Power grabs, conservatism lite and fake justice: six years of no opposition in Poland

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In a Poland still divided across multiple lines (West and East, city and country…), how has one party come to dominate national politics? One explanation can be found in Law and Justice (PiS)’s monopolisation of both the press and the justice system. Another is the right-wing zeitgeist of the nation exemplified by rising support for rightist political movements such as Konfederacja. Most crucially, Poland has no meaningful opposition.

The largest left-wing party, Lewica (Left), an alliance of smaller centre-left and left-wing parties, seems to have settled for maintaining a static level of support of around 10%, with little sign of becoming the leading opposition force Poles need. This leaves Poles with a false choice between the far right and their ‘binary opposite’, the centre right.

The centre-right Civic Platform, Poland’s party-in-power for eight years (2007-2015) and main opposition party for the last six, has done little to challenge PiS’ grip on power. The arrival of centrist party Polska2050 on the political scene has only reinforced the status quo. Political power over public funding, a corrupt justice system, and empty promises… here’s how six years of no opposition have looked for Polish politics.

Power over funding: the Covid recovery fund fiasco

Civic Platform (PO), the largest party in the Civic Coalition (KO), scored an own goal when last month the Sejm (Poland’s lower house) voted to ratify the EU’s Covid recovery fund. The PiS-led coalition does not usually rely on opposition parties to pass bills.

This time, United Poland (SP), PiS’ Eurosceptic junior coalition partner, became an unexpected thorn in the government’s side when it opposed the fund on the grounds that they were conditional to Warsaw’s adherence to the rule of law (something this government has proven unreliable in doing). 

PO leader, Borys Budka, had initially stated that his party would vote in favour of ratifying the much needed €58bn fund… if PiS agreed to the party’s demands. These mainly included directing more funds to local governments to use at their discretion, money for the health service and funds for protecting the environment. Budka’s proposals fell on deaf ears. 

Instead, PiS looked to strike a deal with Lewica. Lewica leaders announced that they would vote in favour of ratifying the EU recovery fund, providing the divided government coalition with a majority in parliament.

In exchange, PiS agreed to Lewica’s demands, which included increased funding to local governments, spending funds on affordable housing, and increased spending on healthcare. Meanwhile, PO‘s Budka withdrew his party’s previous commitment to vote for ratifying the EU recovery fund. Budka criticised Lewica for supporting PiS, despite his party’s initial willingness to do so. PO abstained from voting on the fund. 

PO‘s overnight U-turn was a PR disaster. Budka’s new proposal was that all opposition parties should vote against the bill or abstain. Perhaps most bizarrely, former foreign minister and PO MEP, Radosław Sikorski, compared Lewica‘s support for ratifying the fund to the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939.

The reasoning behind this U-turn appears to have been nothing short of cynical: if the government were to have lost the crucial vote on funding, PO could have forced a vote of no confidence and thus early elections. PO showed they were willing to risk a €58bn injection of EU recovery money for a shot at power.

PO’s cynicism in the case of the recovery fund vote reflects their general strategy of ‘total opposition’, which consists of taking down the government at all costs without providing an alternative vision for the country.

By contrasting themselves with PO and supporting the fund rather than using it to force an election, Lewica have arguably presented themselves as capable of pragmatism when circumstances demand it. If this is true, there is little sign that it has translated to poll gains for the party.

Lewica have been consistently polling at 10% (the result they achieved in the 2019 parliamentary elections). Working-class voters, many socially conservative, have long been shifting their vote from Lewica to PiS, whose fabricated culture war and increased social spending have paid off. This, despite the fact that more recent promises of making Poland a ‘modern welfare state’ are far from materialising.

Given this context, the decision by Lewica to support the Covid recovery fund should be seen as a broader effort to reiterate its working-class representation. If Lewica can convince Polish workers of this, they may be able to undermine PiS‘ monopoly on working-class support and become a credible leftist alternative to a visionless PO.

Needless to say, they will have to do a lot more than support a largely benign and popular recovery fund.

Opposition without vision

Abstaining from the recovery fund vote has put PO next to the likes of nationalist, Eurosceptic United Poland and right-wing Eurosceptic Konfederacja, who also voted against the bill. It also led to popular PO MEP Róża Thun withdrawing her party membership, stating: ‘I do not agree that poorly conducted inter-party games should take place at the expense of projects aimed at supporting hundreds of millions of European citizens.’ 

PO has struggled to re-galvanise support ever since a tape scandal in 2014 discredited a number of its ministers and, with them, the then PO government. Another blow was the departure of founder-leader and Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, who took up the position of President of the European Council. Failing to make up for the loss of its controversial yet charismatic leader, PO has run uninspiring election campaigns since 2015.

Then there is the fact that people are simply tired of PO. Their ‘rational’ (read: austerity) approach to the economy does not resonate with Polish voters fatigued by years of neoliberal policies that have only ever hurt them.

All the while, PiS continues to find ways to retain momentum among its electoral base. The ruling party recently presented their Polish New Deal. Even the most keen-eyed Pole would be hard-pressed to find any such ambitious project launched in the eight years of PO government.

The Polish New Deal is a step in the right direction: a much needed restructuring of the economy. Amongst other things it promises more progressive taxation and liquidating zero-hour contracts. But the fact it is being realised by PiS is hugely dangerous for Poles. Not only have PiS proved inconsistent with fulfilling promises, but they use the occasional show of economic common sense to fuel an archaic, far-right social programme.

There are also some notable holes in PiS’ New Deal. It is silent on tackling the climate crisis, for instance, and ensuring a green transformation of the economy. Furthermore, it will further deregulate the housing market, creating the potential for the infamous housing bubble.

