When I arrived in Warsaw’s Castle Square there was a far-right rally going on. At least it looked that way. Polish flags with imperial emblems and placards with multiple exclamation marks poked out of the crowd of bald heads lined up like an egg box. As I watched they started rapping about Poland’s glorious history and the need to keep the country pure. Between them and the police, with their UMP assault rifles standing guard, it felt like a fractious time to be in Warsaw.
Populism is a new phenomenon in Poland, yet it has gained ground at an astonishing rate. In under a decade the Law and Justice party (PiS) has stormed politics on an anti-elite, anti-immigration platform. In 2015 they became the first party since the fall of communism to win a majority of parliamentary seats, suggesting an unusual ability to unite voters in a country historically plagued by division between countless interests. As Poles head to cast their votes again in 2019, how can PiS’s success be explained, and will they continue to dominate politics?
The Law and Justice Party has stormed politics on an anti-elite, anti-immigration platform
Poland is arguably the most scarred country in Europe. After 123 years of partition by Russia, Germany and Austria, Poland claimed independence after WW1, having lost 450,000 of its own. Only 20 years later the fledgling democracy was crushed when Hitler invaded, who later exterminated much of Poland’s Jewish and minority populations. Warsaw was levelled in the uprising of 1945 and after liberation from one regime came 40 years under another, this time communist. All of this left Poland with a remarkably homogeneous population (99% white, 95% catholic), a fiercely strong national identity and a desire for self-determination.
Poland is arguably the most scarred country in Europe.
The rapid economic rebirth the country experienced after the fall of communism left clearly defined winners and losers. The metropolitan middle-class benefited hugely from the liberalisation of the markets and new business, largely accelerated by the Civic Platform party’s neo-liberal pro-Europe agenda. Outside the cities, however, farmers, manual workers and old people who found adjustment from the communist era difficult or even impossible, were met with outdated equipment and little interest from the government. It is a story we have seen across the world; in Trump’s America, Brexit Britain and Bolsonaro’s Brazil, where those ‘left behind’ people who were not touched by the country’s economic success vote against the establishment to try and affect change. This divide cannot solely explain PiS’s success however; it must also be attributed to their flexible economic stance and socially conservative policies.
It is a story we have seen across the world: those ‘left behind’ by the country’s economic success vote against the establishment to try and affect change.
PiS have been careful not to fight elections on economic issues since they are pragmatic and adapt their policies as needed to cater to the people. They realised that what many voters wanted was a level of equality and the basic standard of living that they enjoyed under communism. As a result, they have implemented welfare policies, unemployment benefits and have supported free healthcare. These are pegged alongside a highly conservative, patriotic social policy; opposing abortion, LGBT rights and refusing to accept refugees. This combination of social conservativism and left-wing economics is rare in Western democracies, but in Poland it has resonated better than any other policy platform.
PiS have received international condemnation for their assault on the independence of the judiciary, the media and the civil service. These reforms do not appear to concern many Poles, however, as support for PiS continues to far outstrip its rivals. In a Western liberal democracy this would cause outrage, but in Poland it makes some sense. Poles historically have not been as enchanted with democracy; in a 2009 survey only 50% of Poles said democracy was very important to them. With such a tumultuous past it is no surprise that many Poles want a stable and self-determined country, even if the price is the undermining of democratic institutions. Neither do Poles want to further integrate with Europe – in fact only 25% of Poles see themselves as wholly or partially European.
Poles historically have not been as enchanted with democracy
So is the story of the 2019 elections going to be one more step in the unstoppable march of PiS? The opinion polls certainly think so, which recently have had PiS at anywhere from a 10-25 point lead. This is not the full story, however, as seen in the recent election for Mayor of Warsaw where the PiS candidate Patryk Jaki was roundly defeated. This fightback is seen across all major cities, where there has also been outrage against the reforms to the judiciary. The heartlands are where PiS derive most support though, and the opposition parties will have to play for their vote if they hope to succeed in 2019. The leftist SLD coalition and the agrarian PSL party may be able to claw votes away from PiS by promising more to the ‘left behind’ people in the countryside. Another possibility is that the party unity within PiS will fall apart as divides over policy widen, indeed some PiS members spat poison at their President Duda when he used his veto against some of the judicial reforms. It will take significant unity amongst opposition parties who have little in common, however, to present a serious threat to the current government.
Travelling from Warsaw to Krakow, I hitched a ride with a Kielce local called Michael. I asked him what he thought about Putin’s premiership in Russia and received an unexpected answer. “Putin is a man who loves his country and doesn’t want it being taken over by the West” he said, via Google Translate. It struck me that this is how many Poles feel about Poland: they love their country intensely and what they want more than the prescriptions of Western liberal democracy is self-determination, stability and defence from foreign interests. It is clear, then, why PiS’s populism thrives on this sentiment and why it shows no signs of slowing down, even in the face of international condemnation and shock. Poland’s people are asserting themselves and their differing values in defiance of the rest of Europe.