On the day of the general elections: the Left in Poland

Janusz Allina from DiEM25 Warsaw explains why Poland’s Left has a hard time and how the Green New Deal for Europe might sort the identity problem of the country’s progressives forces

In the 2015 general elections, a relatively big part of the electorate rejected the governing “liberals” from Platforma Obywatelska (PO, Citizens’ Platform) following eight years of governing. Citizens said clearly and unequivocally: “enough”. Enough of what, you might ask. The answer to this question is as important as it is complex and difficult. 

The election results coincided with the quarter-century anniversary of Eastern Europe’s transition from the collapsed “socialist” economy to the free market; a neoliberal system that was implemented by experts, businessmen and politicians from Western Europe and the US. A quarter century after the “shock therapy” was imposed and the call to “make yourselves rich!” became somewhat like an official programme of the new establishment, a bubble exploded. Yet, in the nineteen-nineties, few people remained critical – or even alarmed – by the possible social consequences of the rapid turnaround. Those who have spoken out about the inherent risks in the system have been attacked with the quiestionable criticism of being leftists or (even worse!) communists. Poland became a leading example of deregulation and dogmatically implemented free market ideas. Since then, neoliberal dogma has been deeply rooted in many Polish minds, despite some voices speaking out on the necessity of rethinking the paradigm of everlasting GDP growth.

Who are the losers?

The problem was that the drastic (and in many ways successful) transformation, was only possible at very high social costs: dividing the society into beneficiaries of the change and the alienated and forgotten “losers”. Who were the latter? Mostly people from small towns where the only work place – usually an outdated industrial facility – was shut down, and the workers and their families were left without any source of income. Agricultural workers from the countryside also lost out when state-run enterprises all of a sudden disappeared. Even workers from big cities, whose factories underwent restructuring and privatisation were often kicked to the curb. This way, the phenomenon of inherent unemployment was born in Poland. Those people were supposed to suffer in silence. As a Polish saying goes: where the wood is chopped, the chips go flying. 

Who were the beneficiaries?

Mostly young specialists and graduates sought after by incoming foreign businesses prepared to offer them relatively high remuneration for being taught to work in a capitalist environment, and to subsequently become future managers of the Polish branches. They were the ones who would soon move to newly built apartment complexes closed behind a wall, to keep the poor from disturbing them. The word “solidarity” that had begun the transformation lost its original meaning, and became simply a symbol.

Poland joined the EU in 2004 and received huge funds for modernisation, with transport infrastructure being the number one priority. The very much needed infrastructure modernization could thus be kicked off. Also, the regions were supported with funds for improving local infrastructure, and Polish remote regions, previously muddy and dirty, changed radically and started to resemble those in other, richer countries.

Many families have a relative living abroad

But the society was divided by then, and many people realized the injustice: some were living lives previously unimaginable in Poland (and, naturally, were happy with it), and the others were staying behind, and felt abandoned, with much of the infrastructure, like payable motorways or fast trains being financially out of reach for them. Younger people had a choice: accept it and live an impoverished life, try to improve their fortune by moving to a big city and study (which was not free anymore, so they had to find a part-time job) or, emigrate abroad in search of work. About two million people left the country. In some regions, virtually every single family has a relative living abroad. Many places are missing middle age people, with only the senior citizens and their grandchildren living in houses supported by their emigrated relatives. This is the high cost that we need to remember when politicians proudly announce record low unemployment figures in Poland.

The cost for retaining economic growth

Despite the fact that the economy has been growing impressively (the sacred GDP!), the aspirations of many citizens and communities remained not only unsatisfied but ignored by governing politicians and the wealthier parts of the society. The ruling party had only one response to those expectations: not at this time, we need to retain the competitive edge (read: low salaries). PO never had a vision of transforming the country from low-paid-labour into an innovative economy competing through its well-educated and well paid specialists. Donald Tusk, the prime minister and party leader, would say: “the government is not to have visions, the government is to make sure you have hot water in your tap”. And that “hot water in your tap” was a big disappointment to many who had hoped Tusk had more ambitious plans for Poland.

