the need to save money.”

Wojciech Płaziuk, mayor of a village next to Wrocław, says that he will be backing PiS not to serve his own farming interests, but out of concern for his fellow inhabitants. He emphasizes that “500+” as well as “300+” (a program offering 300 złoty [70 euros] per child at the start of the school year) are “very visible in the village — we can really see the impact for the poorest, who were excluded before. For example, some families can go on vacation for the first time ever.”

PiS has also introduced other social measures, like a minimum hourly wage, a rise in the monthly minimum wage, lowering the retirement age, increased retirement benefits, and free medication for the elderly.

The Clueless Right-Wing Opposition

Faced with PiS’s advance, the center-right PO has built a Civic Coalition (KO) with other parties, but it still bears the burden of its spell in power between 2007 and 2015, when it was hit hard by countless scandals.

In a bid to restore its image, in this year’s contest the KO is headed by the affable Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, who pledges “Collaboration instead of quarrels” and promises that “Tomorrow can be better.” Through such slogans, she has tried to distance herself from the sharp tone of Polish politics. Yet this has failed to stir enthusiasm.

Indeed, the KO has not found an answer to PiS’s popular social programs: while Kidawa-Błońska insists that her party “will not enter a race of promises with the PiS,” which “promises everything,” she has been unable to formulate a clear alternative.

Critical views about public spending have weak mass appeal, but do find some echo on the ground, especially among those who made it during the post-1989 transformation to neoliberal capitalism — the KO’s core vote.

The big farmers I interviewed in Lower Silesia were adamant that the government’s distributive policies were excessive. Jerzy Fink, a farmer of about fifty, warned that “they’re going to put us in the red with this free distribution”; Czesław Kaczmarek, a more elderly farmer, bluntly called it “political corruption.” For another farmer in the neighborhood, the programs should be linked to a duty to work, rather than just “handed out to everyone” at the expense of “hard workers.”

Polls predict the KO will score around 25 percent in Sunday’s vote. Not only unhappy about high public spending, these voters oppose what they see as the dismantling of democratic institutions and the weakening of Poland’s position in Europe.

Indeed, the biggest issue under PiS rule since 2015 has been reforms to the justice system, as the ruling party has moved to disarm the constitutional court, merge the positions of chief prosecutor and justice minister, introduce disciplinary measures for judges based on their decisions, and lower the compulsory retirement age of judges — a means to get rid of certain rather unyielding figures.

While PiS claims that all this was necessary in order to get rid of judges linked to the pre-1989 Communist regime, this looks more like a means of removing potential barriers to its control. This has triggered massive street demonstrations and led the European Commission to trigger — for the first time in its history — Article 7 of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty, designed to thwart any threat to the rule of law in an EU member state. Poland’s aggressive foreign policy has also alienated many of its European allies.

Political Cynicism

While the judicial reforms were seen by many citizens as an attack on the democratic system of checks and balances, sociologists Przemysław Sadura and Sławomir Sierakowski warn that voters in smaller towns and villages don’t really care.

Summarizing the results of eight hundred interviews conducted around the country, Sadura told the press the best way to characterize Polish voters is “cynical.” He explains that “Polish voters see well enough the shortcomings and pathological behavior of politicians, but they agree to it as long as the supported party satisfies their desires and interests.”

He explains PiS’s success by underlining that social programs have attracted about a fifth of potential voters, adding to its core base of around 35 percent. While this core vote is mixed in terms of its age, education, income, and geography — and is above all galvanized by PiS’s populist anti-elitism and national-conservative rhetoric — the typical “social voter” more often comes from villages and smaller towns and looks at the government’s nationalist, clerical propaganda with suspicion.

According to Sadura, “This voter says, ‘Well, as long as they realize those social programs that interest me, I’ll swallow that.’” Similarly, this cynicism means that PiS is almost “scandal-resistant” — as the sociologist remarks, “As long as they don’t get caught red-handed filling their pockets with public money, the voters will absolve them.”

In his view, the only thing that could topple PiS would be economic difficulties, stopping it from delivering on social redistribution programs.

TV Propaganda

Another key aspect of PiS’s ability to survive scandals is its total control over public media, which remains an important source of information. “If some scandal involving the government emerges, the public television’s news broadcast will report on it as little as possible and will turn attention to the opposition’s mistakes,” says Kalina Błażejowska, a journalist who has been closely reporting on this issue for the last four years. The journalist adds that PiS was quick to consolidate its power after its 2015 election victory, as it “conducted a purge in public media.”

“Experienced journalists suspected of sympathies for the opposition were massively laid off and good-for-nothings from obscure right-wing media were hired,” she says. “The content on public radio and TV changed instantly, with content embarrassing the government disappearing overnight.”