Nonetheless, the New Deal illustrates the strength of PiS relative to their main competitors. One of the reasons for the party’s continued popularity is that they present concrete policies that resonate with voters.

In reality their offerings to workers are crumbs, but they are presented well and followed through enough times to be remembered. Their ability to reinvent their programme remains unbeatable, particularly when there is no real opposition.

Fake opposition and conservatism lite

With the decline of centre-right Civic Platform came the rise of centrist Polska2050, a political party that emerged out of TV presenter Szymon Hołownia’s unsuccessful bid to become president in 2020. The party has proven successful at communicating their message via social media. More importantly, however, they have a vast network of local activists across the country who regularly organise events and initiatives.

Organisation and sustaining an electoral base able to mobilise itself at elections is key to political success. Vitkor Orbán’s Fidesz achieved this via its Civic Circles movement, which created a grass-root network and support base that propelled the party to power.

Unlike PO, both PiS and Polska2050 understand and use this strategy effectively. For PiS, a mobilised electorate and strong presence in the countryside has been key to their success.

Effective organisation does not change the fact that Polska2050 is ultimately uninspiring. Their vision is unconvincing, mainly based on the promise of achieving an ever-illusive meritocracy and ending the current political crisis.

Politically they represent a ‘conservatism lite’. Hołownia is known as a Catholic publicist and even spent time in a noviciate seeking to become a monk. At the same time he represents a moderate strand of Polish Catholicism associated mainly with the Club of Catholic Intelligentsia (KIK).

He refuses to get bogged down in debates about ‘divisive’ social issues focusing instead on his ‘vision for Poland’. His message resonates mainly with dissatisfied PO voters and more moderate PiS voters. Hardly a beacon of hope for the millions of Poles who have suffered under years of neoliberalism and far-right social policies.

Despite this, the level of organisation Polska2050 display means it is possible they might sustain public support until the next elections, scheduled to take place in 2023. Let it not be forgotten that centre-right Civic Platform under Donald Tusk won two parliamentary elections on a platform of ‘rational’ politics; being uninspiring is no obstacle to success in Poland’s political system.

There is no doubt that the popularity of PiS‘ economic policies – 500 zloty (around £100) per month for every child, affordable housing programme, increase in pensions – proves the demand for leftist economics in Poland. However, the current political system does not favour those who seek bold, progressive programmes. Lewica‘s lot is testament to this.

If they appear openly progressive on social issues they risk alienating some of their more socially-conservative voters. Meanwhile, if they are perceived to move ‘too far’ to the left on the economy they face criticism from their centre-left factions.

Furthermore, to some, Lewica still represent the legacy of Stalinist communism, because of structural continuity between one of its major groupings (Democratic Left Alliance, SLD) and the former communist party. Some voters also associate Lewica with Leszek Miller’s unpopular government (2001-2004).

Given this baggage, it is impressive that Lewica have managed to assemble a coalition of progressive forces with any stable level of support. Today it is unlikely that Lewica could establish itself as the main opposition actor without sacrificing some of its ideals. This leaves them in an impossible position for now, but with changing attitudes on social and economic issues, the strategy of sticking to their programme could pay off in the future.

Faux justice

The EU and Poland’s own constitutional safeguards have failed to prevent PiS from monopolising all state institutions. As a result, PiS loyalists control the Constitutional and Supreme Courts, the Public Prosecutor General Office, the Anti-Corruption Bureau, the Supreme Audit Office (NIK), and other key institutions.

A recent quarrel between PiS and its fellow politician Marian Banaś, head of NIK, means he has now become a (politically meaningless) thorn in PiS‘ side. This should not be understood as a real triumph for justice, but rather another reminder that holding the government to account has been reduced to quarrels between far-right chums.

When evidence was uncovered that Banaś owned a brothel in Kraków, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, began by defending his fellow party member. Following more incriminating evidence, Kaczyński would then call on Banaś to step down from the NIK. An alienated and disgruntled Marian Banaś, instead of following his ally’s advice, began using his platform to criticise his former friends in government. 

This has translated to a number of headaches for the government, though with little tangible consequences to date. Most recently, Banaś and his NIK inspectors audited the Polish National Foundation (responsible for promoting Poland abroad), accusing the state-owned corporation of misspending public funds. NIK also decided to investigate the government over its failed attempt to organise postal elections in May 2020.

Banaś’ vendetta against the government continued earlier this month, when the NIK chief submitted notice of potential criminal activity against a number of government figures, including PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, to the Prosecution Office. In other words, a PiS-led Audit Office is notifying a PiS-controlled Prosecution of potential crimes committed by the PiS government.

PiS‘ control of state institutions means that oversight by state organs is now nothing more than intra-party squabble. This situation is the perfect metaphor for Polish politics in which one party has been allowed to further its control over the nation’s political and legal institutions. So much so that the only threat to their monopoly on power seems to come from within.

Over the last several decades, European politics has often been dominated by a centre-left or socialist party and a centre-right or Christian Democratic party. In Poland, Lewica is the closest thing to the former but is only backed by 10% of the electorate. The Polish People’s Party (PSL) are the nation’s Christian Democrats and they barely have enough support to meet the 5% electoral threshold. All the while, Polish politics continues to be monopolised by the right and far right, leaving the centre right to pose as a convenient ‘alternative’. Every four to five years a knight in shining armour appears promising to free people from political theatrics. In 2015 it was musician Paweł Kukiz and his Kukiz15 project. Now it is Szymon Hołownia and his centrist Polska2050. Whilst these new movements represent a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo, their recycled beige politics in the form of conservatism lite offer Poles no hope for change.

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All views expressed are the writer’s own.

Article Image Source: Pixabay

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