More different or similar? This was the question posed by the authors of the report Minding the Gap: Deepening Polarization in Poland and Hungary carried out by 21 Research Center and the Projekt: Polska.
The study included two focus group interviews with residents of villages and small towns where Fidesz and Law and Justice (PiS) were the dominant political parties in the elections. In this paper we will try to reconstruct and show the thinking of the Law and Justice voters about what they fear, how they see the future, how they evaluate politics and politicians and their political opponents.
Due to the broad scope of the volume, we will present only the most important conclusions from the “Polish part”, concerning the world as seen through the eyes of the ruling party supporters.
Assessment of the Quality of Life at a Local Level
The quality of life at the local government’s level was perceived rather positively by the respondents, although they showed limited awareness of the changes taking place within their communities.
The respondents appreciated mainly infrastructural changes, through the prism of which they evaluated the effectiveness of a local government. These included such investments as: roads, new sidewalks, or sewer systems, the lack of which is still a problem in many small towns.
The voters of the Law and Justice party assessed well the job market as well as the possibility to find a job quickly due to a low unemployment rate. At the same time, they perceived disproportions in access to “life chances”. According to the respondents, it is easier for young people to get rich than for the elderly, who have to live on very low pensions and have no opportunity to improve their life.
On the other hand, the pessimistic assessment was made of the prospects for the development of agriculture, which no longer gives the opportunity to maintain an adequate standard of living without having to combine work on the land with other professional activities.
Local authorities were evaluated in isolation from political conflicts at the central level. Being a “good host” was independent of party colors. Responsibility for unsolved local problems was, in turn, transferred to those in power. For example, the respondents pointed to the problem of economic migration, for which, according to them, the government of Donald Tusk was responsible.
In general, the opinions of the Law and Justice supporters were dominated by the feeling of relative closeness of local authorities in their relations with citizens. The respondents were aware that they had close access to the authorities in case they wanted to contact them and express their demands. However, they rarely used this option, which reveals the low level of social involvement and participation at the local level.
Economic Status, Fears, Anxieties, Hopes
Regarding the economic status, the greatest fears were related to the payment rate of pensions, which may not be enough to survive. There were perceptions of rising payments for current living expenses, and in their context, the lack of opportunities to improve one’s financial situation (rising cost of living vs. fixed amount pensions). All of this means that despite the positive assessment of the Law and Justice government, the future is viewed with anxiety rather than hope.
The second element causing fear was the social changes occurring in Europe, which are not accepted by the rulin party’s electorate. They were expressed as the disappearance of moral values. Capitalism was questioned.
There were concerns about security in the context of the disappearance of traditional values and upbringing of youth. The influence of technology (mobile phones, computers) on the formation of social ties was negatively assessed, which deepened the sense of isolation and exclusion of the elderly.
The research once again revealed a generational conflict between the youth and the elderly. The former are perceived as lazy, demanding and egoistic, falling for “novelties” coming from the West, forgetting about tradition and respect for the older generation.
Finally, the pessimistic image of the world was overlaid with fears of a pandemic and difficult to predict socio-economic consequences.
Opinions about Political Sphere in Poland
The voters of the Law and Justice negatively evaluated the entire political sphere, treating it as detached from the needs of citizens. Participation in elections is, in their opinion, an unpleasant obligation which must be fulfilled.
Respondents also felt that they do not always make the right choices because they do not fully know the candidates. However, the guilt associated with these decisions was not placed in themselves, but in those who were elected by them or by a faulty system that rewarded such people in political positions.
Although the voters of the Law and Justice party believed that politicians should have appropriate qualifications to hold their seats, they were under no illusions that the people who end up in the parliament do not have such qualifications. Respondents also expressed the opinion that politics has the power to change people for the worse and involve them in various scandals.
The dominant way of thinking about the rulling party was the belief that even though all politicians steal, “these ones at least share” their spoils with the people.
The situation of the Law and Justice voters can also be described using the metaphor of “putting a gun to one’s head.” Although they acknowledge the shortcomings of their political formation, they lack an alternative to which they can communicate their preferences. This sense of political isolation is reinforced by a narrative justifying their political choices, according to which predecessors stole more, experienced more scandals, and whose actions were more harmful to average citizens.
The Law and Justice voters are also encouraged by a sense of being in a besieged fortress. Despite the fact that the Law and Justice party has full power, in their world there is a conviction that the opposition is responsible for any failures that happen to the ruling camp’s supporters. This conviction is reinforced by the propaganda of the government media, whose quotes the respondents use to readily support themselves.
Political community and bond with the party is built by a feeling of being made of similar clay. The Law and Justice voters know that the Law and Justice politicians represent their world, their worldview, they come from similar backgrounds, they use a similar language. This is why the choice of the Law and Justice party is a chance for them to restore their dignity, which has been, in their opinion, disrespected and ridiculed by the opposition elites.
