Poland’s voters on Sunday displayed a distinct shift to the right, the Poles rebelling against liberalism, Europe and economic stability in favour of the eurosceptic, national conservative “Law and Justice” party (PiS). PiS gained 38% of the vote meaning in Polish democracy an absolute majority (yeah, me neither). The national conservatives’ opposition, Civic Platform (PO), the liberal conservative government which for the past 8 years has kept Poland year on year in positive growth and falling unemployment, gained only 23.4% and now finds itself ousted from government. PiS being eurosceptic could have many potential consequences for one of the fastest growing and most stable European economies outside of the Eurozone.
Poland since the fall of Communism
The FAZ recently published an article about the political backdrop of the recent Polish elections; a sort of where we are today which does much to explain the current state of Poland. Like in most nations, there is a divide in Poland (and also like in most nations, Poles say there is only 1 “true” Poland). Most refer to them as Poland A & Poland B. (Interestingly enough as I saw, the divide almost mirrors the old pre-WWI German-Russian border). On the one hand, to the west of the Vistula, we have Poland A; the modern Poland – democratic, European, tolerant. To the east, there’s Poland B; religious, patriotic and honest. The article noted that in the southern city of Krakow, the divide could be seen perfectly between the city centre, which is booming – modern clothes, modern society, highways and skyscrapers – and the suburb of Nowa Huta – “still as grey as the last day of Communism”; poor and disillusioned with the current state of affairs. Despite for the past 8 years Poland A being in the driver’s seat, over the past few months Poland B has been on the war path, first securing victory of the national conservative ‘rebellion’ in the presidential elections in May, and the second on Sunday, gaining an absolute majority for the PiS. This shift has been taking place ever since the “Squid Rebellion”, in which it was revealed that two big names in the PO party used taxpayers’ money to have a lavish lunch with wine and seafood in order to have fun, and have a chat about politics. Thus was Poland B’s suspicions of Poland A confirmed, “obscenity and seafood at the tax-payers’ expense”. The divide goes further than simply rich versus poor however, as there are many connotations relating the idea of “rebellion” in Poland. Since 1795, Poland has been occupied by some foreign power or another – Russians, Germans & Austrians – and thus for a nation that has been oppressed for much of its recent history, rebellion is deeply linked to patriotism. Therefore for Poles it has always been about going against the established European order at the time. Since Poland has most often experienced Europe in the form of conquerors and occupiers, the current PiS ‘rebellion’ has a distinct streak of euroscepticism, campaigning against the Euro and against the alleged dominance of European firms. So we arrive at today.
A European success story
After 8 years of leading Poland as one of Europe’s few success stories, Ewa Copacz’s PO has been ousted from power, gaining only 23.4% of the vote. In those years under PO leadership, the Polish economy grew by 20% (unmatched by any other member-state), unemployment fell significantly, and Polish relations have become warm with Paris and Berlin, Poland now one of the most significant players in European decision making. Kopacz’s PO has shared Berlin’s commitment to tough fiscal stewardship. Despite this Poland’s people are disillusioned with the current state of their country, feeling distant from the bright lights and prosperity of Warsaw, Wroclaw and Krakow. Kopacz’s party has experienced numerous scandals and gaffes, the most significant being the “Squid Rebellion” I mentioned earlier. Thus, as is natural in all democracies, Poland has decided it is time for regime change.
A shift to the right
The PiS which came to power on Sunday, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has campaigned on the idea of “offering the hand to all who want proper change”. It seems that Polish President Andrzej Duda will likely ask Kaczunski’s protege Beata Szydlo to become Prime Minister, once the seats have been allocated and parliament has had its first official sitting. Going deeper, PiS campaigned on nationalism, discontent at the unequal share of economics growth, and fear of immigration into Poland. Despite this, on the other hand Kaczynski has added a serious element of left wing economics, promising to increase state control of the economy, tax banks & supermarkets (both mainly owned abroad) and stop privatisation. Kaczynski also wants the central bank to embark on a cheap loan programme to support small and medium businesses, seen as an undermining of the bank’s independence. He has also ruled out any Polish adoption of the euro any time soon, tapping into anti-euro/anti-austerity sentiment.
Friction with Europe
The last PiS government managed the difficult (and unfortunate, considering Poland’s history) task of alienating Germany (and by extension the EU establishment) and Russia during their last government from 2005-2007. Both the FAZ and FT reported this week that experts believe PiS’ continuing abrasive relationship with EU policies could once more damage Polish-German relations, and those with the wider EU. The German government and the European Commission have said they hope for good relations with the new government. However, Germany has taken different positions from Poland over various EU issues, including climate change, energy and the refugee crisis. Kaczynski has already taken a similarly populist line as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on refugees, stating that his country will take no part in the distribution of refugees (and believing that they will spread diseases). Though in Britain David Cameron may agree with the party on issues of limiting the transfer of powers to Brussels, Kaczynski will want to ensure Britain’s large Polish community is not marginalised by Cameron’s plans to restrict benefit access to migrants in Britain. At a time when cooperation in the EU is paramount, PiS’ success is likely to throw a spanner in the works. However, Kaczynski is Poland’s most divisive politician, and he knows it, thus putting his Spitzenkandidat Beata Szydlo in line to assume the Premiership. Szydlo is less abrasive and has no foreign policy experience. It will be up of Kaczynski to decide how much of role he plays in the background however.
German think-tanks have warned Poland about a distinctive shift to the left on economic policy, with Dieter Bingen (director of the German-Polish Institute in Darmstadt) asserting that PiS will soon be confronted with the realities of economic management, and that their hard-line social programmes will destabilise Poland economically without due consideration of public debt and national competitiveness (though in a boom, you’d expect some expansion of social programmes would be acceptable). France 24 reported on Tuesday that PiS’ election had not left a major impact internationally yet in terms of currency stability or Poland’s credit rating, however further-reaching reforms (including those that require constitutional change to implement) mentioned by a party-spokesman to France 24 could lead to putting Poland’s success in jeopardy. Other fears are an “Orbanisation” of Poland, with a shift towards Viktor Orban’s more authoritarian style of government in Hungary, and rolling back of democratic freedoms.
The real question for Poland’s new government will be, as it is with Britain in the coming referendum – “do you want to throw away all the benefits that membership of the EU has given you?”. Are the countries current achievements going to be built upon or thrown away in favour of populist sentiment? Poland is one of the great success stories of post-communist eastern Europe. Is that reputation something you really want to throw away?
Right-wing Law & Justice sweep to power in Warsaw
Sources: FAZ, FT, France 24, Social Europe