… has been payed by the working people

In the meantime, after the 2008 financial crisis, the precariat grew exponentially, and the new generation coming into the job market was not as lucky as those that came a decade earlier: the reality completely failed to meet their expectations. Even though Poland (being called by Tusk a “green island” in Europe) managed to avoid a recession, the working people were to pay the cost of retaining the growth. The so called “junk-work contracts”, promised by Tusk to be abolished as soon as the threat of recession disappeared, were, in fact, never abolished: on the contrary – they have mushroomed and are still part of the market today. So there were really good reasons for the people to say: “No!” and “Enough!” to the PO’s handling of the country. But the PO, and their core electorate, have never understood that. 

The vacuum on the Left pushed voters to the Right

One could expect the situation to be favourable for the Left to enter the political arena – if there was a Left in Poland. The “social-democrats” had become a part of the neoliberal establishment, and the working people had nowhere to turn to. Well, nowhere but the Right, that is! As the main opposition party, Prawo I Sprawiedliwość (PiS, Law and Justice) had intelligent leadership in Jarosław Kaczyński who understood what was going on. He combined the growing nationalist sentiment with peoples’ social expectations to build something like a national-socialist power that could counteract what Kaczyński called the “impossibility of the liberal state”. He promised change that was credible enough for many to support PiS. With this move, PiS made the Left appear irrelevant to their traditional electorate. 

Razem, DiEM25’s future European Spring ally, appeared on the scene

Nevertheless, just before the 2015 parliamentary elections, Partia Razem (“Together”) was established to fill the left gap on the Polish political map. Initially, they appeared successful in the 2015 elections when they garnered support of 49,711 voters and gained 3,62% – more than most had expected. Such an outcome entitled Razem to a state compensation of campaign costs, which enabled their survival although no mandate was gained. But the bad news were that (i) there was no Left at all in the Sejm (the lower chamber of the Polish parliament) for the first time ever, and (ii) demand for a Left power was coming only from well-educated large city constituents, and not from workers. Workers were happy with PiS and the traditional drive that came from the party and its ally, the Catholic Church.

The “throne-altar“ alliance remains strong

Poland is probably one of the most conservative societies in Europe, although you might not have that impression when visiting Warsaw or Gdańsk. The traditionally quite strong influence of the church in the Polish educational system has been strengthened under the PiS government. The “throne-altar” alliance, as it is called, is doing very well nowadays. 

Poland is also very late in transforming towards a greener economy and society, with Razem and the Greens (Partia Zieloni) the only forces to have “green transition” in their programs – with Razem politically exploiting the climate disaster issue only at the very final stage of the campaign.

But today, the Left will be back in parliament!

Razem joined the social-democrat party SLD and the “Wiosna” (Spring) party of the charismatic Robert Biedroń to establish “Left Together” (Lewica Razem) coalition, and as a coalition they have a chance to get 10 to 14 per cent support in today’s general elections, which is good news: the Left will be back in the Sejm! But the bad news is that PiS have a chance to get the so-called constitutional majority, enabling them to single-handedly pass sweeping reforms in Parliament. If they achieve that – we might find ourselves in big trouble in Poland. 

The Green New Deal might sort the identity problem of the progressives

What I think could be a good scenario for the near future is joining hands by the Left and the Greens, who also have a chance to receive a mandate or two, to push strongly the Green New Deal for Europe into the mainstream debate. No matter how ironical it may sound, the climate catastrophe is a potentially great gift for progressives in Poland: standing firmly for a just transition might sort the identity problem of the Left. The most recent statements, mainly those by Adrian Zandberg, the natural leader of Razem, seem to indicate they are about to realize that.

Janusz Allina is a Poland-based economist, member of DiEM25 Warsaw and of the Green New Deal team

Photo above: Adrian Tadeusz Zandberg, co-founder of Leftist Partia Razem, and Magdalena Biejat during the last hours of Razem’s electoral campaign

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