While there have been complaints that such one-sided reporting is contrary to Polish electoral law, the National Media Board is fully controlled by PiS supporters and unlikely to shift, Błażejowska explains.

Exploiting this control, PiS has also used public TV to mobilize its core vote through intensive anti-LGBT propaganda. Speaking to a crowd in Kalisz, Central Poland, Kaczyński spoke of an “attack on freedom” from the “transvestites marching on Polish streets, under strong police protection . . . demanding that our freedom be restricted, but that we don’t have the right to criticize them.”

Similar was the portrayal of recent “Equality Marches” demanding equal rights for LGBT people. While the demonstrations met with intense violence from homophobic crowds in both Białystok and Lublin, state media instead presented the “LGBT lobby” as the intolerant ones. As Błażejowska reports, in a report on the Paris Pride parade, state television even manipulated a sign reading “The Death Penalty is Homophobic” by translating it as “Death Penalty for Homophobia.”

On September 28, when a couple protesting against the Lublin “Equality March” was arrested with a homemade bomb, state television skated over this news; but on October 10, just ahead of the elections, it did broadcast a half-hour-long documentary on Poland’s LGBT movement, titled Invasion.

What About the Left?

Though the Left is moving in the shadows of the PiS-KO conflict, in the run-up to Sunday’s vote it has arguably had the best campaign of all Poland’s political groupings. Since the early 2000s, when a left-wing coalition implemented neoliberal reforms in preparations for Poland’s EU entry, the Left had been a zombie in the country’s political scene.

Indeed, in the 2015 contest, it failed miserably, divided as it was between a left-wing coalition spearheaded by the pre-1989 Communists (SLD) and a new left party called Razem (“Together”). Both fell short of the threshold to enter parliament.

This time around, the left-wing parties seem to have learned from the mistaken divisions of the past. They have built a coalition uniting not only SLD and Razem but also Wiosna (“Spring”), a new center-left party founded by Robert Biedroń, a very charismatic figure who is also Poland’s first openly gay parliamentarian. Simply called Lewica (the Left), these forces have attracted a young, urban, and female electorate and are polling at around 13 percent.

As well as competing with PiS on social measures — for example, advocating for an extension of child support to single parents (most often meaning women), the Left also recently marked itself out through its solidarity with striking teachers and vowed to tackle the crisis in public health care.

At the same time, it has also challenged PiS’s chauvinism, proving the most outspoken defender of LGBT rights and women’s reproductive rights. Some of its candidates were involved in the “Black Protest” mobilization of 2016 which forced the government to relinquish plans to further restrict abortion rights. Additionally, while most parties do not dare to challenge the powerful coal industry, Lewica has presented the most ambitious environmental program.

Motivation and Mobilization

The big question for election day is whether PiS can win an absolute majority of seats. Sure of victory, potential PiS voters may well stay home — as Sadura notes, this is especially likely of those who are attracted by its social programs but would not want it to have unchecked power.

According to a survey by the conservative daily Rzeczpospolita, while only 39 percent of PiS voters describe themselves as very motivated to vote and 25 percent are somewhat motivated, for KO voters these figures rise to 69 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Lewica voters are the most motivated of all (with 94 percent very motivated to vote and 6 percent somewhat so).

The biggest factor remains the uncertain results for two smaller forces — the peasant party PSL and the far-right Konfederacja, each hovering around the 5 percent threshold needed to enter parliament. If they fall short this would help PiS win a majority of seats, but if they do surpass 5 percent they could play a kingmaker role.

PiS’s hegemonic position clearly points to the failures of the liberal opposition and, indeed, the Left. By ignoring the basic social needs of large parts of the population, they have abandoned the field of redistributive policies to the national-conservative right.

Just like the Orbáns, Salvinis, and Trumps of this world, Kaczyński is thus liberated to present himself as a popular champion against local and international elites, even though the baubles he promises do not challenge the fundamentals of neoliberalism.

It is easy to understand the appeal of even these measures, which offer crucial help for many poorer families and elderly Poles. Yet PiS has no real interest in fixing broken public services or, indeed, tackling crucial problems like coal pollution and climate change. Instead, it prefers to buy support through cash handouts while keeping the public’s attention on scarecrows like the “LGBT lobby.”

Faced with PiS’s looming victory, the situation is not all bad: the Left is back in action, as a newly united force, and could in the future become a challenger to PiS on the key terrain of social protection. Yet with PiS still hegemonic, the Left is yet to galvanize the mass of Poles around a narrative as powerful as Kaczyński’s own national conservatism. That is the task that remains to be achieved, in this election as after.