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Why we should pay attention to Poland’s elections

The Pole who would be king…Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters

Why we should pay attention to Poland’s elections

The Poles are about to take a dangerous step into the unknown, and the rest of Europe may not be far behind.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for October 25, and the far-right Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) is going to win more votes than anyone else.

That’s about the only thing I can say for sure: precisely how many votes they will win, how many other parties will have delegates in the new parliament, and how the balance of power will shake out — all this remains too close to call.

The Polish political landscape is so convoluted that an outside observer would be forgiven turning away with a shrug. After all, at a time when the world is plagued by so many major crises, should we really divert our limited attention to events in a small east European country?

Yes, we should — and not only because Poland isn’t really that small (with 38 million people it is about the size of Spain, and nearly four times the size of Greece).

The main reason we should pay attention is because the political danger currently facing Poland is an example of a broader European phenomenon, and events in Warsaw will echo in Paris, Rome, Berlin, London, and above all in Brussels.

Which law? Whose justice?

I just called PiS a “far-right” party, but that’s a bit oversimplified. It’s hard to define them with a straight-forward ideological label.

A perusal of their program shows that on the one hand, the party calls for more social spending, higher taxes on the wealthy, and the re-nationalization of key sectors of the economy. One of the pillars of their support is the trade union confederation, Solidarity (the heir to the movement that toppled communism in the 1980s).

On the other hand, PiS is opposed to immigrants, gays, feminists, liberals, and in general all “foreigners.”

The party leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, recently warned that refugees from the Middle East carry “various parasites, protozoa that are common and are not dangerous in the bodies of these people, (but) may be dangerous here.”

In the past he has said that his goal was to create a Poland “in which there lived only one Polish nation, and not diverse nations.” He believes that the Polish government of the past eight years is nothing more than a group of agents for Germany and Russia, and that the goal of that government has been “the disintegration of the Polish nation.”

Kaczyński has previously admitted that his goal has been to remain in power for life, and that he wants to create a “Budapest along the Vistula” alluding to the political system built by conservative Viktor Orbán in Hungary).

PiS advocates centralized authority, a strong military, and national unity grounded in Catholic values. Indeed, the second main pillar of PiS is the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and most of the Polish clergy, which remains extremely important in Poland despite the steady secularization of the country.

Not unique

This combination of a “leftist” socio-economic agenda with a “rightist” cultural and political agenda might seem strange, but in fact it has deep roots in Poland and throughout contemporary Europe.

We see it most prominently in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has proclaimed that “the era of liberal democracy is over” but at the same time has increased taxes on big businesses and banks, re-nationalized several firms, and established price controls on electricity.

Orbán himself has cited the examples of Russia, China, Turkey, and Singapore as models for Europe’s future.

It has been possible (so far) for EU leaders to dismiss Orbán as an East European peculiarity, condemning his anti-democratic policies while assuming that he will eventually fall from power and return Hungary to the European mainstream.

If a similar regime emerges in Poland, however, it won’t be so easy to ignore.

The Polish success story - so far…

Poland’s economy is inextricably linked with Germany’s, both as a source of cheap labor and as a huge market for German-made goods.

Turmoil in the Warsaw stock exchange (which lists companies worth a combined 139 billion Euros) would shake markets everywhere. An increase in emigration from Poland, which has already transformed the linguistic profile of the United Kingdom with over half a million residents speaking Polish, would further stoke nativist fears there.

Even more important than these practical concerns, however, is a symbolic issue.

Poland has been held up as the EU’s great success story at a time when the continent’s reputation has been undermined by the Greek debt fiasco, the refugee crisis, and the overall stagnation of the European economy.

Amidst all these problems, Poland’s recent history could be cited as evidence that Brussels’s approach to integration and economic management can work.

Another skyscraper goes up in Warsaw. Kacper Pempel/Reuters

The Great Recession of 2008 hardly touched the Poles: incomes have been rising every year, the overall size of the economy has grown much faster than any other postcommunist country (doubling in size since 1989), and a majority of Poles now say that their lives are good (compared to only 9% who report that their lives are bad).

