The Progressive Post

Polish elections: the case for hope

 is a political scientist, columnist for "Krytyka Polityczna", translator and analyst.

At first sight, for the progressive forces in Poland, the aftermath of the last presidential elections resembles a tragedy. After five years in power of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), the President, himself from PiS, won re-election, with, in addition, the largest amount of votes in any election within the country’s democratic history. The candidate of the opposition centre-right slightly over 10 million votes in the second round, and the candidate of the left only barely 430.000 in the first one – which is three times less than the young leader of the radical right. But is there any place one could turn for hope?

The elections were free, but not exactly honest. The incumbent president had at his disposal the state administration and the government, alongside with the state TV and radio. The partisan attitude of the latter two have no comparison in the democratic history of Poland. Despite different irregularities noted during the elections (especially concerning votes from abroad), the result is unquestionable. The opposition failed to implant a fuse into the system. In Poland, the presidential veto is still a powerful tool that can block legislative process, and since it stays in the same hands, the governing camp will now have almost unlimited possibilities to ‘finish off their reforms’.

This refers to: subordinating the executive powers; limiting the independence of media (under the slogan of “re-polonisation” of those that operate helped by foreign support); making it hard for the civil society to act (as it has proven hostile to PiS); exercise ideological supervision of public schools; and finally, limit the competence and acting capacities of local governments (that remain the strongest bastion of the opposition).

To be clear: this is no catalogue of fears and nightmares dreamt by Polish democrats – all these processes are on track for years now, some in a more, some in a less advanced state. But today the leaders of the governing camp promise that they will be completed speedily. Is Poland then fatally following Hungary’s path of a country with a façade democracy in which regaining power by the opposition is an academic rather than a realistic question?

In my opinion the attempt to further consolidate and centralise power by the United Right – despite the three elections-free years they have ahead – is going to meet obstacles. They will be elsewhere than where the progressives would like to see them: resistance by the civil society or impactful pressure from the side of international communities. This situation is bound to prompt the side effects, which will be clearly contradictory to the goals and values that the governing powers declare.

The main hurdle in the attempt to transform Poland into a functional authoritarian state will be the absence of any credible answer by the government to the greatest challenge of the next years: the progressing climate change and the crisis in water supplies; the need for an energy mix and for raising prices of the energy that comes from coal; demographic trends leading to de-populating of rural areas and ageing of societies.

Managing all these problems, without even speaking about solving them, requires dialogue among all the implied stakeholders and a necessity to coordinate the actions. That is especially between the central powers (which are in hands of PiS) and the local governments, especially of cities, which, often, are in hands of the opposition or of non-partisan politicians. Therefore any coordination looks like mission impossible in the light of the harsh conflicts, the lack of political culture within the governing camp and the strategy of the government to attack local governments (trying to cut their finances and have them under surveillance).

Next issue is the question of the “side effects”. Despite the nimbus of a “social” or “solidaristic” party, generous social transfers were made possible by a freezing of salaries in the public sector (especially in healthcare and education). There were shortages of teachers and nurses already before COVID-19, and the pandemic only added to the burdens. And to add to this: the expected budgetary cuts, as a result of the crisis (a topic that was avoided ahead of the presidential elections); the financial pressure on the local governments (which is where the funds for schools come from) and the raising ideological pressure in the public schools – altogether we see a spectre of a crawling privatisation of the public services.

The statist PiS can do the same what neoliberals have been doing in other countries for years: to “starve the beast” (aka the state guaranteed public services). As a result, richer citizens will opt for private services and the poorer ones will be left stuck with public school and healthcare of worsening quality. Still today, direct social transfers (especially the allowances for children) broaden the group of those who rely on private schools and clinics, but the expected crisis is likely to cause pauperisation. Let’s add that in the condition of an escalated political conflict, the tendency of the richer Poles to still exercise solidarity towards their poorer compatriots (i.e. through paying taxes in order to sustain public services) will be decreasing. This will only fuel the privatisation and in the end the destruction of the welfare state.

In short, all the signs indicate an approaching social Armageddon. The incapacity of the government rather indicates a systematic “screwing up” –quite the opposite to democratisation or deliberative processes around common problems. Possibly, the government will resort to violence in such circumstances: directing frustrated groups onto chosen scapegoats. There is a fertile ground that has been prepared throughout the presidential campaign which stigmatised the LGBTQI community as harbingers of a dangerous ideology, which portrayed private media as agents of the foreign powers, and which pointed fingers at intellectuals and NGOs as incubators of not-Polish ideas (or even of anti-Polish ones).

But hold on: this text was supposed to be about searching for hope!

And still, I do see hope. First of all, the presidential election wasn’t really the clash between the “Polish folks” and alienated elites. Indeed, the support for Rafał Trzaskowski kept raising (whilst the one of Andrzej Duda kept falling proportionally) – the bigger the agglomeration was, the higher the education level and social status of the voters was, and the younger they were. But the candidate of the opposition was also able to win in small cities. He evidently lost among rural voters. But still: it was the first time ever that so many young people went to vote, and so many women too (for both of whom there was no real message crafted during the campaign).

Young people couldn’t find themselves in Andrzej Duda’s political offer, who consciously addressed his appeals to older voters (his core electorate). It will be them who will be hit hardest by the coming housing crisis (increasing cost of rents and mortgage), which despite their arrogant promises PiS hasn’t managed to tame. It is also the young people, who understand best the ecological challenges – which require decisive actions on the local and on a European level. These are problems where PiS isn’t able to cope – not to mention that resolving those issues requires active participation of citizens in the process, a practice foreign to the current government.

Further, the authorities managed to reach out to villages and little towns with the rhetoric of recognition for their needs, alongside social transfers – of which the “provincial Poland” benefitted the most. But still, many issues remained unsolved, such as transport-related exclusions, lack of attractive jobs in rural areas. On top of this, PiS has no idea how to support local energy production – which would be a great developmental chance for the rural communities. Instead, it chooses to focus on the grand investments in the state-owned companies. It is also the villages and little towns that will most intensively feel the repercussions of the upcoming water crisis and rapidly hitting weather phenomena, which are fully neglected by the government. All these issues can be tackled with EU funds with an approach of a pragmatic and conciliatory centre, rather than by focussing on political symbols and identity wars.

It is women and young people who understand and appreciate not only civil rights and liberties, but also the process of growing diversification within the Polish society. The language of hate that excludes groups from the community, evidently missed the aim of targeting them as voters.

The Polish intellectual Edwin Benedyk recently articulated the thesis that “politics has such a bad function today, allowing us to get stunned, to forget, to sleep through this entire change of the world. Despite the emotional boiling, it is a dream, a dream indeed”.

During the campaign we were threatened by “ideology of gender”, so that nobody would have to worry about the economic crisis, about a  second wave of the pandemic, about climate change, depopulation etc. But the possibilities for everyone to just keep on sleeping through are hitting their limits. It is harder and harder for those in power to cover up the problems with their raised voices, their propaganda, and attacks against their enemies. The most enlightened voters are women and young people. And they will join forces with those left by PiS with nothing to say. This may not yet predefine anything, but at least it shows that there is much more than the result of the presidential election seems to indicate. As the US-writer Rebecca Solnit said: hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in this realm of uncertainty there is room to act.

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