There’s life yet in the Polish populists
A carnival in Germany, featuring Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Poland's PiS and Hungary's Viktor Orbán. Credit: Lukas Schulze / Getty   

A year of elections beckons for Poland, the poster boy of the authoritarian Right. Will its populist trend continue, increasing and ensnaring yet more democratic institutions in its wake, or is the moment beginning to pass?

The country that produced Lech Walesa, the most charismatic figure of anti-Communist resistance in the 1980s, now has one of the most viscerally nationalist and xenophobic governments anywhere in the world. That is quite a statement: the competition for that mantle (think Trump; think Bolsonaro in Brazil; think Orban in Hungary or Italy’s Salvini) is intense.

In one crucial way, Poland stands apart from these others. The popularity of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has dominated politics since its landslide election win of 2015, has arisen in a place where the economy, on the face of it, is a soaring success. Poland has been one of the best performing countries anywhere in Europe for the past 30 years. GDP per capita growth has been the best of all the post-Soviet states.

Since accession to the EU in 2004, average yearly earnings have doubled between 2004 and 2016 (adjusted slightly down for inflation). The minimum wage has more than doubled. Unemployment has decreased by over 12 percentage points. Indices on absolute and relative poverty have also improved. In 2017 Poland had the highest economic growth in the EU. There has not been a single year of economic contraction, not even during the 2008 crisis that followed.

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Yet, in 2015, the moderate Civic Platform lost power, the PiS winning both parliamentary and presidential elections, seizing an absolute majority in the lower house, giving it the authority to challenge constitutional norms.

It seems to run counter to received wisdom, that the populists should take root when the economy is doing so well. But perhaps the glowing economic story is not all that it chieems. After all, GDP figures don’t count for much if you’re not earning much to begin with. When George Osborne used to talk about sharing the proceeds of growth, many from those Brexit-voting towns that had fallen by the wayside wondered “what growth?”.

In fact, much of the economic upturn in Poland has been uneven. Working hours are the longest in the EU and while notional employment is up, much of that comes through the gig economy. A quarter of the workforce is on temporary contracts.

The core vote for PiS can be found in predictable places – with the older generations in rural and small towns, among people with lower education levels, and staunch Catholics with conservative moral views. Geographically it is strongest in the east and in coal mining communities, where the industry has declined by two thirds since the end of Communism. Intriguingly the party has also gained support among a small but not insignificant band of so-called “hipster Right”.

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A generation of EU membership, and free movement, has given Poles a taste of wealthier countries (remember the supposed one million “Polish plumbers in the UK”?). Average wages in Poland are still three times lower than the EU average. Graduates collided with reality when entering the labour market. And the emerging middle class convinced themselves they were Europe’s lackeys.

The PiS has been artful in capitalising on the discrepancy. It has built a narrative of “Poland in ruins”, focusing on negative perceptions of public life and unfulfilled expectations, and omitting inconvenient facts about a higher standard of living and the well-over £120 billion Poland has received from EU funds. Andrzej Duda, the PiS-backed President, recently called the EU “an imaginary community” that brings no benefits.

Duda has been head of state since 2015, initially with the ultra-conservative Beata Szydlo as his prime minister. But she was replaced in 2017 with Mateusz Morawiecki, reportedly at the request of the man behind Duda’s throne, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. As party leader, but with no formal role in government, Kaczynski pulls all the strings, demanding loyalty and rarely giving it back.

As with Trump, as with Bolsonaro, it is the culture war that resonates, and history has left a deep suspicion of both Russia and Germany. Relations with Russia are complicated. Unlike other far-Right, nationalist movements, there is little evidence that the Kremlin is operating behind the scenes – notwithstanding suggestions that Russia might have been involved in the 2010 plane crash that killed Jaroswlaw’s twin brother, Lech Kaczynski. The historic enmity is too strong, and public opinion wouldn’t wear it. Now there are even signs that the official media are warming to Moscow.

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The asylum crisis provided PiS with the perfect opportunity to revive its fortunes ahead of the 2015 elections. Mixing xenophobia with the rhetoric of martyrdom, Kaczynski described refugees as carriers of cholera, dysentery and “other, even more severe diseases”, which is where Germany comes in.