Yet despite all these accomplishments, the party that has guided Poland through this economic miracle is almost certainly going to lose the elections on October 25.

Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, or PO) currently trails PiS in the polls by about a dozen points. The only hope Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz has to hold on to power is within a broad coalition of anti-PiS parties. As I have argued elsewhere, this would entail a government including everyone from social democrats to libertarians, which would be too ideologically diffuse to accomplish much. There’s a risk that an impotent grand coalition would only further alienate voters and strengthen PiS over the long run.

But why would those voters be alienated in the first place? Juxtaposing Poland’s economic success with the rise of a radical populist formation like PiS seems to make no sense. We might be tempted to see it as an idiosyncratic story of political dysfunction, without any larger lessons for the rest of Europe.

But such complacency would be risky, because what has happened in Poland is happening everywhere in Europe.

The middle losing ground

In fact, neither PiS nor the cluster of parties that could realistically join with them in a coalition government have won over anything close to a majority. As the chart below suggests, support for this party and its potential allies rose a bit over the summer but is now settling back to where it was at the start of the year.

Opinion polls from Poland. Author provided

Support for Kaczyński personally has remained stuck around 30% for many years, and he continues to have one of the highest disapproval ratings of any Polish public figure.

In a strange twist, his party is doing better at the moment precisely because he has remained in the background in recent months, insisting that he will not become the Prime Minister in any future PiS government (though no one doubts that he will be the power behind the throne).

Meanwhile, PO had the support of more than 40% of the electorate at the start of 2015, but is now polling below 20%.

No, this is not a story about the rise of the radical right; it’s a story about the impotence of the mainstream middle.

Respectable opinion in Europe (and beyond) has long revolved around an illusory consensus about the virtues of fiscal frugality and the assumed solidity of “European values.”

Social democrats like France’s François Hollande claim to offer an alternative to conservatives like Angela Merkel, but neither have managed to speak to the anxieties of the 21st century.

A self-satisfied conviction that an abstraction called “Europe” embodies democracy, tolerance, and social welfare has remained intact even as these values are challenged within every European country.

Merkel’s high-minded (and admirable) approach to the refugee crisis has led to a revolt within her own Christian Democratic Party.

Union leaders in France have warned of a “social explosion” because of Hollande’s efforts to “reform” and “modernize” his country. A recent controversy over his support for layoffs at Air France is merely a symptom of a much larger conflict.

Air France workers to management: ‘work, yes; die, no.’ Jacky Naegelen/Reuters

The examples could be multiplied, even without crossing the Atlantic to consider the phenomenon of Donald Trump, whose basic rhetoric echoes that of Jarosław Kaczyński.

In all of these cases, the unrest emerges not from the marginalized or the dispossessed, but rather from those who have gained some modest prosperity and stability, only to see it threatened or undermined by the aftermath of the Great Recession (or by 21st century modernity more broadly).

Most Poles do feel successful, and they are proud of their achievements in recent years, yet they are nonetheless turning their backs on those in power.

They represent on a European scale a force that can be seen within every country: a population that is not wealthy or powerful enough to feel secure in these insecure times, yet one that can’t identify with any of the labels used by the left.

These people won’t be attracted to socialism, because they don’t think of themselves as “workers” in the traditional sense of that word. They see whatever success they have as the product of their own efforts, so they won’t support parties of the left that promise more aid to the poor. They resent the attention given to ethnic minorities and immigrants, because they perceive a battle over resources between themselves and those who “don’t belong” (whether because of perceived personal failings or because they are “foreigners”). Yet they are equally angered by the growing inequality at the top of the social hierarchy, by the corporate or financial elites who place themselves above the rules, above all norms of social solidarity.

Poland, as a relatively wealthy country (when viewed from a global perspective) that remains a great deal poorer than its neighbors to the West, provides a national example of this insecure, in-between condition.

The European Union is about to confront the consequences of that insecurity, not just in the aftermath of the Polish elections, but across the continent in the years to come.