Polarization in Everyday Life
An analysis of opinions about everyday political discussions among Poles revealed a deep divide between the city and the countryside. Quarrels are a typical description of the situation that Law and Justice voters find themselves in when discussing political issues with people holding different views.
The prevailing belief is that there is no way to convince the other side of their own argument, so it is better to simply avoid any political topics. This divide turned out to be difficult or even impossible to overcome. Different value systems and material needs of each group were emphasized.
When analyzing the presence of politics in everyday life of the Law and Justice voters, three more issues are striking. Firstly, they indicated that the example comes from the top, i.e. politicians are responsible for conflicts in families, and they are unable to get along with each other when participating in TV programs.
Secondly, the Law and Justice voters felt that the other side of the argument does not respect their views and choices, and its tolerance in this area is just for show.
Thirdly, which is evident from the previous one, the right-wing electorate expressed the expectation of accepting their own way of evaluating reality and related political choices.
Comparing the opinions of the Law and Justice voters with those expressed by opposition supporters, several similarities can be pointed out.
- What the opposition and the ruling party have in common is a rather positive perception of the changes that have taken place in the local community over the past ten years. In the statements of both parties, one can notice that the change is interpreted mainly in terms of hard infrastructure investments. The role of local authorities is depoliticized – local governments are assessed mainly through the prism of their effectiveness and realization of local needs.
- Both groups looked to the future with uncertainty and fear rather than hope. Those expressed by the Law and Justice voters were more often about the here and now, i.e., fear of a more difficult financial situation that would lead to their pauperization. The Law and Justice voters worried about rising prices, pensions, and salaries that are too low in relation to the rising cost of living. However, they did not place the reasons for this in the actions taken by the ruling party.
The second group of fears included the fear of the outside world, of the West and its anti-values, which could violate the conservative foundations of the vision of social order professed by the Law and Justice voters. Western values were treated as tools that could serve to break down the traditional family and the declared bonds within the community.
- Opposition voters’ fears were more long-term in nature. They concerned worries about the future of their children and subsequent generations. They also included fears about the progressing indebtedness of the state, which brings to mind the period of real socialism in Poland in the late 1970s (when the state was extremaly indebted).
In addition, concerns about the future of the planet, climate change, and environmental pollution were indicated. However, these fears did not appear at all among the Law and Justice voters.
- A common belief that emerged in both groups is a critical attitude towards politics and politicians. This sphere as a whole is treated as dirty, and participation in elections is seen as an unpleasant duty.
However, it seems that when describing their choices and political disappointments, the Law and Justice electorate and the opposition electorate always see the other as the bad guys – when a group says that “politicians are bad,” it implicitly identifies it with their political opponents and recalls the scandals that were associated with them.
- It should be noted that the ruling party’s electorate, for whom the Church, tradition, and social support are important, has no alternative political offer. It is possible that the Law and Justice voters are ashamed of voting for the Law and Justice party (which could be observed during the interviews) but they have no other choice. They talk about politics in a perfunctory and distrustful way. It was difficult to encourage them to confide more about the motives of their electoral decisions.
The situation is the opposite in the case of the opposition electorate, which passionately criticizes the ruling camp and all those who support the government. In these statements, there is grief, frustration, disappointment, and pessimism connected with the fact that Law and Justice buys itself electoral support through social transfers.
- However, the conflict between the voters of the Law and Justice party and the opposition has another, deeper dimension. It is a part of the spatial divide between the countryside vs. the city, as well as the conflict of values in regards to tradition vs. modernity. Finally, it is a generational conflict between the young (as carriers of modernity) and the elderly (as carriers of tradition).
- Although at first glance both groups have similar approach to “talking about politics” (let’s not talk about it anymore because it causes too much conflict and divides families), the study revealed additional reasons for not engaging in dialogue. Law and Justice voters avoided engagement because they had lower discursive skills and often felt oppressed and cornered.
The opposition voters, on the other hand, did not want to engage in dialogue because they had a sense of moral superiority, often filled with aggression toward political opponents.
- Both groups attributed their communication difficulties to the attitudes of politicians and the media, from which they most often drew justifications for their own arguments. Both groups had no idea how to bridge the divide in the future.
Krzysztof Maczka – a researcher at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań who specializes in public policies, in particular environmental policies. He has conducted numerous research projects financed, among others, by European Commission, Norwegian Funds, and National Centre for Research and Development
The article was originally published in Polish at: https://liberte.pl/jak-bardzo-sie-roznimy-czyli-swiat-widziany-oczami-wyborcow-prawicy/
Translated by Natalia Banas