Poland After Elections: Wind of Change?

"Polish flag with coat of arms" autorstwa Olek Remesz (wiki-pl: Orem, commons: Orem) - Praca własna. Licencja CC BY-SA 3.0||Wikimedia Commons

May 25, 2015 marked the end of another political era in Poland. Since 2007, the Civic Platform – a moderate conservative party – won, literally, every election. Donald Tusk, the current President of the European Council, led his party to the victory in the parliamentary elections in 2007 and 2011. Bronisław Komorowski, another leader of the party, won presidential elections in 2010. Shortly after that, the overtly self-confident Donald Tusk hinted in an interview that there’s nobody who could replace him, meaning, that on the political scene there is no serious alternative for the Civic Platform. 

In fact, two consecutive victories of a single political party in parliamentary election were quite unusual for the Polish politics. It happened for the first time ever in the history of democratic elections that neither the Prime Minister, nor the governing coalition changed after new parliamentary elections. In 2015, the Civic Platform still took its position for granted. Indeed, in the beginning of 2015 election polls showed that 60% of Poles supported President Bronisław Komorowski. Andrzej Duda, his main opponent supported by the ultra-conservative Law and Justice, scored only 20%. In May he won the election. Why did the situation changed so rapidly?

The exceptionally high support levels that President Komorowski enjoyed could be a result of two trends. First of all, Polish people perceived his presidency as “acceptable”, and declared their support due to no formidable opponents. His main competitors were chosen from the second class politicians (at best). And so, Magdalena Ogórek who ran for the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) authored two books on church history and used to work as an assistant to prominent politicians of the party; Adam Jarubas, supported by the Polish People’s Party (PSL), is a rather influential figure in the local politics in his region, but barely known as the front-line politician. Even Andrzej Duda himself was not a top political figure – he was elected MEP in 2014, before that he served as the member of Polish Parliament since 2011 and was the undersecretary of state in administration of the previous President, Lech Kaczyński. Certainly, many people were not entirely happy with voting for a candidate who is “ok, but not really my type”. Lack of strong candidates enabled Paweł Kukiz (the leader of a Polish pop-rock band Piersi) to convince three million voters to support him and thanks to that he gained 20% in the first round of the presidential election.

Throughout the presidential campaign Kukiz maintained the image of “an ordinary guy” who is “not like the other candidates”. His key postulate was the reform of the electoral system, so only one MP is selected in each constituency (similarly to the British model). Besides that, he actually expressed no definite opinion on any other issue. Instead, he called for the “destruction” of the current system, relying on the social distrust towards political establishment. In the second round, the majority of Kukiz voters supported Duda. However, this doesn’t mean that they will also vote for Duda’s party in the autumn parliamentary elections, as Law and Justice is also perceived as the part of “establishment”.

Paweł Kukiz intends to create a new movement, aiming at participation in parliamentary elections in October. Today, they could count on 20% of support, which makes them one of the most influential parties, and a potential coalition partner for Law and Justice. At the same time, Civic Platform loses support, as they are no longer perceived as the “lesser evil”, capable of protecting the country from the “greater evil” (the ultra-conservative government formed by Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Law and Justice).

Today, many people fear the potential government of Kaczyński and Kukiz, but they also don’t want to vote for a party perceived as lazy and not interested in ordinary people’s needs. That’s why new political initiatives arise. One of them is NowoczesnaPL with Ryszard Petru as its leader. Petru is a liberal economist, associated with Leszek Balcerowicz (the “ father of economic liberalism” in Poland) responsible for the rapid economic transformation in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The main message of the organization focuses on the “expansion” of economic freedom, perceived as the main challenge in modern Poland. What does not fit the picture is the fact that the Polish economy has been actually subject to liberalization processes in the recent years. International rankings (e.g. by the Heritage Foundation) show that the economic freedom in Poland has improved in almost every aspect – except for business freedom, the situation in Poland is comparable to Belgium and just slightly deviates from what can be observed in Austria. It does not mean there are no challenges, but the issues raised by Petru’s movement (e.g. abolition of privileges for farmers and employees of mining companies) are probably not the top-priority – contrary to the critical situation of families whose members are impacted by unemployment or serious illnesses, or young people who are unable to embark on a life independently of their parents. These problems are to some extent results of the recurring cuts in social policy.

A radical solution to these social issues is proposed by another new movement, Razem – a Podemos-like coalition of the leftist activists from small parties and various other associations or informal initiatives. Whether their postulates form merely a next utopian manifesto, or will they evolve into a radical, but serious option, depends on the following steps of the organization, including presenting of the short-term program, which should include less radical and realistic goals.

Another alternative is being formed around a liberally minded professor Jan Hartman together with a few leftist MPs, including Wanda Nowicka, the independent vice-speaker of the Polish Parliament. It is not certain whether they will choose to run independently in the elections, or try to engage in cooperation with the Democratic Left Alliance. The latter is currently facing perhaps the biggest crisis in its history (recent polls show only 2% of support). But what is in store for Poland after the forthcoming autumn?

One thing is certain: Polish politics will change radically after the October elections. At the moment, a conservative and populist government seems likely. The strategy to secure the postulates of leftist and liberal movements can no longer rely on the “lesser evil” argument. It’s high time for new initiatives as it is crucial to shift the social distrust so it will be expressed in creative ways – by supporting parties that fight for something, not against everyone else. Perhaps, it’s also time to make Polish political scene the realm of ideas, not of the loud individuals and informal interest groups. In this way, Andrzej Duda’s victory may be perceived as one of the most important events of the recent Polish politics. Nonetheless, let’s bear in mind that the change of the Head of State does not, in fact, change that much.