There is something about Angela Merkel that sets off Polish nationalists. She stands accused variously of supporting illegal migration, tolerating Nazis and introducing permissive social reforms (how those might be reconciled is anyone’s guess).

Merkel’s calmness under fire only exacerbates a sense of resentment and envy, towards Germany, and increasingly towards all things Brussels (which is seen as an offshoot). Each time the European institutions warn Poland that its government is defying its rules, it provides the populists with ammunition.

At the heart of the battle is the PiS’s assault on a free media and judiciary. National television is now a Soviet-era propaganda tool. Dozens of journalists have been fired, in several cases because they refused to broadcast fake news stories about the opposition. State TV dropped its annual coverage of the country’s biggest charity event, which raises millions each year for sick children, because its organiser also campaigns for sexual minorities. Senior figures in public radio and television will be appointed, or dismissed, by the treasury minister rather than the national broadcasting council.

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In October 2018, the European Court of Justice demanded that Poland stop a policy that was forcing dozens of supreme court justices to take early retirement, allowing the government to pack legal benches with loyal supporters.

This announcement followed an unprecedented move in December 2017 to trigger a so-called Article 7 procedure aimed at blocking its efforts to limit judicial independence. If fully implemented, it would deprive Poland of voting rights. More punishment, more victimhood. But it’s hard to see what else the EU can do, short of kicking Poland out, which given the state of Brexit could lead to other populist regimes in Central Europe, such as Hungary, choosing to go.

The Hungarian model of self-proclaimed “illiberal democracy” is rarely far from mind when considering Poland. As with Viktor Orban’s regime in Budapest, the Polish government has initiated a series of populist (and popular) economic reforms, including reversing an increase in the pension age, increasing the minimum wage and introducing a programme for house building. It is quite prepared to break the EU’s borrowing rules, revelling in the prospect of another battle. Poland gladly takes billions of euros from the EU, whose cultural values its government holds in contempt.

But the schism in Polish society is more pronounced than ever. Last month, the Left-leaning mayor in the northern port city of Gdansk, Pawel Adamowicz, was murdered while addressing a charity auction on stage.

The town was the birthplace of Solidarity and has long been a bastion of liberal opposition. Adamowicz, who was first elected mayor in 1998, turned the city into a haven of liberal democracy and tolerance, where immigrants were welcomed, and gays and lesbians did not need to feel threatened. He was denounced for being a criminal who would let terrorists into Poland.

The 27-year-old assailant had a history of mental illness and violence but no clear political motive.  True to form, state media showed little remorse or sympathy for Adamowicz. Initially they blamed the opposition for stoking tensions – although such was the backlash that even they were eventually compelled to tone down their line.

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So against this backdrop, what hope does the PiS have in this key election year? Will it consolidate its power over the various votes (European ones in May, followed by parliamentary elections in the autumn)? Or will its power surge falter? There were tentative signs last October, in regional elections, that not everything was going its way: it failed to take control of a number of areas it had targeted, particularly in Warsaw and other big cities.

Civic Platform, on the other hand, fared moderately well, tapping into middle-class fears regarding the PiS’s direction. But the centre in Poland is suffering from the same problem as it is elsewhere in Europe. In country after country social democracy and Christian democracy have been associated with tired ‘elites’, turning off voters. In Poland, though, it appears there is room for disruption, and an interloper is gaining momentum. This week, Robert Biedron who is Left-wing and gay, launched a new party: Wiosna (which means Spring).

In a country where the Catholic Church holds sway, you might think that a party targeted at progressive Poles, with liberal policies regarding abortion and homosexuality, would be a non-starter. But Biedron is garnering support by being unashamedly different, and appealing to those appalled by the Right and ignored by the liberals. Could he become the next Macron, as he seeks to be? Or will he split the anti-nationalist vote in the forthcoming elections? That remains to be seen.

For now, the trajectory is still in the direction of the PiS, particularly as the state media and the judiciary can now be relied upon to do its bidding. There is, it seems, more life in the Polish populists yet.